At the heart of the volume’s uniqueness is its perfect blend of text and images, as words alone cannot account for the amazement and bewilderment a reader-cum-viewer can experience at seeing images of apparently Christian Orthodox rituals in an obviously South Asian context. Such visual displacement lies at the very heart of the fascinating story told by Mr Castelnuovo’s pictures.
Indeed, much like in the relatively nearby Goa, Christianity represents a sizeable religious minority in Kerala, just short of 20%, to Goa’s roughly 25%. However, while the Christian presence in Goa is well documented and with clear origins – the state used to be a Portuguese colony – the origins of Christianity in Kerala are shrouded in mystery and myth.
According to legend, the Christian religion was brought to the shores of Kerala by St. Thomas, the “doubting apostle”, who is said to have founded “seven and a half churches” there. From these semi-mythical origins, a quite independent version of Christianity developed in Kerala, one broadly based on an iconoclastic version of Syriac rites, until the Portuguese landed in the late XV century. The European invaders’ attempt to impose papal allegiance caused rifts within the St. Thomas Christians – as the Christians of Kerala are known to this day – ultimately ending in the Churches of Kerala currently representing virtually all current denominations of Christianity.
Though such complex and uncertain history can only be sketched roughly in this introduction, Mr Castelnuovo manages to take us by hand on his journey, allowing us to delve into an ancient tradition that reveals quite how fascinatingly globalized and interconnected our planet has always been.
Last but not least, this essential volume also serves as key historical record, as some of the churches of Kerala masterfully portrayed by Castelnuovo no longer exist, having been recently demolished to be replaced by more functional buildings.