By Nivedita Singh:
Kottayam: St. Mary’s Forane Church, Athirampuzha recently celebrated the annual feast of St. Sebastian with full energy and enthusiasm. The major attractions of the procession that is carried out during the festival are classic Kerala bands, school bands, flags, crosses of different types – golden, wooden, brass and silver – statues of saints, and muthukuda (beaded decorated umbrellas) which travels from the Athirampuzha main market to the church.
The procession is the most important and colourful part of the celebration, which lasts for more than four hours. In this, the statues of St. Sebastian and the blessed Virgin Mary are taken out of the church at around 4:00 p.m. and after being taken around in the area, it comes back to the church at around 8:00 p.m.
It is a parish feast where a group of Catholic families gather every year to celebrate the feast. The mass or Eucharist is held every hour and devotes make different offerings to the saint. The dazzling display of fireworks is a major attraction and adds colour to the festival. It is more like the south Indian Diwali, with fireworks and people lighting lights and candles outside their houses.
“This is the biggest religious gathering of this place. People of all religions take part in it,” said Father Jose Parappallil. Explaining the reason for it, he adds, “years ago, the people of Athirampuzha were affected by smallpox. They all prayed to St. Sebastian and they were all cured. From then on, all religions began to take part in the feast believing that the saint saves them from all their troubles and problems.” The devotees offer Kazhunnu – miniature arrow of gold and silver – and believe that the arrow stuck in the body of the saint has miraculous healing powers and keeps evil spirits away.
The church was established in the 835 AD, and this feast has been celebrated from the year 1647, which lasts for a week beginning from the 19th of January and ends on the 26th of January. The main feast days are 24th and 25th, but the flag hoisting ceremony begins from 19th, marking the beginning of the festival. Thousands and thousands of people from various parts of south India come to attend it. Not only that, people of all religions take part in it be it Christian, Hindu or Muslims.
According to locals, three statues of St. Sebastian were brought to Kerala during the time of Portuguese, one is believed to be in the St. Andrew’s Forane Church of Arthunkal and another was taken to St. Mary’s Forane Church of Kanjoor; but because of its small size, no one claimed third one. The traders of the Athirampuzha brought the smallest one to this place. This is known as Adiyelpicha Roopam (the tortured figure). The public is allowed to see the statue only during this festive season. The statue of St. Sebastian installed in the St. Mary’s Forane Church, Athirampuzha is special as it is considered to be one of the oldest statues in India, and also, it is the only statue of a saint without an arrow. The festival comes to an end with St. Sebastian’s statue being ceremonially placed on the altar of the church.