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~Expect the Unexpected~
If your expectation of religious buildings in India is based around Hindu temples, mosques and endless statues of the Buddha, then Kochi (or Cochin as it used to be known) will come as a surprise. The state of Kerala is predominantly Christian and also the heartland of the Indian Communist Party - not a combination to be expected or to be found in many places. Christianity was brought to Kerala by the waves of European invaders who made it their home and found it to be a fertile ground for missionary work. As a port city, Kochi was Catholic for many years under the influence of the Portuguese and then Protestant when the Dutch turned up. We Brits then rolled in and kicked the Dutch out later. These transitions were not always peaceful as you can imagine and many of the Catholic churches were destroyed or 'transferred' to Protestantism under Dutch rule.
The Basilica of Santa Cruz is lauded as one of the oldest and most important churches in one of the oldest and most important Christian cities in India. The claim of age is a wee bit naughty and misleading. True, the construction of the church started in 1505 and it was upgraded to a cathedral five decades later. True also that the Dutch didn't destroy it (although they did rather wickedly use it to store their armaments). It was us, the proud British who turned up and knocked the place down after kicking the Dutch out in 1795. Nearly a century later a Portuguese missionary and bishop of Cochin set about getting the church rebuilt and it was finished by his successor and consecrated as a cathedral again in 1905. Another eight decades passed and the lovely Pope John Paul II (the pope that even non-Catholics rather liked) turned up and raised it to the status of Basilica in 1984. It's one of only eight such basilicas in India. To paraphrase the song "They get knocked down, but they get up again".
Our driver Shijo was a Catholic. We learned this on our first morning with him when he asked me "Madame is arsey?" displaying a level of character awareness and directness that I hadn't expected. My husband burst out laughing - he got the misunderstanding more quickly than me and had spotted the rosaries hanging from the rear view mirror and the flashing illuminated statues of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. "No," he replied "not Roman Catholic, Church of England". We had booked a half day tour of Kochi to be added to the end of our four night trip in Kerala and Shijo was determined to make sure we started with a couple of churches, so much so that he managed to engineer the timings of our various touristic stops to ensure we missed the synagogue. Our first stop was Santa Cruz.
The basilica stands in slightly scruffy grounds which double up as a playground for the school that adjoins the property. From the outside the building is bright and clean and painted cream. The paintwork looks to have been carefully tended and is distinctly less mouldy than most older buildings with painted exteriors. It has twin towers and spires at either side of the frontage which gives it a very European style. It's classified as 'gothic' but probably the popular merger of European and Asian style that's generally referred to as Indo Saracenic. Three large wooden doors give access into the nave of the basilica and the opulence of the interior contrasts greatly with the plainness of the outside.
~Bright and Beautiful~
Inside the church is bright and well-lit from the windows down the side of the nave. Wooden pews are lined up neatly in the middle of the room. The roof is supported by iron pillars, painted a cheery shade of blue. Ceiling fans hang down from the vaulted wooden roof to keep the congregation cool. The Stations of the Cross are found in painted panels on the ceiling and just about every surface is decorated.
The bright, cheery decoration is mostly hand painted, with gorgeous trompe l'oiel effects. Arches which appear to be tiled are actually painted and pillars which look to be wooden or marble are also the result of clever paint effects. The floors are tiled in interlocking geometrical patterns.
The altar is a visual feast of bright colours and lavish decoration; crosses, crucifixes and icons abound and the area is decorated with fresh flowers on pedestals. Fancy paint work recreates a heavenly sky with little puffy clouds and a large painting of the last supper hangs in the eaves of the roof above a modern cross, lit from behind. Cast iron balconies to either side separate a viewing gallery from the ground floor. A shrine to the right side of the altar area holds three statues - St Francis Xavier (a rather unpleasant inquisitor whose body didn't decompose after death and is still preserved in one of the churches of Old Goa), the Virgin Mary and a chap who looks to me to be Pope John Paul II. Noticeably all the faces are white and European which probably made sense at the time of building and decorating the basilica but always seems a bit odd to me. I'm constantly searching for the saints to have brown faces and not look quite so much like European missionaries.
If you like churches then I'm sure you'll enjoy the Santa Cruz Basilica and even if you don't it's worth a quick visit. I enjoyed the architecture and especially the interior decoration which seems to combine Christian images and European artistic styles with traditional Indian temple fresco painting skills. There's no charge to go in though donations are obviously appreciated, and so long as you don't turn up during a service, you can feel free to take photos and have a mooch around. If you plan to also visit the Church of St Francis where Vasco de Gama was buried, combining the two churches gives an interesting insight into the grand and the more humble styles of church building.