Yet before the day’s celebration comes to an end outside the basilica with singing and dancing, the priests are exhorting people to “Be more like Mary … be obedient, reasonable, serene.” Above all, obedient. Once again I see how the devotion to Mary is full of ambiguity and is also used by the Church to control people, especially women.

That is a crucial observation China Galland, author and authority on Dark Madonnas, makes when describing the scene of the Feast Day of Our Lady of Aparecida, the Patron of Brazil, at the basilica of Aparecida. The observation is important and perhaps even unavoidable in understanding the Goddess traditions throughout the world. More than being mere religious traditions undergoing transformation through the colonization process and modern globalization, they are symbolic of the inner struggle of the communities to which the Dark Mothers belong. Throughout the world in all civilizations that lost their native spiritual traditions to colonizers, the Dark Earth Mother could survive only by abandoning her role as the primordial Goddess. At best she was the submissive mother of a Male God-Son of a sky-bound Male-God and in that alone was her glory, not as a Goddess in her own right but as a female patron saint in a patriarchal Church.

Not in India though. Here the Goddess traditions have not only survived but have also flourished despite the onslaughts of the patriarchal belief systems from within and without. However in the coastal regions where communities have historically succumbed to proselytization, the Goddesses do seem to have lost their throne. Yet the inner struggles of the collective unconscious of the communities have not yet ceased.

Joe De Cruz is an eminent Tamil writer who established for ever his place in Tamil literary field with his first work: ‘World surrounded by Ocean’ (Aazhi Choozh Ulaku). His second work ‘Korkai’ is about the port town Tuticorin. The epic narrative of ‘Korkai’ traces through multiple layers an inner chord of spiritual struggle between an earth-bound goddess tradition and an imposed system alien to that tradition. A dwindling, community leadership almost becoming endangered and ultimately extinct was painfully aware of the loss. Joe de Cruz explains this from the retold memories about a community leader, a generation or two ago.

“Thonmichael was notas much interested in positions of power and leadership titles as he was charged when it comes to his his community’s concerns. It is said that after he assumed position, in a very short period, he started giving life to abandoned traditions. He cried in inner agony how the Catholic religion that had demanded the lives of thousands and thousands of Parathava fishermen as sacrifice, was today presiding as a mute witness over the destruction of their very social fabric fiber by fiber. He would often lament, with a pained heart, what faith these foreigners had imported here which was not there already in our people. Reviving the old tradition, on the day of his coronation (as community head) he would go and get Darshan at the Goddess temples of Kanyakumari, Madurai, Thiru Uttarakosa Mangai and Korkai Santhanamari and do special pujas there.” (‘Korkai’, pp.21-22)

However the destruction of the Goddesses traditions was done by forces that knew what they were doing. There were precise political and power equations involved. However amidst the waves of ocean and away from the grips of temporal power structures, the conversations of simple fishermen portrayed in the novel, bring out the socio-political equations of theological imperialism:

“Hey, I am talking about the white man. Arabs and Greeks before him came here only for trade but not for planting his flag here and govern over us.”

“Now this… this is really a fair statement”

“OK… They trade and they even capture power… Let them do that. But why should they propagate their religion here?”

“Oh… that? That is because, even with all his military and trade, people here will see him as an enemy and outsider. This he knew. To change that perception completely, that is possible only through religion. This he knew. We sing hymns to our Virgin Mary as ‘standing on the crescent moon and wearing sun for her robes, and twelve stars on her crown’. Now, if we are told to worship Santhana Mariamman instead of Virgin Mary will we then do it?”

“What kind of thing you are talking?”, Lonchin asked.

“That is exactly what the white man has achieved. Boy! Know one thing for sure … Our Santhana Mari Amman and Our Kanyakumari Amman are no ordinary goddesses. In this expanse of ocean, they alone are our protection. Remember that.”

(‘Korkai’, p.79)

The novel presents individuals who resist the powers of establishments which are imposed on their community. And that results in a paradox. While the imposed power structures have alienated the Parathava fishermen community from the other communities of the land, the individuals within the community who resist the power structures stand alienated within the community itself. And is it this alienation within, that has made these individuals realize the eternal embrace of the Mother who is waiting for her children to return?

In matters related to Killuku, Conesius Singhrayar never poked his nose. The reason might by that, like Conesius, Killuku also had a very short fuse. Whatever might be the issue, when he took a decision, he would not hesitate to confront anyone. Though the entire Parathava community, to the last man, had got converted to Catholic religion, Killuku as an individual, never failed to perform Kumbabisheka for the Santhana Mari Amman temple right in front of the eyes of Catholic clergy. Though there were a few fishermen who did go to the Amman temple, they never had the guts to do that in the knowledge of the clergy.

(‘Korkai’, p.81)

When fishermen leave the terra firma and find themselves amidst the roaring waves, at the mercy of the primal forces of nature, the Goddess returns to the memory of her children in all her glory, untouched by patriarchal theological covers. Joe de Cruz portrays the moment of the resurfacing of the Mother, through various conversations studded throughout the novel:

From the stern came Philians voice, “We have crossed Kolachael tower and now Kumari light is visible”

“Then break a coconut for Kumari Mother” said Lenchin. (‘Korkai’, p.87)

The next wave wrathfully entered the deck and retreated back with the ropes and other things from there.

“Aamu… we have left Her whom we worshipped for generations and are doing today many other things. Santhana Mari please save us and get us safely to the shore. When in the sea we cry to Santhana Mari and when we reach shore we go to Mary? We will come one day to your own temple Mother and we will light the lamp and we will celebrate your festival.” (‘Korkai’, p.145)

“Mother who helped us this much, will not forsake us. Do not worry”

“It is the Ratnagiri curve that is dangerous. Beyond that it is the Kumari tip. Trust in Goddess Kumari and Go.”

(‘Korkai’, p.161)

The fishermen community had been violently alienated from the tradition of Santhana Mari Amman worship. Yet the organic connections between the Goddess tradition and the community still linger and are carefully severed one by one. The novel explains this painful process graphically.

Seated in her temple in the north east of the ancient town of Korkai, Santha Mari Amman faces the Isana direction. In those days Santhana Siddha who roamed around the sea side forests and fishermen settlements there, sat under the Tamarind tree here and had a vision. He started digging the ground and he discovered the Goddess statue with the covering of fresh Sandal paste with pearl chain around her neck. The Siddha started worshipping her there itself and in due course he attained Samadhi here itself and a lineage of his disciples continued her worship. Once upon a time her temple was stated to be by the sea shore and in course of time the sea withdrew further from the mainland. In fact, when the ginning factory people started digging around the temple, for laying their factory foundation, they had discovered sea shells. In this ancient town of Korkai Santhana Mari Amman temple is the only temple that has fortification. Around the temple on four sides the street is laid for car festival and has Parathava settlement. At the Agni corner is Santhana Agni Ganesa and at Kanni corner is Kanni Ganesa and at Vayu Corner is Amritha Ganesa. At the Esana corner is Bhairava and at the center of all the cardinal sacred directions sits Goddess who is the protecting Mother of the Parathava community. She herself is a fisherwoman. Her very temple is as if she is surveying the sea. Antomani went inside the temple and slowly glimpsed at her. Involuntarily his hands had folded themselves. (‘Korkai’, p.118)

Phillip who always roams inside the house had gone out saying that he wanted to see the Santhana Mari Amman festival. When in Kulasai Dhassera is celebrated here they celebrate Santhana Mari Amman temple festival. Lourde had been observing this from the day she arrived at Korkai. It was the fisher netting community who stand prominently in conducting the festival of Santhana Mari. While others clandestinely go to participate in the festival without the knowledge of the Parish priest, Meyyalpillai house people openly participate in the celebrations. (‘Korkai’, p.329)

How do the power equations within the community and with them the intra-community relations change with the imposition of the colonial theological power structures? Joe de Cruz narrates an event from the community memory in the novel. At the famous Hindu temple Thiruchendur, Brahmins stop a fishermen community leader from entering the temple. However he performs a miracle through his spiritual powers and wins over the Brahmin priests and enters the temple with complete dignity and respect. The ability to negotiate one’s right in the comity of communities through the spiritual powers has been a recorded memory in the annals of fishermen community leadership which was restricted under the stranglehold of Catholic Church in due course.

The whole novel can be seen as a cyclic narrative that starts with a previous generation of community leaders feeling the widening spiritual vacuum created by the imposed structures and ends with a descendent of this vibrant community feeling the complete alienation in the end of his life. And both hear the voice of the Eternal Mother calling forth her lost children. The fishermen community, whose more democratic traditional social structures have been usurped by power structures that are pyramidal with string pullers elsewhere, is today undergoing the awakening of a new consciousness which is actually as old as the dawn of human race itself.

Their voice, their struggles have been stolen by a power structure that lends them voices that are not genuinely theirs. Alienated from the rest of the society and alienated from their own past, they need to discover their roots. Often the identity formation narratives are often held hostage to racial frameworks of the Western academics. Each community tends to see itself as the original sons of the soil and sees another community as an intruding aggressor. Inter-community conflicts get conflated as racial wars dating back to centuries. In such a scenario Joe de Cruz has come out with a novel that emphasizes the pan-Indic Mother Goddess tradition as the connecting chord in the identity formation process. It is a closer and better approximation to historical reality than the conflict-oriented racial narratives imported from the West.

In fact throughout the converted coastline of South India, churches with various versions of Virgin Mary dot the landscape. Each of these could have been a well-crafted replacement of a Mother, dethroned from her status of being a Dark Goddess of the primordial Earth consciousness to a saint of the Church of believers in a white Male deity sitting in the sky-heavens.

But how long before the original Mother wakes up? Witnessing the festival of the replaced Goddess at Brazil China Garland asks:

I ask now how much longer we will whitewash the fact that the woman who appeared to Juan Diego on December 9, 1531, was dark-skinned, like Juan Diego; that she spoke in Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue; that she appeared at the site of the temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec Earth Mother; and that she was dressed traditional Indian style? Tonantzin -the name means “mother” -had the crescent moon and the maguey or century plant as her sign. Tonantzin clad herself in snakes, and hearts, and hands.

It was the Catholic bishop Zumarraga who decided that this apparition of Juan Diego’s was Guadalupe, the Dark Madonna from Estremadura, Spain, Eduardo Galleano tells us in Memory of Fire. Galleano tells us that Zumarraga was the same bishop who had the Aztec Codices set on fire, who tore down the temples, who destroyed their idols – twenty thousand of them. Zumarraga, the Indian protector, the Church’s shepherd, who kept the branding iron that stamped the Indian’s faces with the names of their proprietors.

… Tonantzin, the Dark Mother of the indigenous people, is covered with hearts and snakes, like the fierce form of the fourteenth Tibetan Buddha Tara; wears hands like the Hindu Kali. (China Garland, The Black Madonna and the Limits of Light: Looking Underneath Christianity, A Teaching for Our Time, in ‘The Fabric of the Future: Women Visionaries of Today Illuminate the Path to Tomorrow’, Ed. M. J. Ryan, Conari Press, 2000, p.214)

And in Bolivia the Guranis, the native community, who were till recently the bonded labourers are now becoming land owners. But colonization has not only made the native communities indentured labourers in their own land but have also left them alienated from their own spiritual traditions. Stephen Ferry reporting for the magazine ‘Geo’ (March, 2010) writes:

Pachamama, Mother Earth, is the deity whose help the Guranis most need as they begin their new lives. But hardly any of them are familiar with traditional rituals any longer.

What Joe de Cruz has captured in the local flavors of his literary masterpiece, is an emerging spiritual consciousness whose roots are deep and connect across entire humanity obliterating the barriers of space, time, nationalities and cultures. He has captured the spirit of a people so unique to his own community and yet so universal to all communities across the globe who have lost their original identity to imposed structures. It is the voice of the truly silenced souls that is crying out through his pen. And those who can hear are indeed blessed in their heart for theirs is a tomorrow of harmonious co-existence not only among communities and nations but also with the entire planet.

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal www.tamilhindu.com.

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