Located in God's Own Country, Kottayam is a beautiful town of clear blue skies and green hills. Welcome to this land of surreal beauty which is replete with palm fronds and backwaters typical to Kerala. Take a walk through the sprawling campus of the CMS College, the oldest one in India and admire the magnificent architecture of the imposing building.
One could also undertake an excursion to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary when here, or trek to the Aruvikkuzhi Waterfalls while enjoying spending quiet time in the lap of nature. As Kottayam is an important center of Coffee and Spice trading in Kerala, make sure you sample the exotic goodies this place has to offer.
Kottayam’s a commercial centre, with many rubber and spice plantations. It was the first town in India to achieve 100 per cent literacy as
far back as 1989. It’s also home to one of India’s largest selling newspapers, Malayala Manorama. Way before such milestones dotted Kottayam, the land was ruled by Kulasekharas (1090-1102) and was part of their Vempolinad Kingdom. Around 1100, the territory was split into Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur. Spice trade between these kingdoms, the Portuguese and the Dutch flourished in the 15th century, until both were reduced to subordinate allies of the Raj.
By the mid-18th century, Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur were annexed by Marthanda Varma and became part of Travancore. Today, the many churches of the town stand testimony to the erstwhile Dutch and Portuguese presence. Kottayam’s heritage is unique, for it’s a true melting pot of varied cultural and religious influences. It helped that almost all the churches, mosques and temples here were built under royal patronage. What you see now is its splendid culmination: a lovely amalgamation of religions, where each house of worship mixes and matches customs and rituals associated with another.
Most tourists visit Kottayam for its backwaters and houseboats. But the town’s heritage structures are also a must-see. Like in many Indian cities, the town mushroomed around a temple; in this case, the sprawling Thirunakkara Mahadeva Temple. It is hailed as the archetype of traditional Kerala temple architecture. The temple was built by one of the Thekkumkur rajas and is more than 500 years old. The main entrance to the temple is via a set of steep steps at the eastern gopuram, just next to a rustling banyan tree.
The small entrance door does not betray the beauty and the grace of the temple beyond the threshold. Look for the Shivalingam ensconced within the inner praharam straight in line with the door as you step in. The Ganesha and Ayappa shrines are further ahead. Take note of the scores of lamps lining the walls of the inner praharam. To the left, the deity of Lord Muruga blesses the faithful. Not very far from the temple stands the ancient St Mary’s Knanaya Church, known as Valiapally. It was built in 1550 by Syrian Knanaya Christians.
The church has two granite Persian crosses, each carved out of a single slab of stone dating back to the 4th and 7th centuries CE. Both bear inscriptions in Pahalavi
language, once the official language of the Sassanian dynasty of Persia. The crosses were apparently brought here from an older church in Cranganore.
The wooden altar and ceiling are beautifully carved and decorated with vegetable dye paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. Look for the
baptismal font built within the width of the thick church walls, more than a metre in diameter.
Just a short distance from the Valiapally is the Cheriapally or the small church, which is neither small nor typically church like. A synchronous blend of temple and Portuguese architecture, St Mary’s Orthodox Church was built and consecrated by the Portuguese in 1579. The large brick outer walls, the huge hanging lamp in the hall and the granite pillars are reminiscent of temples in Kerala, while the vegetable dye paintings on the altar walls and ceiling depicting the life of Christ are typically Portuguese. Sadly, the paintings on the lower half of the altar wall have been ruthlessly whitewashed.
The porch, with granite pillars and carved wooden ceilings, the tiled roof, the baptism basin hewn out of a single stone and the bay windows add to the uniqueness of the church. The grass carpeted courtyard houses an annexe, which functions as the church’s office. Don’t miss the inscriptions in Syriac on its walls. In the same vicinity, don’t miss a beautiful double-storeyed traditional structure made of teak, the Thazathangadi Juma Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in India. Believed to be
more than 1,000 years old, the mosque has a square inner courtyard typical of a nalukettu (four-sided mansion with an inner courtyard), carved wooden gabled roof, a traditional bathing area and latticed windows.
In the same vicinity, don’t miss a beautiful double-storeyed traditional structure made of teak, the Thazathangadi Juma Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in India. Believed to be more than 1,000 years old, the mosque has a square inner courtyard typical of a nalukettu (four-sided mansion with an inner courtyard), carved wooden gabled roof, a traditional bathing area and latticed windows. Clothes and jewellery are the chief draws in Kottayam. KK Road buzzes with multi-tiered jewellery shops and sari showrooms. If you are looking for Travancore saris and dress material, try Kasavukada in Arafa Towers, west of Thirunakkara Temple.
Another place to visit is Seemati on MG Road, which has a special showroom called Temple of Silks; Narmada and Parthas on MG Road are also excellent places to pick up saris. If you are a collector of antique items, head for a small shop tucked away on the highway in Kodimatha. Its modest setting hides a wealth of artefacts from all over Kerala. For souvenirs, you can pick up old lamps, gramophones, Chinese pickle jars and lamp shades. Anne’s Bakery on Bakery Junction is a good place to buy some Syrian Christian specialities such as churuttu (a sweet savoury) and kozhalappams (fried items made of rice flour). A half-hour drive up the Mannanam hillock, north of Kottayam, is worth the effort just for a breathtaking view of the town, its coconut palms, soaring church spires and silver lagoons.
Besides being associated with the Blessed Father Chavara, Mannanam is the seat of the first seminary of the Malabar Church (1833), the first Catholic Sanskrit School in Kerala (1846), the first printing press in Kerala (the CMS Press, 1846), the first Catholic English School (1846), and the first daily newspaper in Malayalam, the Deepika (1887). In Mannanam, ask for the 19th century St Joseph Church. It retains its original altar, adorned with gold filigree work. The most brilliant repertory of church history is preserved at the Chavara Art Museum nearby. Also to the north of Kottayam is the ancient Shiva Temple at Ettumanur, the most important of the Shiva temples situated here and in Kadathurthy and Vaikom.
The main gopuram fronts a mural, most of which is hidden under layers of whitewash. Look for the big brass lamp facing the shrine. North of Mananam is Athirumpuzha, where St Mary’s Forane Church is located. The church dates to 835 CE. The lovingly preserved St Sebastian’s statue in the church was brought by a
sailor from Portugal in 1687. An unusual feature is a statue of Jesus on the cross without a single wound. People in Changanassery (south of Kottayam) take immense pride in the name of the place. Changanassery is said to be a corruption of shankhunatha- sseri. The story goes back to the 12th century, when a Thekkumkur raja, Udaya Marthanda Varma, built a temple, a church and a mosque at equal distance from each other, to hear the sound of the shanghu (conch), the
natham (chime of the church bells) and the sseri (muezzin’s call) every morning.
The rituals and festivals of the temple, church and mosque are inter-linked, paying eloquent testimony to Kottayam’s syncretic traditions. The Kavil Bhagwati Temple venerates Goddess Kali and welcomes the annual procession from the Pazhayapalli Mosque and the Easter procession from St Mary’s Metropolitan
Cathedral. The cathedral, which has granite flooring typical of 16th-century religious buildings, in turn welcomes annual processions from the mosque and the Bhagwati Temple. The rundown Pazhayapalli Mosque completes Kottayam’s famed religious amity. The Vaikom Temple (north-west of Kottayam), where Lord Shiva is known as the ‘Annadana Prabhu’ or the Giver of Food, has a big kitchen and a doublestorey, 1,000-m-long oottupura (dining room).
This 16th-century temple has a 317-foot-tall gold flagstaff. Piravam (north-west of Kottayam), akilometre west of Peppathy Junction in Veliyanad, on the Ernakulam-Piravam route is ideal for those who want to see the surviving manas or illams, the traditional Kerala Brahmin houses. Its most famous house, the 8th-century
Melpazhur Mana, meticulously preserved, is where Shankaracharya is believed to have been born. The Poonjar Palace complex, to the east of Kottayam, has a nalukettu and ettukettu (a mansion with two inner courtyards). The royalty’s collection of antiques housed inside the palace includes wooden utensils, wooden and stone measures, and palm leaf manuscripts. The complex also houses a Madurai Meenakshi Temple with 2,200 lamps hewn out of stone.