A wayside church

S. Balakrishnan

A small wayside church caught my attention as we were proceeding to a temple. Rundown it was but its design was unusual. Hidden amidst tall coconut trees, I could only glance it as our car whizzed passed it in a hurry to reach the temple before its doors closed by midday. An astrologer had ‘warned’ us to do some puja in a temple nearby and we were dutifully carrying out his threats. Sometimes I doubt if the astrologers have any deal with tour operators! They always advise their pathetic customers to go to this temple in that place or that temple in this place. And, only god knows how they find unheard of temples in remote corners of not only my State but also nearby States! Well, I take this as an opportunity to visit new places and new temples that always have something to surprise you by way of mythology, legend, architecture or sculptures. Incidentally we stopped a few hundred meters after the church at a petty shop to buy puja items.  This petty shop could well be a landmark for us to identify the church, I calculated mentally.

On return journey, the driver slowed down the car from this point and we did locate the church. But, to our disappointment, its gates were closed. As we walked ahead searching for someone, the village seemed calm & quiet. Then we noticed a lady cleaning utensils outside her palm-roofed house who was surprised to see new faces. Hearing about our curiosity to visit the ‘Madha kovil’ (church), she sent someone to fetch the keeper of the keys. A few minutes wait in suspense and then an old man came with the dangling key bunch. The wooden doors of the arched entrance opened with a screech. In the dimly lit hall (they call it ‘nave’) we saw the images covered with sheets as it was the Saturday after Good Friday.  This Saturday of Holy Week is variously known as Holy and Great Saturday, the Great Sabbath, Black Saturday, Joyous Saturday, Hallelujah Saturday, Glorious Saturday, Easter Eve, and the Saturday of Light. Decoration done for the past Christmas was still intact.

Built sometime in the 1860s(?), this church is now deserted as the number of Christians in & around has drastically reduced. So it remains closed without regular daily prayers/service or Sunday mass. On occasions some priest would come for service, the old watchman told us. People believe that prayers for marriage are answered by Mother Mary upon which a sari is offered to Her. Two wings that are called ‘transept’ extend on either side of the altar with an arched doorway. The windows are also arched. So, the whole structure is like a T.  The central dome above the altar reminded me of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican. Oh, come on, don’t ask me if I had visited Vatican; though I would very much like to, I had not crossed India’s air border. I must consider myself lucky enough to have sneaked across the land border into Nepal and Myanmar.  Built of bricks and mortar, it has vaulted ceiling and domed roof. Uncared, the mortar of outer wall had peeled off exposing the bricks and plants had sprouted in the cracks everywhere. Nearby is the official quarters of the Father, also in a dilapidated condition. If I were a Christian, I would readily take up that post in that serene village!

I was saddened to see a uniquely stylish heritage structure meet a slow and agonising end in the Manalur panchayat village in Papanasam taluk of Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. If not attended to, the church may resemble Angor Wat temples. It is a small, simple church with striking architecture.