Rural Kerala and Kurisumala Ashram

First things first, here’s that video footage of the festival music I had wanted to upload – it’s quite short, but gives you a sense of what was going on…

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In the days since that festival, I’ve been collecting materials and doing interviews towards a research project on inter-religious dialogue and contemplative Christianity in India. It’s been more than usually interesting, thanks to lots of motorcycle travel around Kerala’s rural roads and a trip up a small mountain and back via a bone-shaking series of journeys on state-run buses with seemingly no suspension whatsoever. Heavy rain apparently trashes these roads and they need to be resurfaced every few years – you can see piles of stones placed optimistically by the side, but I’m told that doesn’t mean work is likely to begin any time soon, and for now they’re just one extra hazard…

Here’s a sense of what the area’s like:

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For anyone familiar with the traffic of Delhi or Chennai, you’ll see these roads are basically deserted. Note the Communist Party flag towards the end – Kerala seems to be home to Commie Christmas at the moment, with the trademark red star morphing into the star of Bethlehem, and plenty of  bunting and photos of deities like Marx and Lenin.

Pastures around Kurisumala Ashram

The point of the small mountain trip – around 4500 feet above sea level, so perhaps a large hill, if you like – was to visit Kurisumala Ashram. It’s one of a small number of controversial Catholic ashrams in India, mostly dating from the mid-twentieth century, which have experimented with ways of living influenced by Indian monasticism and the sannyasa tradition.

‘Controversial’ because some right-wing Hindu groups have accused them of using this sort of ‘inculturation’ or inter-religious dialogue as a way of surreptitiously gaining converts. Book titles like ‘Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers?’ ought to give you the idea…

Kurisumala (Mount of the Cross) was set up in the late 1950s, by Frs Francis Mahieu and Bede Griffiths, two European contemplatives who left their institutions in Europe to head out to India. Francis Mahieu, who became an Indian citizen and changed his name to Francis Acharya, died only nine years ago and the ashram he and Griffiths set up at the summit of this hill continues to thrive.

The main building of Kurisumala Ashram

Griffiths wrote that the land on which they built Kurisumala reminded him of England, and it certainly creates a powerful impression to snake up the mountain through a tropical climate of palm, coconut, and banana trees and to arrive at a grassy, mildly foggy plateau supporting a dairy farm and modest Cotswolds-esque stone buildings – one of the earliest subsistence initiatives of the ashram was milk production, and there is now almost no-one in the local area who hasn’t heard of ‘Kurisumala milk’.

The monks here, around ten at present, are now connected with the Cistercian Order (Acharya’s original Order), and rarely leave the ashram. Some have been here for coming up to fifty years, sticking to a regular daily schedule of meditation, work, study, prayer, and liturgy. The schedule, as it currently stands, is on the right-hand side here.

One of the things that both Griffiths and Acharya were most interested in was the potential power of the liturgy to lift people out of their incessant rationalising commentary on life and bring them to a richer and more encompassing experience of being alive.

One of the fruits of Acharya’s efforts in particular, translating Syriac liturgy into English and drawing on Indian practices and ideas, was a 6am ‘Indian Mass’ this week that included a form of puja – particular forms of ritualized prayer with candles and flowers as centrepieces – some Sanskrit verses, and a few bhajans (Indian hymns) sung by a single voice, backed by a harmonium. The effect was a kind of gentleness and subtlety that shows up a great many western Christian hymns – with their relentless military metaphors of ‘vanquishing’, ‘marching’, and ‘swords-and-shields’ – as tediously pompous and aggressive.

It surely helped that I don’t speak a word of Malayalam, since it’s often the words of hymns that risk jarring the most – to misquote Sartre, hell is other people’s piety – but even so this was clearly a liturgy expressive of nature and of silence.

A photo from towards the end of Francis Acharya's life - he is seated in the middle

Both Acharya and Kurisumala built up serious kudos amongst a great many Keralites over recent decades, and it’s no surprise that towards the end of our stay a prominent minister in the state government turned up for a visit, complete with jeepfuls of security, shaking every hand in sight and professing himself a long-time admirer of Acharya.

A photo from a few years ago showing the illuminated interior of the chapel

 

 

 

Kurisumala is also attracting more and more visitors and retreatants these days, welcomed by the diminutive Abbot Yesudas Thelliyil, successor to Acharya. His two major interests while I was there were how much my camera cost and whether I was eating enough. The latter was a bit tricky, because I forgot one of my inoculations this time round so have been more than usually picky about what and how I eat in India. (The sight of anything from street food to river water to rusty handrails on buses triggers an inner exclamation of’ ‘typhoid!’ – and never has the phrase ‘human faecal matter’, beloved of tropical medicine websites, figured so large in my consciousness…).

All of which just heightened the effect of Kurisumala’s stillness in making me feel noisy, chatty, obsessive, and fairly pointless – but all in a positive way…(!)

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6 Comments

  • December 30, 2011 - 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Christopher,

    Terrific to get your update. Any chance of re-posting the video of the moto ride through the backroads of Kerala in HD? Fantastic stuff – and yes, home to the best form of Communism one could hope for.

    Be well, and safe travels!

    James

  • Chris
    January 8, 2012 - 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi James! Video shot on relatively simply camera (now slightly damaged as a result, in fact!) so I don’t have HD I’m afraid…
    A Happy New Year to you!
    C

  • peter
    March 7, 2012 - 1:45 am | Permalink

    Hi, where is the water source of the ashram coming from? Is the ashram affected/to be affected by the water crisis in Kerala? Is their water clean/potable?

  • Chris
    March 7, 2012 - 10:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Peter. The water at Kurisumala comes from a large tank that was dug out a number of years ago – possibly dating back as far as the 1960s, I’m not sure. There was no talk of the ashram being affected by water shortages when I was there in Jan, although they always ask visitors to use water sparingly. The water is boiled to make it suitable for drinking, so there are no worries on that count. Cheers, Chris

  • peter
    March 8, 2012 - 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Hi Chris, Thanks very much. I am interested in visiting the single trappist ashram in India/the world.
    How silent were the guests? the monks? How many hermitages were there outside the guesthouse? Can I bring my iphone & laptop and expect to get internet wireless phone signal? Do they even have electrical sockets in the guestroom at all? You said there were around ten monks; how many novitiates? (were those the guys in white?) Did you yourself participate in “Bread Labour;” did you help out with the ashram chores? So please clarify, the Liturgy of the Eucharist/Mass was in English? the Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office was in Malayalam? Is there actually a spring at the top of the nearby holy mountain where pilgrims go to during lent? Many thanks. Namaste.

  • Chris
    March 9, 2012 - 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Peter. They are reasonably strict about silence there – some periods of almost total silence, others in hushed tones. Silence is encouraged in the guest quarters at all times. The monks live mostly together in an inner compound, which is not accessible for guests. Yes, there is a mobile phone signal up there. No electrical socket in guest rooms, but one just outside on the wall of the men’s building. I’m not 100% sure how many novices at present – two or three at present, by my reckoning (the photo I used above is quite old, because I wanted to show the original founder, Francis Mahieu).

    I was doing research there, which they were kind enough to count as my ‘bread labour’ – otherwise, yes, people help with cooking, cleaning, etc. They have a range of services throughout the week, in a mixture of English (not much), Malayalam and Syriac. It is certainly becoming a popular site for pilgrims – I’m not sure about the spring though. Let me know if you find out! Wishing you all the best for your visit.

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