Thursday, September 15, 2011

Preserving the old

The 500-year-old St. Francis Xavier Church at Fort Kochi, the oldest in India, and a magnet for tourists, is undergoing a renovation under the direction of the Archaelogical Survey of India

By Shevlin Sebastian

Workmen are removing parts of the wooden staircase that leads up to the balcony of the St. Francis church at Fort Kochi. "This will be replaced by slices of teak wood," says Dr. M. Nambirajan, Superintending Archaeolgist of the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI), which is responsible for the upkeep of the church. "We are doing this work during the monsoon season when the number of visitors are less.” The estimated cost is Rs 20 lakh. The work has been going on for a couple of months now.

On an earlier visit, a few weeks ago, a drilling sound can be heard even before one enters the church. Just inside the door, a thick piece of wood, 12m long, lies on the floor. The upper-half is sturdy, but at the middle, there is a gaping hole. “It has been eaten by termites,” says Nambirajan.

Apart from this beam, which had formed the central part of the balcony, near the entrance, several wooden planks have been removed. They have now been replaced with high-quality teak.

According to archaelogical principles, only the part which has been damaged has to be replaced. “If we remove the entire beam, it will damage the antiquity of the church,” he says. The ASI also removed some damaged planks on the roof. These have been replaced with new ones and plastic sheets placed over it. Thereafter, red tiles have been installed.

The St. Francis Xavier Church, which was constructed in 1503, is one of the oldest churches in India. It was built by the Portuguese and the walls are more three feet wide. It is made of laterite stone mixed with lime. When you push against it, you can sense the massive strength. The roof is like the hull of a boat.

“There is no church like this in Kerala, or in India,” says Rev. Abraham Kuriakose, the parish priest, who belongs to the Church of South India. Unusually, there are ventilation windows at one side only. So, there are no reverberations. “No matter how loud the mike, there is no echo," says Kuriakose. "When the choir sings on the balcony, we can hear it effortlessly at the altar, thanks to the skill of those ancient engineers.”

The other attractions include the wooden altar, and the tombstone of Vasco Da Gama -- the Portuguese explorer who came to Cochin in 1502. He died in 1524 and his body was buried in the church. However, 14 years later, the remains were exhumed and taken back to Portugal. On the walls of both sides, there are Portuguese and Dutch gravestones. The Dutch took control of the church in 1663.

“Many of our visitors are Dutch,” says Kuriakose. There is a Dutch cemetery nearby, as well as a baptism and marriage register called the 'Doop Book' which has recorded entries between 1751 and 1804. A photostat copy of this can be accessed by visitors. “The Dutch are very interested in their roots,” says Kuriakose.

Incidentally, the church receives visitors from all over the world, including the USA, UK, Australia, and Europe. During the peak season, from September to March, the number of guests reaches upto 2000 a day. “Many foreigners want to get their marriage blessed in an old church,” he says.

The church has a special reputation. “What you pray for, that you get,” says Kuriakose. The vicar knows of many childless couples who have prayed for a baby and their wishes have been granted. As a result, apart from Christians, Hindus and Muslims also pray at the church.

For software professional, Rajiv Mondal, from Hyderabad, it has been an enjoyable experience. “I have been to the St. Francis Xavier church in Panjim,” he says. “But this church has an old-world atmosphere.” For Rohit Goyal, a professor of civic engineering from the Malaviya National Institute of Technology in Jaipur, the building is a marvel. “I can only admire the way the arches have been built,” he says, gazing up at the structure.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)