Today is Christmas, a day celebrated world over for the birth of Christ, the man who showed humanity the path of love.
In India, Christianity is as old as the religion itself. Two thousand years before, Christianity arrived here from its holy land to Malabar Coast at Muziris.
In the Middle Age Roman Catholics had made profound spread in the west coast of Southern India by the missionaries of Portuguese, Italian and Irish nationals. However in other parts of South India, such as interior Tamil Nadu and Karnataka the religion had not made much inroads.
A new method was adopted called ‘Malabar Rites’ for conversion in Tamil Nadu. Robert de Nobili (1577-1656 CE), an Italian Catholic Father had initiated these rites in order to pave the way for the hoped for conversion of upper class Hindus. Within this approach, the converts had the right to practice parts of their native custom and tradition of Hinduism.
Nobili entered Madura in the dress of a saniassy (Hindu ascetics). He had discovered that among Brahmins, the Portuguese were considered part of the low caste because of their free mixing with low caste Hindus, eating beef and engaged in alcoholic consumption. Nobili introduced himself as a Roman Raja to local Brahmins and desirous of living at Madura in practising penance, in praying and studying the sacred law. He practised local customs living on rice, milk and herbs with water. Over a period of time Nobili started charming his audience by speaking in perfect Tamil, participating with Brahmins in intellectual debates and even reciting Tamil poetry with exquisite skill.
Eventually Nobili proceeded step by step on his missionary task. But the converts were allowed to keep their native customs integral, for example wearing the dress proper to each other’s caste.
It was because of the foresight of Nobili, South India saw the rise of a different Catholic tradition without being much separated from the custom and tradition that had been followed for hundreds of years before the 17th century. I felt the noble Indianized Christianity deeply while being for a couple of hours at Bengaluru’s oldest Catholic site, the minor basilica of St Mary Church at busy Shivaji Nagar area.
The origin of the church goes back to the 17th century (the time of Nobili), when a few native Christians came here from Ginjee, Tamil Nadu to settle because they found here fertile land suitable for white rice cultivation. Soon the area came to be known as ‘Bili Akki Palli’ because of the white rice which they cultivated and white birds who were found in those rice fields. They built a thatched church and named it ‘Chapel of Kanikkai Madha’.
The early missionary initiated by Nobili was succeeded by French Jesuit both in Tamil Nadu and in Mysore. However, in the 18th century with the rise of Hyder Ali and Tipu, the missionary had got a setback. It was only after 1799 CE, with the fall of Tipu, a cantonment was established at Bengaluru. Christianity found a new patron. In 1811 CE, Fr Jean Dubois built a small church at the site of Chapel of Kanikkai Madha for the resident priests which was later expanded by Rev. Fr. Andreas, an Indian priest from Pondicherry.
The church was pulled down during a communal riot in 1832 CE and after a few years a dreadful plague had added further misery. It is said that people sought Mother Mary’s intervention for relief from the clutches of disastrous death. As per the belief, Mary’s miracle worked curing her people from plague and providing them good health.
In 1875, the present church was built in grand Gothic style. On 23rd September, the church was elevated to a minor basilica, the only of its kind in Karnataka and 4 such churches in India. Since then, ever year this day a large number of pilgrimage throng here for the divine blessing.
My intention of visit to the church was however to appreciate its architectural marvel built in the Gothic style with arches, ornamental motifs and stained glass windows. But what moved me here is the intense devotion for Mother Mary and the rituals in Indian manner. You feel as if you are in a Hindu Temple or a Muslim Dargah. Devotees represent all strata and the atmosphere inside is intense.