Why Mary wears a saree?

 

St Mary’s festival is one Catholic festival that keeps Christians rooted to their non Christian-roots.

The most special thing about St Mary’s feast is that it has nothing to do with cakes, pine trees or creatures from a foreign land. It is one Catholic festival that keeps Christians rooted to their non Christian-roots.

Perhaps, there’s something about Mary that lets people change her and adapt her to suit local ways.  While she replaces Goddess Athena in Europe, she wears a saree to substitute Devi Amman for the Tamils in Bangalore. Towards India’s West coast and parts of Karnataka her birthday is celebrated as a harvest festival.

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The image of Mary at St Mary’s Basilica in Bangalore. Pic by Ramesh H S 

 

I have lived in three different parts of Karnataka, and noticed that each region adds its own flavour to the feast of Nativity of Mary.

 

I grew up in the coastal town of Karwar. When I was little I waited for the feast, for it gave kids permission to run around in the paddy fields and pluck flowers from wild plants.

 

Here, just like in Bangalore, the festivities began from August 31st, nine days before the actual feast. The evenings preceding September 8th were marked with prayers in the church. But for the children, the preparations for the evening prayers would begin early in the morning.

 

Before we left for school, we went around fields and empty plots looking for flowers, and sometimes snooped around others’ gardens to steal flowers. Those with roses in their gardens had to be up earlier to ward off the tiny thieves.

 

After decorating our plates with the collected flowers and sprinkling some water on it, we left for school. In the evening in the church it was more about competition — of peeping into others’ plates to see what flowers they had got. After the prayers, the kids flocked around Mary’s statue to shower the flowers on her, while the elders sang a Konkani song in the background. The hymn too had very native lyrics like: “Tomorrow, where will we find these sevantige (chrysanthemum) and aboli (crossandra) flowers.”

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pic courtesy: mangalorean.com

 

On the final day, dressed in our finest, we went for the special prayers in the morning. Mary’s statue was taken in a procession from the church to a paddy field, where the service was conducted. The largest field in my village belonged to a Hindu. He graciously allowed the congregation to assemble there every year to celebrate the harvest festival.

 

People thanked Mary for the crop and prayed for a better yield next year. The new corn was blessed and stalks distributed to each member gathered there. The grains were then put into the ‘payasam’ prepared that day. The meal was non-vegetarian.

 

Bereft of the knowledge that someone in Rome had decided the day of September 8th, we believed our grandmother’s tale that when Mary was born, the harvest was sumptuous and the land was filled with flowers, and that is why the day was chosen. The local Hindus too celebrated their harvest festival around the same time, some days after Krishna Janmashtami.

 

I later learnt that in the 15th century, the Portuguese converted the Hindus in Goa to Christianity. They then continued to persecute the native converts, for even minor lapses. Many of the new converts then escaped to neighbouring Karnataka, but retained their language, Konkani. These converted Christians missed the Hindu festivals and traditions. So, they clubbed the Hindu traditions with Christian festivals.

 

When I moved to Mangalore for my studies, I noticed that the festival was much grander here. All the Christian schools and colleges declared it a holiday. The kids showered flowers here too and the new corn was blessed. There was just one difference. Here the feast cooked was all vegetarian, with families strictly not eating or cooking anything non-veg that day.

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The feast mass in progress at a church in Mangalore. pic courtesy: mangalorean.com

 

Perhaps because of its proximity to Kerala, the Mangalorean meal is more like Onam Sadhya, with an odd number of vegetables. That is, the number of vegetables cooked were three, seven or eleven. The Konkani speaking Catholics carried on this tradition wherever they went.

 

The harvest festival is celebrated in Bangalore too, wherever there is a population from Karnataka’s coastal region. When I moved to Bangalore, I was surprised to see Mary in a silk saree and not in the usual white and blue robe. These days she wears a fancy embroidered saree with sequins too. People here gift sarees to the church and bookings for the day the saree is to be draped, is done in advance. Sometimes the dates are booked for over a year. This practice is akin to gifting sarees for the local goddesses in temples. The Dravidians have Devi Amman or other local deities. After their conversion to Christianity, Mary took the goddess’ place.

 

The history of St Mary’s Basilica goes back to the 17th century when people from Tamil Nadu came to Bangalore. They found the land fertile and began sowing paddy. The rice is said to be very white. So the place (present Shivajinagar) came to be known as ‘Billi Akki Palli,’ which translates into the village of white rice.

 

The Tamil Christians built a thatched roof and called it the Chapel of ‘Kannikai Matha.’ Later in the 18th century the construction of the church began, but the structure was pulled down during communal riots in 1832. After some years when a plague hit, people flocked to the church to pray. It is believed that the plague vanished from the vicinity of the church. The people began to call Mary ‘Annai Arokiamarie,’ or Our Lady of Good Health. The church was rebuilt in 1882 and consecrated on 8th September that year.  From then on the feast is a huge affair in Shivajinagar with a grand car procession in the evening.

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One response to this post.

  1. People here gift sarees to the church and bookings for the day the saree is to be draped, is done in advance. Sometimes the dates are booked for over a year. This practice is akin to gifting sarees for the local goddesses in temples

    http://www.strollay.com

    Reply

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