The Christian heartland of the southern Kerala state of India is known for its colorful and extravagant feasts marked by gorgeous church illuminations, boisterous bands and splendid processions, concluding with dazzling fireworks.
A few churches around Thrissur (known as the cultural capital of Kerala) even use (elephants decorated with ornamental coverings) for church feasts such as that of St. Mary’s Assumption Church of Kottekadu (see video):
The “jumbos” traditionally carry portraits of saints, and lead a procession of floats dedicated to the saints, to the accompaniment of traditional drums called “‘chendamelam,” a tradition similar to the “pooram,” celebrated at Hindu temples.
Feast at St. Mary’s Church in Kottekadu in pre-Covid times
Houses and streets around the parish are also decorated and illuminated reflecting the festive mood of the people — and their financial status. Vendors of toys and fancy edibles fill the streets as relatives and friends join the families to celebrate the parish feast.
A more sober, toned-down festival season
With the Covid pandemic claiming over 56,000 lives and infectingnearly six million in Kerala (population 35 million), the extravagant feast celebrations are a much more sober version of their former selves.
The debilitating Covid virus has brought the curtains down on the gaiety and aplomb that mark the parish celebrations, turning them quiet and somber. The flamboyance has given way to austerity and simplicity in the festival celebrations in Kerala where most of the nearly seven million Christians trace their faith to St. Thomas the Apostle.
In the wake of the Covid pandemic and stringent government restrictions, churches have restricted entry, even on the feast day. Celebrations have been curtailed and feasts have become austere demonstrations of piety and devotion to the saints during the festival season that takes place from October through January.
This unprecedented change was manifest in the subdued illuminations of Lourdes Cathedral of Thrissur Archdiocese and Basilica of Our Lady of Dolours – the biggest church in India built in the heart of Thrissur.
Look at the photos below for a comparison: the two photos below show the the dazzling illuminations prior to Covid, and the more somber ones during Covid season:
“The pandemic has brought misery on the people and in this difficult time, all our celebrations have been curtailed to make them meaningful,” Fr. Jose Chalakkal, vicar of the Lourdes Cathedral told this correspondent pointing to the spare, silhouette-like illumination of the Cathedral, reflecting the poignant atmosphere in the pandemic period
Money once spent on celebrations is going to charity
The funds saved from the curtailed celebrations have been donated to Adilabad diocese in Andhra Pradesh state to build a dozen village churches. Similarly, charity allocations for free dialysis and support for poor patients have been enhanced.
“We insisted that the illumination should be simple and reflect the mood of the people,” Fr. John Ayyankana, vicar of the St Mary’s (Deanery) Church at Pattikad under Thrissur Archdioceses, told Aleteia.
“With entry to church restricted to 20 people, we had to be content with a simple feast Mass webcast for the faithful,” pointed out Fr Ayyankana whose parish observed the feast on January 30.
With the third wave of Covid (with Omicron reporting over 50,000 cases daily in Kerala), the government ordered virtual lockdown on Sundays including closure of churches except for parishes celebrating the annual feast.
“I was asked to make the illumination simple and inspiring in the present situation,” said Vinu Kallookaran, the electrician behind the somber illumination of the Pattikad church.
Of the 40-odd church illuminations his team has carried out during this feast season, Kallookaran told Aleteia that “most of the church committees clearly told us to make the illumination reflective of the Covid situation and at minimum expense.”
“This [somber] pattern makes illumination certainly cheaper. We can illuminate a church elegantly with one third of the cost compared to the earlier style of dazzling illuminations with serial lighting intertwined with intricate designs,” Kallookaran said.
Some view the change as a positive thing
Reflecting on the aesthetic advantage of the new Covid illumination, Kallookaran pointed out: “The illuminations no more spoil the look of the church and there is no need to mount frames of numerous designs on them for the dizzy serial effect.”
“Covid has certainly brought about a big change in illumination methods. I think this pattern is going to stick, making our work much easier and cheaper for churches. Unlike designing and mounting the numerous frames on churches precariously, we can manage with stage-lighting technology now,” he added.
While collections for charity had been steadily increasing as part of feast celebrations, the focus has shifted to charity from gaiety in a big way with Covid, with big parishes collecting funds to build houses for the poor.
“The people [agreed] that we should curb feast extravaganza and set apart more funds of charity from the money saved,” said Father Chacko Cheruvathoor, parish priest of St Thomas Church of Puthur.
“We could set apart over Rs 300,000 ($4000) in 2021. The collections and savings will be clear after the feast this time,” said Father Cheruvathoor as dozens were thronging the church compound to view the illumination on January 22. “There are no bands or processions this time,” he noted.
As groups of families milled about to watch the illumination on the evening of January 22, the coordinators of the feast committee were busy reminding them to be cautious: “Please do not stay long here and do not stand close to each other.”
In pre-Covid times, each unit would have its own procession with colorful umbrellas and young people dancing to boisterous bands. Dozens of parish units sometimes accompanied by chariots would converge at the church at night. With musical bands banned, the faithful have to be content with carrying relics to the church without fanfare.
Amid the toned-down celebrations, St. Thomas Church of Padavaradu found a way to preserve some festivity while maintaining “social distance.” The parish hired a traditional temple band called a “chendamelam” for the feast, where it would perform on a stage. A police team was in the church to ensure Covid protocol compliance.
Indeed, Covid has had been a huge sobering effect on the way the feasts are celebrated in Kerala.