A Bharatiya Janata Party leader in Kerala has kicked up a storm after claiming that the St Andrew’s Basilica at Arthunkal in South Kerala was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. In a series of tweets posted on August 22, TG Mohandas, the BJP state intellectual cell convenor, urged Hindus to “reclaim” the Basilica.

The Basilica, located in Alappuzha district, was built by Portuguese missionaries in 1581.

“The altar of the church fell many times during its construction. The Christian priests consulted an astrologer to find solution. He advised them to build the church at a distance away from where the Siva temple’s sanctum sanctorum once stood. So it is the responsibility of Hindus to reclaim it,” read the six-part tweet.

The first of the six tweets [You can see the entire thread at the bottom].

The Kerala police registered a case against Mohandas for promoting enmity between groups on religious grounds. However, even two weeks after the tweets were posted, the BJP leader has refused to take them down and has insisted that they were not inflammatory.

“A case has been registered against TG Mohandas under section 153 (A) of the Indian Penal Code based on a complaint by All India Youth Federation’s [the youth wing of the Communist Party of India] Alappuzha district secretary TT Jismon,” CD Sivaprasad, sub-inspector at the Arthunkal police station, said. “The probe is going on.” He said security cover has been increased at the place of worship after the tweets.

Credit: Challiyil Eswaramangalath Vipin/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Religious harmony

Arthunkal, which lies 40km from Kochi, is a fishing village in Cherthala South gram panchayat. A majority of the residents in the locality are Christians. The St Andrew’s Basilica is the first parish in the Alappuzha diocese. Prayers first began inside a wooden structure built by first Vicar Father Gasper Pius in 1581, who first sought permission from Kochi king Veera Kerala Varma to build a place of worship there.

The church has been renovated many times since. A stone and lime structure was then made in place of the wooden church in 1591, by the second Vicar, Father Giacomo Fenicio. It became a major pilgrim centre after a statue of St Sebastian – who was killed by a Roman dictator for embracing Christianity and is hailed as a martyr – was brought here from Italy by ship in the 1640s. The church got a new façade and a bell tower in 1870. Work on the current structure, made of granite, was completed in 1967. In 2010, the parish was elevated to status of a Basilica.

For years, the Basilica stood as a symbol of religious harmony. Hindus on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerela’s Pathanamthitta district, believed to be the abode of Lord Ayyappa, would return to the Basilica at the end of their journey and remove their religious Rudraksha chain here.

‘Ram Janmabhoomi is an example’

Mohandas maintains that his tweets were not inflammatory and were not meant to create communal tension.

“I began to collect the oral history of the church as I wanted to know why a few Hindus pay homage at the Basilica after coming back from Sabarimala,” he said. “My research revealed that a Siva temple stood at the place of the church and the Hindu pilgrims were actually praying kneeling before the old sanctum sanctorum.”

He said Hindus attach huge importance to old temples. “Ram Janmabhoomi is an example of this,” he said. “We are fighting for it as we consider it as the birth place of Sri Ram. Arthunkal is another place of importance for Hindus.”

Mohandas added, “An excavation by the Archaeological Survey of India would prove that my findings were correct,” he said.

The dispute over the plot considered by some Hindus as the birthplace of Lord Ram in Ayodhya culminated in the demolition of the Babri Mosque built at the spot, which was followed by widespread riots across the country in 1992. There has been a decades-long campaign to build a temple at the site.

An inside view of the Arthungal Basilica

The rector who is in charge of the Basilica, Father Christopher M Arthasseril said Mohandas was trying to distort historical facts. “Why did he rake up the issue of a non-existent temple now?” he asked.

“He wanted to divide the society on communal lines,” Arthasseril alleged. “I am sure that the people of Arthunkal will not fall prey to such false campaigns. Christian and Hindu devotees will continue to live amicably here.”

Arthasseril said the Basilica officials have not registered a complaint with the police against the controversial comments. “We don’t want to vitiate the atmosphere,” Arthasseril said.

BJP’s strategy hurt?

Mohandas’ tweets come at a time when the BJP is trying to win the support of the state’s Christian community, which constitutes 18 % of the Kerala’s population. The saffron party is hoping to make inroads in the state, where it has never held power.

In the Cabinet reshuffle announced on Sunday, the Narendra Modi government inducted bureaucrat-turned-politicianAlphons Kannanthanam, a Christian from Kottayam district, as minister of state (independent charge) in the Ministry of Tourism, with additional responsibility as minister of state in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

The BJP has not officially commented on Mohandas’ statements. Some leaders, who were quoted off the record by the media, distanced themselves from the claim.

“The issue has never been discussed in any of the party forums and he is living in a fool’s paradise,” a former state BJP president was quoted as saying in Deccan Chronicle.

But Mohandas seemed confident that the move had not earned him any disapproval in the party. He asserted that as a senior leader, he was privy to most of the decisions. “No one will question me in the BJP. I am a member of its decision-making body in the State,” he said. “I am sure that BJP doesn’t have a problem with my tweets,” he said.

"Arthunkal church was a Hindu temple"
"Christians converted it into a church. But Hindus still pray looking at the old sanctum sanctorum."
"The altar of the church fell many times during its construction."
"Worried Christian priests consulted an astrologer, who advised them to build the church at a distance from the temple's sanctum sanctorum."
"Hindu pilgrims to Sabarimala begin to remove their religious Rudraksha chain looking at the old sanctum sanctorum."
"Now, Hindus should work to reclaim the Arthunkal Shiva Temple."
Devotees throng the Basilica on Arthungal Feast day
Sabarimala pilgrims meet Fr Christopher Arthasseril.