Mother Mary and a Maharajah

Ambalapuzha, a costal part of Kerala in India had Roman trade connections as early as the first century. Emperor Claudius had his legion in a coastal town and even a Roman temple. Spices of Kerala attracted the Roman aristocrats. In 1847, Roman coins belonging to Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero were found in the British Malabar part of Kerala supporting the belief of early trade relations with remote parts of the world and also the conviction that St. Thomas, the disciple of Christ came to the coastal Kerala as early as the first century in a vessel plying between Alexandria and the Kerala coast. St. Thomas believed to have converted only Brahmins to Christianity. Not that he became caste oriented but because Brahmins were untrained to mix with lower caste if they became officially Christians; being a Jew he was sympathetic to the disabling caste feelings and respected the prevailing local culture. The other Hindus who accepted the Teachings of Christ remained as Hindus and became officially Christians only at a later period. Out of the 23 dioceses in India, Kerala has 11 of them and has one vocation for every seventy Catholics. The seeds of Christian faith grew steadfast in the fertile sands of Hinduism.

Kerala is roughly half the size of Portugal and has double of the population of this European country. Kerala is the most educated part of India and relatively affluent. The technological advancement is comparable to any of the developed countries. Surprisingly, it has got maximum suicides and alcohol related problems now. English language is more popular than the regional language which is derived from Sanskrit, the language of the mythological Hindu Gods.

Brahmins who followed the tantric culture in kerala became Namboothiries and they evolved as feudal aristocrats. Namboothiries are outer religious functionaries and not necessarily inner illuminators. The Brahmins in India were traditionally not supposed to have executive powers. They were expected to be men of piety and learning; they were meant to be selfless teachers of religion. But they could reprimand even kings and had to speak nothing but truth. They were held in high social esteem and had the privilege to conduct the coronation ceremonies of kings. They were not supposed to take weapons in their hands and had to preach non-violence.

When one of the oldest empire of Kerala broke up in to small principalities in the beginning of 12th century, a Namboothiri aristocracy, contrary to the Indian traditions of caste system took over the rule of Ambalapuzha and remained as a dynasty for nearly eight centuries. Shaktriyas are supposed to be the kings as per the Indian caste rules and Namboothiries are the priestly caste. These kings dedicated their kingdom to the Thrimoorthi (Holy Trinity) and reigned as a servant of God considering themselves as a humble Divine instrument. The King ruled the country as His vice-regent. This is expected to become a global tradition in the miniature Christ’s Kingdom of the future; all the figure heads of the different countries of the world submit themselves to Christ King and declare themselves as His vice regent. Raja was an attendee of faith. He never claimed to be a defender of faith and had a chosen deity.

Vasco De Gama came to south India in A.D. 1498. During the 17th and 18th century, Ambalapuzha had commercial contacts with the Portuguese and the Dutch and .Ambalapuzha Rajas had friendly relations with both these European countries. These Kings had a friendly military treaty with the Portuguese to help them in times of crisis. In Ambalapuzha there was a harmonious blending of medieval Portuguese and Namboothiri Sanskrit culture. Ambalapuzha kings had a broad religious outlook. One of the kings built a Christian church at Kudamallor,in the central part of Kerala which is still preserved as a precious monument of interfaith collaboration and has existed in this part of kerala since by-gone days.

This church is believed to be seven centuries old and was dedicated to the mother of Christ; Mukthiyamma means heavenly mother. Mukthi is the Sanskrit word for heaven. This church is believed to have been rebuilt with the help of Portuguese engineers and the architecture has a Portuguese flavour. In the main altar is a lovely picture of Mother Mary with the infant Jesus which is 400 years old. Unlike many Christian pictures, infant Jesus has been pictured with the colour of Lord Krishna as per the request of the Maharajah. The church used to have a pulpit built on a wooden elephant and the main beam is still decorated with elephant’s head; these features are very characteristic of the Hindu influence. Ambalapuzha kings used to take off their crown from the head in reverence when they passed in front of this church. When a new church was built in the nearby area recently, the royal family insisted to preserve the old church. Hindus visit this church and participate in the ceremonies even now. The religious tolerance existed in this part of India was phenomenal and gives hope for the future of India.

Ambalapuzha Raja was the patron of the Syrian Christian community in this part of Kerala. He trusted the Christians and some Moslime families that he appointed them as the guards of his palace. Christian families flourished under the auspices of Ambalapuzha Raja and employed one Christian family to touch articles for use in the royal household to remove pollution imparted to articles by lower castes. As per the tantric/hypnotic traditions when an old object was bought from a Christian business family , it became new and free of caste pollution. That family remained loyal to him in the difficult periods of conflicts with his enemy king and was made his caretaker while he was taken as a prisoner. Emmanuel who was their senior head of the family, was a favourite of the king and they used to have philosophical discourse about Christianity.

Emmanuel himself was an excommunicated Brahmin and later found the truth in Catholicism. The Maharaja perceived Christ as a priestly king like himself but always wondered how a king could forgive his enemies who crucified him! Emmanuel simply said “His was not a kingdom of this world”. The idea of reincarnation was debated. Maharajah noticed that in the Christian teachings of beatitudes, the poor had a better chance of salvation as opposed to the Hindu belief system of the Brahmins occupying the highest position in the spiritual ladder. As a Brahmin, Devanarayanan Rajah had drunk more philosophy than breast milk. He appreciated the closeness of Vedic philosophy and Catholic theology. As a goddess worshipper he considered Mother Mary as a goddess but Emmanuel corrected him: “If the meaning of Devi (goddess) is one who has submitted to Devan(God) , Mary was a goddess”.

As he had already the concept of Holy Trinity and Divine incarnation, it was easy for the Maharajah to perceive the Divinity of Christ. He distinguished the differences between the Vedic and Brahminic Hinduism. Mharajah who was trained to believe in the retributive karma found the redemptive karma of Christ as a novel idea. He prohibited the animal sacrifices in the temples and the temple Brahmins threatened the Maharajah with excommunication for his radical changes. It is recorded that one of the Ambalapuzha kings had papal honours given to him through the Portuguese king. According to the oral tradition, Christians considered him as their “Solomon king”. He helped the Christians to fit in well with the Hindu surroundings. Many church buildings in Kerala resemble Hindu temples.

The tragic Events of 18th Century: The last Ambalapuzha Soverign married young and his wife died soon after the marriage without children. The royal oracles forbade the king from remarriage lest he would loose his kingdom if the sovereign married again. King Joseph (1750-1777) ascended to throne at this period in Portugal and his chief minister was Marquis de Pompal who introduced many reforms. The trade and military relations with both countries went well. The neighbouring King Marthanda Varma (1729-1758)wanted to expand his kingdom and he declared war with the Raja of Ambalapuzha. During this time the king of Ambalapuzha had discovered a special poison that he applied to the sword to kill his enemies instantaneously. Travancore soldiers refused to kill the soldiers of the Brahmin king because of fear of eternal damnation.

It was the Indian belief that the murderer of a Brahmin will never have spiritual salvation. So Ambalapuzha initially won the war. But Marthanda varma organised a special army consisting of only Muslims and Christians who did not have the belief system of the Hindu soldiers. The oracles the of goddess temple got enraged with the Brahmin Raja for his discovery of poison and blamed the raja for the epidemic of cholera as a curse of God for discovering the new poison. His Chief minister and commander of army defected to the Travancore side. The Namboothiry king felt the pain of betrayal and began to understand the forerunning pain of Christ’s crucifixion. Following a fierce battle, Ambalapuzha king was defeated and was taken as a prisoner. The presence of a Brahmin king was considered as ominous by the court astrologists of Marthanda Varma and was thought to be the cause whenever royal members had an ailment.

Eventually he was released from prison. The home returned Raja wanted to recapture his lost kingdom. He liaised with the Portuguese and formed an army with Christian soldiers. He could not rely on the soldiers of his own kind as they betrayed him in the previous war. His future existence was dependent mainly on the Christians whom he patronised and they remained faithful to him till the end. He was expecting Portuguese military help. Unfortunately there was a big earthquake at Lisbon (1754). The attention of the Portuguese king and the military were diverted to the disaster area. The Portuguese could not come for the rescue of Ambalapuzha king. The Christian priests of Portugal interpreted the earthquake as a Divinepunishment for Pompal’s unconventional reforms. The army led by Thomas Panicker fought against Travancore without success. Ambalapuzha king surrendered his kingdom after placing the key of the state granary and the royal treasury at the feet of the Lord in the Ambalapuzha temple and he was taken as a prisoner.

After a period, Ambalapuzha king was released from captivity. He had a profound influence on Marthanda Varma that the latter also consecrated the expanded kingdom to his deity and became a disciple of the Lord. He used to walk to the temple bare footed; submitting the royal sword in front of the deity, asked permission to continue to rule the kingdom. Even though the Travancore royalty is powerless now, this ritual is still carried on. Ambalapuzha king spent the evening of his life in spiritual matters only. He is also believed to have participated in the holy week ceremonies of the Mukthiamma church with the royal family members. He identified with the sufferings of Christ as he himself went through several betrayals and psychological crucifixions. The Church of Mukthiamma still remains as a silent witness of these tragic historical events.It has now a pilgrimage status and the holy week ceremonies of this church are extremely popular.