My previous article, “St. Thomas & Judeo-Nasrani Malankara Nasrani Church” had a short description of the statue of Pallivanaperumal (Pallivanaperumal/Cheraman Perumal/Pallivanavar/Pallibhanavar) which was excavated from Neelamperoor, Alappuzha, Kerala. T. K Joseph was one of the first scholars to mention this statue in his research work. He claims that the statute of Pallivanaperumal can be paraphernalia in connection with the ecclesiastical leadership of Malankara Nasranis, i.e., Pallivanaperumal might have been a Christian King. On the contrary, a number of authors (through their articles and books) have claimed that this particular statute does not have any connection to Christianity and Malankara Nazranis.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the notion of Pallivanaperumal-Malankara Moopan in order to understand the concept of Pallivanaperumal and his historic relations with the Malankara “Nasrani Christianity.” This article doesn’t aim at conclusions, but rather attempts to bring various viewpoints, arguments, and observations to the readers.
This article is in response to a series of articles written by Mr. Jeevan Philip and in response to the book Neelamperoor Padayani by Ananthakuttan as well as many other scholarly works documented on Pallivanaperumal. This piece is written from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
Neelamperoor is a beautiful village situated in the district of Alappuzha which is famed for its natural beauty and backwaters. From ancient times, Neelamperoor which was part of the Chera dynasty was a well-known village in Kerala. It is believed that a Dravidian population migrated to Neelamperoor after the 8th century. By the 12th century, it became a part of the Thekankoor country and later it became a part of the Chembakassery country by the 14th century. In 1746 Neelamperoor was a part of the Travancore Kingdom and in 1957 it was constituted into the Alappuzha district.
Palli Bhagavathy Temple
This is one of the oldest religious institutions in Neelamperoor. The temple is famous for its annual “Padayani” festival celebrations held every year in August or September. The uniqueness of the Padayani celebration lies in the special “Kettukazhcha,” a unique display of decorated effigies. One tradition states that the arrival of Perumal to Neelamperoor marked the beginning of the annual Padayani.
Pallivanaperumal (Cheraman Perumal)
“Perumal” was a royal designation held by a number of Kings who ruled Kerala. Several Perumal’s (Kings of Kerala) have ruled across Kerala. A number of stories surround the origin and rule of the Perumals. There are four major perspectives/arguments on the religious beliefs of Perumals. The first argument is that one of the Cheraman Perumal was attracted to Islamic religion and he became a Muslim. He traveled to the Middle East and met the Prophet. There is even a tomb of the so-called Perumal in Oman.
The second argument is that the last Perumal was received into Buddhism and he reached Neelamperoor towards the end of his life, which is also the local belief. The third argument is that the last Cheraman Perumal was born a Hindu and died a Hindu. The fourth argument is that one of the Perumals was converted to Christianity and he reached Neelamperoor towards the end of his life.
At the same time, there are a few baseless arguments stating that Pallivanavar was converted into Christianity by St. Thomas the Apostle or by Thomas of Cana. Another “hard to believe” version states that Pallivanavar or Cheraman Perumal accepted Christianity and that he is buried in Mylapore, Chennai, India.
We will focus on the “Nasrani Christian connection” of the Pallivanaperumal. His Nasrani Christian “connection” is above the myths or stories that are propagated on the religious identity of Perumal. I put forward this argument mainly because of the statue that was excavated from Neelamperoor. The statue speaks more than the propagated stories and myths.
The Statue (Statuette)
The small bronze statuette was excavated before 1940 (probably in 1900). Scholar T. K. Joseph was one of the first scholars to prepare a write-up on the same. The miniature statue was accidentally excavated from outside the compound wall of the Neelamperoor Palli Bhagavathi temple. While digging, the workers came across a slab with a cross engraving. They were also astonished to find a small statue with two crosses – a crosier and a pectoral cross. The place where the statue was found is believed to be a tomb. The slab with the cross was removed and deposited in the nearby pond and the statue was handed over to a Hindu Nair family for “secret keeping.” However, the news of the excavation leaked and many scholars including T.K Joseph examined the excavated statue at Neelamperoor. A photo of the statute was taken and T. K Joseph made paper presentations on Pallivanavar and his possible “connection” to Malankara Nasrani Christians. From the writings of K.C. Cheriyan and P.K.Padmanabha Panikkar, we understand that a similar statue assumed to have been made of granite was drowned in a tank situated North of the Palli Bhagavathy temple, whereas the surviving statue of Pallivanavar was moved to one of the buildings inside the temple. Later the statue was secreted away from the attention of the public, researchers, and scholars. I urge the readers to refer to the Kerala Society Papers for more details.
The ‘Fictitious’ Nasrani Royal Kingdom of Villarvattom
Scholar T. K. Joseph has proposed Pallivanavar as a Christian King. So it becomes essential to validate the existence of a Christian Nasrani Royal dynasty in Kerala.
According to some Roman Catholic sources the “Kingdom of Villarvattom” of Nasranis existed in Valeyadattu (Villarvattom) near Udayamperoor, a part of the Cochin Kingdom. Many Roman Catholic sources speak of this Kingdom and their King Thoma of Villarvattom. Roman sources state that King Thomas had a friendly encounter with Archbishop Meneses and that Pope Eugene (in 1439) wrote a letter to King Thoma, a matter of which remains unknown. They also claim that the tomb of King Thoma is at the Udayamperoor Church. T. K. Joseph has proposed that the Nasranis were allowed to elect their own King and the first King was called “Beliarte” who ruled the Villarvatom dynasty. On the other hand, Rev. Claudius Buchanan in Star of the East states that Nasrani Christians possessed certain regal powers in “Malayala” and Beliarte was their last King. The anonymous author of the book The Panoplist, or the Christian’s Armory (Volume 3) shares the same opinion of Rev. Claudius Buchanan. Arun Ashokan in his article titled “Thoma Rjavum, Mariyam Rajakumariyum” states that the Villarvattom Dynasty was ruled by King Jacob and upon his demise, Thoma was installed as the King. Princess Mariam was the daughter of King Jacob and she was married to Immanuel. Immanuel was the cousin of Cochin King who converted himself to Christianity and incurred this name. His conversion caused a rift between him and the Cochin King. The fate of King Immanuel and Princess Mariam remains mysterious. There are also claims that the sceptre of the Nasrani King was presented to Vasco Da Gama. There were several local Nasrani Christian landlords in Malankara who remained close to the Kings and local rulers. The very idea of Villarvattom Dynasty might have been carved out of such local landlords who were in possession and controlled major tracts of land with the permission of the local Kings.
A Christian Dynasty Without A Trace
Secular scholars have questioned the authenticity of such claims. The problem with the idea of “Nasrani King” is the absence of literary, or numismatic evidence. There is no mention of the Villarvattom Kingdom in the records of the Cochin Royal family, whereas smaller Kingdoms like Pandalam and Kayamkulam has historical evidence of their existence. I think that the concept of the Villarvattom Christian Dynasty put forward is fictional in its substance and essence.
The idea to propose Pallivanavar as a Royal King seems a very difficult task. Researcher Jeevan Philip comments that “Mr. T. K. Joseph promoted Pallivanaperumal as a Christian King which is unlikely based on modern understanding about the early evolution of Christendom.”
Perumal – The Name
Perumal (Thirumal) is a Tamil Dravidian (பெருமாள்) name. Perum means “great” and Al means “man.” Perumal means “one who is great.” It is not exclusive to Hindus or non-Christians. Perumal is a name used by Christians as well. Many Christians have Perumal as their second name (Thomas Perumal, Geevarghese Perumal, Jacob Perumal are some examples).
One of the youngsters who is a close associate of the temple commented that there is an oral version of the history which claims that the property where the Neelamperoor Palli Bhagavathi Temple is currently situated used to be a “Palli,” a holy place or place of gathering, a Christian or Buddhist place of worship. One of the Kings, probably Cheraman Perumal, replaced Palli with the temple. Another resident told a different version of the story. As per him, in the earlier times, there was a plan to build a Christian place of worship on the property. However, the plan was later shelved. Few senior residents in the locality also confirmed the fact that some kind of “Christian statue” was excavated near to the compound of Neelamperoor Palli Bhagavathi temple in the past.
It is also interesting to note that until a period of time, local Christians took part in the Hindu festival, wherein they made donations and contributed images (Kolams) for the Padayani festival. However, this practice was stopped as a result of an objection from Kolathu Kathanar, a Christian priest. He forbade Christians from taking part in Hindu festivals.
Christian Churches in the Area
There are four Churches near the temple, namely St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Malankara Orthodox “Valiyapally” Church (one of the oldest in the area, also the mother parish of the LL Baselios Geevarghese II of the East), St. George Knanaya Syriac Orthodox Valiyapally, St. Mary’s Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church, and a Syro-Malabar Uniate Church.
The Case of the Pectoral Cross
Author B. Ananthakuttan in his book Nelamperoor Padayani argues that the pectoral cross on the statue of Pallvanaanavar is not Christian in origin stating that the “sign of the cross” started in the 2nd century and the habit of hanging crosses across the neck was not practiced before the 6th century. At the same time, he also states that Pallivanaperumal lived in the 8th century (by citing Dr. P C Alexander). If Pallivanaperumal lived in the 8th century, then the use of the pectoral cross cannot be refuted. Another argument put forward by the author is that cross is a Portuguese contribution and they reached Kerala in 1498, which is 300 years after the reign of Pallivanaperumal. However, the Malankara Nazrani- Latin encounter took place in 1291 with the arrival of John of Montecorvino, much before the arrival of Portuguese. The beginnings of the “Religion of Jesus” (Nasrani Christianity) was not a result of colonialism nor it was a result of the so-called “Christian” migration from the Middle East. The Judeo-Dravidian Nasrani community was already present in Malankara during the first centuries, hence Christian symbols were not something alien to Malankara.
Buddhist Symbol- Cross v/s Swastika Argument
The swastika is a cross with four arms, which are of equal size and length. The ends of each arm are bent at a right angle. But it is important to note that eight Symbols of Buddhism (lotus flower, endless note, golden fish, victory banner, wheel of dharma, treasure vase, parasol, and conch shell) does not include the Swastika or the so-called cross.
If Pallivanaperumal was a convert to Buddhism, then he should have used a “Swastika Cross” instead of the pectoral Christian cross as found on his statue. The presence of a lotus-like figure in the center of his pectoral cross makes it different from a swastika cross which is generally marked by the absence of any such figure at its center. This clearly argues against his conversion to Buddhism. Then the question remains whether the pectoral cross is of Christian origin. Some argue that this pectoral Christian cross is not Christian as it has a lotus-like figure in its center. However, there are a number of ancient Christian crosses such as Niranam Cross and Muthuchira cross in Kerala with such lotus-type figures. Hence the argument that the pectoral cross on Pallivanaperumal is non-Christian lacks substantiative evidence to claim otherwise.
Author Ananthakuttan has questioned the head cover and the face of the statute, stating that both are un-Christian in style and shape. However, he ignores the fact that the local Dravidian Malankara Church Elders (Bishops, leaders) used Dravidian style head covers. They did not use Persian, Syriac or Latin-styled headgears in the early centuries at least until 1490. Moreover, it would be worthwhile to look at the attire of Malankara Nasrani in the early centuries. A photo published in a book of T. K Joseph by the title Gama Kanda Nasrani (“Nasrani encountered by Vas Goda Gama”) will speak for itself.
According to Cincy Mariamma Thomas (Faculty of Religion at STOTS, Nagpur), “the Swastika was used in ancient times and in India this was the most auspicious symbol but it was not erected on top of any temple structures. Many a time the cross was misunderstood as an offshoot of the Swastika and vice versa. The Swastika was earlier used in Indus valley civilization and later it was popularized by Aryans of North India. So it is in no way connected to the Statute of the Pallivanaperumal-Malankara Moopan. The pectoral cross on the statute of Pallivanaperumal seems actually a Christian cross.” It is also noteworthy that the cross on the statute is different from the so-called Persian or Manichean cross.
Cross and Swastika in Christianity
Some researchers claim that the Swastika (sometimes called Crux dissimulata, or Crux gammata and also known by many other names) was the only or most common form of the cross used by Christians in the early centuries. According to some scholars, the Swastika or similar symbols were used by early century Gnostic Christians as well. The Swastika symbol is not something that can be limited to a particular religion.
Swastika in Hinduism
In Hinduism, the Swastika is a symbol of auspiciousness, prosperity, and good fortune. It is believed to have first appeared in the Harivamsa Purana which was composed by Acharya Jinasena in 783 AD. The Swastika symbol is at least 3000 years old.
Another argument put forward by author Ananthakuttan is that Neelamperoor never had a strong Christian presence in the past. This appears to be a lame argument and points to his lack of awareness of Pre-Nestorian, Pre-Syriac and Pre-Latin structure of the Judeo-Dravidian Malankara Nasrani Church. In the early days, Malankara Nasranis gathered in simple groups. They used simple “Church” structures. It is not at all necessary that there must be a strong Nasrani community or physical Church structure in Neelamperoor. There were several small Nasrani communities spread over different places in Malankara and local Moopans catered to their needs. However, the exact structure of religious life of the Malankara Nasrani’s prior to the beginning of Nestorian, Syriac, and Latin connections requires in-depth study and research.
Authors like K.S. Neelakandanunni have argued that Pallivanavar never converted to Christianity. Social historian S. N. Sadasivan published a book titled A Social History of India in which he argues that Pallivahanavar and his statue have a deep connection to the Buddhist statue at Krishnapuram Palace. Researcher Jeevan Philip has questioned the claims of S. N. Sadasivan by stating that “a peripheral study on the said statue itself is enough to prove otherwise.” Many others have questioned the real intentions of authors like S.N. Sadasivan as well.
An identical structure is found at the St.Thomas Orthodox Cathedral, Karthikappally, Alappuzha. It is a carved wooden image found on the top right of the wooden roof at the front entrance of the Church. A proper study is required to determine the exact history behind this wooden carving. The Neelamperoor statue has a pectoral cross, and a broken crosier. In comparison to the Neelamperoor statue, the Karthikappally wooden statute has a crosier, but it doesn’t have a pectoral cross. Instead of a pectoral cross, the statue has plain-round chains across its neck.
Religious Syncretism in Malankara
Christianity and other religions are syncretic in nature. It is the process where a religion accepts or adopt traditions, practices, and symbols of another non-related religions. The Nasrani community has adopted a lot from the Jewish, Dravidian and other cultures. Nasranis are an indigenous community of Malankara; hence they uphold a variety of local cultural practices.
Hypothesis – Malankara Moopan, Nazarani Bishop or an Elder
I hypothesize that the statute recovered is not that of Pallivanavar, rather it’s of a Malankara Nasrani Prelate (Moopan). To prove this, we need an in-depth analysis of the statue and further excavation of the place where it was found. However, the excavated statue has close proximity with the attire of a Nasrani leader who could be a Moopan, Bishop or an Elder with an Episcopal authority. It can also be the statue of a Royal family member who became a Bishop or a Nasrani Elder by accepting Christianity.
The Malankara Nasranieth and the Malankara Moopan Model – the Powerful Indigenous Nazrani Institution
To reconstruct the exact nature of Malankara Nasranieth and Moopan model is indeed a Herculean task. Malankara Nasaranieth was the powerful Dravidian community and socio-religious system that was lead by Moopans. Considering the available sources and other historical evidence, we may assume that the Moopan model was based on the “Tharakootam system” of Dravidians in Malankara. Tharakootams were village-based social gatherings in Malankara. Moopans presided over Dravidian Nasrani Tharakootams (there were several such Tharakootams in Malankara). These gatherings were more than a “religious ceremonial gathering” for the Malankara Nasranis. Apart from praying in a sitting posture, reading of Gospel and breaking of bread, Tharakootams also discussed a number of socio-political situations that affected their daily lives. However, the nature and structure of the office of the Malankara Moopan and the Malankara Nasranieth is still a grey area and requires extensive research.
Moopan and Moopachen
Moopan or the Elder was the presiding officer of the Dravidian Nasranis. Moopachen was the name used to address Nasrani priests. Some researchers think that terms like Moopan or Moopachen are a recent invention. Rather, they were in use in Malankara for a long period of time in the past. However, such usages were lost in due course of the colonial subjugation of the Malankara Nasranis.
Negating the Hypothesis
Even if I negate my own argument that the statue of Pallivanaperumal is connected to Malankara Nazranis, a number of questions still prevail. Why do we have a statue with a pectoral cross? What sort of cross is it and why is the statue still archived without further examination? Why were further excavations not held in Neelamperoor? Why was the second excavated statue thrown in the nearby temple pond without proper evaluation or study? What other materials were excavated?
If we accept the argument that Perumal was a converted Christian King, the two crosses on the statue remain a question. It is quite unusual for a king who was converted to Christianity to carry a pectoral and a staff cross without any royal insignia. If Pallivanavar was a King, then his statue must have at least one royal insignia. Another questionable thing is the headgear of the statute. It is a simple Dravidian headgear. Or did Perumal abandon his royal crown once he got converted to Christianity? According to researcher Jeevan Philip, “There are many historical questions to be asked and assumptions to be tested on the basis of modern archaeological techniques, geological land formations, and myths.” The Buddhist monk /leader /ruler argument from conventional corners certainly need to be tested on the basis of scientific studies and modern techniques. Why would a Buddhist wear a cross (not a swastika or any form of crosses of Buddhism) attached with a chain of beads and holding a crosier with another Cross? How many similar Buddhist statues or statuettes are unearthed in any part of the Buddhist world?
Why did the so-called last Perumal end up in Neelamperoor? Was he the only Perumal to end up in Neelamperoor? If so, why? What was the possibility for a Royal King to convert to Christianity those days? Was he removed from the throne after his conversion or did he abdicate?
There are a number of challenges surrounding Pallaibhanavar and his Neelamperoor statue. The most important challenge is the unavailability of the statute itself for examination and further studies. An objective study shall be conducted to determine the antiquity and other details of the statue. Another challenge is that, as per the current circumstances, an archeological excavation is almost impossible at Neelamperoor considering the changing socio-political and religious scenario. A sense of communal belonging to the statue has developed among certain sections of the population. It seems that some of them fear that a communal rift between the Hindus and the Christians may take place if further examinations of the Pallivanavar Statute are initiated. Some others fear that a deep examination would expose the real antiquity and hidden realities about the indigenous Malankara Nasrani Church, which can also be a problem for the so-called established “Christian traditions” in Malankara.