The Great Church of Ollur and the Angel Raphael - A Photo Feature
Prof.George Menachery

One remarkable feature of the Sistine (from Sixtus) Chapel in the Vatican is that every square inch in the 133 ft. by 43 ft. rectangle - the ceiling, the mosaic floor, the wall behind the altar, the side walls, the marble screen… is decorated with the works of the greatest masters of the time including Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, Resselli, Botticelli, Mino da Fiesole…No wonder Pontiff after Pontiff chose the Sistine as the most suitable venue for the conclaves to elect the Pope. The breadth-taking  grandeur of the Chapel has to be seen to be believed.


         The Author

There is one church in Kerala and only one church perhaps which can claim that every inch of space in the church is decorated, under both western and indigenous influences, with the highest achievements of the painter, the sculptor, the ceramics worker, the carpenter, the goldsmith, the bronze artisan, or the architect - using every media known or imaginable like gold, silver, iron,  bronze, wood, ivory, stone - including laterite, granite, and precious stones,… Here there are large numbers of frescoes, murals - both Kerala and western style murals, woodwork, metalwork, ivorywork… Of course, Ollur’s other name Chinna Roma (Little Rome) is quite appropriate for this and many other reasons. Our If any church in Kerala deserves to be named a basilica (a minor basilica, that is) it is undoubtedly this great church. If any church is to be made a key attraction for tourists, Indian or international, the first consideration must be given to this church.   

In an article of this sort there is no place for elaborate descriptions and long-winded narratives, nor for many references and notes. Hence this opportunity is used merely to rediscover for those who already know something of this great church, and to introduce the newcomer to, certain aspects of the Ollur Church and the Shrine of St. Raphael the Archangel especially from the standpoint of its artistic and architectural  excellence.

At one time, especially in the 19th  century and  the first three quarters of the 20th century there were only three Christian festivals in the erstwhile Cochin State which used to attract countrywide attention. One was the Kanjoor festival of St. Sebastian, another was the celebration in honour of the Koratti Muthy The third festival of State significance which used to attract tens of thousands of devotees was the St. Raphael’s festival of Ollur popularly known as Malakhayude Perunnal. 

Ollur church is famous for the large number of exquisitely carved sacred images in wood. According to Kuriappan Kattookkaran’s book on the church, written a century ago, there were seventy-three statues in the church and as many festivals. Even today some of the best-carved statues of Kerala are to be found in this church.  Today every Sunday in the year is dedicated to the feast or festival of the Trinity, Jesus, or an apostle, or a saint, and even so some festivals have to be observed on week-days.

One of the reputed possessions of the church is the more than thirty- foot tall wooden rostrum or Pushpakkoodu  which have sculptures in the round and relief of the evangelists and saints in addition to interesting representations of the flora and fauna of Kerala and elsewhere on it. This is perhaps the tallest rostrum in the whole of Asia. Among other astonishingly artistic wood carvings in the church some are to be found on the three altars, the beams, and in the cupola.

As is the case with most churches in Kerala the St. Anthony’s Forane Church of Ollur also is constructed on a hill-top  which is the highest location in the vicinity. Earlier people must have reached the church climbing the steep slopes. But today there are large flights of steps leading to the church from various directions in addition to the sloping roads for vehicular traffic.

Wooden Panel, Ollur Church, ca.1825

The church is surrounded by a huge protective compund wall called Aana Mathil  or Elephan(ine) wall either because of its elephant like shape (which helps it to guard itself from the heavy monsoon downpours characterestic of the land), or because of its elephantine size, or use (to safeguard the church from the fierce attacks of elephants sent by angry kings), or for a combination of these reasons. These walls enclose in addition to th  e church itself the inner coutyard also.       

Festival related and liturgical processions in Malabar are of at least four kinds : certain pradakshinams or processions starting near the altar end at the mukhamandapam or portico of the church, many others, importantly, enter the courtyard and go round the rock cross, others go round the church, still others wind along the valley-roads surrounding the church-hill, commencing and concluding at the foot of the rock-cross. In the Ollur church we have processions of all these classes. But the most important procession is in connection  with

the festival of St. Raphael the Archangel. (True, the procession of St. Sebastian goes to many more areas than the Angel’s procession which is restricted to the streets or angadies demarcated by the four bridges.) The multicoloured Muthukkudas (silk Umbrellas),the many types of Vadyams and Melams, the decorated Roopakkudus  carrying the statues of the four angels are are some of the attractions of the great procession. The Vedikkettu or fireworks, the hawkers and vendors, the largescale agape or Oottu, are other interesting features of the festival. The Thullal which used to attract thousands of faithful is now a thing of the past having been banned by the ecclesiastical authorities some years ago.

The gold and silver crosses, the gold candlesticks, gold kasa and pilasa, gold censers, huge bronze  vessels, bells, monstances, tabernacles… are some of the artistic works in the church in various metals. Thr treasure of metal objects in the church perhaps exceeds any such collection of other churches. 

The Ollur church is the oldest  church in the Thrissur Corporation area and the grandest church in the Trichur Archdiocese although certain other churches are today able to grab the limelight on account of their location and certain accidental present-day benefits and lucky coincidences.  

Proceeding towards the church from the Padinjare Angady  or western bazaar first of all one has to climb the smaller flight of steps. After this the flagstaff is reached. Beyond the flagstaff is the great rock cross of Ollur. It is more than twentyfive feet in height and is one of the best proportioned and well cut out granite crosses of Kerala. Its monolithic main shaft is thicker than usual. The open-air rock-cross of Malabar is an obelisk, a tall stone column, with four, sometimes decorated, slightly stapering sides. Rome has many obelisks (from Egypt and the East) which have been sometimes made into cross-bearing structures decorating the piazzas and squares); London has one on the banks of the Thames (Cleopatras Needle); Paris has one at the place d la concorde; and even New York has one in the central park. Many memorials like the Washington Memorial are obelisk-shaped. The Asoka Pillar and other such Indian pillars must have been inspired by the Graeco-Parthians, under Egyptian-Persian influence. The Nazraney sthamba is a direct descendant of the obelisk.,and much closer to it than the other Indian pillars - in shape, method of constuction and transportaion, method of erection, function, and solar symbolism. The Roman obelisk, bearing crosses today, have been converted to Christianity, while Keralas cross-shaped obelisks were born Christian.The obelus and the double-dagger reference marks in printing may be profitably recalled here.

The three-tier gabled indigenous architecture of Kerala churches, which lacked facades until the coming of the Portuguese, immensely gains in richness, symmetry, and beauty because of the open-air rock crosses, some of them more than 30 feet in height including the intricately carved pedestals, and monolithic shafts. No other community in Kerala has such a huge monumental stone structure, and no other Christianity has such a universal and huge emblem in front of the churches. The indoor counterparts of these crosses have the earliest carvings in Kerala of the national flower lotus and the national bird peacock. Perhaps even the national animal tiger is first depicted in Kerala art in church sculpture. There was no rock carving in South India prior to the period of these indoor crosses. The motifs, message , and images on these crosses and their pedestals display a remarkable degree of Indianness and Malayalee Thanima or identity.

A unique feature of the church is the number and variety of the angel images in the church. There are more than five thousand images of angels in the church – in fresco, mural, wood, plaster, stone, metal, ivory and many other media. The paintings in the church which cover an area of thousands of square feet are the pride of Kerala’s artists and Kerala’s Christianity.

 Rock Out - door Cross of Ollur

Old St. Raphael's Church- now cemetery

The seven storey belfry of the church was it is said the tallest structure in South India at the time it was constructed.

It must be a matter of pride for the students and staff of the Holy Angel’s School that their institution has its name from the great miracle-working angel of the Ollur Church - the parish church of fully three thousand five hundred families today even after giving birth to many daughter parishes - who is considered the patron saint of  the about-to-be-marrieds and the newly-marrieds, of couples in general, of travelers and wayfarers, of the blind and the sick, of those who have lost wealth or objects, and of course of  the devil-afflicted.

[There are a number of books, souvenirs, journals which give additional information on the St. Anthony’s Forane Church, Ollur and St. Raphael the Archangel – which can be consulted in the office of the Manager of the Holy Angel’s EMBHS. The author is the chief editor of the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, The Thomapedia, The Indian Church History Classics - The Nazranies etc. and Chairman of the Silver Jubilee Souvenir Committee]