Brigitte Sébastia 1- introduction

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Like an Indian God

Hinduisation of the cult of Saint Anthony of Padua in Tamil Nadu1


Brigitte Sébastia

1- Introduction


            The shrine of Puliyampatti is located near Tirunelveli, in the south of Tamil Nadu. Dedicated to saint Anthony of Padua, he has a double identity: it is a pilgrimage centre and a ‘hospital’. Pilgrims who attend it belong mostly to two castes: paravar which are the fishermen of the Fishery coast and nāṭār2 which traditionally collect fruits of coconut trees and borassus palmyra to make wine, alcohol and sugar with the sap. While the devotion of paravar to Saint Anthony is inherited from the missionaries who evangelized the region, that of nāṭār is the consequence of the foundation of the village and the church by two families. Patients, quite often accompanied by one or more members of their families, suffer of ailments belonging to three main categories: 1-serious psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, bi- or mono-polar disorder, mental retardation; 2-somatic and depressive disorders due to traumas; 3-organic diseases. The patients of the third category, who are taken to the shrine after to be discharged from hospitals due to the incapacity to cure of them, quite often die few days following their arrival. The two first categories of patients distinguish themselves not only by their illnesses, but also by the manner they express it: patients with psychotic behavior are never possessed, while those who experienced high traumatic events are subject to frequent possession symptoms.

Indians, like many other societies over the world, hold witchcraft and /or evil spirits responsible of psychiatric and mental disturbance as the result of transgression of a social or divine order. In the way to identify the cause of the disorder and to rectify the situation, they invoke Hindu deities or sufi saints (pīr) who are lying in the dargā who have the reputation to defeat the evil spirits or to overpower the effect of sorcery. Some Catholic icons have also this quality so that they were promoted by missionaries of India to perform exorcisms. However, the correspondence of missionaries which exposes many detail on the Indian life, rarely mentions Saint Anthony of Padua to perform exorcisms and one can wonder why this saint has this specificity in Tamil Nadu, and more specifically, at Puliyampatti. This question is all the more relevant as, in western Catholicism, although his cult is very important, he is never invoked to drive away demoniac entities.
Based on the ethnographic study of the shrine of Puliyampatti, the objectives of this article are to show how Saint Anthony of Padua and its cult have been absorbed into the Indian pantheistic universe. The saint holds a function similar to that of deities which, in popular Hinduism of this south region of Tamil Nadu, assures protection against various life hazards and provides help and relief to people, notably women who are the first victims of this society undergoing social, economic and structural transformation (marital violence, escalation of dowry, polygamy, male descendents, alcoholism, work and economic insecurity) In Puliyampatti, devotees perform specific rituals which are not possible in the famous shrine of Velankanni Virgin, the place of her apparition in India. The acceptability of practices is based on the quality of the icons defined by the Church. Virgin, considered as pure must be protected from ‘superstitious rituals’ which, in opposite, are possible for Saint Anthony. In other words, Virgin is treated as the Great Devī while Saint Anthony as a minor god. By this difference, his cult is rich of a great variety of Hindu practices and conceptions.

2- Foundation of the shrine of Puliyampatti

Susaikanninadar, a nonagenarian, is the owner of the largest hotel of Puliyampatti, today managed by his three daughters. He is the descendant of Antoninadar, the founder of the Saint Anthony shrine. He tolds:

In the village of Kilavipatti, near Sivakasi, there were two brothers, Ramanadar and Lakshmananadar. Both nāṭār were Hindus. One day, they left their village to go in search of a good job. They arrived at Naraikkinaru (village at 6 km of Puliyampatti) where the ūrttalaivar (chief of the village) who was tēvar gave them some job. But they got trouble with him and went to the jamīntār3 of Maniyacchi who hired them for cultivating his lands. He gave them a small plot of land to build their hut. This was the beginning of the hamlet of Pulliyampatti.

Later, Antoninadar Puliyampatti, my ancestor came. He came from Puntapanai, a small village near Eral. He was also a nāṭār but Catholic. The jamīntār of Maniyacchi hired him and put him at Puliyampatti with Ramananadar and Lakshmananadar families. Ramananadar who had a daughter, gave in marriage to him, who thereby became a Catholic. Antoninadar founded a small chapel in coconut leaves and put a statue of Saint Anthony. He took care of the shrine until the Jesuits discovered Puliyampatti and succeeded to capture the chapel by dint of trials. They demolished the chapel and build a new church with brick walls. My ancestors continued to manage the chapel as catechists (upatēci) until a permanent priest was located here.

The author of the booklet on the shrine Punita Antōniyār tiruttalam (1973) states the 17th century as its edification time. But, it is invalidated by the list of Susaikanninadar’s ancestors who served the church until 1954. This list which mentions six generations suggested that the shrine was not very old when the Jesuits appropriated it in the early 19th century. This dating is confirmed by the origin and identity of the founders of the village and the sanctuary. Robert L. Hardgrave (1969) and Dennis Templeman (1996) who studied nāṭār caste, considered that it emigrated from the former kingdom of Travancore (south part of Tamil Nadu) to six cities of the North Tamil Nadu during 19th century; Sivakasi was their first location. Regarding Antoninadar, he came from a region which knew a strong evangelic activism by protestant and catholic missions in the mid-18th and 19th centuries. Thus, as he was a Catholic, the edification of the shrine is more recent than the 17th century. If the dating of the shrine foundation is uncertain, that of the church of Saint Antony is well known. The Directory of the Diocese of Palaiyamkottai (1973) mentions it was built by the French Jesuits of the New Mission of Madurai4. It is based on the records in the diary of Father Gregory, Jesuit missionary from 1849 to 1853, which recounted: “The September 14, 1851, leaving Sivalaperi, I had to go Puliyampatti to visit the church of Saint Anthony which is building - the brick kiln is ready.”

The church of Jesuits has been enlarged by keeping entirely the altar of Saint Anthony and it reopened in 1961. Many infrastructures has been added in its compound which allow to accommodate numerous of pilgrims and patients and their families, and especially, favour long stays from few days to months, and even, years.

3- A shrine organized for pilgrims and patients needs

Some infrastructures were built by priests who administered the parish and by some laymen. French Jesuits have erected ecclesial buildings (priests’ residence, shelter for the procession carts) while diocesan priests have built lodges, a small maṇṭapam (hall) and a small clinic in the Mary Immaculate convent at Savalaperi, a small hamlet nearby Puliyampatti. Some devotees have offered a large maṇṭapam, two cattiram, the koṭimaram and a small chapel called Mātā Kōvil. The present maṇṭapam consists in a large hall with an altar where masses are said during pilgrimage days and where people, pilgrims as well as patients and families, find protection from sun or rain. They also sleep there during the night, the head oriented towards the altar, in order to favour incubatory dreams in which Saint Anthony is expected to come and give his instructions for improving or getting healing5. Excepted the maṇṭapam which was built with political objectives, the four other edifications were offered by paravar families of Tuticorin, and are related to some attributes of Saint Anthony resulting from his hagiography or belonging to the pan-Indian context in which the cult was developed.

The cattirańkal are pilgrim shelters located in the part of the village where nāṭār are located. The pilgrims, mostly paravar, occupy these shelters when they organize a visit to Saint Anthony for fulfilling a vow or performing the ear-piercing ceremony for a child. The first cattiram was built in 1942 by Pullavarayar to thank for his daughter’s healing who suddenly began dumb. Saint Anthony is celebrated for his talents of preaching, a quality that he acquires after his tongue was discovered in perfect conservation state at the moment of the translation of his body. According to the custom of thanksgivings established in some Catholic pilgrim centres in South India, Pullavarayar offered a golden ex-voto in the form of tongue. This form of ex-votos which symbolizes the subject of the vow on a plate of metal (part of the body; child; couple) was very popular in western Catholicism, but its adoption in Indian context has been facilitated by this pre-existing expression. In Hinduism, the common ex-votos are the shape of animals (horse, naga) and deities in pottery or in stone settled in front of the temple, of cradles or winnowing baskets for child vows or of tāli6 for marriage arrangement. Tāli as well as cradle has been incorporated among the ex-voto used by Indian Catholics.

The second cattiram was offered by Marchiado for the protection of his last child who escaped of the death after he lost each of his newborns. As it will see later, this miracle mirrors the history of the founding of Saint Anthony cult at Puliyampatti, as it was after the death of his twelve children that Antoninadar has accepted to recognize the power of the saint and to put him in the shrine.

The koṭimaram was offered by the great grand-father of Dasan. This structure is a pole to the summit of which is erected the flag of Saint Anthony at the beginning of his annual festival. The annual flag is offered by Dasan who performs the ritual of its erection every year. This ritual is based on Hindu temple festival and means that the flag, embodying the power of the deity (exteriorized form of the deity), protects all the devotees residing in the village. The pole is situated in front of the deity shrine. The ritual of flag erection is performed by the dominant caste which holds the precedence, but at Puliyampatti, nāṭār who hold precedence as descendants of the founder’shrine, do not participate to the annual festival due to conflicts with the clergy (Jesuits, diocesan priests). Dasan’s great grand-father offered a wood pole when he got a child after praying Saint Anthony; the first celebration of the flag took place in 1919. Fifty years ago, Dasan fell ill, he was seized with convulsions (valippu) and his mental state was not very good (putti cariyāka illai ‘son intelligence n’était pas bonne’). Suspecting a spell (ceyvinai), his parents decided to take him to Puliyampatti for a period of thirteen days7. During a night under the old mandapam, her mother had a dream in which somebody told her that if they replace the badly damaged wood pole by a new one in iron8, her son will be cure. Since the cure of Dasan, the family perpetuated the celebrations of the flag started by their ancestors.

The last structure, Mātā Kōvil (chapel of Virgin), does not result from a vow. This building was erected on a land bought by a paravar from Susaikanninadar for constructing a family vault. But the priest did not agree this project which would have aroused indignation from devotees due to impurity related to the death, and thus the paravar converted the building into a chapel. Despite of its name, the chapel does not possesses any statue of the virgin, but a Descent from the cross; Marie Magdalene who prays at the foot of the cross is likened by devotees as Virgin. The place that was chosen for erecting the vault is interesting because the entrance should be situated just in front of Saint Anthony altar so that the people buried at this place might beneficiated from the power of the saint. This idea is based on the concept of darśan (sk.; tm: taricanam ‘vision’), a Hindu devotional ritual which consists in ‘seeing’ the deity and ‘be seeing’ by it in order to get its power and protection. This concept is central at Puliyampatti because the middle of Mātā Kōvil and the koṭimaram, both erected at the east, in front of the Saint Anthony altar (like in Hindu temple, the deity faced up east) corresponds to the statue of the saint. These three places are very frequented by devotees, patients and their families who circumambulate around the three structures. While state of possession is rarely manifested inside the church, it is intensively expressed at the koṭimaram where patients have talks with Saint Anthony and at Mātā Kōvil where they beseech Saint Anthony and Mātā for relief.

4- Saint Anthony, the kulateyvam of paravar and natar

In the West, the devotion to Saint Anthony of Padua is very much alive. From the number of candles burning in front of his statue and his presence in the churches, his cult is as fervent as that of the Virgin. If he well-known specialty is to recover lost things, his worship is not confined to this only area. In her ethnographic study on the saint, Elisabeth Blanc (1991) has shown that devotees invoke him for mundane affairs, from child request to healing through success in examination, marriage etc. She states: he is “a saint to do everything”, a confidant, a friend, almost a member of the family that we visit regularly.”

Saint Bonaventure, in his Song, claimed (Petit trésor des amis de Saint Antoine de Padoue : 32):

If you want miracles, go to Saint Anthony! He has power over death, fault, disasters of any kind, demons, leprosy and all diseases. He breaks the chains, calms the waves and recovers lost things and limbs.
The cult of Saint Anthony has spread in India through missionaries who worked for the Padroado9. The saint was native of Portugal and belonged to the Order of Friars Minor. In his iconographic study, Louis Réau points out that during the 16th century, Saint Anthony became “firstly the national saint of Portuguese who put their churches abroad in his name, and then, an universal saint” (1958 III: 117). Therefore, it is possible that his cult in southern Tamil Nadu was promoted by Franciscans, or by Jesuits as Francis Xavier distinguished himself by the christianization of paravar10. Put at the prow or on a small altar, the saint protected the vessels against sinking during the travels across the dangerous waters of Cape of Good Hope. The importance of Saint Anthony cult is remarkable along the Fishery coast by his numerous small chapels erected on the beach or in the villages. Having adopted the custom of the missionaries, paravar used to protect their fishing by a statue of the saint tied around the pole or drew on the hull. Finally, the miracle of Saint Anthony that paravar regard as the most important is the preaching to the fishes, a miracle quite often depicted in churches and altars dedicated to Saint Anthony.
Paravar make up the group of pilgrims the most important; the second community in size is nāṭār due their involvement in the foundation of the shrine. For these two communities, Saint Anthony of Padua is the kulateyvam, family god or caste god11. In Hindu devotion, the kulateyvam assures protection of the family/caste, and in compensation, it receives an annual cult organized by family and / or caste. Because of their function, they hold a privileged place within the domestic sphere for protection against difficulties of the daily life, and for performance of biographical ceremonies (naming ceremony, ear-piercing ceremony, marriage, ceremony of the 7th month of pregnancy) which integrate new members into the family; the child becomes a full member of the paternal line, and the bribe by joining her new family has to adopt its kulateyvam. These ceremonies are held preferentially in the temple of the kulateyvam. However, to celebrate the naming or the ear-piercing ceremony ((kātukuttulā), people prefer to go to the main temple of their kulateyvam. Catholics have remained in large part these customs considered by the clergy as social practices and some churches, notably pilgrimage centres dedicated to the virgin such as Velankanni (Sébastia 1998), offer the services for the performance of devotional and biographical rituals.
4-1- Nērttikkaṭan: a relation of obligation

The pilgrimage day of Puliyampatti is Tuesday which corresponds traditionally to the day of week when the Saint Anthony’s corpse was buried. But for important vows and ceremonies, pilgrims come the last Tuesday of each Tamil month. This choice is based on Hindu concepts on effectiveness and completeness of the vow. The end of the month is followed by the beginning of a new one which, implicitly, induces renewal and regeneration. Choosing the end of a month to thank the deity for its intercession, devotees put all chances on their side so that their afflictions cease completely. This time is also appropriated for the ear-piercing ceremony due to the fact that regeneration is in the heart of the ritual. Regeneration concept which is central in Indian devotion is expressed through some religious practices.

Thanking for the fulfillment of a vow is a devotional act performed in western Catholicism. However, at least in its present practice, thanks are rarely mentioned in the books of prayer intentions of the churches which have a miraculous statue. For example, the statistics by G. Herberich and F. Raphael (1982) show that the ‘thanks’ addressed to the Virgin of Thierenbach represent only 6.6% of prayer intentions and 3.4% when they are accompanied by a new request. Comparatively, the statistics I made from the thanksgivings written in the magazine Vailankanni Calling and exposed in the Velankanni ex-voto museum, show a very different devotional practice as 66% concern thanks and requests, and only 22% thanks and only 4% for requests. This difference is understandable by the conception of devotional expression of the bhakti in which the devotee, as aṭimai (subordinated person), kaṭavuḷḷukku kaṭṭuppaṭutal (god slave) interacts directly with his elected deity. The bhakti is a religion of emotion and communication in which the devotee is in contact with the divine through touch, vision, prayers, songs, spiritual exercises. As defined by Madeleine Biardeau (1994), bhakti involves a relationship of grace from the god to its creature and an entire devotion relationship from the creature to the god. In this relationship, the vow is central for its importance as well as by its formulation. A favour can not beg without promising any compensation. In Tamil, the word ‘vow’ is translated by vēṇṭutal ‘to wish’, and more interesting, by nērttikkaṭan, made of nērtti ‘which is equitable’ and kaṭan ‘loan’. This word gives an account of what is at stake in the prayers: maintain of the communication between the devotee and deity through a relationship of dependency. This relationship must never be interrupted; the devotee fulfils his promises to the deity and, again, begs it for other favours. The maintenance and quality of the relationship devotee / divinity does not focus on the content of the vow (request / promise) but on compliance with commitments and obligations. The manner to thank the deity for its favours is very various in India comparatively with western countries: to go to pilgrimage by foot which may take several weeks; to visit the deity’s shrine several times (for ex. to go to Puliyampatti thirteen successive Tuesdays); to circumambulate a certain number of times (3; 13; 108) around the shrine or the sanctum sanctorum by walking, by rolling on the floor, by laying all the body and walking a distance pertaining to the body length; to offer all kinds of things such as money, ex-voto, written witness of the miracle, and also hair and an acanam, two important offerings which merit attention.

4-1-2 Hair: ‘a dominant symbol’

Hair offering or shaving (moṭṭai) is a devotional practice and a part of the ritual of ear-piercing ceremony. It symbolizes the regeneration. Shaving has been introduced into catholic practices because it is considered as a penance and is assimilated to the tonsure of some Catholic orders. If traditionally, moṭṭai means the complete removal of hair, at Puliyampatti, paravar adopt often the tonsure of Franciscans.

The ear-piercing ceremony is practised, in principle, when the child is young, seven, nine, eleven, etc., months12. It consists to shave his head, to pierce his ears, to give him a bath and to dress him with new cloths. Shaving and ear-piercing are practised within the compound of the shrine by different specialists, some belonging to barber castes, the other to the caste of jeweller. The ritual involves the participation of the extended family, and notably of the mother’s brother who is, in the Dravidian kinship context, the person who finances the ceremony. The ritual is performed in the morning before the celebration of the mass at the maṇṭapam, and a meal, called acanam, ends the ceremony.

In the context of disease, moṭṭai is practised by way of thanks for a healing. This ritual corresponds to what Van Gennep called a ‘rite of passage’, a rite performed to mark the beginning of a new life stage, here, to put an end to the period of illness and to start a new life. At Puliyampatti, many patients affected by mental disorders perform shaving to force Saint Anthony to cure them, i.e., to deliver them from ‘evil spirits harassment’. The removal of hair seems inadequate if one considers the symbolism of hair in the Indian conception of mental illness. As mental illness is considered resulting from evil spirits, the possession manifestation is expressed by codified gesture, among them, by head whirling with untied hair. Untied hair is an expression of possession because evil spirits are supposed to enter into a person through hair and to leave the body through a hair lock located on the summit of the head. When after long negotiations the evil spirit agrees to come out, the exorcist pulls out the lock and nailed it down on the trunk of a pulimaram (tamarinier), a tree which is considered attracted evil spirits (Tarabout 1999).

The symbolism of hair is so rich in symbolism that it is a ‘dominant symbol’ according to Victor Turner’s expression (Nabokov 2000). The different meanings attached to the same symbolism sometimes seem contradictory, but the meaning is defined by the context. We may state that two opposing ways of a same substance have a close symbolization, and even, identical. If the shaving is done for thanking or requesting of mundane things, it is also practiced to express a state of asceticism, a situation in which the person is temporarily or permanently cut off from mundane life. The body marking, for exemple, favours the separation of a deceased person from the living word and indicates the state of impurity which restricts them to take part in auspicious social celebrations. Shaving is also practised by people who choose a religious path (Jain, Buddhist) or who are assigned to religious duties (brahmins), activities which prevent or limit sexual practice, a central activity in human relationships. The congruence between adoption of the chastity and the obtaining of spiritual powers is a fact that Marine Carrin observes in her study of santal women (tribe) who become priestesses (1997). The Goddess manifests to them as she goes long matted locks of hair appear on their head and their psychology and physiology change with the cessation of menstruation. Marine Carrin analysis differs from the psychoanalytic theory in Medusa's hair (1984) by Gananath Obeyesekere who considers the bun of tangled hair locks (hindi jota) as an expression of the phallic shape and shaving as a principle of castration. From speeches and life stories of the priestesses, Marine Carrin notes that the appearance of jota coincides with the loss of sexual identity. The cessation of menstruation involves the stopping of reproductive function and, thereby, the disinterest in sex and the social world.

4-3 Āṭuvaṭṭutal Adaptation of the goat sacrifice
Puliyampatti is well known for its offerings of animals. Each week, on average twenty goats and a few cocks are 'sacrificed' to Saint Anthony and the number reaches fifty the last Tuesday of Tamil months, and one hundred goats during the festival. The word used by people to define this offering is pali which means ‘sacrifice’. This term refers to the worship of non-vegetarian Hindu deities, but the method adopted in Catholic context differs from that practised in temples. It is a symbolic pali authorized by the clergy who get advantages by selling goat skins. This practice is definitively forbidden at Velankanni as the purity of the virgin cannot be stained by the sacrifice blood. She is honored with coconuts, fruits and flowers which are offerings for vegetarian deities.

The protocol of goats offering follows partially Hindu practice. The animal is bathed for purification, adorned with a garland of flowers, and presented to the deity by circumambulating three times around his sanctum sanctorum. Then, the animal is beheaded outside the church area, in a cattiram or in lodge compound, while in Hinduism the sacrifice is performed in front of the deity. The slaughter of the goat and then, the cari cooked with it is done by a specialist hired through the shrine administration or by cooks who are attached traditionally to the family. Once the ‘sacrificial’ goat is cut up, the pilgrims offer its skin to the church. This practice differs from the Hindu one in which the deity receives the first part of the food (pataippu ‘food offering on a banana leaf’. The second part of the food is consumed as the piracātam, the sacred ‘leftovers’ of the deity. The skin of the goat donated to the shrine, implicitly, represents the offering of food prepared with the ‘sacrificial’ goat for which devotees receive from the church a poster of Saint Anthony regarded as a piracātam. Food offerings are a part of Saint Anthony cult as it represents the ‘Saint Anthony bread for the poor’, a practice born from one of thirteen miracles of Saint Anthony13. A large part of food is offered to other people, in principle for thirteen people, as acanam, a term use in Tamil Catholicism. In some acanam organized by or for a recovered patient, the ex-patient serves the thirteen people by taking a sample of food from each portion and swallowing it. By this process, the food is invested with the qualities of piracatām, the divine leftovers. People who beneficiate of the food offerings, are mostly patients and their families. This distribution is an important source of food for them as they are often completely impoverished due to their long stay.

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