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.
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.
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.
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.
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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