The luminary and visionary of the New Renaissance of the 19th century Kerala society, St Chavara founded the first Monastery and mother house of the CMI Congregation on the pristine solitary hill of Mannanam along with two other co-founders. The exotic scenic beauty of the hill was a place for him to meet the divine.One may recount the story of Jesus in the New Testament wherein he was immersed in prayer with the Father in the solitary and serene setting of the mountains. St Chavara passionately called this holy place as besrauma, a lofty place, where heaven and earth meets. Consequently, it became a catalyst and an epicentre of spiritual revolution initiated by St Chavara. The vision of a divine providence is evident when Sri. Kurian Thayil handed over the land to the founding fathers. On May 22, 1831, Fr Thomas Porukara with other priests, namely, Fr Thomas Palackal, St Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Bro. Kanianthara Yakob, in the presence of Bishop Maurelinus Stabilini laid the foundation for the new beginning of an ashram (monastery) by establishing a crucifix.
The Monastery Church
Today, the most important monument and the Centre of attraction on the hill,is the Ashram Cappella which reminds us of the 15th century exuberant archaic architecture. The small but beautiful and simple architecture of Church does not weaken the serene natural setting of the hill which is blessed with a lush, green tree cover. The interior decoration of the Chapel effuses an aesthetic exuberance. The tiles in the rooftop, the façade, rathal the beautiful wooden carvings, sculptures of angels, and niches of saints behind the altar render the enigma of antiquity to the Chapel. The columns in the Church look extraordinary as they remind us of Barnini’s columns at the St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. It is the architect’s vision, that we are thankful for, as it lures and beckons to itself, the heart of any devoted soul as it is considered as the besrauma. The Chapel was blessed in 1836 by Bishop Francis Xavier.
The Main Altar
The altar is decorated with gilded wood carvings of the iconostasis following the century’s renowned flamboyant Portuguese style. The wooden statue of St Joseph, which the Church was dedicated to, reminds us of a living spirit gracing the whole area. The statue is a donation from Kalloorkadu Church, Champakulam (Alapuzha District). This historic altar has entered in the annals of the Vatican Archives as well. His Holiness Pope Pius IX, on special request, made by St Chavara, granted the altar Privilgium Altaris, implying that the Holy Eucharist offered at the altar procures indulgence to the deceased.
The structure with Eight Faces is a Centre of attraction in the Church. It forms the central portion of the nave of the Church. In fact, St Chavara along with ten priests took their religious vows under this structure. Reminding us of the 15th-century old churches in Europe, the Ettuvattam, is fashioned with the icons of the patriarchs of the Old Testament and the Fathers of the Church of the first century. The mind of a devotee is naturally elevated to a pious life of these holy men.
Usually, the evening solitude of this serene place is marveled by the lofty rhythmic sweet chiming from the Bell Tower. The gigantic Bell Tower is a souvenir to this hill side. The sight of the Bell Tower is viewed from far and wide especially from the luxuriant green scenic bank of Vembanad backwaters. The 100 feet tall Bell Tower carries three bells named after St Joseph, St Thomas and St Kuriakose, the Martyr and during the chiming of the bell, it does seem like an ode and a prayer from them for the heavens.
The Tomb of St Kuriakose Elias Chavara
As the pinnacle of pilgrimage, the tomb of St Chavara adds serenity and holiness to this place. The tomb is placed adjacent to the main altar. At the age of 66, St Chavara was called to his eternal reward after an eventful holy life on January 3, 1871, and was buried in St Philomena’s Monastery, Koonammavu. The general chapter of CMI congregation wanted the holy remains to be moved to St Joseph’s Monastery, Mannanam. With the permission of Vicar General of Verappuzha, Rev. Fr Philiposus Padre, the relics were brought to Mannanam. The relics were placed in a bronze box along with written documents and were interred in the Church on May 24, 1889. It is very edifying to see that people come in groups and typically lay their heads on the tomb and get relieved from their agonizing worries. Several people, because of their arduous life, turn quite emotional here and look forward to finding solace in the peaceful environment. We often say that miracles and signs from the Holy Beloved are a normal practice in this place.
The Lock of Hair
The far sightedness of Fr Varkey Muttathupadathu, a disciple of St Chavara, prompted him to collect and keep a lock of hair of St Chavara with him. He said that “in order to ensure its presence when God permits to venerate it as a holy relic, I keep it safe.” Later Fr Varkey handed it over to his nephew Fr Ouseph Muttathupadathu. When St Alphonsa was sick at the novitiate, she prayed with this lock of hair and was miraculously healed. It was kept in a box and was handed over to Mannanam Monastery in 1937.
The Lead Plate
The Lead Plate with the inscription of the short biography of St Chavara was placed along with relics by the second Prior General of the CMI congregation, Fr Kuriakose Elias Porukara with his signature. The plate was found when the tomb was exhumed and is now kept in the museum.
The Marian Chapel
The Marian Chapel is an regularly visited place by the pilgrims. It is known for its historicity. It was built in the same place of chapel made by the Founding Fathers. The statue of Blessed Virgin Mary speaks about its historicity as it was installed as a jubilee memorial of religious profession of 11 Fathers on December 8, 1905. It was Fr Esthapanos CMI who brought this statue as one of the three statues brought from France. Other two sculptures are found in Parel Church in Changanassery and in Jubilee Chapel in Palai, Kottayam District.
The establishment of the Sanskrit school was an epoch-making event in the annals of the history of education mission of the Catholic Church in Kerala in particular and in India in general. The motive of this giant leap was to facilitate basic education to all sections of the society irrespective of caste and creed and any kind of divisions either. It was open to the children of the neighbourhood. The teacher was one Variar from Thrissur who was well versed in both Malayalam and Sanskrit. In tune with this one has to remember the mandate given by St Chavara as the Vicar General that every parish Church had to establish a school attached to itself. The Kerala secular history may forget him, but we children of St Chavara should not ever forget this mandate since what we enjoy is a fruit of his sweat and blood. “We should not forget the root when we reap the fruit.” The original building was very near to the monastery andfor the sake of pilgrims, it is being shifted to the front premise of the monastery.
St Joseph’s Press
The ‘plantain stem revolution’ was the nick name given to the indigenously developed Catholic Press in India. The story of the establishment of the wooden press is fascinating and inspiring. After having denied of visiting the CMS press at Kottayam, he managed to get the permission to see the government press at Thiruvanathapuram. The ingenuity of St Chavara motivated him to create a model of the press with plantain stem and the carpenter who accompanied him, converted it in a wooden press imitation of the model. Njanapiyusham was the first work that came out of the press. The press has now evolved into a huge press and its existence today is really monumental. It is a testimonial of the hard work of the saint. There perhaps, isn’t be disagreement if we say that ‘the plantain stem press revolution’ has played a vital role to inspire reading and towards building the literacy culture of the Kerala society.
Chavara Room and the Prior’s Boat
St Chavara’s room is situated on the northern side of the Church where he lived for 32 years. This is the most ancient building on the premise and the first seminary was also started adjacent to this building. The chair, cot and the wooden box used by Father Chavara are found in this room. He was known for his devotion to the Holy Family and consequently involved in the welfare of the families. That is depicted in his Last Testament to the Families in Chavarul. The picture of the Holy Family found in his room is also placed in this room.
The Prior’s Boat
In search of Timber for the construction of the Ashram Church, Father Chavara and Yakob Kanianthara made a journey to Arakuzha and Vazhakulam in 1873. They found a tree good to make a rowing boat in Kalaykattu forest and cut it and kept it on Neycherry hill. The log was made a rowing boat. As the boat was a common vehicle of St Chavara, it was known as Prior’s boat among the people. The same boat is kept in front of the museum.
The Centenary Gate
The 46 feet tall centenary gate is the land mark and a fascinating sight of the attraction of the whole hill. It is known for its architectural beauty. It was erected in 931 to mark the centenary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Ashram. The sight of the statue of the Christ King on the gate gives us an impression as if Christ is blessing the whole village. It was designed by Fr Hycinth Kunnumkal CMI, the then prior to the Monastery.
The shrine was built to mark the 16thcetenary celebrations of the conversion of St Constantine and the vision of the Holy Cross he had. The venerable bishop Mar Thomas Kurialasserry blessed the shrine.
The Jubilee Shrine of St.Joseph
The Jubilee Shrine of St Joseph is built in 1981 at the foot of the hill marking the starting point of the Stations of the Cross.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Fathima
The Shrine of our Lady of Fathima was built in 1952 as a monument of the apparition of Our Lady of Fathima. It is situated at the Mannanam junction which is open daily to commuters for prayers.
The Flag Mast
The flag mast is a piece of enculturation after the model of traditional Hindu masts in temples. It was put up in remembrance of the 140th death anniversary of St Kuriakose Elias Chavara.