Historical and Cultural Background

Have you heard of Nazrani Christian men were going to attend Sunday mass with pony tail in head, wearing daggers at their hips ? Even the men were wearing one ear ring called “kadukkan”and priestly thread called “poonool” across their chest like Brahmins. Yes some of those glorious past was known from the ancient palm tree lief scrolls called “padiola (inscription on palm leaf) and heard from the verbal traditions of an eastern village called Arackuzha in Kerala known as God’s own country. Yes we could imagine those days; the women were going to church wearing cloth around their waste and covering upper body with the white cotton dress called “chatta” and “mundu” and head cover called “Neryathu” accompanied by half naked proud men with pony tail, “Poonool” and “kadukkan”. It was a proud combination of Hindu customs and Christian culture. In modern terms a hybrid culture to be claimed by Christians based on our proud Hindu background of kerala Nazranis. It is a time capsule that contains a lot of ancient memories and antiquities. This is the story of a beautiful small village called Arackuzha in Ernakulam district near Muvattupuzha. Arackuzha was like a small kingdom in ancient times. The grand parents and great grand parents have a lot of stories to be shared with the new generation today about our past. It is like a faded glory when they shared the stories of a glorious past with a pride and noble antecedents.
The Thodupuzha river that flows through the herbal valleys of eastern hills makes Arackuzha rich and ever more beautiful with a romantic touch. The green land with small hills, streams and paddy fields could touch the souls of everybody to bring forth the best of their warm hearts. There are many who live happily with their success due to their hard work after much toil and tears and at the same time there are many who are neither too rich nor too poor. We could also see some families that carry a glorious past but degenerated in the flow of time.The old generation has so many interesting stories to share. Some stories are true and some stories might be influenced by their wild imaginations and faded memories.
During the second period of the reign of Chera Dynasty (A.D. 800-1102), Aarakuzha was a part of Keezhmalainadu which was one of the many kingdoms (nadu) in Kerala. When Keezhmalainadu was conquered by Vadakumkoor Dynasty in about 1600 A.D. Aarakuzha became a part of Vadakumkoor. Foreigners used to call Vadakumkoor as the land of pepper. Vadakumkoor was bounded on the north by River Periyar, on the east by Pandyanadu and on the west by the backwaters. Aarakuzha came under the rule of Thiruvithamkoor king when Vadakumkoor was annexed by Marthandavarma, the king of Thiruvithamkoor, in 1750. Aarakuzha had been an area with developed settlements during the 17 and 18 centuries when Nediyasala and Purapuzha areas were forests and and uninhabited.
Aara+ kuzhai means a vast area or there is another version Arya + Kuzhai that means land of aryans.Christians had migrated to Arakuzha for cultivation in 9th century AD. Families such as Oram, Cherukulam, Kalambadan, Thottathil, , Mudiyil, Kadalikkadan and Cherukadan migrated from Vadakara. It is said that a Nair and a Christian priest had accompanied them. People from Chembu, Idapalli, Thenkasi, Vizhakapattanam, Ramapuram, Kadamattom, Mailakombu, and Thulunadu had migrated to Aarakuzha. The road connecting Kaduthuruthi with Tamil Nadu runs through the southern side of Aarakuzha. Arackuzha was the main trading center before fifty years as this place is in the riverside. Business men transported goods to Cochin from Moozhi by Boat through Muvattupuzha river. Most of them are traditional Catholic farmers and business people. St. Mary’s Forane Church has a very important role in the life of the people. Many families from a Arackuzha migrated to different parts of Kerala in search of land mainly to high range area,and Kannoor, Wynadu, palakkad etc called Malabar. They gave their contribution in changing the political and social-economic climate time to time where ever they settled.
Arakuzha, being an ancient Syrian Christian center had been home for many migrant Syrian Christians during the Islamic persecution of non believers .After the fall of Villarvattam kingdom most of them had found a safe haven at Arackuzha. Most of the Christians were very good businessmen and hard working farmers. An affluent Nair community came to stay who originally belonged to ‘Azhvancheri’ Samooham at Arackuzha. They left Azhavancheri Thambrakkal (Land Lords) and reached Chembazhakunnel at Perumballoor, settled and flourished. They spread to other parts of Muvattupuzha. They were very noble and wealthy because of their relation to the Azhvanchery Thambrakkal. There had been a palace, fort, temples, bazaars and markets in Aarakuzha during the reign of Vadakumkoor Dynasty.

Establishment of St. Mary’s Church

Arackuzha was ruled by small land lords who owned slaves servants and soldiers according to old writings and verbal traditions. This was a treasure chest of traditional Christian faith and Christian culture. The christian history of this village goes back at least to more than thousand years. The early Christians were converted Christians from high class Hindu community. They kept the matriarchal system until modern era. Even though the majority were Christians, we could see the influence of their past Hindu traditions and practices .The Catholic church was built for thousand “Mappilai” Christians in AD 999 according to the written documents. For 1000 Christians (Ayiram mappilamarkuvendi ayirathil vacha palli), it was erected in 999 A.D. at Aarakkuzha.
It is said to be built by a prevalent matriarchal patroness called “Rathappilli Mutthi”. The story is as follows. The Catholic Church at Aarakzha was erected by Rathappalli muthi who was a housewife from the famous Rathappilli family. She initiated the establishment of the church because of the difficulty to travel to Mailakombu to attend the Holy Mass. It is said by some people that the church was founded by Orathelmuthi. The real family name of the lady was Orathel. Orathel family came to be known as Rathappilli in later years because it was this family of traders that first used ‘rathal’ ;a measuring unit for weighing things. The nearest church was at Mylakkombu which was 20 kilometers away from Arackuzha. The Arackuzha Christians used to attend Sunday mass at Mylakkombu church. The new vicar at Mylakkombu changed the time of the mass to an early hour. So the nazranis from Arackuzha could not attend the Sunday mass in time and manner. So the Rathappilli mutthi visited the then bishop Sabor and got permission to build a church at Arackuzha. The ruler of Arackuzha gave the land and support to build a church at Arackuzha near their temple. Later a church was erected on Koodathil (Kucadathil) parampu where the present High School is situated. Later the church was abandoned due to the hostilities of Puthattel Unniathiry and the property of the church was shifted to Memadangu which was under the authority of Chettoor Kartha and worship was resumed there. In course of time the old church and the cemetery were forgotten.

Arackuzha Unnyathiri and Arackuzha Church

The two well known nobles were Arackuzha Unnyathiri and Vallikkada Panicker in the history of Arackuzha. Vallikkada Panicker was the trainer of fighters for the king. Unnyathiri was the subordinate of Chettoor karthakkal, who were the rulers as the second in charge on the ladder of rulers under the the king. Unyathiri was one of the “ida prabhukkal” who ruled over small villages. Unnyathiri was said to be hailed from the famous family of Aromal Chekavar in ancient vadakkan pattukal. There is a traditional story that connects Unnyathiri to the traditional rice pudding offering called ” Pachoru Nercha” on August 15th at the church. The king ruled during the period of 1770 s was Raja Raja Varma. In about 1770 A.D. there was no rain for 18 months. The reason for the drought is said to be consequence of an inhuman act by Unnyathiri who killed a person who sought shelter in Aarakuzha Church.The story goes like this. One man happened to fish from a tree with arrow while the beautiful daughter of Unyathiri was taking bath in the river . Some how she got scared and humiliated by him according to the then existing moral standards and values. Hearing the story Unyathiri got angry and ordered to kill him. He ran to church and had sought refuge in the church. Later Unnyathiri had found him. He was dragged out side and killed at the door step of the church.It is believed that because of the desecration of the church by the bloodshed, Arackuzha was affected by a severe drought and famine for 18 months. Unyathiri called the astrologers to find out the reason behind the drought and famine. The astrologers found that the drought and famine were the consequences of desecration of the church by the murder of the innocent man by Unyathiri. As an attonement Unyathiri made an offering to the church to give food called “pachoru”. Pachoru was prepared with 15 bushels (parra) of rice with enough coconuts and brown sugar. It is the oral story that it rained in an epic proportion just after the offering and the water swelled up to the level that they could not even walk back home. Even today there is this tradition of offering rice pudding (pachoru nercha) on August 15th since then. Nobody knows much about the end of Unyathirir’s rule and what happened to his descendants. It is said that his palace was situated in the property now owned by Jose Erthadathil. According to the parish records Unyathiri gave 2 acres of land called kandathikudy purayidam and 97 cents of paddy field to the church to meet the annual expense of the pachoru offering. The name ” Unyathiri” seems to be a title of a position rather than a name of a person because the same title has been seen in many period in different occasions.
The Panickar family of Vallikada (Pallikadavu) which had migrated from Thulunadu used to conduct a kalari in Aarakuzha. During the Muslim aggression in North Kerala, powerful Hindu families such as Erthadathil (Puthattel) and Muringothil ruled over this area as idaprabhuckal. “Panicker” was also a title given by the king for his service as the one who trains and provides soldiers. It is an oral tradition that Arackuzha nazranees were also faithful brave soldiers trained under Vallikkada Panicker.

Edamana kurisupalli (Edamana Chapel)

There was a Kurishadi called Edamanakurisupalli 200 years before the erection of Aarakuzha Marthamariam Church, there had been Edamanakurusu and a cemetery attached to it at Aarakuzha. This proves that Syrian Christians at Arakuzha have more than 1200 years of recorded history. The members of Aarakuzha Edamana illam belonged to the branch of the Brahmin family which had immigrated to Perumballur from North Paravur. They embraced Christianity. Edamanakurisu was erected by them. Other Christians used to light lamps and pray there and bury their dead there. Documents related to Edamanakurisu have been found in Aarakuzha Church. which was erected around 600 A.D by the members of Aarakuzha Edamana illam who were Brahmin converts to Christianity. It was rebuilt as a Kurisupalli (small chapel) and consecrated in 1812 by Edathattel Valiachan. But as both Christians and Hindus began to conduct religous offering (nercha) there. It was destroyed in 1859. The cross was placed in the cupola which was erected by the side of Aarakuzha – Thottakkara Road. A church was erected there and it was consecrated on 23 December 1973.Records concerning the church copied from the inscription on palm leaf is given below:
“padiola (inscription on palm leaf)submitted before The Holy Marthamariathumma by Kavanakarayil Vettuparackal Mathula Varugeethum Thampimarum of Aarakuzha parish as per the decision of the palli yogam on 20 makaram 987(1812 A.D.) - Rev. Fr. Francisca Souriar
A Namboothiri (Brahmin) youth from kidangur was converted by Arnose Pathiri (1701–1732). On the course of time he became a famous priest and an eminent retreat preacher. He was called Francisca Souriar. He is said to have lived between 1720 and 1770. He died while he was the vicar of Aarakuzha parish. He was buried on the north of the church where the present chapel in the cemetery is standing. His tomb can be seen even today.

A Forane Church in 1891

Aarakuzha church was relocated and rebuilt several times. The present church was erected in about 1780. It was a great time of reiligious tolerance. Vallikada Panickar family had provided considerable aid for the construction of the church. The descendents of Vallikkada family are staying at Rakkattu and Karakkunnam now. The roof was tiled in the Malayalam Era 1070(1895 A.D.). Darshana sangham (confraternity) was established in the parish on 14 kanni 1859. Rathal (Retable) was erected in the altar area (madbaha) in 1832.The madbaha of the church was renovated in 1840.
There were 1323 Catholic families spread in different parts (kara) of the parish. There were 540 families and 3206 parishners in 1930, when the first ‘athmasthithipusthakam’ (book in which all the details of the parishners are written) was written in Aarakuzha parish in 1891. The number of families got reduced on account of the erection of new parishes within the area of the parish and the migration of many families to other areas. The statistics reveal that there were 3200 parishners and 7 priests in this parish in 1967.There are few knanaya families also in this parish
A convent of the Carmelite Sisters was erected in the parish in 1891. In 1960 a convent of Medical Sisters was erected. A school had been established under the auspices of Carmelite Sisters when the convent was erected.
There is a chapel named Malekurisu on the hilltop on the south of Arakuzha church. It was erected between 1800 and 1810. It is dedicated to St. Sebastian. The tradition of seeking the intercession of St. Sebastian for protection from epidemics was initiated by European missionaries. Devotees do the Way of the Cross during the Holy week and “Puthu Njayarazhacha” and “ettaamidam” feast.( Feasts on first and second Sundays after Easter). Every stations of the way of the cross are beautifully depicted on the way.The construction of a parish hall was completed on 3 March 1991. A building for Higher Secondary was erected as Centenary Memorial and classes started in it on 23 July 1998.The inauguration of the school and the Jubilee Year were celebrated on 23 January 1999.The road from Maalikapeedika cupola(Chapel) to the church was widened and tarred under the leadership of the church.
By the decree of Bishop Carlose Lavinju on 10 October 1891 Aarakuzha was consecrated as a Forane Church.The population of the church in Aarakuzha reduced when churches were erected in Muvattupuzha (1822),Peringuzha(1864), Vazhakulam (1885), Arikuzha 1889), Thottakara (1902),Meenkunnam (1925),Chittoor (1953),Perumballur(1958) and Nadukkara (1958.)