Retracing St Chavara’s steps

More than a century and a half after his death in 1871 and almost a decade after his canonization by Pope John Paul II in 2014, an experiential museum dedicated to St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara is to open at the Chavara Pilgrim Center in Mannanam, where he founded it In 1831 the Congregation of the Carmelite Sisters is dedicated to the Immaculate Virgin Mary (CMI).

St. Kuriakose, better known as Chavara Achan, is perhaps one of the very few undisputed spiritual figures who left an indelible mark as an educator and social reformer, as well as making extensive contributions to the growth and spread of the Catholic Church in Kerala. Chavara, along with Father Thomas Palackal and Father Thomas Porukara, founded the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), the first indigenous Indian religious congregation, on May 11, 1831 in Mannanam. He was also instrumental in founding the first Indian religious congregation for women, the first Sanskrit school for both Catholics and non-Catholics, the first Catholic printing house and created the first liturgical calendar for the Malabar Church. In 1861 he was appointed the first Vicar General of all Syro-Malabar Catholicos.

The museum’s design and execution would conform to international standards and protocols and follow the underlying principles of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), said Vinod Daniel, an internationally recognized expert in museum design and conservation who is also a board member of ICOM, under whose direction the museum is created.

“This is perhaps the first museum of its kind in the country that seeks to preserve and showcase the contributions of a sanctified priest and social reformer,” says Daniel, adding that his team was engrossed in extensive research on Chavara and his contributions for a couple of years. In his opinion, the basic principle of establishing a museum remains the same, and there could be little difference in the approach and execution of the project just because the museum happens to be about a religious leader who has attained sainthood.

“We’re not inventing anything new. Only what is recorded is presented in the museum. In the case of Saint Chavara, there is a lot of recorded information available inside and outside the church and we hardly have to do anything to glorify him,” he said. The museum was to be centered around an old building at CMI headquarters, where Chavara had set up the first Catholic printing works. The main task, Daniel said, is to return the building to its original appearance and splendour. There is currently a skeleton museum in Mannar that displays several items used by Chavara.

The museum would have a section depicting Genesis and the origin of Christianity. The climax could be a Vatican-sanctioned technology-enhanced enactment of the wonders of Chavara. “The experiential part of the museum is not just limited to these wonders. At one point, visitors were given the opportunity to view many of the artifacts that Chavara used during his time. This includes a land boat in which Chavara used to travel extensively through the waterways of Alappuzha and the surrounding area,” said filmmaker Shankar Ramakrishnan, the creative and design director of the museum project.
The museum, which would be part of Mannanam Monastery, is a step to properly celebrate the contributions of Chavara, who through his own life upheld the ideals preached by Christ, his former Father Mathew Chakkalakkal said.

“Father Chavara worked with other founding fathers of the CMI Church for the liberation of humanity, especially the oppressed. It is high time that we took the initiative to pass on his legacy to posterity. The museum is designed as an ever-growing project, curated according to international standards,” he said, adding that the state government has approved Rs 1 crore in financial support for the project. Bengaluru-based MagicTail, which established an experience museum in Kannur about former Prime Minister EK Nayanar, also carries out the work of the St. Chavara Museum.

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The views expressed above are the author’s own.


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