NHAI plan to acquire 800-year-old Cheppad church land kicks up row

Devotees launched a relay fast in protest against the acquisition of a portion of the church and land.
Cheppad St George Orthodox church | Express
Cheppad St George Orthodox church | Express

ALAPPUZHA: A controversy is brewing over the takeover of the land and building of 800-year-old St George Orthodox Church at Cheppad near Kayamkulam for the development of National Highway 66.

The survey as part of the land acquisition was completed by National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) officials amid the protest by parishioners on Wednesday.

The devotees launched a relay fast in protest against the acquisition of a portion of the church and land. Vicar Fr Alexander Vattakattu said the church, known for its antiquity and the mural paintings on the apse, is estimated to have been built in the 12th century.

"Though the church was rebuilt in 1952, the apse or 'madbaha' at the eastern end of the church was left intact to preserve the murals. There are 47 paintings arranged in three rows on three walls," Fr Alexander said.

"According to a report of the Archaeological Survey of India, the murals are approximately 600 years old. They were drawn using extracts from green leaves and fruits. A rare painting of St Paul with a sword and others portraying the birth of Jesus Christ, resurrection of Lazar by Christ etc fill 47 frames. These mural paintings, which are a blend of Persian art and Kerala's mural art, have drawn art enthusiasts from far and wide. In 1956, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visited the church and gifted many things including an Ethiopian cross, a Holy Bible with gold engravings written in Amharic (spoken in North-Central Ethiopia), and a statue of Virgin Mary, which are now preserved in the church museum."

Philipose Mar Dionysius, Metropolitan of Malankara Orthodox Church from 1825 to 1855, was buried in a sepulchre attached to the 'madbaha' of the church. His death anniversary on October 12 is celebrated as a festival every year. Efforts were already planned to enlist the church as a heritage monument under Unesco,
said parish member Sam Mathew. 

An NHAI official said, "We have made changes in the alignment of NH expansion plan on the direction of the Supreme Court. Earlier, the plan was to acquire land from one side of the NH, but some persons approached the court which directed us to acquire land equally from both sides of the existing road. Hence, we carried out the survey again."

The church authorities have filed a review petition in the High Court and the court will hear the case on November 30, Sam said.

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