Sunday, April 03, 2016

Jai Yesu! Victory to Jesus! Easter with the tribal Christians of South Gujarat

A few months ago my friend Fr. Saby of the Diocese of Baroda called up to invite me to celebrate Easter at his mission in a remote corner of south Gujarat. I readily agreed.

Fr. Saby, along with two other priests (one is a senior priest in residence), live in the village of Relva, about 140 km south of Baroda, in Narmada District of Gujarat State. The nearest town, Dediapada is 18 km away. The Catholic Church has a presence here dating back three or four decades, when a Spanish Jesuit started the mission at Relva (the Spanish Jesuits are owed a huge debt for their pioneering work in Gujarat state). A sizeable community of Christians (a few thousand, if I recall correctly, according to Father) now exists, mainly from the Vasava Bhil tribe, in the surrounding villages. In Relva itself, there is a boarding school ("ashram shala" in Gujarati), which houses 380 children.

The Vasavas still live a traditional life of agriculture, cattle herding or even hunting-gathering. India's tribals are not Hindus, though they were often considered so by both the British and later Indian officials. They are outside the Hindu caste structure, and their religious system is animistic. However, the process of Hinduization has also taken place here, and has only accelerated with the rise of Hindu nationalism in the past few decades. There has been an huge openness to the Gospel across the subcontinent in India's tribal belts. The district of Dangs, further south, has a big Christian tribal population, both Catholic and Protestant.

Father had told me the liturgy would be in Gujarati, so I had borrowed a Gujarati Missal from a kind priest in Baroda, in order to practice! Though I speak the language at home, it has never been a language of prayer for me, and I don't know any serious Christian vocabulary in it! I prayed hard to prepare a good homily!

Driving through little villages like this ... 
On Easter Sunday morning, bright and early, we set off from Baroda (i.e our driver and I), making slow progress, on sleepy, empty roads, past Dabhoi, then Rajpipla, past banana plantations, winding through sparsely forested hills to Dediapada, and then through dry, brown fields to the little village of Relva, a smattering of mud huts and more pakka structures. The parsonage was just behind the big mission school. Fr. Saby greeted us, and asked the driver to stay there, where he could rest, and get some tea and breakfast. He and I hopped into his jeep and then drove another 12 km on cracked, bumpy, roads, to the village of Rukhal, where the main Easter Mass for the area would be held. The community had just constructed a new deval (chapel), dedicated to Carmelgirimata (Mother of Mt. Carmel), which, it turned out, I was to bless after Mass.

The men leading the procession to the church
We arrived a little past 9:30 am. Mass was to have begun at 9:00 am. "Don't worry. It's all very fluid here." There was a group of men with drums, and color and paint on their clothes and faces as we got out. "They're here to greet you. And also lead the procession to the church." We were ushered into a modest, clean house, where Father asked me to vest. Several folks milled about -- many approached and me and touched my feet in the traditional Indian sign of respect for elders, as well as religious leaders. A few Carmelite Sisters also greeted us. They are part of the mission leadership, and include two sisters from Spain. As I donned my alb, I asked if there would be chasubles at the Church. "Oh, we don't use chasubles hrtr, only the shawl." I balked. Thankfully I had thought to bring a chasuble with me. "Oh yes, no one will mind. Please wear it." So, we lined up, and the procession started -- drums, and women dancing and singing (in Vasavi, a dialect I couldn't understand, though it seemed it was about going to the Lord's temple) -- winding its way up the hill to the new chapel.

Mass itself was held outside, in a covered area, brightly decorated and festooned with tinsel and garlands. Several hundred people awaited our arrival, the women seated on one side of the aisle, the men on another. The people sit through Mass, and, a little more disconcertingly for me, the priests offer Mass sitting down as well. There is a makeshift, decorated table that serves as an altar, and the priests sit in chairs behind it. This is an approved liturgical adaptation, it seems, for inculturated Masses in India. Like any good religious gathering in India, the microphone system was connected to giant speakers so that the sound would carry to at least five villages :-). The singing at Mass was all in the traditional Indian bhajan style. I couldn't make out the words at all, but it was lively, and everyone joined in. I managed to pray the Mass and read everything decently, and even eked out a short homily (folks were very kind about it later). Fr. Saby and his fellow mission priest, Fr. Nawsa, concelebrated, and helped me with the Missal.

The brightly decorated altar, with the offertory "table" in front of it (picture taken after Mass)
There was some confusion at the beginning. I followed the instructions from the Missal, and said the prayers for the Easter sprinkling rite, and sprinkled the congregation with Holy Water. Everyone seemed a little befuddled, and then the choir took up the penitential rite! Oh well.

Prior to the Liturgy of the Word, a short hymn was sung, and the Lectionary was brought up in procession. I recognized the word "Bible." The English word was used. I was surprised. I would have expected dharmashastra, given the propensity to translate everything into a Hindu idiom. (In the Gujarati translation of the ancient Syro-Malabar liturgy, even the biblical and venerable amen has not been spared, and is rendered with the Sanskrit tathastu. I was incensed when I heard about this the first time. There is no precedence for this: everywhere, everyone says amen! But, I digress ... )

At the offertory, Father asked me to wait. The custom of the people is to line up and come to the altar, and offer their gifts -- i.e. their offering -- in the daan peti (collection box) placed in front of the altar! It was actually very moving -- everyone came up, the men first, then the women, and also children. Father had said that though they are poor, the people give generously.

Photo of the newly blessed chapel, the Carmelgirimata deval: Chapel of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
At the consecration, several (most? I wasn't paying close attention), bowed their heads to the ground (while remaining seated). I had two microphones in front of me ... I was sitting down, and sort of reached my hands through those mics to get to the altar, the paten and chalice. The elevations were highly awkward and somewhat nerve-wracking!

The faithful line up to the venerate the Crucifix in the new chapel. (There's no altar!)
Three of the five Carmelite sisters in attendance
After the Great Amen, Father asked me to step off the altar. We kneeled to one side (he knelt, and I gratefully followed suit!), as three young women came up and offered aarti to the Sacred Species on the altar, as a hymn was sung (another approved inculturated addition to the Mass). It occurred to me there, how the sense of the faith is so subtle, yet keen. The priests, who were behind the altar, step aside so no one thinks the aarti is being offered to them! Well, why not just be in front of the altar and offer the Mass facing the Lord? But I digress again ...

Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful, who receive under both kinds, via intinction. I let the other two priests distribute, while I tried not to melt. It was incredibly hot (daytime highs are regularly in the low 100s nowadays). I was in my alb and chasuble, and my handkerchief was soaked, and nasty well before Mass was over.

Priests, religious and catechists being feted after Mass by the village leadership
Mass lasted about two hours -- after it was over, Father handed me a little book and asked me to come to the front of the chapel. Most of the people remained seated -- the Sisters, as well as leading village citizens, as well as the village headman, joined us, as I said a prayer of blessing from the Ritual, and cut the ribbon at the door. Apparently, I was the chief guest who was to inaugurate the chapel! We went in, and paid homage to the crucifix (there was no altar in the chapel!), and then the faithful all followed to do the same. Following this, wee were invited to sit down again. There followed speeches of thanks from the village headman, and other leading citizens. The fathero and sishtero, as well as a seminarian and catechists, were feted, presented with a shawl on the shoulders, a gift (mine was a lovely carving of Our Lord), and a garland of marigolds. Fr. Saby was called to speak and reminded the folks of the great sacrifice they had made in order to build this new chapel, and how it would be a beacon of faith, visible for miles around from its hilltop perch. This was followed by a cultural program, which consisted of various groups of boys and girls from different villages gyrating to the latest Bollywood tunes.

"Cultural program" i.e. Bollywood music, underway!
A big communal lunch was organized. Fr. Saby excused me from it, so that we could have lunch at his place. I was also tired, dehydrated and had the beginnings of a splitting headache as a consequence. Tons of folks came up and warmly wished me Happy Easter, and touched my feet. The Sisters saw my vestments bundled in my arm, and suddenly they were taken from me, folded neatly and returned with a smile. God bless the Sisters! As everyone lined up to go to the lunch, we went downhill, and got back in father's jeep to return to the mission base.

Well loved lay catechist giving his testimony and thanks
It was truly a most memorable and unique experience. I saw a community that was tightly knit, that loved the priests and religious that loved them, and showed the kind of reverence, and devotion that I have come to expect in congregations in India. Father told me that in general, the faith of the people was strong, and he knew of no syncretistic approaches. One of the more moving moments was hearing the testimony of a lay catechist, who was also honored. He has labored for decades among the villages -- a poor farmer, a father of seven -- but he spoke with conviction, and his love for the Lord was very evident, as was the respect and love of the people for him.

Even here, cell phones are ubiquitous. And of course, it would be the little brothers who're recording their sisters' dances on the phone!
The three priests after Mass. 
The Christians of Gujarat greet each other with the greeting Jai Yesu, hail Jesus, or victory to Jesus! On Easter Sunday, the day we commemorate and celebrate Jesus' Victory, it was a joy to be with this people, this little corner of the vineyard, and rejoice in the gift of faith, and new life that continually pours forth from that Victory, and is channeled down the ages through His Body, the Church.
Happy Easter!

Links to previous posts on the Church in Gujarat:

A five-part interview with my friend Fr. Jose Panadan SJ on the Church in Gujarat, and the caste-missions of North Gujarat (2008)

A visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Camels in 2010 in Mehsana Dist. in N. Gujarat (on my old semianry blog)

My first experience of Mass in Gujarati (New Year's Day, 2006)

PS: I've deliberately attempted to refrain from liturgical commentary in this post. I need to learn a little more about the principles of inculturation, and various perspectives on it, before I can offer any commentary that is anything more than just subjective opinion stemming from taste. I've done that enough already in posts in the past, and on FB. 

1 comment:

MiriamJ said...

Fr Gaurav - I read this post twice! I loved the pictures and the descriptions of how Mass is celebrated within this community. What a gift to celebrate with this community on Easter. Thank you for taking the time to share your observations with us.