Alappuzha: A 16th century Catholic church built by Portuguese missionaries in a coastal hamlet near here is a model of religious harmony with a tradition of hosting Sabari pilgrims returning after worshipping Lord Ayyappa.
Pilgrims from across the state visit the St Andrew’s Church at Arthunkal here and pay their respects to the idol of Saint Sebastian between the months of November and January during the Mandala and Makaravilakku season of the Sabarimala temple.
Legend has it that one of the early priests of the church, popularly called Arthunkal Veluthachan (fair skinned father), was a friend of Lord Ayyappa.
The visit of the pilgrims commemorates the bond they shared, especially as the priest was loved by the local people who believed he had healing powers.
According to Parish records, the church was built by the Portuguese missionaries, who came to Kerala in the 16th century following the arrival of famed explorer Vasco da Gama in Kappadu, Kozhikode in 1498.
Fr Jacomo Fenicio who is supposedly the priest in the legend linking Sabarimala and the church, became vicar in 1584.
The present vicar of the church, Fr Stephen Punnackal, says as Fr Fenicio was a friend of Lord Ayyappa, devotees began visiting Arthunkal after paying homage to him at Sabarimala.
"There are records to prove that Fr Fenicio had deep interest in Hindu culture, rituals and martial arts like Kalarippayattu. He also penned a book on these subjects in Latin. Though many of these rituals have been given up over the centuries, the spiritual bond between Sabarimala and the Arthunkal Church is still intact,” he says.
But the priest reveals there has been a considerable dip in the number of Hindu pilgrims visiting the church over the last few years as the new generation is not aware of the legend linking Lord Ayyappa with it.
“We saw a huge number of Hindu pilgrims at the church in the past and even today set up temporary shelters and bathing facility for them. We also give them a time slot for offering prayers inside the church every year. Although the number of pilgrims has come down for various reasons it is our duty to spread the message that every religion stands for one ideology, that of love,” he says.