The Origin And Growth Of Catholicism In Palayamkottai - Part I

Source: District of Asia

Up to 1535 it could be safely said that the lamp of faith had not been lit anywhere in Tamil Nadu except in Mylapore where St. Thomas preached and was martyred. Following the battle of Vedalai near Pamban in 1535 in which the Paravan community of the Pearl Fishery Coast was redeemed from the cruel clutches of the Moors by the Portuguese, Miguel Vaz the Vicar General of Cochin Christened the whole community without any instruction. In the year 1542 St. Francis Xavier arrived and we know the marvellous results of his intrepid zeal and solicitude for his Children. This church of the Pearl Fishery Coast, though planted and nurtured in the district of Tirunelveli, did not spread into the interior of the district. Just as the political power of Portugal could not reach beyond the range of its naval guns, so also the church of the Pearl Fishery Coast had to be confined within 10 miles of the seaboard.

This verdict of history is generally true. But there is evidence to show that the church of the Pearl Fishery did attempt to spread the Gospel in the interior though without any appreciable results. Fr. Schurhammer in his life of St. Francis Xavier says that he is not able to account for 40 days during his stay in Punnakayal at the mouth of the Thamiraparni. There is a living tradition about his preaching of the Gospel to the Parava settlements and even to other communities in a number of villages all along the bank of the Thamiraparni, e.g. Srivaikuntam, Santhaipettai, Manakakarai, Palayam (Tirunelveli.), Shermahadevi (Pudukudi), Viravanellur etc. Thus, supported by existing local traditions we may take it that the saint planted the church in a number of places as he travelled from Punnakayal to Quilon by the land route. Again, Guerrare in his "Relacion Annual, Valladolid," published in 1600 states, " there were then 20 members of the Society of Jesus in the mission viz. 17 fathers and 3 lay brothers. The fathers were distributed over 22 parishes, 17 of which were on the coast, 6 inlands, including the residence at Madura the court of the Nayaka the Lord of these lands. "It is certain that leaving out Madura the other interior mission stations were within the Tirunelveli district falling under the present Palayamcottai diocese. It is certain Kayatar is one of the mission stations of the Pearl Fishery for, when the first Madurai Mission Priest Fr. Baltazar de Costa came to Kayatar in 1640, he found that the community was being cared for by a priest from Kottar a fact that indicates that it was one of the inland stations of the Pearl Fishery. Fr. de Costa in his report of 1644, mentions that there was a Christian community at Palayam (Tirunelveli) and a chapel dedicated to Our Lady (This hasn’t been located yet). According to the same report Manakadai had a chapel dedicated to St. Magdalene (it must have been renamed as the chapel now is dedicated to St. Quiteria, a favourite Italian martyr. Fr. Beschi has visited here, says history); there were 14 Christian Paravans in Viravanellur and 64 Adidravida Christians at Manarkoil (near Ambasamudram). Thus Palayamkottai could therefore rightly claim a Xaverian foundation for its Christian origin and growth.

Besides the impact of Xaverian Christianity on a few scattered localities along the Thambraparni bank during the second half of the 16th century we find that there has been an Evangelical thrust into the western portion of Tirunelveli district from the Travancore side. Fr. Castanier's collected traditions around Sendamaram in 1842 and the testimony of the Olei manuscripts of Sendamaram stone church speak of a Christian community existing already in 1600 at Thadhampatty near Puliamkudi. When Fr. De Nobili started his mission of adaptation at Madurai in 1606, among his neophytes there were two young men, sons of one Thanavathi Pillai. It is said that to protect them from the wrath of their own father, Fr. De Nobili sent them to Thadhampatty to live with the Christian community there. This indicates that the church had already been planted there, before the end of the 16th century. We could very well surmise that some missionaries from Travancore must have brought the light of faith to the Adidravida community or Thadhampatty.

Turning to secular history, the 16th century witnessed the heyday of the Moghul Empire under Akbar the Great at Delhi, the tragedy of Talicotta and the beginning of the Nayak rule at Madurai, the rise of the Portuguese power in India and the evangelization of the Indies by St. Francis Xavier. During the same century Tirunelveli district formed the southern half of the Pandiya kingdom, ruled over by the Pandiyas nominally but in reality, by the nayak chiefs calling themselves Karthakals. While the Kariakartha (Agent) of the Nayaks had his headquarters at Tirunelveli, the powerless Pandiya ruler stayed at Tenkasi.

As the curtain rises over the 17th century, history witnesses the following events: In competition with and opposition to the Portuguese monopoly of colonization, trade and evangelization, the English, the Danes and the French enter the Indian arena. By 1663 the Dutch are in possession of Tuticorin and Cochin. Fr. De Nobili finding the mission method of the Portuguese ill-suited to the Indian mentality started his new method at Madurai in 1606 à la mode the Indian Saniyasi life. Consequent on the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire the Muslim power from Delhi descended into south India and direct Moghul rule was set up over the kingdoms north of the Coloroon with Arcot as their headquarters, starting the rule of the Nawabs. In the Pandiya Kingdom its capital was transferred from Madurai to Tiruchirapally. The century closed with the martyrdom of St. John De Britto at Oriyur while Rani Mangammal was on the throne at Tiruchirapally. (1689 – 1704)

The start of the De Nobili mission was like a transfiguration to be followed by a Crucifixion. From 1607 to 1611 there was a golden harvest of high caste conversions but soon a storm started blowing stirred by Fr. Gonzalves of the orthodox method at Madurai. Reports went to Rome denouncing De Nobili that he had betrayed Christianity and had become a Hindu compromising the ancient Faith and practice. Hence a stay order came from Rome stopping the movement. It was indeed a Dark Night of the soul for the Saniyasi missionary who tried to become an Indian just to win India to Christ. Of course, the Resurrection came in 1623. But the newly planted church at Madurai suffered a severe setback. The opposition from the Brahmin priesthood was more than counterbalanced by the favour Christianity enjoyed with the Nayak government of the day. But by 1623 Muthu Virappa Nayak transferred the capital from Madurai. Further as the new conditions at Madurai were so unfavourable foil mission labour and as Salem, Sathyamangalam etc. were found to be better prepared for the reception of the Gospel, the new missionaries turned northwards and consequently Madurai and the south got less attention. Till 1684 there was no resident priest in the Tirunelveli district. The district was ministered from `Mullipadi (Malayadipatty), some 50 miles north of Madurai.