The Church of St. Michael and All Angels’ in Polwatte, Colombo 3, also known as the Gal Palliya by the locals, will more than surprise if not delight you with its architecture, artifacts and antiquities.
The box porch that frames the main west door of the church welcomes you directly from Cameron Place, one of the two roads that hem this tall and stately edifice. Once inside, its wide interior stretches out before you and is a pleasant haven in the concrete crammed neighbourhood of Colpetty. Its high Gothic-style ceiling of chocolate brown, somber, brilliant white stone walls, arches, pillars, pilasters, and mouldings frame its exquisite wood work, stunning stained glass, sensational sand stones, intricate icon paintings and exclusive statuary. Their very beauty, refinement and grace lends sanctity to an environ where worship has continued for more than 125 years. The polished wooden pews invite you to take a seat and commune with your Creator and, if you are lucky, you will hear the antique pipe organ play.
Rare rood screen
A high point of this church is the remarkable rood screen with its intricate carvings that span the chancel arch. Fixed to its centre is the scene of the crucifixion, consisting of larger-than-life, wooden statues of Mary, Mother of Jesus and St. John standing on either side of the crucified Jesus Christ.
The ornate four ends of the crucifix frame symbolic paintings of the four gospel writers. These symbols traditionally attributed to the authors of the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, show Matthew as a Winged Man, Mark a Lion, Luke an Ox and John an Eagle.
At the foot of the crucifix is a carving of a pelican feeding her chicks – a symbol of sacrifice – and painted on small plaques attached to the rood screen are more symbols associated with the sacrifice, passion and death of Christ.
According to Israel Paulraj, a senior church member and current Warden, this rood screen had to be replaced about 20 years back as the original was attacked by termites. “It was a huge task undertaken by a leading engineering firm in Colombo with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority,” he recalls. “The old screen had to be brought down and the life-size statues had to be tied securely, attached to a beam on the ceiling and then gently lowered to the floor, one by one. A new rood screen was carved in the exact likeness of the old and was supported on concrete pillars.”
The symbolism of the mother pelican feeding her offspring is rooted in an ancient legend which preceded Christianity. The legend was that in time of famine, the mother pelican wounded herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation and death, and in turn, sacrificed her own life.
The symbol has been adopted by the early Christian communities in the world who likened themselves to have been dead in sin and revived by new life through the blood of Jesus Christ.
This tradition is found in the Physiologus, an early Christian work which appeared in the Second Century in Alexandria, Egypt. Written by an anonymous author, it records legends of animals and gives each an allegorical interpretation. The pelican has become a symbol of charity down the ages. Reference to the pelican and its Christian meaning are found in many works of Renaissance literature.
The high altar
Below the rood screen and beyond is a sanctuary hung with quaint brass lamps and candle stands. Here is the historic high altar of Roman stone and black marble, where the priest faces away from the congregation to celebrate Holy Mass. The altar has been brought forward and placed in the centre whereby the priest can face the congregation during worship.
On either side of the high altar is another wooden screen fitted with 12 slender arches, six on each side with rectangles of equal number forming their base. The arches frame 12 icon paintings of saints and archangels on what looks like gilded metal sheets, while the rectangles below carry their symbols.
Over the high altar the arches open up, unglazed and bare. Paulraj showed me that behind the arches was a corridor with large glass windows set high on its eastern wall. These windows let in golden sun rays that fell directly into the sanctuary through the open arches, causing a mystical effect during morning service.
The sanctuary is enclosed by a low altar rail that separates it from the chancel and the rest of the church. This too is of fine wood craft combined with ornate brass work.
Fascinating floor tiles
Part of the sanctuary floor is laid with some interesting, ancient yellow, brown and blue tiles that are imprinted with symbols of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. These include the cross, the ropes, the ladder, the sign board carrying the letters INRI that was fixed to the top of the cross, the nails, tongs, hammer, spear, lance, pot of vinegar and sponge, scourging pillar, whips, crown of thorns, the robe of the crucified Christ and the dice that were thrown by the soldiers to decide who was to own it, the cockerel associated with the denial of Peter, and the lamp and torches of fire that are associated with the apprehension of Christ. A few tiles also show symbols of the Lamb of God, the sacrificial lamb, and the pelican feeding its chicks.
Paulraj says that he had noticed similar floor tiles at the Canterbury Cathedral behind the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England.
On the side of the sanctuary is the heavily carved Bishop’s seat or chair. This is a unique creation as it incorporates several traditional Sri Lankan and Christian motifs and designs to emphasize the purity, sacredness and auspicious nature of the Bishop’s authority. The chair is installed between four columns showing the pekada design of the Kandyan Period. Some other traditional designs seen are the liya vela, naga della, pala pethi, annasi mala, na mala, nelum mala. In effect, it is an excellent example of the indigenization of Christianity.
Lovely Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel adjoining the left of the sanctuary occupies a very special place in the church. The large statue of Mary carrying baby Jesus at the entrance is by the well-known sculptor Sister Marabel of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, Wantage, Oxfordshire, England. A smaller pieta also adorns the chapel. However, the main focus is on the stained glass that stands over the chapel’s altar and tabernacle. The glass reveals a heavenly scene with Mary carrying baby Jesus surrounded by angels.
The main stained glass of the church is set into the west end of the church where three arched windows are cut deep into its walls. Fitted here are three of the best stained glasses to be seen in Sri Lanka. They portray the three archangels of God, with Saint Michael taking the centre, flanked by Gabriel and Raphael. According to the tradition of the Church, Michael was the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels, defending all the friends of God. He is the protector of all humanity from the snares of the devil.
Recently, an electric light was fixed behind the window to make it possible to enjoy the glass at its best.
The ancient pipe organ still works to the surprise of many. The lectern, pulpit and baptismal font are crafted of white sandstone with intricately worked out crowns of wood in the last two. Fourteen rectangular plaques depicting the stations of the cross grace the nave arcades of the church. Halfway through on the right is a large gilded and painted wooden statue of St. Michael.
A little bit of history
The origins of the church can be traced back to 1844, when a small house was set up for missionary work and Christian worship in Polwatte (coconut garden). This was in an area occupied by the dhobis (washer community), by the Beira Lake in Kollupitiya.
In 1853, the first Polwatte chapel was dedicated to St. Thomas. This was a small building with a cadjan roof and half walls, surrounded by dhobi’s huts. The site of this building was on a land behind St. Margaret’s Convent. It burnt down in 1864 during a fireworks display. The disaster proved to be a blessing in disguise, for it resulted in the abandonment of the old, cramped site, and the government’s purchase of a plot of land adjoining the dhobis’ drying ground. It is on this site that the present Church of St. Michael and All Angels’ stands today. The new chapel was erected in 1865, but two years later, it was enlarged and re-dedicated to St. Thomas. The official title then became ‘St. Thomas’ Chapel, Kollupitiya’.
In 1887, the church entered a new era with many developments, including a name change. The title suggested at first was ‘The Church of the Good Shepherd’, but the eventual decision was in favor of the present name. The Church was thus renamed on St. Michael’s Day, on 29 September 1887.
In 1918, it was again decided to enlarge the church due to an increase in the congregation resulting with the large migrations of families from Mutwal to Cinnamon Gardens and Kollupitiya, following the development of the Colombo Harbour area.
However, it soon became apparent that rather than enlarging the church what was required was an entirely new church, and construction began on the new church. The new church of St. Michael and All Angels was completed in 1922 and this is the grand granite edifice that we see today.
Map of the All Angels’ Church in Colpetty (Gal Palliya)
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Driving Directions to All Angels’ Church in Colpetty (Gal Palliya)
Route from Colombo to All Angels’ Church in Colpetty (Gal Palliya)
|Though : Colpityy Junction|
Distance : 1.6 km
Travel time : 10 mins
Driving directions : see on google map