Friday, June 28, 2013

Itinerant Mendicant: In the Court of the Virgin

The Sanctuary of the Virgin of Monserrat lies in the Monserrat mountain some thirty-eight kilometres outside of the Catalonian-Spanish city of Barcelona. This sanctuary is home to a Benedictine monastery that legend holds was built around the image of the Virgin Mary seated with her son Jesus in her lap. The monastery was reportedly built around the image because when the monks tried to move the image, they found it impossible to move beyond a certain distance, and were thereby convinced that it was the divine wish of the mother of Christ that her image remain where it had been found. In some traditions, this image of the Virgin is understood to be a replica of an original that was carved by the hand of St. Luke himself. Interestingly, the image portrays the mother of Christ as a dark-hued lady, and is one of the Black Madonnas scattered across Europe.

However, it is not an itinerant’s reminisces of a fabulous shrine that concern this column, but the comparisons that one could make with the sub-continent having visited this European Catholic shrine. Reading books on Catholic practices in Goa, one comes across endless reams seeking to demonstrate how similar some of the practices of Goan Catholicism are to Hinduism, and how some of the Goan churches seem to operate like temples. In such a context, what would it be like to compare a European church to a Hindu temple? It was exactly such an opportunity that presented itself subsequent to this visit to the shrine of the Virgin of Monserrat.

Anthropological studies, especially of South Indian temples, have demonstrated how the temple is not merely a “religious” space, but the centre of a polity over which the deity is understood to be the sovereign ruler. Within this understanding, the temple is the palace of the deity, where royal rituals are carried out, and “devotees” are in fact subjects who go to petition the ruler for favours, just as today we visit politicians for similar boons. Based on the kind of patronage the temple enjoys, the temple complex could range from a simple shed, to an agglomeration of structures, including tanks, courtyards and other buildings.

With this understanding in place it becomes easier to see how the shrine of Monserrat operates very much as a Hindu temple does. The complex consists, not merely of the shrine that houses the image of the Virgin, but includes, like many Hindu temples do, a series of courtyards. Situated at varying levels, the three courtyards at Monserrat, like the Hindu shrine, offer even from the outside various levels of access to the deity within. Much like Hindu temples it is in these spaces where pilgrims gather, and locals offer up performances, be they human towers (castellers), or local dances (sardana) that are held to be “in honour” of the Virgin.

The Virgin is not merely an object of veneration of the Catholic cult, but has also been incorporated into Catalonian nationalism. Thus, on September 11, 1881, Pope Leo XIII declared the vVrgin of Montserrat patroness of Catalonia. As if to further underscore the icon’s status as a sovereign figure, in 1947 the icon was installed into a larger work of art so as to appear as if the Virgin was seated on a throne. As a result, one gets the impression quite like that of the Hindu deity who is installed as the sovereign presiding over its royal court, the central figure capturing one’s eye, commanding awe and respect. Given the icon’s reputation as a miracle worker, in a manner reminiscent of the parikrama, the shrine in Monserrat allows for pilgrims to que up, caress the globe in the Virgin’s hand, and exit from the opposite side, where they can light candles either in thanksgiving for prayers answered, or as further petitions.

The object of this comparison however, is not to demonstrate that there is a Hindu logic that underpins the operation of the universe, but to demonstrate that Catholic churches and their rituals in Goa, are in fact just as Catholic as in any other part of the world.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan, dtd. 29 June 2013)