The curtain rose on March 24,1983 with the discovery of a cross on the Kerala Farming Corporation’s (KFC) private land, just 200 m from the Nilakkal Mahadeva Temple. Next day, singing hymns, Father Mathew Anthiyakulam, chief priest of the nearby Pamba Valley church, and two jeep-loads of his followers gathered round the spot where the cross was found. Immediately they erected a thatched shed and daily prayers were started. To the Catholics it was clear that this was the spot where a church-built centuries ago by St Thomas – once existed.
Meanwhile, the Hindus grouped with the Vishal Hindu Sammelan to fight the Catholic demand for a church. At the same time, the crusade for the church was given a thrust by the formation of the Nilakkal Church Council under the auspices of the All Kerala Catholic Congress, led by rubber tycoon M.D. Joseph.
And on May 19, when Karunakaran’s government finally granted one hectare of land for a church at Nilakkal, a shocked Hindu community led by the Sammelan called for demonstrations to stop the Government from allowing the controversial church to be built.
Rising Ire: Fearing further trouble from the RSS which is holding its annual camp at Trivandrum, the Government passed prohibitory orders. In spite of that, the RSS took a route march through the city shouting pro-Hindu slogans.
Over 1,000 RSS people were arrested, although they were later released. In the Nilakkal area there was a heavy police presence. Said a police officer: “Anything can happen. The RSS volunteers will rally round the temple so as to protest the encroachment and safeguard the interest of Ayyappa pilgrims.
The makeshift church is situated on the KFC’S land. But while the temple has always been there, the church, according to Parameswaran Nair, the assistant farm manager, is encroaching on their territory.
Said Nair: “The cross which was found here was a brand new cross without even a trace of mud on it. Even the chisel markings were fresh. Moreover the area was under intensive cultivation-no cross would have remained underground for so long.” Retorted T.V. Vargheese, caretaker of the church at Nilakkal: “We will build a church here even if we have to be martyrs for it.”
A fence of white flags demarcates the area around the thatched shed and 13 crosses are pitched around an altar where a picture of the Virgin Mary and Christ are kept. In his defence, Karunakaran insists that the thatched shed will be demolished immediately and the new church will be constructed only one-and-a-half km away from the Mahadeva Temple.
Moreover the church will not have any burial rights Said he: “There is a hill between the Nilakkal temple and the proposed site. It has a separate approach road. There will be no connection between the temple area and the church.”
Differences: The justification has not smoothed the ruffled feathers of Hindus. Father Mathew Anthiyakulam reiterated the Christian belief that there was a flourishing Christian centre in Nilakkal in 52 A.D. The church here was one of seven built by St Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Anthiyakulam added that the temple itself was constructed on the ruins of the St Thomas church.
Meanwhile, an archaeological team led by Professor John Ochanthuruth of Calicut University insisted that the cross discovered at Nilakkal could not have any connection with the cross of St Thomas since the crosses discovered in Kerala do not date back to even the eighth century. He also believes that there was a Hindu civilisation in Nilakkal as is evident from the remnants and sculptures dating to the middle ages. Said P. Parameswaran, the state general secretary of the Sammelan: “The visit of St Thomas is only a legend.
If Christians claim a church on the basis of traditional beliefs, we can reclaim temples which have been converted as churches like the Palayur Church in Guruvayoor which was a Shiva temple.”