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Mother Mary and a Maharajah
Ambalapuzha, a coastal part of Kerala in India, had Roman trade links as early as the first century. Emperor Claudius had his legion in a seaside town and even in a Roman temple. The spices of Kerala attracted 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 distant parts of the world and also the belief that St. Thomas, the disciple of Christ came to coastal Kerala as early as the first century in a ship sailing between Alexandria and the Kerala coast. St. Thomas was believed to have converted only Brahmins to Christianity. Not that he became caste-oriented, but because Brahmins were not trained to mix with the lower caste if they were to become officially Christian; being a Jew, he was sympathetic to the sentiments of the unskilled caste and respected the prevailing local culture. Other Hindus who accepted the Teachings of Christ remained as Hindus and became officially Christians only at a later period. Of the 23 dioceses in India, Kerala has 11 of them and has one vocation for every seventy Catholics. The seeds of the Christian faith grew steadfast in the fertile sands of Hinduism.
Kerala is roughly half the size of Portugal and has twice the population of this European country. Kerala is the most educated part of India and relatively wealthy. Technological progress is comparable to any of the developed countries. Surprisingly, she has had maximum suicidality and alcohol-related problems now. English is more popular than the regional language which is derived from Sanskrit, the language of Hindu mythological gods.
Brahmins who followed tantric culture in Kerala became Namboothiries and they evolved as feudal aristocrats. Namboothiries are external religious functionaries and not necessarily internal luminaries. Brahmins in India were not traditionally supposed to have executive power. They were expected to be pious and learned men; they were meant to be selfless teachers of religion. But they could rebuke even kings and were to speak nothing but the truth. They were held in high social esteem and had the privilege of presiding over the coronation ceremonies of kings. They were not to take up arms and were to preach without violence.
When one of Kerala’s oldest empires broke up into small principalities in the early 12th century, a Namboothiri aristocracy, in defiance of Indian traditions of the caste system, took over Ambalapuzha and remained as a dynasty for nearly eight centuries. Shaktriyas are supposed to be the kings according to Indian caste rules and Namboothiries are the priestly caste. These kings dedicated their kingdom to Thrimoorthi (Holy Trinity) and reigned as a servant of God considering himself as a humble instrument of God. The king ruled the country as His vice-regent. This is expected to become a global tradition in the miniature of Christ’s Kingdom of the future; all the head figures of the different countries of the world submit to Christ the King and declare themselves as His deputy regent. Raja was a participant in the faith. He never claimed to be a defender of the faith and had a chosen deity.
Vasco De Gama came to South India in 1498 AD. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Ambalapuzha had trade contacts with the Portuguese and the Dutch and the .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 blend of medieval Portuguese and Sanskrit Namboothiri culture. The 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 cooperation and has existed in this part of Kerala since ancient times.
This church is believed to be seven centuries old and is 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 flavor. On the main altar is a beautiful picture of Mother Mary with baby Jesus, which is 400 years old. Unlike many Christian pictures, the infant Jesus is photographed in the color of Lord Krishna at the Maharajah’s request. The church had a pulpit built on a wooden elephant and the main beam is still decorated with an elephant’s head; these features are very characteristic of Hindu influence. The kings of Ambalapuzha used to remove the crown from their heads 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 on preserving the old church. Hindus visit this church and participate in ceremonies even now. The religious tolerance that existed in this part of India was phenomenal and gives hope for India’s future.
Ambalapuzha Raja was the patron of the Syrian Christian community in this part of Kerala. He trusted Christians and some Muslim families that he appointed as his palace guards. Christian families flourished under the patronage of the Ambalapuzha Raja and he employed a Christian family to touch articles for use in the royal household to remove the pollution given to articles by the lower castes. According to tantric/hypnotic traditions, when an old object was purchased by a Christian business family, it became new and free of caste contamination. That family remained loyal to him during the difficult times of conflicts with his enemy king and became his guardian while he was imprisoned. Emmanuel, who was the head of their old family, was a favorite of the king, and they used to hold philosophical discourses on 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. The Maharajah observed that in the Christian teachings of happiness, the poor had a better chance of salvation compared to the Hindu belief system of the Brahmins who occupied the highest position on 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 worshiper of the goddess, he regarded Mother Mary as a goddess, but Emmanuel corrected him: “If the meaning of Devi (goddess) is that which is subordinate to Devan (God), Mary was a goddess.”
Since he already had the concept of the Holy Trinity and the divine incarnation, it was easy for the Maharajah to perceive the Divinity of Christ. He distinguished the differences between Vedic and Brahminical Hinduism. The Maharajah, who had been trained to believe in retributive karma, found Christ’s redemptive karma a new idea. He banned animal sacrifices in temples and temple Brahmins threatened the Maharajah with excommunication for his radical changes. It is recorded that one of the Ambalapuzha kings had papal honors conferred on him through the Portuguese king. According to oral tradition, Christians regarded him as “their King Solomon”. He helped the Christians to adapt well to the Hindu environment. Many church buildings in Kerala resemble Hindu temples.
Tragic events of the 18th century: The last Ambalapuzha sovereign married young and his wife died soon after the marriage childless. Royal oracles forbade the king to remarry lest he lose his kingdom if the sovereign remarried. King Joseph (1750-1777) ascended the throne in this period in Portugal and his boss was the Marquis de Pompal who introduced many reforms. Trade and military relations with both countries went well. The neighboring king Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) wanted to expand his kingdom and he declared war on the Raja of Ambalapuzha. During this time, the king of Ambalapuzha had discovered a special poison that he applied to his sword to kill his enemies instantly. The Travancore soldiers refused to kill the soldiers of the Brahmin king because of the fear of eternal punishment.
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 organized a special army consisting only of Muslims and Christians who did not have the belief system of the Hindu soldiers. The oracles of the goddess’s temple were furious with the Brahmin Raja for discovering his poison and blamed the cholera epidemic on the raja as a curse from God for discovering the new poison. His chief and army commander defected to the side of Travancore. King Namboothiry felt the pain of betrayal and began to understand the precursor pain of Christ’s crucifixion. After a fierce battle, King Ambalapuzha was defeated and taken prisoner. The presence of a Brahmin king was considered inauspicious by Marthanda Varma’s court astrologers and was thought to be the cause whenever the royals had an illness.
He was finally released from prison. Back home the Raja wanted to reclaim his lost kingdom. He allied himself with the Portuguese and formed an army of Christian soldiers. He could not rely on the soldiers of his own kind since they betrayed him in the previous war. His future existence depended mainly on the Christians whom he patronized and they remained loyal to him to the end. He expected Portuguese military assistance. Unfortunately there was a great earthquake in Lisbon (1754). The attention of the Portuguese king and the army shifted to the disaster area. The Portuguese could not come to the rescue of the Ambalapuzha king. Portugal’s Christian priests interpreted the earthquake as divine punishment for Pompal’s unconventional reforms. The army led by Thomas Panicker fought against Travancore without success. King Ambalapuzha surrendered his kingdom after placing the key of the state granary and royal treasury at the feet of the Lord in the Ambalapuzha temple and he was taken prisoner.
After a period, King Ambalapuzha was released from captivity. He had a profound influence on Marthanda Varma who also dedicated his extended kingdom to his deity and became a disciple of the Lord. He walked barefoot in the temple; surrendering the royal sword before the deity, asked permission to continue ruling the kingdom. Although the kingdom of Travancore is powerless now, this ritual still continues. King Ambalapuzha spent the evening of his life only in spiritual matters. He is also believed to have attended the Mukthiamma church’s holy week ceremonies with members of the royal family. He identified with the sufferings of Christ, while 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 now has a pilgrimage status and the holy week ceremonies of this church are extremely popular.
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