Madurai was our destination, and, on Friday 28 February in this memorable pandemic year 2020, just two weeks before lockdown at home, we landed there, 150 miles north of the tip of India where the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean come together. They say it is the oldest city in the Indian peninsula and one of the most ancient continuously inhabited cities of the world, with a rich Tamil cultural heritage. In India it is known as “the city that never sleeps.”

Since Greeks and Romans started visiting the Pandya Kingdom of south India around 300 BC, trade connections with Europe flourished right up until 1000 AD. Madurai was the magnificent capital of the Pandya kings, the “Athens of the East”, sought out by travellers such as Pliny (77 AD), Ptolemy (140 AD), Marco Polo (1203 AD) and Ibu Batuta (1333 AD). It grew up around a huge temple begun about 500 BC and is famous for its scholars during the renowned Sangam period (c. 100 BC-300 AD) of Tamil culture.

A dozen of us from the Woolhampton parish around Douai had come on a kind of pilgrimage to visit Reaching the Unreached of Village India (RTU), the organization we had been supporting through our parish outreach for the last three years. We had been invited to open a new “Douai Hostel” for their teenage boys which our parish had managed to fund. We began with a visit to the enormous Meenakshi temple complex at the centre of Madurai, guided by a wise, devout Hindu friend of RTU, and then went on to the Gandhi Museum, before travelling to the RTU centre itself some 40 miles to the west of the city.

RTU was founded in the 1970s by Br James Kimpton (De La Salle Brothers) to serve the poorest of the poor in Tamil Nadu. I had visited Br James and RTU in the 1980s on my first visit to India, and I was delighted as its priest that our parish had chosen to support RTU, having done so also in previous years. Some forty years ago Br James, who died recently, began by providing a home for the many street orphans and for boys of the most destitute families. Today RTU continues to respond to the many-faceted needs of the very poorest people, providing not just stop-gap aid, but rather an integrated development programme for the rural poor, each of whom has a right to a decent life. It supports especially women and children, the old, the sick, the homeless, the unemployable, those in need of a roof over their heads or drinking water to hand.

A people-centred rather than a project-centred organization, RTU is at the service, in substantial and ongoing ways, of the poorest people living from hand to mouth. It sees the support it receives, whether finance, equipment or even fixed assets, as in fact belonging to the poor themselves, and the staff receiving salaries thanks to them. Thus RTU understands all enabling funding as coming from the very hand of Divine Providence, so requiring it to be administered carefully.

We visitors from Berkshire spent a marvellous week living at RTU, getting to know Fr Antony Paulsamy OFM, the present director who was himself once a boy in the care of RTU, visiting its schools, kindergartens & training projects, joining the daily Masses and interfaith prayers (most children are Hindu). Warmly welcomed in RTU “Children’s Villages” and homes (each of ten children plus foster mother), we toured the main campus, visited the dispensary and clinic, the central kitchen, workshops and administration, and wandered through the local village of Genguvar Kallupatti, viewing there the teenage hostels. Later there was a chance to see the external work of RTU, visiting water projects, women’s village awareness groups and a girls’ tailoring class, a mobile science lab and an Aids hospice, and being shown simple brick dwellings under construction for villagers, some sponsored by our parishioners. RTU has currently around 2000 young people in education, 2000 women in self-help groups, offers 30,000 medical consultations each year, and has to date constructed about 9000 village homes and over 2500 wells.

Last September (2020) Fr Anthony described the disastrous situation in South India under COVID-19 lockdown, with schools and RTU campus closed and all children sent home, so that RTU was unable to care for even the poorest of them. The continuous lockdown restricted the movement of the poorest people for any sort of work. The livelihoods of a large number of families surviving on daily wages were shaken up in the rural villages where RTU is present. For a family, obtaining sufficient food for even one daily meal was extremely tough. So, with the generous help of donors, they continued to supply emergency dry rations to many vulnerable families. For example, in August they had distributed supplies to over 800 families in 16 rural villages in the local Dindigul and Theni Districts, mostly to abandoned elderly people, but also to Self-Help Group members, widows, those with HIV+ or chronically ill, those with disabilities and daily wage labourers. It should not be forgotten that, at the time of writing in November 2020, India had in excess of 8m COVID cases and had suffered 128,000 deaths.

But, how to describe Tamil Nadu itself? It is a mix of dry desert land, lush palm forests, teeming towns and cities, villages and hamlets, and everywhere people, people, people, even in the remotest countryside. There are miles of cultivated and irrigated fields of rice, maize and pulses; there are cash crops of cotton, sugarcane, oilseeds, coffee, tea, rubber, coconut and chillies. Markets are overflowing with vegetables recognizable and not, with bananas and mangoes and many other fruits. So agriculture predominates, and 70% of the population depends for a livelihood on that and allied activities. Following our visit to RTU some of us were fortunate to be able to spend some time experiencing the extraordinarily vibrant life & culture of the Tamil state, the deep spirituality of its people, and to discover too the place of Christians in this predominantly Hindu society.

Tamil culture existed far back in the Bronze Age and became rich in literature and customs during the Sangam period (100 BC–300 AD). This culture is very much alive today. From the time of the emperor Ashoka in the mid-third century BC right through to the arrival of the British, Tamil Nadu was independent from the rulers of the rest of India such as the Moghuls. Today Tamil culture informs not only villagers, struggling with basic living, but also the lives of educated and more prosperous classes, city folk engaged in modern business and travelling the world. Tamil is a classical Dravidian language, it's literature being of considerable antiquity and ranging from lyric poetry to works of ethical philosophy. Remarkably different from the literature of other Indian languages such as Hindi, Telegu or Kanneda (there are 14 major Indian languages), Tamil represents the oldest body of secular literature in south-east Asia. Since my first visit to India forty years ago I have been fascinated by this Tamil culture, and I wish I had followed my original instinct to learn this beautiful, musical language. Tamil Nadu also has its own style of music, from which current Carnatic music evolved, and its own dance style, Baharatanatyam which was first described around 2000 years ago.

But the most visible aspect of this ancient culture of course is Tamil sacred architecture, and throughout Tamil Nadu there are today perhaps 33,000 ancient temples. Some are modest, simple village temples, others stunning architectural temple complexes on ancient sites and thronged with pilgrims day after day. Many of these are 800 to 2000 years old, and the most magnificent of these are a match for the great Christian cathedrals of Europe. Some are even contemporaneous with our cathedrals, similarly constructed over centuries and inspired by a comparable faith and devotion, a comparable sense of reverence and worship of the Divine.

So, Tamil Nadu is one of the few places in the world, or even the only place, where the ancient native culture has existed for 2000 years or more and still remains authentic for its contemporary citizens. Let us explore some prominent examples of this magnificent temple tradition. Where better to start than the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai, a towering landmark marking the centre of the ancient city. This temple is mentioned in Tamil Sangam literature around the time of Christ, and also in sixth century texts. The large temple complex, covering 14 acres,, is dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, consort of Shiva. It was reconstructed around 1200 AD by Pandya kings, an extraordinary royal dynasty spanning centuries. The contemporary temple is the result of renovation begun by late medieval rulers who rebuilt the core and reopened the temple in the 16th century; it was again rebuilt in the 19th century. This temple is a major pilgrimage destination within the Shaivite tradition and attracts, they say, 15,000 to 40,000 visitors a day. During the annual 10-day Meenakshi festival the temple can draw over a million pilgrim visitors.

Travel some 85 miles north of Madurai, and you arrive at the Sriranganam Temple near Tiruchirappalli on the holy Kaveri river. It is dedicated to Vishnu, for Hindus another form of the supreme God. As one of the most illustrious Vaishnavite temples in south India, rich in legend and history, it grew to importance around 1100 AD when the holy ascetic Ramanuja came to Sriranganam, controversially advocating devotion to a personal God. Up to then the advaita teaching of Shankara in the eighth century on the non-duality of all things, the unity of Creator and creation, held sway. This temple is mentioned in Tamil literature of the Sangam era, and archaeological evidence for it is found on stone inscriptions dating it to between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. The temple covers an area of 155 acres with 81 shrines, 21 towers, 39 pavilions; many water tanks also are integrated into the complex, making it the world's largest functioning Hindu temple.

Now take the road east and after 40 miles you come to Thanjavur. Here the stunning Brihadishvara Temple, built in just a few years from 1003 to 1010 AD, is dedicated to Shiva and is one of the largest south Indian temples constructed in the Dravidian architectural style.  The original monuments of this eleventh century temple were built around a moat, with sculptured gateways, main temple, massive tower, inscriptions, frescoes & sculptures in Shaivite & other traditional Hindu styles. In following centuries other monuments were added. Built of granite, the tower above the sanctum is one of the tallest in south India; at the time of its construction it was probably one of the tallest structures in the world. Today the temple falls within the site of UNESCO World Heritage Living Chola Temples.

From Thanjavur we travel north 160 miles to Tiruvannamalai, half way on the road to Chennai. Here is the site of the magnificent Arunachaleswarar Temple, at the foot of the holy mountain Arunachala, where Hindu hermits dwell in caves to this day. Among them once was the saintly Sri Ramana Maharishi who lived here all his life till his death in 1950, and whose followers came and still come regularly in hundreds from all parts of the world. The Tiruvannamalai Temple is dedicated to the god Shiva, widely revered today and particularly revered in the Tevaram, a seventh century Tamil Saiva canonical work of Tamil poet saints. The ninth century Saiva saint & renowned poet Manikkavasagar composed his Tiruvempaaval here. The temple complex covers ten hectares, and is one of the largest in India, with four gateway towers (gopura). The eleven stories of the eastern tower (217ft) make it one of the tallest temple towers in India. Within there are many shrines and halls, notably the thousand-pillared hall. The present structure was built during the ninth century Chola dynasty, and later expansions are attributed to the Vijayanagara rulers (c.1350-1550 AD).

Now we return to Madurai, 200 miles south again, and the focus of our pilgrimage journey. It must be said, our journey has been inspired by the moving account of a much more extensive pilgrimage tour of Tamil temples by Michael Wood in his A South Indian Journey (Penguin,1995) which is well worth a read. As guests of Fr Stephen, monk of Asirvanam Benedictine monastery at Bengaluru (Bangalore) who has a small monastic Tamil outpost at Sivagangai to the east of Madurai, we paid a visit one evening at the vesper hour – also the puja prayer time - to an exquisite village temple at nearby Nattarasankottai.  This Shakti temple, well known for its architecture, is said to have been built in the mid-18th century, and the deity there is renowned for healing eyesight ailments and other illnesses. We were made warmly welcome at the puja by the Brahmin priests, who blessed us (not without a cash offering!), and by a colourful busload of pilgrims who happened to turn up for the puja too.

But we were on a Christian pilgrimage which had started at RTU, so what of Christianity in India? The Christian heartland of India remains the deep south, particularly in Kerala on the west coast, though Christians are not negligible in Tamil Nadu either. Christianity did come early to India, attested by the strong tradition that St Thomas the Apostle himself arrived in about 52 AD, for he is reputed to have preached and even died a martyr at Chennai on the east coast, precisely at St Thomas Mount near the present-day airport. Today Christians account for just six percent of the 77 million total population of Tamil Nadu. About 88 percent are of course Hindu, while Muslims are reckoned to number five and a half percent of the state population.

Between 200 and 400 AD various Christian groups arrived in Kerala from other parts of Asia, and gradually the East Syrian Christian tradition from Edessa started to flourish more persistently there. Tradition has it, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that even Alfred the Great of Wessex sent gifts in 883 AD to these Mar Thomas Christians in south India by the hand of Sigheric, bishop of Sherbourne. It was only with the arrival of the Portuguese Vasco da Gama around 1500 AD that Latin Catholic Christianity was introduced in India, and became established through the missionary movement which accompanied colonial expansion. Such figures as St Francis Xavier (d.1552), and in the following century John Britto (d.1693) were in the vanguard. Attempts were made also, for instance by Francis’ Italian contemporary Roberto di Nobili (d.1559), to give the Christian Gospel an Indian cultural expression, largely in vain. Today Christians in Tamil Nadu number some 5 million souls spread over many denominations. Most are Latin rite (Roman) Catholic or Syrian Malabar Catholics (autonomous, but also in communion with Rome); many others belong to Orthodox churches & Protestant denominations.

From the 19th & 20th centuries people began to realize that Christianity could indeed recognize, and relate, where possible, to the great spiritual tradition of India. Furthermore, in order to make headway in India, Christianity would do well to try to see the essence of the Gospel of Christ clothed somewhat in the ancient Indian culture. Among many initiatives in the latter part of the 20th century was the Christian ashram movement, and Shantivanam Ashram was founded near Tiruchirappalli, associated with Bede Griffiths, an English monk, and before him with two Frenchmen, Fr Jules Monchanin and the Benedictine Henri Le Saux, the latter known also, in Indian style, as Abhishiktananda, meaning “the bliss of the Anointed One.”

A few of our group were fortunately able to pay a short two-day visit to this remarkable Christian ashram. I had originally spent a year with Fr Bede there in the 1980s. Now we found the ashram off the main road, just by the village of Tannirpalli, set in a small forest glade of coconut trees on the banks of the enormous river Kaveri, at this point about a mile wide. But at this season it was no more than a dry sandy waste laced with trickling rivulets. Warmly welcomed by one of the monks, we surveyed the low and simple buildings scattered in this lush garden paradise, and were taken to our simple rooms. As dusk suddenly fell we found our way to the chapel, strikingly designed in the form of a south Indian temple, colourful representations of Christ and the saints adorning the roof, just as the great Tamil temple gorpuras are adorned with the saints of Hindu myths. The evening vespers was familiar, the usual English psalms and prayers, but embellished with Sanskrit chants and Tamil bhajans, and concluding with the arati, the fire blessing passed between us all, then raised in worship of the sacramental Presence on the altar dimly within.

The evening meal was simple rice and modest curry, served in metal dishes and taken in silence by hand in the Indian way, we being seated on the floor or on low stools. We all retired early, the forest alive with sounds around us. Next morning it was prayers and Mass in very simple form, again, to mark the Indian spiritual context, with Sanskrit chants and a rite of placing flowers around the offerings. Fr Dorathick, superior of this small community of Camaldolese monks generously gave us time and shared with us his vision of Christian monastic life, finding illuminating parallels in the Indian scriptures and its monastic spiritual traditions. It was inspiring to see how Indian Christian monks do gain strength and confirmation from the venerable spiritual traditions of their own land.

So for us this pilgrimage had brought three strands together. First, we saw the concrete work of Christian outreach to the poorest of the poor at RTU; second, we had found a Christian presence in the Tamil state concerned to be truly Indian by seriously embodying the Indian spiritual tradition; lastly, there was the authentic Tamil culture, both contemporary and centuries old, bringing these two together. The three converged for us in greater harmony than ever on this journey, as it became a pilgrimage in which we saw their inner cohesion. Here was a unique, ancient culture, unbelievably still experienced as viable in the modern times, flourishing still today in this lovely country. What a privilege to explore these riches and be inspired ourselves by them!

Our pilgrimages to RTU and our discovery of the Christian presence in today’s Tamil culture were coming to an end. Fr Stephen joined us briefly at Shantivanam, and at his small Benedictine monastery gave us his own warm welcome. He then celebrated a last festal meal with us, and brought us to the airport for our return home. A last memorable moment en route to the airport was to stop in the midday heat at a wayside stall for a final refreshing coconut drink. The vendor perilously yet deftly opens up the coconut shell for you with a machete, presenting you with the cool, refreshing coconut milk, and then slashes open the empty shell to reveal the delicious white flesh within. Taste of Tamil Nadu par excellence, a taste by which, once home, to recall the mystery of India!

Fr Peter Bowe is a Benedictine monk of Douai Abbey, Berkshire. He first visited India for a year in 1982-3, and, based at Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, travelled throughout the whole country including RTU. He has returned several times since, most recently in 2020 just before the Covid lockdown.  Currently he is the priest in the Abbey parish.)


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