Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sainthood for Fr Chavara: Better late than never 
Published: 9:12 pm, April 6, 2014 Story By: A.J. Philip

Saintly Chavara teaching local people
Kayamkulam: Since I do not watch television these days, I got the news about the Pontifical decision to confer sainthood on Fr Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia Eluvathinkal only when I logged into my favorite newspaper on Friday morning. I always wondered why the Church took so long to canonize the priest, a process which started 60 years ago.
When I read the news, what attracted my attention was the fact that he was born at Kainakari in my own Alappuzha district. The priest seemed to beckon me as I got ready to visit his birthplace. I learnt the route using the Google map application on my BlackBerry phone and it showed the distance as 51 km.
Though cartography was never my forte, I would not have missed an important aspect of the journey if I had cared to study the map. It was only after I reached the Alappuzha-Changanasery road, known as AC Road, that I learnt that Chavara Bhavan, the house where he was born, could not be accessed by road. I would have to leave the car at the panchayat jetty and hire a small rowing boat at 100-150 rupees to cross the Pampa.
The short drive to the jetty was one of the most enchanting I had. The easily submersible little road was flanked on both sides by vast stretches of paddy fields giving the region the pseudonym, the “rice bowl of Kerala.” The jetty seemed to be a busy center with auto rickshaws waiting for passengers and a restaurant doing brisk business.
I accosted a boatman, who had just brought two passengers from across the river at 2 rupees per person. “I would charge 150 rupees to take you to your destination but it would be cheaper for you to go there by the ferry service run by the government.” I saluted him for his honesty. As luck would have it, an Alappuzha-bound boat had just berthed at the jetty.
My wife and I got into the boat, which was full of people. It moved diagonally touching wharfs on both sides of the river. At 4 rupees per person, the journey was cheaper, more comfortable and safer than in a small ferry boat. “Welcome to Chavara Bhavan,” said a signboard at the wharf where we disembarked. Overlooking the river was a large church that had “God is love” written in large letters atop the building.
The campus was full of people, attending a free eye camp. My eyes fell on a statue of Fr Chavara, attached to a horizontal building. “Is this Chavara Bhavan?” I wondered. “No, it is a school. The Bhavan is half a kilometre away,” said a volunteer supervising the eye camp.
We came out of the campus and walked toward the next jetty along the river front. A little teashop run by a lady drew my attention. She prepared a nice cup of tea served with a groundnut-filled snack I had never tasted. She was excited that Fr Chavara would soon become a saint. “A boat full of children came this morning to pay obeisance to Achen (priest).”
A little ahead was a little jetty, built specially for the pilgrims. From there, a small road led straight to Chavara Bhavan. To the right of the road was a small canal. Every household in the area had a boat of its own. A large waterbody on the left was so full of hyacinth that not a drop of water could be seen. Rows of coconut trees on the edges of the road protected it from soil erosion. The paddy fields in the area were below the sea level and susceptible to frequent floods.
Kainakari was part of a sprawling island surrounded by the backwaters of Vembanad. It was the only place inKerala where motor vehicles had not yet made a foray. We could walk freely without fear of being knocked down by a speeding motorcyclist. We did not even see a bicycle in the area. “Blessed Chavara Pray for Us” said an arch-shaped gate.
We moved further through the gate to come across another one that said, “Hearty Welcome.” Behind it was another gate that said, “Chavara Bhawan Kainakary: The Birth Place of Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Born 1805 Died 1871.” A large conical building built in concrete had “Chavara Bhawan” written in large letters. The courtyard was paved with colourful tiles.
There was not a soul around except for Fr Chavara’s mystical presence. The Bhavan’s large door was flanked by sign boards that listed in chronological order the landmarks in the life of the blessed priest.
I entered the Bhavan to realize that it was a chapel. A life-size statute of Fr Chavara stood in a glass case. That morning a special Mass was celebrated to commemorate Pope Francis giving his approval for the canonisation of the priest.
As I came out of the chapel, I noticed another small door that led to a large hall that encased a thatched house in which Fr Chavara was born in 1805. For convenience, a portion of the original house was removed but much of it has been preserved intact. The room where he was born is now a prayer room where lighting of candles is banned.
On the walls around were some of his sayings. One of them said, “Children are treasures God has given to you for safekeeping.” Another said, “Don’t enter into alliances with families which do not fear God and are not disciplined.” One wall had pictures and notes from people who wanted to thank the priest for his prayers of intercession. One of them, a nurse, attributed her success in finding a life partner to his intervention.
There was still nobody around. The Chavara Bhawan had a large number of paintings that depicted various activities of the blessed priest. Anybody would be awed by his achievements.
The sun was at its worst. We decided to take rest in the verandah of the adjoining building where a shop selling memorabilia was situated. I could hear Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite prayer “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram” wafting through the air. “Maybe from television.”
We could see a young man, wearing a white kurta and dark trousers walking toward us. “His demeanour suggests that he is a priest,” I told my wife. My hunch was right. He was Fr Johnson Pandalanickel. “As we are one of the organizers of the Eye Camp, I had gone there.” He led us to the dining hall and we sat around a table, laden with food.
He arranged a glass of sherbet, made of ginger, lemon and sugar, for all of us. Over the welcome drink, he narrated to me the story of Chavara Bhavan. He belonged to the Carmelite of Mary Immaculate (CMI), the order co-founded by Fr Chavara, which had a presence in 24 countries. Sr Jyotis, who also served there, joined us for discussions.
“This area was at one time a stronghold of Christians. Over the decades, many of them had sold their property here and shifted to other places. Now, there are only 20-25 Christian families here,” said Fr Johnson. “It was in February 1979 that the church bought the house which belonged to one of the descendants of Fr Chavara.”
Fr Chavara lost both his parents and only brother at a very young age when smallpox spread in the area like wildfire. Though he had chosen to be an ecclesiastic, he was thoughtful enough to bring one of his sisters to stay in the ancestral property. After selling the property to the church, the family migrated to Iritti in North Kerala. “Once a year, they visit us.”
Subsequently, the church bought about 11 acres of land in the area. “We wanted to build a church but the ban on filling paddy fields stood in the way of our plan.”
The young priest is happy that the sainthood for Fr Chavara would help in the quick development of the area. “What we need urgently is a bridge to link Kainakari with the mainland. In the last Budget, Finance Minister K.M. Mani earmarked 1 crore (10 million) rupees for the bridge work. It will need at least 40 crore rupees.”
The priest is not an engineer. Given the technological challenges the bridge across the deep river poses, the final bill could be hundreds of crores of rupees. With bridge, more pilgrims will visit Kainakari. It will also increase pollution in the otherwise sylvan area.
In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge laments the state of the sailor who does not have any water to drink: “Water, water, every where/ And all the boards did shrink;/ Water, water, every where,/ Nor any drop to drink.”
Though Kainakari is surrounded by water, potable water is difficult to get. “We buy water that comes in bottles. It has a PPM level of 115 to 120 when it should be less than 10. The river water has a PPM of 580.”
The church has a plan to set up a water purification plant in collaboration with the Rotary Club. It will bring the PPM level to less than 5. It also envisages constructing a park in the area.
When hunger began to gnaw at us, I waited for Achen’s next invitation to have lunch. Soon enough, it came and we had a sumptuous vegetarian lunch, rounded off with home-grown small, yellow bananas.
Two hundred years ago, there was no church in the island. Fr Chavara was baptised at the Chennankeri church in the mainland. There is a home for the aged and sick attached to the church. “Here also there is one, though it has only three inmates,” said Fr Johnson. He took us first to the sewing center where three women who had passed out from the center were busy stitching clothes.
On the wall was written in Fr Chavara’s own handwriting the command he had given to the people of Kainakari that they should run a home for the destitute even if it had only bare essentials. But for the persuasions of Fr Johnson, the ladies would not have posed for a photograph. From there, we went to the Sneh Sadan.
Edwin John from Thiruvananthapuram was all smiles when he received us. He and fellow inmate Varghese were busy watching a Tamil movie starring Gemini Ganesan. They had been there for the last four years. However hard Varghese tried to tie his lungi around his waste, it came off like the plaster in government buildings. I remembered the joke that Malayali men spent half their life tying dhoti. Satheesan Nair, who was enjoying a siesta, was woken up by Edwin. He was the latest inmate.
Theirs seemed to be a carefree life. Just as we came out of the house, a ripe mango fell from the tree in front the house. “This seems to have fallen for you.” Stories abound about Fr Chavara sending packets of mangoes to all the ashrams he had set up. I would love to believe that it was the mysterious hands of Fr Chavara who felled the mango for us.
While returning, we stopped at the residence of Kunchama, a retired teacher. His is a beautiful house. In his courtyard was a Z-shaped tree, full of mangoes. The path leading to the house had a coconut tree in the middle but it was not cut. He is a descendant of Fr Chavara.
Kunchama showed me a sheet of paper, his elder brother had prepared which showed Fr Chavara’s family tree. “I am still learning about my relationship with the saint. After all, I belong to the sixth or seventh generation after Fr Chavara.”
Back at the church, I was introduced to Fr P. Joseph, Director. He had completed three years at Kainakari and was expecting a transfer. On our request, Sr Jyotis opened the shop attached to Chavara Bhawan. I bought two books Fr Chavara: Oru Rekha Chithram (A Book of Documentation) by Fr Thomas Panthaplackal and Sukruthamsmara (An Anthology of Essays on Fr Chavara) and a couple of luminous rosaries.
We returned to the jetty to find an elderly lady lamenting about how she missed a boat because her daughter-in-law had gone back to their house to bring something which she had forgotten. We waited for more than one and a half hours to get the next boat.

Meanwhile, we watched dozens of large house boats, most of them air-conditioned, going up and down the river. The boats, which have all the facilities for stay, food and recreation, attract thousands of tourists from all over the world. They also pollute the river as tons of waste is dumped in the river increasing what Fr Johnson calls “PPM levels.”
Finally, an “Express” boat arrived. But for the higher tariff of 7 rupees per person, there was nothing express about the boat. Back home at Kayamkulam, I thumbed the pages of the two books to learn why Fr Chavara should have been bestowed with sainthood at least a century ago.
(The writer can be reached at This article first appeared in the Indian Currents.)

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