Blood-thirsty and vengeful folkloric vampires, sorcery, magic and the lone iron nail on a betel nut plant—the eventful life story of the powerful priest, Kadamattathu Kathanar is mostly associated with such imagery. Some could be exaggerated experiences of the people that were living in the area during those times. History and fables are expertly interwoven to form his story, but nevertheless the goodness that he stood for, transcends generations. He has in some way or the other taken on a super hero status, among the old and young equally.
Kadamattom was a small village in the Kunathunadu Taluk that belonged to North Travancore. Poulose was a poor, orphan boy who lived in that area then. The Parish priest of the Kadamattom Church took the intelligent and devout Poulose under his patronage and eventually ordained him as a Deacon.
Once, the priest’s herd of cattle was grazing in a nearby forest and one of the cows was preyed upon by a tiger. Deacon Poulose went into the forest in search of the lost cow and soon got lost. A group of ancient tribal people belonging to a cannibal sect called Mala Arayas captured him and took him to their abode. Their chieftain who became fond of Poulose, allowed him to stay with them for many years during which time he learnt the strange secrets of magical performances and supernatural sorcery.
After a period of 12 years, he escaped from that place and reached the Kadamattom church. The Mala Arayas searched for him in vain. It is believed that the priest escaped by staying in the church when the cannibal tribe created a storm in their effort to destroy the church and capture him. The scars said to be generated by the storm are still visible on the walls of the church. He used the magical powers that he mastered for the good of many people and became quite popular.
The Kadamattom church is at Kolenchery, just 10 kms away on the road to Ernakulam from Muvattupuzha. As if by the interference of divinity or some strange magical spirit, we were correctly led to the white church located on a hill, by a mysterious old man, who very conveniently disappeared too! Now let’s see where this church is going to take us.
5th Century Church
The quaint white church sits sleepily on a hill. Even the breeze surrounding it whispered strange chants in our ears. Following the disputes between the Orthodox and Jacobite churches, the Kadamattom St George Church was locked up for almost 8 years. After the issues were resolved, both the groups now cooperate and regular masses are held.
The priest in charge, Father Eldose Kakkadan gives us a brief about the history of this church. The church is believed to have been established in the 9th Century AD. The church and the property was a gift by the 'Ayikunathu Karthas', the then prominent Nair family of Kadamattom. One of the children in the family caught a disease which could be neither identified nor cured by the local doctors. Mar Sabor (also known as Mar Abo), a Middle Eastern monk from East Syria reached Kadamattom at the same time. He cured the disease and thus the delighted Karthas provided him with land to construct the church in the form in which it stands now.
At the time when Kadamattathu Kathanar lived in the area, people suffering from afflictions of the mind, depression or epilepsy were miraculously cured by him. Many came here from afar just for his magical touch. The mortal remains of the Kathanar are still in this church and this makes it a famous pilgrimage centre too.
We asked Father Eldose if he has any personal experience to share about the powers of Kadamattathu Kathanar. Though there are many superstitions and fables doing the rounds about the Kathanar, he does believe that there is some positive energy within this church that somehow makes the impossible happen. There have been personal instances and blessings in his life to prove this, he says.
Inside the church it is silent, cool and peaceful. I stood at his tomb and observed a moment of silence wondering what I want to pray about. Well I guess I will ask him to take away the madness of the bad kind and to let madness of the good kind remain. Did I just hear laughter echoing from somewhere? Maybe not!
The architecture of the church is an ancient one with a Nadakasala like those found in temples. Right below the attic there is a visible crack, which is believed to have been made by the tribals when they came in search of the Kathanar; it was perhaps when they hit the walls with an iron chain after the door refused to budge that the crack appeared. Many a time they had tried to cover up the cracks with cement during times of renovation, but it stayed on as a reminder of the bygone era.
The church still has a secret vault in the attic containing palm leaf manuscripts inscribed with tantric mantras and magical spells. All safely locked up with 27 locks and the ancestors believed that not even a word should be uttered or read out from these scripts. Especially without knowing the counter spell that could remove the magical effects of the spells. Father Eldose handed us an ancient manuscript which we promptly gave back! He said even after the time of Kadamattathu Kathanar, there have been other priests that cured people of their illnesses and this contained prayers used for it. Our eyes quickly went over a few sentences that almost seemed very song-like.
Just below the main church is a smaller chapel called the Poyyedom church. Kadamattathu Kathanar used to live in a house that was located on this site. The reason behind the name is a well near the boundary wall of the church. The well used to double up as a cave or a route for the priest to visit the underworld and so it is also called the Pathala Kinar. He was also thought to have visited the tribal chief in the forest through this well. The Kathanar’s devotees, mostly non-Christians, throw in live chicken with the throats slit in sacrifice, money and bottles of arrack into the well as a token of respect and gratitude. Kadamattom feast is one of the major festivals held during the January–February period. It marks the death anniversary of the legendary priest.
Long back, during the Kathanar’s time, the Metropolitan bishop of Jerusalem visited the Kadamattom church. Word had spread about the magical powers of the priest and it had reached his ears. The bishop had come to see it all for himself. After dinner was served, the bishop expressed a wish for some grapes. Kadamattathu Kathanar is believed to have buried a grape seed in front of the bishop, made the grape vines sprout and produce fresh grapes for him. Furious that such practices were unheard of in the Christian faith, he burnt up all the palm leaf manuscripts with the spells. But these rose up from the ashes and flew around like birds! Thus goes the legend.
One person or many?
After visiting the Poyyedom church, we came across a shop outside of it selling religious books and articles. The book on Kadamattathu Kathanar penned by Chevalier K. V. Paulose talks in detail about the famous Yakshis that he is said to have tamed.
In a place called Padmanabhapuram near Thiruvananthapuram, there was once a Yakshi named Neeli. She went on a rampage days on end. Fed up of her antics, the villagers approached the Kathanar to help capture her. She was released from her tame self by mistake and the priest is said to have followed her all the way to Mannar near Parumala. She was found to be hiding in a betel plant there, and the Kathanar once again brought her under his spell. The tales suggest that the Panayannarkaavil Yakshi is actually Panchavankattu Neeli.
There are many stories that still speculate whether the Kathanar actually existed or was it all just a figment of imagination. According to K. V. Paulose, there are even beliefs that Kadamattathu Kathanar is not a single person but many different persons. The Kadamattathu church was renovated 4 times, and 400 years ago when the third renovation was underway, they found evidence that the Kathanar had actually lived here. When the Mysore army attacked Kochi, the church was made stronger and the priest also had a role to play in ousting the army that came close to the church.
As we come out of the church, a person calls out from an auto rickshaw saying that we should definitely visit the Kodukuthimala spot before we leave. There is a cave wherein the Kathanar is said to have practised his magical powers. The auto then sped by like a bat in flight.
We begin our climb uphill in search of the cave. Many a time we lost our way in the dense rubber estate. Finally we reached the face of the famed cave. The cave wasn’t very big, it was dark and musty smelling. The moss on the ground was slippery too. Anyway we deliberately came up with reasons not to go in there. What did we expect—to come face to face with, an ancient tribesman perhaps?
The slumber during the return journey conjured up an imaginary version of the Kathanar driving a long iron nail into the head of a Yakshi. I was jolted out of the reverie and when I looked, it seemed like I was hurtling down a large tree! It was just the car heading to Kottayam, going down past the pineapple plantations in Muvattupuzha. Kadamanattu Kathanar just came out of my dream and just like his white robe, I can see a hazy mist slowly forming ahead. Running the fingers through my hair, I am startled for a second. Did I just feel an iron nail?