Malayatoor, Kerala - Keralite Christians have something to rejoice about this summer as the Vatican has made a recent announcement declaring the centuries-old St. Thomas shrine at Malayatoor hilltop in Kerala as an international sanctuary.
The documents to this effect, which were signed by the Prefects of the two dicasteries (curial offices) of Vatican Б─■ Congregation for the Clergy and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches on February 11 this year, was made public recently by Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly for the Syro-Malabar Church, at a specially convened meeting of priests and religious representatives.
Local authorities claim that the move will help boost foreign tourism. Located 52km from Kochi, the Malayatoor shrine is situated atop the 609m high Malayatoor hill. The hilltop shrine where one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, St. Thomas, is believed to have spent many days in prayer, is the only shrine in India which has been given the prestigious status by the Vatican.
Following the declaration, the Malayatoor shrine now occupies a place among other famous Christian shrines like the Lady of Lourdes shrine in France.
Cardinal Vithayathil admitted that the decision by the Vatican came after a prolonged study.
"It took a long time to make a final decision because they had to make a study of the history and various circumstances of the shrine," said the Cardinal. It is reported that a petition was filed in the Vatican in 1998 to declare Malayatoor as an international shrine.
Malayatoor hilltop, which is situated at Kurisumudi, a verdant hill in the Western Ghats girdled partially by the river Periyar, is 1,208 feet above sea level, and has been considered to be the caravan route to the third century's Hindu Chola kingdom.
According to local belief, the shrine is supposed to be one of the main churches established by St. Thomas in Kerala. One of the most important Christian pilgrim centres in Kerala, this holy shrine attracts devotees in very large numbers not only from Kerala but also from the neighbouring states. The Malayatoor shrine attracts about four million pilgrims every year especially during the lent season that falls in April during Good Friday.
The Church has a life-size statue of St. Thomas and the imprint of the feet of the Apostle on a rock.
At Malayatoor, the first Sunday after Easter is considered to be a very important day. Pilgrims, chanting the name of the Apostle ('Ponninkurisumala Muthappa'), climb the steep Kurisumudi hill to visit the holy shrine.
St Thomas Shrine
India's only international Catholic shrine, Malayattoor is situated on the western seacoast Indian peninsula. The hilltop is the oldest and most popular pilgrim centre in the memory of Saint Thomas the Apostle who founded Catholicism in the subcontinent.
According to local folklore, when St Thomas reached Malayattoor (meaning:
where mountain, river and land meet) a hostile crowd greeted him, forcing him to take refuge atop a mountain where he spent several days in prayer. The locals were finally won over by St Thomas through his prayers and devotion.
Malayattoor is 50-kilometer from Kochi (Cochin) and hardly few kilometers from Kodungalloor where the Saint landed in AD 52. It is believed that when St Thomas touched a rock during those intense moments of prayer at Malayattoor, blood sprang out, and later Mother Mary appeared to him atop Malayattoor.
The pilgrim center was declared an international shrine in 2004.
Kurisumudi, the pinnacle of the hill where a church was built over a cross that St Thomas had placed, is 1269 feet from sea level. The Periyar river flows below the pilgrim centre.
According to tradition, ever since the cross placed by the Apostle was found, locals used to light an oil lamp at the spot. Whenever the lamp was put off by winds, a herd of goats used to run down the hill wailing, and thus alerting the locals. They would climb up to light the lamp again. Even today, pilgrims who climb the peak carry with them seasamum seeds for goats that are rarely seen today.
In the initial days a 16-feet long cross was built over the golden cross and a chapel was constructed over it. Close to the chapel are the footprints of the saint embedded in the rock. Devotees throng Kaalpadam (footprint) to receive favours from the saint. Pristine water flows out of a mysterious stream at this height, quenching the thirst of pilgrims.
Pilgrim Season and Festival :-
The pilgrim centre draws a few million people during the Lent season. The feast of St Thomas (Puthunjayar- New Sunday) is celebrated on the first Sunday after Easter, to commemorate the meeting of Resurrected Jesus with his disciples. The highlight of the New Sunday celebrations is a colourful procession carrying the statue of St Thomas, which attracts hundreds of thousands irrespective of their religion. With traditional music, colourful ornamental umbrellas, flags, and other accompaniments, it is a breathtaking celebration of belief and tradition.
In south Indian state of Kerala, the village of Malayattoor is 10 km from Kalady, nearest township and 50-km from Kochi.
Cochin (Kochi) International Airport, Nedumbassery is 15 km away