A brief history of Christians in coastal Tamil Nadu
A picturesque Manapad, the cradle of coastal Christianity in Tamil Nadu.
|ஏலே கீச்சான் வெந்தாச்சு – நம்ம சூச பொண்ணும் வந்தாச்சு ஹே ஈசா வரம் பொழிஞ்சாச்சு||Mate, the tiger fish curry is done cooking and Joseph’s girl is here. Jesus has showered his blessings|
|Elay = Mate; Keechan = Tigerfish, freshwater fish available in Tuticorin and Cuddalore||Joseph’s girl = Mary. In this case Beatrice|
This opening title song Elay Keechan, immediately brings to mind a certain people. Elay and Yekki are how you would address a boy or a girl in this coastal town. It’s a corruption of the Portuguese terms Ela and Equ.
How did the Portuguese come to influence the language, culture and religion of the fishermen here?
Mani Ratnam’s latest movie Kadal is about a fisherman from a village close to Tuticorin called Manapad. This is of immense interest to me, as I consider the place my cultural roots. Having grown up in bigger cities all my life, I always come back here, to figure out what makes me me. That journey of self-discovery is absolutely thrilling. I wanted to see if Mani Ratnam added to my understanding of myself through this movie.
Let me introduce my cultural heritage to you then, via a popular song. A 1973 movie Do Phool saw Mehmood singing and dancing to a funny Tamil song. The Hindi speaking population ingloriously mutilated a Tamil song in Muthu Kodi Kawari Hada much less understood what it meant. Apparently Mehmood used to love mimicking Nagesh and Asha Bhosle loved LR Eswari and the song and dance in Do Phool was a remake of another tamil song called Muthu Kullika Varigala from a 1967 Tamil movie: Anubhavi Raja Anubhavi.
What does Muthu Kulikka Vaarigala mean?
Muthu Kulikka Vaarigala, in Tamil means Do you want to go deep sea fishing to harvest oysters for pearls?
Pearl diving used to be the profession of the fishermen in this coastal town of Tuticorin. At one time, the Tuticorin coast was the global hot-spot for pearl trade. The Arabs, the Chinese in particular descended to this pearl harbor to buy pearls from this community. Big fat beautiful and perfectly round pearls that commanded a good price in the global market. Sister Dekla summarizes my community’s lifestyle and evolution during that period in her doctoral thesis.
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango. Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightning! That’s about it. I have just exhausted my Opera expertise with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I am clueless about opera really, but here is Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). An opera based on this fishermen community, by the French composer Georges Bizet, first performed in 1863.
But it was the other Frenchman, Jules Verne, who actually popularized the oppressed Indian, in 1870, when he wrote about this community in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time. I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head. He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cut in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more quickly to the ocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment. Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random. Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.
Captain Nemo pulled a bag of pearls from a pocket in his diving suit and placed it in the fisherman’s hands. “That Indian, professor” he said, “lives in the land of the oppressed, and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a native of that same land!”
That must have surprised you as you probably thought the captain to be European. But no, Captain Nemo is in fact a descendant of Tipu Sultan (a Muslim ruler of Mysore who resisted the British Raj), who took to the underwater life after the suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in which his close family members were killed by the British. He was very much an Indian and hence his comment to the professor. He belonged to the oppressed masses, as much as the poor devil of a forefather of mine did. He championed the cause of the oppressed and identified the British as the oppressor.
My ancestors are sitting on the edge of this Dingy, some clipping their noses and ready to dive into the ocean. The first three on the right are ready to take a quick plunge. Their feet are dangling just above the waters. I cannot make out clearly, but they must have a sugarloaf shaped stone tied to their legs for quick descent.
The men standing behind the seated pearl divers, are holding fast to ropes tied to the pearl diver’s waist and another to the sugarloaf shaped stone. As soon as the pearl diver reached the bottom, he would give one of the ropes a tug and the man above would pull the sugarloaf shaped stone up.
After the pearl diver collected the pearl laden clam-shells, he would give another rope a tug, signalling that he needs to be pulled up quickly as he was running out of breath. It was this precarious life that was hanging by a thread in the ocean’s depths, that demanded an alert man on the boat. That alert man by tradition was his machan or brother-in-law. For very obvious reasons!
The black Indian fisherman, a poor devil, just so happens to be my ancestor from this coastal region. Captain Nemo, in a moment of largess, actually awards my black forefather with a string of pearls. That must have startled my forefather considerably! At a time when Europe was milking their colonies of their natural resources, Captain Nemo takes pity on my skinny forefather and visualizes him as an oppressed Indian working as a slave under the Europeans. This is a bit fictional, but it drives home Captain Nemo’s true patriotism to his own motherland – India
Just one problem though:
In being a fictional muslim savior of my forefather under the ocean’s depths, he proved to be the opposite of the real muslim oppressors of my forefathers above land!
The situation above the oceans was a different issue altogether for my ancestor. His pearl-fishing rights were usurped by the muslims of that region, who were exerting their powers in that region. They undertook a voyage to Goa, the headquarters of the Portuguese presence in India and asked for protection. At a time where the Portugese religious were simply an extension of the Portugese governance and army, protection was granted by their governor under condition that they convert their religion from Hinduism to Christianity.
So what was it going to be? Religion for food was a fair bargain. And so, the largest mass conversion in 1536, of Hindus to Christianity in Tuticorin happened right here, with each of them getting a new Christian name along with one of the 64 surnames of the Portuguese sailors on board the Portuguese ship.
Needless to say, I got stuck with one – Vas.
Here then is a small board outside the church, tracing the trajectory of a historic event.
The Prostitute’s Burial
Early into the movie, Mani Ratnam gives his story a running start. Some villagers carry a dead prostitute to a local church for last rites, with her doting son following around. The priest refuses as she is a sinner. They give her a burial outside the cemetery, out in the open sea. A hastily procured box doubles-up as coffin, but proves to be a bit short and a quick frame shows us a leg dangling out. It is twisted to break point and stuffed into the coffin, with one of the guys joking that in death as in life her legs were spread apart.
If this was a gruesome explanation, it’s true to the frame and context of the depiction on film. It is the high-point of high-art in this movie. No other song, fight and picture touches the rock-bottom of human frailty as this scene does. It closely matches a Shyam Banegal style of stark realism. But what it fails to do, is deliver on the promise of this running start and inciting incident. However, it does carry with it a potent unsaid subtext:
In death as in life, a prostitute’s dishonor is maintained by the men who want her the most
Why is it that those who love this prostitute have absolutely no qualms in saying that they are not sinners? A prostitute is not only considered a sinner but also bears another sinner’s sin, sometimes in the form of her own child. It is this polio-stricken woman’s unconditional love for her son that becomes the sacred flaw in it’s gnawing absence after her early death, for the protagonist, her son. A patriarchal view of prostitution, puts the blame of immorality squarely on the prostitute while not only being conveniently redeemed of this sin, but compounding it by enjoying it.
The presumptuous immorality in prostitution, is the straying away from the acceptable norm that a woman ‘belongs’ to one man alone, while refusing to entertain the question of how many women this presumptuous moral policeman belongs to.
It is this un-shared sin that put’s Thoma’s life into high-gear. He is in search of his loving mother who once fed him with her own hands. He does not find her in religion. He finds her eventually in another woman who bears a similar un-shared sin. Religion plays less of an enabler and more of a visible stage prop. Mani Ratnam gives religion, and in this case – Christianity, a grand slip, not withstanding the incessant vocabulary referencing it though!
This is the cave where St. Francis Xavier spent a couple of years. It belonged to a Naik, a tax collector, and his woman companion who had taken refuge here. After they vacated this cave, St. Francis took abode in it. It’s a dugout sandstone cave and is typical of caves that extend along these shores into Thiruchendur, a neighboring town with a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Murugan the son of Shiva. St. Francis tried converting the Hindu priests of this temple with some theological debates that are best forgotten now.
|A picture I took of the marker to St. Xavier’s cave in 2007||A new and politically correct version of the same marker in 2010|
Naik was a Saivite, or a worshiper of Shiva. The cave now is consecrated to St. Francis Xavier. in essence the cave’s fate resembles that of the local fishermen in Manapad who were converted in 1540. A re-purposed cave and a re-purposed people.
St. Francis Xavier was a hard nosed negotiator. After these churches were built, he placed Tamil teachers and instructors in charge of the upkeep of these churches. But he had to pay them and he had no money. He pleaded with Queen Catherine of Portugal to send money, imploring her thus:
You need no fitter shoes to climb to heaven than the Christian children of the Manapad coast. Therefore I humbly request that you bestow your annual footwear budget to these teachers here and make yourself a ladder to heaven.
Christianity was spread and then sustained by the footwear budget of Queen Catherine on these shores. In essence, I owe my religion to this Queen’s footwear budget. I hope the lady has brought herself a stairway to heaven after this good deed.
I came across a fascinating story once. A government official was taking a census of Christians in this coastal village. He went about gathering data from the local churches that kept good records of births and deaths in the village. On paging through these records, he was struck by the fact that many of the children of this village, were born to the same father! That person, who had fathered so many children was one Mr. Painao Sabido. How is this possible? he asked himself. He was even more startled at the fact that many such registers in many churches listed him as the parent of so many children!
His mystery was finally put to rest when he was told that Painao sabido actually meant “Father Unknown” in Portuguese. Thus when the child is illegitimate the Church’s baptist would put down Painao Sabido in the church register. Something that the Portuguese missionaries taught him to do! The tradition was carried forward into a time where it’s true meaning was forgotten. Just like some of the other cultural relics that exist even today.
Thoma, the protagonist of the movie Kadal, is born out of wedlock. His father is really Pai nao sabido according to the Church registers. He thinks he knows who his father is, but that man rejects him completely. His father wants to remain Pai nao sabido beyond the Church register and makes every attempt possible to maintain distance from an incriminating evidence – his son.
The son never hates him for this rejection. He knows of no other father, and a father who exists is sufficient for him. A father that throws a fish from his catch, either from guilt, affection or sympathy, we do not know, but for the bastard it’s a sign of the only form of love he has ever experienced and it’s good.
The boats are a palimpsest for this communities’ varying culture and religion. The eyes painted in the front are a pledge of allegiance and invoking the blessings of Meenakshi – the goddess with the large fish eyes.
Prior to that conversion by the Portuguese missionaries this community worshiped Varuna the sea God and prayed to Kaniyakumari for protection.
I believe Kanyakumari, a virgin goddess was also one of the primary deities to this community prior to their conversion to Christianity. Hence the introduction and eventual replacement for this community, by a similar virgin goddess Kanni (Virgin) Mary was a divine missionary prestidigitation.
The name of the boat itself is written in Tamil – Mary, referencing the new religion of Christianity and a one-to-one replacement of the Mother Goddess that happened during India’s largest mass conversion in 1536 in this port town in the 16th century.
Oh! Mother, Where are You?
A recurring theme in Kadal is the loss of the mother and an undying search for her by her bastard son.
Does the Christ save the bastard? Does Jesus redeem the prostitute?
The movie does not force these questions on us, but plays with an answer given us by a Christian allegory to the Virgin Mary in the form of Beatrice. Beatrice plays the redeemer and savior for the prostitute and bastard.
The Prostitute as Mother
Nobody loves a prostitute in this village. They just lust after her to satisfy their primal urges. One such is Chetty. She bears him a son, Thoma. Chetty, disowns the boy and is outraged at both Thoma and the priest Sam, who name him as the father in the Church Register, when Thoma wants to receive a baptism there. Sam, the priest, offers this as justification for implicating him as Thoma’s father:
We all know about our fathers only through our mothers
Meaning to say that Thoma could not be wrong in naming Chetty as his father as that was what was told him by his mother. The prostitute is not a beautiful woman. She is shown as a polio-stricken woman with unkempt hair. But her love for her child is something else. It is pure, unadulterated, pristine, undying and unconditional.
An imperfect woman but a perfect mother
Thoma is on a life long quest in search of this woman, this perfect mother. His heart bleeds with pain and he cries – Oh! Mother, where are you?
Beatrice as Virgin Mother
Beatrice is an innocent and naive girl. She is shown wearing a flowing white gown most of the time, as though she is in a permanent state of purity. She has in fact had a traumatic experience as a child which has arrested growth beyond that stage. She has only physically grown into a beautiful woman. She is a calm and collected mid-wife and helps deliver babies in the village. She does not know what sin is, though she is born of one. In that sense, her conception itself is blemished, hence not immaculate. But the innocence of the child needs no dogma to uplift it further towards heaven. It is this innocence bordering on naivete that redeems Thoma. It replaces the unconditional love of his mother. He sees his mother in Beatrice.
Beatrice, the village mid-wife helps deliver Thoma from sin. She has helped yet another mother from the village deliver a healthy and happy baby. That mother died a long time ago. That mother was a prostitute and it does not matter to Beatrice. It’s what makes Beatrice a living Mother Mary. All she ever says is – Let it Be
Here is a 2013 Golden Car Festival Special Video that I made at the 300th Anniversary of Our Lady of Snows, Thoothukudi. The Paravar community celebrates this festival with aplomb. Here is the church portal which carried it.
The Prostitute’s Reburial
With the burial of his prostitute mother, the bastard’s die has been cast. He is a seashore urchin that nobody wants. He is witness to his mother’s burial out on the open seashore, with a lone vulture assessing the situation by circling a sunny noon sky above. A poignant visual of excommunication of the mother and of her son, will burden him for life. He gets out of this vortex of poverty and being unloved or cared for by going astray into a life of crime.
He finds comapany in the evil Berchmans, who loves him on condition of being his partner in crime. Thoma willingly gets into this arrangement in exchange for a little respect and love from this new found friend, however satanic he maybe. Now that crime has brought him respect, he is awash with pride of accomplishment. He yearns to correct a visual that keeps bothering him:
The disrespect his mother was shown in death.
Thoma manages to rebury his mother inside a church cemetery with full honors only accorded to a woman who has lead a life of prayer and dedicated to God’s will. The crowd that mills around a well built memorial and tombstone makes way to a powerful Berchmans who wades through the crowd and places a flower wreath on the tomb of the resurrected sinner.
Her place in society has been purchased. Her son has a new shining visual of acceptance. His mother has been redeemed of her sins by this simple act of reburial in a better and accepting place.
Thoma wants a little respect from the villagers, and he is perfectly fine if he gains that through fear.
A bastard’s past bears down heavily on him. He needs to do everything possible to remove and put down the burden on his back, so he can move on with a light step. Are not the dead, equals in the eyes of the creator? The sinner and saint are equals in the place of the skulls.
The bastard has exacted social justice. His mother lies interred at the foot of the Church. The pretentious fools who once said of his mother’s open burial – grass will not grow where this sinner is buried, are now singing high hymns of solace and grace around her. The priests have accepted Berchman’s money for the upkeep of the church, in spite of him saying it was money he earned from a life of sin.
The past will eventually catch up with the present, so hurry, correct it. Redo the past to make it worthy of the present!
The Tortured Christ
The priest Fr. Sam walks in the footsteps of the Christ. He attempts to save the village. Thoma is still a work in progress. But when somebody else is responsible for Thoma’s conversion, he asks Thoma with a tinge of regret – who could have possibly converted you [Thoma], when I couldn’t?
After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus presents himself to his apostles. One among them is a Thomas who seriously doubts if this man in front of him is actually Jesus raised from the dead. He doubts in Jesus’ Resurrection, the central event to Christian faith. Jesus asks him to put his finger into his wounds to prove for himself that he is indeed the resurrected Christ with the five wounds he suffered on the cross. Thomas inserts his fingers into Jesus’ deep wounds and believes.
At this conversion from disbelief to belief, Jesus says – Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe in me.
Fr. Sam makes multiple attempts to bring Thoma into the fold of righteousness, to save him, but to no avail. On the other hand, Beatrice does nothing spectacular to convert Thoma who is steeped in sin. Thoma however, is smitten by her unconditional grace in simply being associated with him a sinner. For this Thoma, the resurrected Christ who will be his savior is the Virgin Mother and not the Christ himself.
This switch is not complicated to understand, as it is the Virgin Mother Beatrice that has the deep wounds.
Fr. Sam is falsely accused of a murder and of breaking his priestly vow of celibacy and is defrocked from priesthood and sent to prison. After he serves his sentence, he comes back to the village with the same resolve he had when he was a priest.
He does not need the garb of priesthood anymore to execute his simple vision of shepherding the flock into the path of righteousness.
|Mani Ratnam, Film Director – I||Mani Ratnam, Film Director – II|
from the Collins Portuguese Dictionay, Editora Siciliano, Harper Collins Publishers, 1998. A few Portuguese words that are still commonly used as Tamil borrow words in this coastal region:
|Copo||drinking cup||koppai (a vessel)|
|Equ||What||yekki (calling a girl)|
|Espirito Santo||the Holy Spirit||Ispiritu Santu|
|Novena||nine day devotion||navanazh|
Interpretations are not absolute but here is my attempt at mapping the various Christian names to who I think they really are:
- Beatrice – I have referenced an interview with the author of the Kadal story, Jeyamohan. In that interview he mentions: Beatrice was the name of the angel who takes Dante to heaven in the epic work Divine Comedy, he says that the movie’s theme is about how it takes just one step or action to turn man into God but it takes several steps to turn a man into the devil.My interpretation of Beatrice as the Virgin Mother Mary is more in line with Madhan Karky the lyricist in the Eley Keechan song (he is Vairamuthu’s son) : Soosa ponnu – Joseph’s girl – Mary. This traslation of Soosa ponnu as Joseph’s girl is given in Nandini Karky’s blog. She is Madhan’s wife and I trust that she got Madhan’s intent correct.
- Barnabas – This is possibly a simple Christian name given him. But they refer to him by another name in the movie – Chetty, which is much more interesting to me. When the fishermen community’s fishing rights were usurped by the Muslims, they approached a horse trader who was associated with the Portuguese but was of Indian descent. His name to the Portugues was Joa Da Cruz. His name to the Indians was Chetty. He was instrumental in pulling the trigger that lead to this mass conversion to Christianity. Not that Barnabas Chetty is instrumental in any memorable deed we know of. Ponvannan, essayed this negative role with aplomb!
- Berchmans – A Mesaikarar. There is a current living priest in Tuticorin that was excommunicated by the Catholic church. He leads a popular charismatic Christian movement and many of his followers are almost cult-like in their beliefs and practices. It is this Berchmans as an excommunicated priest that lends his name to the antagonist in the movie Kadal, who is also excommunicated by the church for a barnyard frolic.
- Thoma – My interpretation of the Doubting Thomas is already explored in this blog. Rameshram has an interesting mapping to Thomas Aquinas in the comments section below.
- I constantly refer to some of these characters as prostitute or bastard. There is a shock-value in exploiting the plot-line to it’s fullest and giving these characters their (im)moral titles given them by society. I understand that these are not endearing terms for the actors who have done an excellent job in depicting these characters. I am not exploring Gautham Karthik, for instance, just his character.
- Another low-budget movie recently shot in Manapad, was about the lifestyle of the fishermen community here. Neer Paravai touched upon the Sri Lankan territorial sea warfare that kills poor fishermen of the coastal Tamil Nadu. Some thought, before it’s release, that Mani Ratnam picked up this theme in Kadal
- Mani Ratnam has painted with broad brush strokes and wants you to fill the blanks. The novella by Jeyamohan is spiritual and philosophical in tone. Ratnam translates that into visuals. This feat is similar to Ang Lee translating the Life of Pi
- I talk about Muslim oppressors here, but that’s way back 500 years ago. I am from Hyderabad and have many Muslim friends. I have written about Muslims in India in a very positive light too.
- I have not mentioned AR Rahman by name. but this story is awash with his bewitching music that casts a divine spell. He is the wind beneath this soaring eagle.
- As a creature of politics and social justice, I am disappointed with some Christian group that has taken Mani Ratnam to court over a few scenes that offended them in the movie Kadal. An artist must have the right to use irony as a powerful vessel for a greater truth.
The greatest irony of Christianity should not be forgotten:
Jesus was stripped naked, nailed to a cross wearing a crown of thorns. A sign on the cross mocked this man who claimed kingship: Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews
That dying man was a sage and artist, one who couldn’t save himself but promised to save you. It is in this irony that Christianity finds the greatest love story ever told.
Christianity itself loses its essence, if we were to censure this irony or disallow it’s interpretation.
- Sr. S Deckla’s Doctoral Thesis Maritime History of the Pearl Fishery Coast with Special Reference to Thoothukudi
- Saints, Goddesses and Kings – Susan Bayly
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Vernes
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Day 87 OF 165
- Was Captain Nemo an Indian?
- Pearl Diving
- The Pearl Fishers – an Opera by George Bizet
- Kadal – Coast Analysis by Bharadwaj Rangan
- Leo Fernando’s Manapad – Mani Ratnam’s favorite coastal village, in pictures
- Tamil-Malayalam author Jeyamohan, the writer of Kadal
- Rajiv Menon, Cinematographer
- Tamil saw its first book in 1578
- @Pontifex Habemus Papum Franciscum – We have Pope Francis
|Sita, Interrupted||Pieta Carnatic||We have Pope Francis!|
|Sexist Pig||Aamir K’s Talaash||Indian Films||Barfi’s Disorder|