An 800-year-old Malankara Syrian Orthodox church, home to a rich collection of beautiful murals belonging to the pre-renaissance period, in Cheppad in Alappuzha district of Kerala stands at the risk of being pulled down as part of widening of the national highway 66 which goes through the region.
If the present two-lane NH66 has to be widened in the stretch between Thuravur and Oachira passing through Cheppad, a portion of the St George Orthodox Church would have to be brought down. Church officials and local members of the congregation are spearheading efforts to protect the historically significant building and have launched discussions with the local MLA and officials of the state government on whether there can be a realignment of the highway.
“The court has ruled that equal portions of land on either side of the highway must be acquired for widening. But we suspect officials measured more than an equal portion close to the church. The government had stated earlier that places of worship would be protected. Till the survey was taken, that was the stand adopted. But when measurements were taken for fresh alignment, it was taken in a way where half of the church would have to be demolished,” said Fr Alexander, the local vicar.
“We met Ramesh Chennithala who is the local MLA and he said the church must be protected. This is a historic structure and there are around 2000 faithful depending on it. We will go to any extent to protect the church,” he added.
A senior official of the NHAI said the old alignment of the highway was corrected as per orders of the High Court after complaints that the measurements for widening were taken only from one side of the highway. The new revised alignment would affect three churches in the area including the Orthodox church, he said.
“The previous alignment was alleged to be one-sided, as in, it was measuring land only from the right-hand-side of the highway. So the parties went to court. The court subsequently said that equity has to be delivered by taking land from both sides of the centre-point of the alignment. The new alignment includes a four-lane highway and a service road,” he said.
“The discussions (on protecting the church) have to take place at the top levels of the government. The NHAI has no role in it,” he added.
The St George Orthodox church is believed to have been established in CE 1175 and has been the final resting place of Malankara Bishop Philipose Mar Dionysius, who was the 12th Malankara Metropolitan from 1825 till his abdication in 1852. The church, locally referred to as Cheppad Valiya Pally, is considered one of the oldest pilgrim centres of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church established by St Thomas.
The most attractive feature of the church are the murals, numbering around 47, considered to be over 600 years old and reflective of the blend between the traditional Kerala mural art and the Persian art. The murals, placed in the sanctuary of the church, capture in beautiful detail the momentous episodes of Christian faith: from the birth of Christ, kiss of Judas, the Last Supper, expulsion of Adam and Eve from heaven to Noah’s Ark and ascension of Virgin Mary to heaven.
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