Sunday, January 28, 2007

Religion Under Kerala's Communist Government


The State of Kerala, widely reported to be the first elected communist government, would seem an unlikely place for so many temples, Hindu and Jain, mosques, churches of numerous denominations, even a basilica or two, and synagogues everywhere. Religion, is seems, is infused into daily life, from personal identification and diet, to celebrations and knowledge of gods. Festivals are held in various temples at different times throughout the year, some with small and huge elephant processions. Music and chanting wafting (or blasting, depending) from temples sometimes wakes us early in the morning, and the Arabic call to prayer from mosques can be heard in the late afternoons. Small and large temples are gaily decorated and streets in towns, villages and larger cities around temples have colorful banners lining and hanging above the road leading to the local temple at festival time.

“What is your good name?” seems to be one way of asking our religion, with Michael winning nice smiles from Christian Keralans, who have familiar names like Matthew, Abraham, Joseph and Mary. One yoga teacher assured us that “Jesus was in our hearts and has the power to heal,” which we would have thought an odd statement from a yoga teacher before coming to Kerala. Other yoga teachers silently meditate beneath paintings of Shiva and other Hindu gods with photos of gurus hanging from their studio walls.

In Cochin, The Koder House, now a small hotel, was until recently the home of the Jewish community’s patriarch, Mr. Satu Koder, until his death. In Mattancherry, a well known synagogue has barely enough men to hold Friday night and Saturday services, but is open for tourists, except Friday and Saturday. The Lonely Planet reads that it is open except for Saturday, but one of the many Kashmiri merchants with shops clustered on Jew Street told us that there was an argument between members of the congregation on cleaning before services, so now a sign is posted, “Closed Friday and Saturdays.” The same merchant told us vivid stories and the significance of the animals that gods are portrayed riding or standing with for the various apparitions of the Hindu gods Shiva, Durga and Krishna. His face was so intent in his telling, that when I asked him, “Are you Hindu?” he looked surprised, and said, “No! I’m Muslim, but I know these stories from films and I read.”

Sarah, an older Jewish woman, owns a shop on Jew Street and buys embroidered towels from “poor Catholic convent girls.” She speaks English and Malayalam, responding with a little disgust to my stupid question, “of course I speak Malayalam, these people aren’t educated,” as she gestured towards the crowded street. She was born in Cochin and has lived her entire life in Kerala.

In Fort Cochin, guest house owners Leslie Fernandez, and another named Aijai Matthew Abraham who with his mother Mary, run a lovely large Dutch colonial houses turned into guest houses, or “home stays.” Mary, obviously proud of the culture, arranged for us to see a mercifully abridged performance of the Kathakali, the ancient dance form based upon the Mahavharata, Ramayana and Bhagavata, the stories of the gods Rama and Krishna. Traditional temple performances are said to go six to nine hours, or last all night.

Ashams are scattered around the countryside, usually named for a leading swami, and they attract hundreds if not thousands of visitors. Passing a huge one on an overnight backwater houseboat trip between Kollam and Alappuzha, a bridge connects a temple complex with two concrete residential towers on the other side of the canal. It is the home base ashram of the famous female guru, Shri Amritanandamay Devi, the Hugging Mama. A French woman who stayed there told us that the towers housed 3,000 residents, and that when HM travels, she is accompanied by 300 devout followers. (More about our mountain forest ashram experience in the Searching for the Perfect Yoga School posting)


The annual pilgrimage of thousands of male devotees dressed in orange and black dhotis to the Hindu temple, Sabarimalla, is said to be the second largest pilgrimage in the world, implying that it is second to the Haj in Mecca. (see The Temple Scene in Trivandrum posting for some eye witness details.)

Religion, tradition and government have some seemingly odd contradictions from an outsiders view point. An article in a recent edition of the Hindu Express reported that the film Water, by Deepa Meta was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film by Canada, and may be shown in India after being banned following “violent protests by fundamental Hindus” during her first attempt to film it in India four years ago. Guest house owner, Mary, quietly acknowledged that there will be “some criticism,” if it is shown in Kerala because non explicit scenes of a widow seventy years ago forced into prostitution may offend. Scenes from the erotic Kamasutra are popular in paintings, sculpture and readily available in books sold in the busy book shops in any city. Another article reported the government suspension of a private satellite TV station for showing inappropriate programming, meaning a “documentary” entitled “The Sexiest Commericals in the World,” that offended the national censors who are sensitive to religious pressures. Kerala is recognized as one of the most religious states in the country. It seems that the Keralan communist parties and intermittently elected government skipped the part of Marx’s writing that “religion is the opiate of the people.”

1 comment:

gkschw said...

Hi Francie, It has been delightful reading all your postings. Have a wonderful day. Nancy