The Synod of Diamper conducted in 1599 had a representation of more than hundred churches of the St. Thomas Christians. Though not all of these churches are preserved, many of them gave indication to the importance stone crosses had in early Kerala Christian life.
Christian art and architecture in Kerala in the pre-European periods are developed by nourishment from two sources. From the countries in the near-east including Greece, Rome, Egypt and other Middle East countries from which ideas and practices were imported by missionaries and traders, and secondly from the indigenous forms and techniques of art and architecture that existed in the land. The nourishment of these two sources can be seen in the Stone crosses of Kerala.
There are two types of rock crosses in Kerala Churches broadly classified as St. Thomas cross and Nazraney sthambams.
1. St. Thomas Cross
The small interior type rock cross is called St Thomas cross or Nasrani Menorah or Syrian Cross. This crosses are found at St. Thomas Mount, Kottayam [ 2 nos ], Kadamattam, Muttuchira, and Alangad. This has been venerated by all St Thomas Christians from ancient times. They have inscriptions in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Syriac which indicate that they date to before the eight century.
These older carved crosses are located inside the churches and are considered particularly sacred and worthy of veneration by the St Thomas Christians. These crosses are very decorative and are not typical crucifix. These are plain crosses which doesnot show Christ on the cross. In Eastern Christianity and Syrian Christianity, the plain cross is the symbol of the triumph of Christ’s life over death. It is of symbolism in Eastern Christianity.
These crosses are also sometimes called Leaved Crosses or Persian crosses as they symbolise at the bottom a set of leaves. The leaves usually flow upwards either side of the base of the cross symbolizing the cross as the tree of life. But some of these crosses from Kerala the leaves are downward pointing. This is indigenous and this symbolism and tradition is not find in Persian or Middle East or even in Byzantine art.
2. Nazraney Sthambams
The giant open air rock cross are called Nazraney Sthambams. The plinth of these crosses represents lotus petals and lotus flowers and has a square base. It also has a variety of iconographic motifs, including elephants, peacocks and various other animals, depictions of the Holy Family and of the Crucifixion, to name a few.
These crosses are found in Kottekkad, Enammavu Mapranam, Puthenchira, Parappukkara, Veliyanad, Kalpparambu, Angamaly, Kanjoor, Malayattoor, Udayanperur, Kuravilangad, Uzhavoor, Chungam, Kaduthuruthy [2 Nos.], Muttuchira, Kudamaloor, Niranam, Kothamangalam, Chengannur, Thumpamon, Chathannur and many other places.
These crosses are very large, freestanding crosses found outside the churches. They are usually aligned to the west end of the church. On festival days and during processional days when people process around these crosses. People also burn coconut oil as an act of offering and reverence at the base of these large crosses on their pedestals.
The plinths represent lotus petals and lotus flowers as the cross is sitting on top of a lotus flower. There is a square base, it’s a circle on a square with a cross on top. The circle as the lotus flower represents the divine, heavenly aspect, on the square which represents the earth.
There are depictions of the holy family. There are imags of Mary and the Christ Child, also of the Crucifixion in these crosses. There is a variety of iconographic motifs including fish, various animals, elephants. The elephants are very much part of an Indian context.
There are even archway’s in older churches which shows two elephants either side of the cross on a plinth. The elephants are coming to venerate the cross. And on the other side of the archway, there are peacocks sitting either side of the cross. This represents the indigenisation of stone crosses and Christian symbols in India.
There are depictions of the holy family, images of Mary and the Christ Child and also of the Crucifixion.
Ancient Kerala Christian Art- Prof. George Menachery
Stone crosses of Kerala- Dr Ken Parry, Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney
Rock Crosses of Kerala- Prof. George Menachery