Lessons in Miracles from Kerala, South India: Stories of Three "Christian" Saints

by Corinne G. Dempsey
Lessons in Miracles from Kerala, South India: Stories of Three "Christian" Saints
Corinne G. Dempsey
History of Religions
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The following involves the telling of stories and their variations-tales of saintly miracle workers and their wonders. More specifically, it is a study of the storytellers themselves and the ways their tales draw lines- sometimes bold and other times smudged-between and around religious affiliations. The various ways storytellers stake religious boundaries in turn reflect differing approaches to the function of religion itself: as a framework for belief or as a conduit for power. As to be expected, this lat- ter view of religion as a source of miraculous efficacy, vividly expressed through narratives of saints and miracle workers, is less invested in draw- ing boldly religious distinctions. For the conventionally minded among us, these miracle workers' tales teach some worthy lessons.

Although briefly mentioned below are yarns spun by scholars and col- onizers, those featured belong to members of the Kerala Christian commu- nity, whose richly pluralistic context allows ample opportunity for issues of religious delineation to arise. Kerala's population is approximately one- quarter each Muslim and Christian and one-half Hindu, along with a hand- ful of Jews-a remnant of a thriving community that emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. Although sixteenth-century Portuguese and, later, British colonizer-missionaries made an indelible impression on the

My thanks to Craig Burgdoff, Ann Gold, Mary Keller, Bill Preston, and Selva Raj for helpful conversations and suggestions incorporated into the following. Also thanks to Anitha Chrisanthus for assistance in translation and to the American Institute of Indian Studies for their Junior Research Fellowship allowing me to do fieldwork in Kerala from January through November 1994. Interviews and stories related in this article come from this eleven-month research period.

01999 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0018-27 101200013902-0003$02.00

region, the majority of Kerala Christians distinguish themselves from other Indian Christians by tracing their heritage to a more ancient past: the peaceful conversion of Brahmans by Saint Thomas the Apostle himself.' While some (mostly foreign) historians may question this legacy, an es- tablished, thriving Syrian Christian community is in evidence by the fourth century c.E.~Today, Malayalis of all religious backgrounds commonly express pride in their unique history and their current relatively peaceful mixing of traditions-particularly against the backdrop of rising religious intolerance in many other parts of India.

Recent reports of interreligious unrest in India, typically involving clashes between Hindus and Muslims, has dramatically shifted in the past few years due to a marked increase in anti-Christian sentiment and violence. Ironically, while Kerala is home to the majority of Indian Christians it is a state where current Hindu-Christian clashes are negligible. Directed pri- marily at foreign missions and churches tied to tribal communities where converts to Christianity are disproportionately high, India's current burst of anti-Christian rhetoric (although no doubt simmering beneath the sur- face for some time) is often portrayed as a recent development. Yet in peaceful Kerala (again, ironically) such volatile interreligious dynamics are far from novel. From the mid-nineteenth century up through the 1930s, familiar incidents such as Christian-Hindu festival clashes, de- struction of church property, and grand-scale Hindu proselytizing were not uncommon and were enacted in response to British-inspired mass con- versions and lower caste revolts led by foreign mi~sionaries.~

To understand the relative lack of anti-Christian rhetoric in Kerala today one might look to the somewhat successful Hindu nationalist campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, aimed at reclaiming newly converted souls. More significant, however, is the fact that the majority of Kerala's Christians

' This paper deals primarily with this Syrian Christian community, split into a number of denominations including, for the most part, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The remain- der of Kerala Christians are primarily Catholics whose religious origins stem largely from fifteenth-century conversions of fisher caste Hindus by Portuguese and Italian colonizer- missionaries. Also within Kerala Christianity are a plethora of mainline Protestant commu- nities, the largest of which traces its roots to Anglican missionaries. Kerala's fastest growing Christian group today--drawing converts from all religious traditions-is the Pentecostal tradition.

This Syrian Christian community, chartered by spice merchants who settled on the southwest coast of India, eventually established themselves as a well-integrated and respected part of Kerala society. Historians have noted that their high social standing, on par with the Hindu Nair community, is reflected in similar concerns for ritual purity as well as a shared martial tradition. For an elaborate discussion of the shifting relations between the Syrian Christians and Nairs before and during British rule, see Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

See J. W. Gladstone, Protestant Christianity and People's Movements in Kerala: A Study of Christian Mass Movements in Relation to Neo-Hindu Socio-Religious Movements in Ke- rala, 1850-1936 (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala: Seminary Publications, 1984). See also Bayly.

today, virtually unmoved by such proselytizing, represent themselves- and are largely understood by others-as "insiders." This Syrian Christian majority who, according to tradition, were not coerced into conversion by foreign missionaries or colonizers are exempt from Portuguese, European, or North American missionary ties and thus from associated imperialistic agendas. Once largely immune to Hindu reconversion efforts, they are now (as are their non-Syrian Christian neighbors, seemingly by associa- tion) relatively free from nationalist reproach and subsequent turbulence as well.

Yet my aim here is not simply to offer tribute to religious harmony- to exceptions to the perceived rule in contemporary India. Emerging from Kerala's relatively peaceful pluralism, the following miracle workers' sto- ries, portraying religious boundaries with "give," represent a framework against which interreligious clashes-so highly visible in recent months- lose their impetus. Exposed is a formula within which such hard-hitting rhetoric ultimately makes little sense. My suspicion, furthermore, is that this alternate sensibility, quietly at work within contexts where healing and miracles are of primary concern, represents-in spite of religious and political rhetoric to the contrary-a viable norm in India rather than a freakish exception to the rule.4

Highlighted below are three well-established Kerala Christian saints- champions of healing and miracles-who in different ways soften rigid delineations between religious traditions. One miracle worker and patron- ess of an Orthodox Syrian church, a pious Jewish woman, is conspicu- ously non-Christian. Another saint, although Jacobite Chri~tian,~

gleans a

'I have written elsewhere about Kerala Christian and Hindu folklore reflecting complex communal relations (Corinne Dempsey, "Rivalry, Reliance, and Resemblance: Siblings as Metaphor for Hindu-Christian Relations in Kerala State," Asian Folklore Studies 57 [1988]: 51-71). Here, stories portraying local church patron saints and temple deities as testy yet interdependent siblings defy official religious and political reductions of interreligious rela- tions as either irretrievably separate or harmoniously unified. See also Corinne Dempsey, Kerala Christian Sainthood: Collisions of Culture and Worldview in South Indian Chris- tianity (New York: Oxford University Press, in press). For arguments against simplistic por- trayals of communal clashes based on politicized, abstracted understandings of religious affiliation outside Kerala, see Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Nita Kumar, The Arrisans of Banaras: Popular Culture and Identit?., 1880-1986 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

The Orthodox Syrians and Jacobites are branches of the ancient Syrian Christian tra- dition in Kerala. Their split occurred in 191 1 when about half its members switched their allegiance from the Patriarch in Antioch to the Katholicos based in Kerala. Those who maintain their allegiance to the Patriarch are today referred to as the Jacobites (Yakoba) and those who follow the Katholicos are Orthodox Syrian. The following stories' refer- ences to Syrian Christian seats of power-contemporary Iraq and ancient Persia-demon- strate how Kerala's Syrian Christian ties to the Middle East continue to play themselves out on a number of levels. For an extensive discussion of contemporary jacobite1Orthodox Syrian relations, see Susan Vishvanathan, The Christians of Kerala: History, BelieJ and Ritual among the Yakoba (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

portion of his powers from questionable-that is, seemingly demonic- magical sources. The third figure, recently beatified by the Vatican, elicits much of her fame and institutional recognition from the miraculous healing of a Muslim boy. In spite of this variety in affiliation and cross-affiliation, narrations of saint stories by devotees tend to underscore a single, unifying feature: the holy figure's capacity for miraculous power. As a result, this seemingly bold mixing of "beliefs" becomes arbitrary and inconsequential, particularly for those on the receiving end of saintly boons. This is not to say that storytellers consciously defy theologically or politically based "orthodox" delineations between religions. Rather, in the face of real life matters such abstractions simply matter less.

The extent to which these saints' stories undermine traditional religious constructions and parameters often varies between lay and clerical, local and official tellings. Thus they reflect different comfort levels with the kind of boundary blurring that arises from tales of miraculous power. I must emphasize, however, that for those Christian Keralites more at ease with interreligious exchange-or, put another way, more concerned with mirac- ulous power-such instances are not meant to negate professed affilia- tions. Malayali Christians who trace their roots back to Saint Thomas and Syrian merchants nearly two thousand years ago are quick to remind Christian foreigners of their ancient and noble heritage. After all, as one Syrian Catholic man put it to me, his people were Christian and/or Brah- man while most Europeans were "still running around like barbarians." Although Indian, Kerala Christians consider themselves no less Christian than their European counterparts and, although Christian, no less Indian than their Hindu neighbors.

Moreover, for some of Kerala's Syrian Christians, their Indian tradition stands as a hegemonic center situating European Christianity, particularly western European, as a peripheral Other.6 Methodologically, for those of us influenced by modem European Christianity-which Talal Asad argues is most all of us in the academic community7-this position as peripheral Other in relation to south India is, I think, crucial and something to which I will return once my recounting of Kerala storytelling is through.*

My discussion of Alphonsa, below, briefly picks up this issue of Kerala Christian hege- mony. For a fuller discussion of the ways in which Kerala Christian saints' cults articulate distance from and superiority over European culture and religion, see Dempsey, Kerala Christian Sainthood.

'Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

* While I am here drawing a distinction between normative understandings of religion as belief versus local understandings of religion as power, as witnessed in Kerala, this is not to say that current European or North American popular Christianity does not also, at times, concern itself with power and healing rather than belief. For examples in the United States, see Robert Anthony Orsi, Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Har- lem, 1880-1950 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), and Thank You, St. Jude:

I first learned of Marttas'miini from two middle-aged men in the town of Ettamanur near Kottayam. I was advised to speak to these neighboring shop owners (one of them Orthodox Syrian and the other Hindu) because their shared enthusiasm for religious pluralism and local traditions over- lapped with my interests. During our discussion over tea in the Hindu gen- tleman's photo shop, the two men compared Marttas'miini, a female patron of a church in Peroor, to the more famous Mary at an arc ad.^ Before I was able to learn more about Marttas'miini of Peroor, our conversation drifted irretrievably onto other subjects.

Perhaps this explains my initial confusion several days later when I arrived at an Orthodox Syrian church in Peroor and found the customary oil lamps and Christian paraphernalia (including a requisite picture of Saint George slaying a dragon)1° alongside tables filled with Jewish menorahs (fig. 1). After searching the deserted church grounds for someone who could explain, I noticed three men setting up a tea stall near the back of the church. After some small talk and introductions, I asked if they could tell me the story of Marttas'miini and their church. While the youngest of the three brought a bench out of the stall so I could sit down, the sixty-ish elder of the group assumed the position of storyteller, obligingly narrating the following.

MarttaSmUni Mother had seven children. Mosil in Karakosh was their village [in present-day Iraq], 157 years before Christ. She had deep faith in God, that saintly woman. She was compelled to venerate idols and eat pork by a king called Anti- ochus, but she was not willing to do it. She was a woman with her seven children

Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univer- sity Press, 1996); Colleen MacDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Cul- ture in America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995). For local Christian practice in Europe, see Ellen Badone, ed., Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990). It is interesting to note that PentecostalICharismatic movements, although often involved in activities such as faith healing, seem very much concerned with belief-particularly in their Western European and North American manifestations. In Asia and Latin America, however, these movements, although also preoccupied with belief, often put more emphasis on the healing power of religious expression. For example, Potta, the largest and currently the most popular Catholic Charismatic Renewal Center in India, attracts participants across religious boundaries primarily as a site for healing.

For a description of Manarcad's famous annual festival honoring Mary, see Paul Younger, "The Window Opens in Mannarkat: A Vision of Mary in a Syrian Christian Church of Kerala" (unpublished manuscript, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1996).

lo Saint George is probably the most popular saint in Kerala except perhaps for Mary. Because his cult was originally brought by Syrian merchants, again by Portuguese and British colonizers as their patron, and now has been demoted by the Vatican, the current relationship between the saint and Kerala is quite complex. For a fuller discussion, see Corinne Dempsey, "St. George the Indigenous Foreigner in Kerala Christianity," Religion 28 (1988): 171-83.

apparently decided to drape a silk cloth on the wall before one apparition and the figures stayed on the cloth for five minutes. Luckily for the com- munity in Peroor and all of Kerala, the archbishop of Iraq brought this cloth to Peroor and enshrined it in the local church. Extolling the potency and popularity of MarttaSmUni's local apparitions, the teller's account con- cluded: "They appear even now on this holy cloth before the people who have the real faith. Many miracles occur. Many people from India and from abroad come here. Many patients and people who suffer from dire poverty are saved from their troubles. Many tourists also come here."

During this narration I kept waiting for the "missing" link between the Jewish MarttaSmUni and the Christian churches visited by her shadows. I also was hoping for an explanation of the church's menorahs that so took me off guard. After the man finished speaking, thinking perhaps I had lost something in the translation, I stated for purposes of clarification, "Then, she is Jewish." The people around the tea stall, apparently also familiar with the story, simply nodded as though nothing more needed to be said. On asking if anyone could tell me the significance of the menorahs in the church, people seemed to think it best to get further information from the parish priest living nearby. After a short tour of the church, a young woman led me along a path that edged around a rice field and into the back of Father Mani Kallapurathu's house. There we learned that Father Mani was on his way home from the hospital where his wife had just given birth to a baby boy.

On returning, the priest kindly agreed to answer some of my questions, the most pressing of which still had to do with the menorahs. These he understood to be Syrian, the candles representing each of MarttaSmUni's seven children. Without further ado, he went on to explain that the cloth in the glass case was of central importance. Originally kept in a church in Iraq, it was brought to Peroor in 1993 by the Musil bishop, Isaac Zacha Zevarius, after the shadow appeared and fixed itself. The relationship between Peroor and Mosil apparently stems back to around 100 years ago when Malayali bishops Joseph Mar Dionysius and Kochuparambil Mar Kurilos visited Iraq and, in the Mosil church, saw the holy shadows. The former of the two bishops returned to Peroor and built a church in MarttaSmUni's honor. I learned later that the Peroor church is not the only one dedicated to MarttaSmUni in Kerala but is currently the most famous.

Because Father Mani had many things to attend to and because I did not want to monopolize his time, we cut our conversation short. He per- formed a quick blessing over me, and I was on my way. As with my ear- lier exchange with village members outside the tea stall, I left with questions unanswered about the Jewishness of MarttaSmUni. I thought that an explanation of the church's menorahs would perhaps get to the

Lessons in Miracles from Kerala

heart of her religious affiliation, but it did not; instead it seemed the menorahs had been stripped of Jewish association altogether.

Nevertheless, the Jewishness of Marttas'miini as portrayed in her story- related similarly to other oral and written accounts-seems far from erased or even incidental. It is precisely her staunch Jewishness, expressed by her choosing death rather than eat pork or worship idols," for which these pork-eating Christians give her honor. The story in the Hebrew Bible of the mother and her seven sons gruesomely martyred at the hands of Antiochus (in 2 Maccabees 7), although slightly different in detail, relates a similar central message of courage and faithfulness to Jewish tradition.I2

The fact that this martyred woman's story varies little-whether told outside tea stalls or related in 2 Maccabees or, as I would later read, in Malayalam publications-comes to me as no surprise. From my experi- ence researching Kerala saint traditions I have found that hagiographies of saintly men and women often differ little between official pilgrimage pamphlets, church hymns, or local tellings regardless of the region, reli- gion, or caste. Highly literate as a group, it seems that Keralites are more likely to have access to "official" versions of saints' lives and are therefore less likely to embellish hagiographical details. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the understandings or interpretations of saintly lives and mir- acles are by any means uniform. While Keralites may tell saints' stories in similar ways, the implications and expressed interpretations of these stories often vary, and these variations commonly reflect perspectival differences along such lines as class, caste, religion, and laylclergy.

In the case of Marttaimuni, a clear exegetical difference appears in Father Mani's written portrayal of the saint's life, found in a chapter in his edited book of '"e produces a link between Marttaimiini's Jew- ishness and her Christian sites of devotion by giving the otherwise famil-

The issue of image worship is a sticky one in Kerala. Similar to European (and to some extent American) Catholicism, Kerala clergy tend to discourage attributing miraculous powers to statues or other images in order to counter the local tendency to make use of ma- terial manifestations in this way. In the case of Orthodox Christians, both Jacobite and Ortho- dox Syrian, statues that were once considered acceptable in churches (thanks to Portuguese influence) were banned due to the efforts of British missionaries (Bayly, p. 296). Since after the British left India, paintings, not statues, are prevalent-and sometimes miracle working- in Eastern rite churches.

l2 The most significant difference between the Keralite and biblical stories is in their cast of characters. 2 Maccabees mentions that all seven children are sons, whereas MarttaSmDni's children seem to include girls (see fig. 2). Also, the Maccabees story makes no mention of a male companion for the mother. The tortures involving severing limbs and frying in oil are included in both accounts. My thanks to Selva Raj for bringing Maccabees to my attention.

"Rev. Fr. Mani Kallapurathu, "MarttaSmOni Ammayum E!umakkalum Guruvaya Eliyasa- rum," in his "Priitthana Manjari" (unpublished manuscript, Peroor, Kottayam, 1993),pp. 147

50. In addition to his writings, Father Mani has made a number of cassette tapes of formal masses sung in Syrian to honor MarttaSmiini. The high Syrian Christian mass in Kerala, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Jacobite, is sung throughout and lasts nearly two hours.

iar story a new frame, encouraging readers to view her from a decidedly Christian perspective. He introduces her story by writing, "163 years before the birth of Jesus, Marttadmiini, her seven children and their guru Eliy~sar, born in the tribe of the Maccabees (of Jesus) waited upon the coming of our Lord and led a holy life."14

From here, Father Mani continues with the familiar story. Once finished, he again links this pre-Christian woman and her life to a later Christian era. "Later, when our Lord Jesus was born through St. Mary, the world remembered the woes of Mother Marttas'miini and knew the power of her prophecy. Her prophecy that king Antiochus would die after three years and that his corpse be eaten by an eagle and fox was also fulfilled. Then a church was built in her name at Karakosh near Mosil. In that church, the mother and children appear every year. In order to see this sight, a large number of people from all around the world and even from India visit this church on the first of August every year and return home after receiving blessings."15

Father Mani's presentation of the Marttas'miini story reflects a minority view that something is needed to weave her into the Christian tradition- however loosely. It represents an element I thought to be "missing" from the narration outside the tea stall. The fact that I perceived this element and its implied exegesis to be missing, and therefore somehow necessary, testifies to the ways my understandings of religious distinctions are far more rigid-much more like Father Mani's-than those of the majority of Marttas'miini devotees.

Of greater importance to devotees-although not unimportant to Father Mani16-are the miraculous appearances and blessings bestowed by the martyred nine. To illustrate this let me return to Father Mani's house. While I waited for him to come home from the hospital, the priest's father held forth in a discussion of Marttadmiini's apparitions with a group of approximately fifteen of us who sat together as we waited. As the follow- ing fragment makes clear, in cases when apparitions and miracles are of focal interest, issues of religious delineation (involving both Marttadmiini and her devotees) and institutional sanction tend to take a back seat.

FATHER MANI'S FATHER: The Mother appeared on the holy cloth installed there-the Mother and children. So all the people who went there saw it several times. From the face down we saw the whole figure, but the face and hands were the most visible parts. There was a cloak. The face and hands of Mother and the youngest child were very clear. The vest looked somewhat like a shadow. The

l4 Ibid., p. 147.

l5 Ibid., p. 149.

l6 In his book Father Mani makes an exhaustive list of the many kinds of blessings MarttaSmOni showers on her devotees.

Lessons in Miracles from Kerala

youngest child was about two years old. They appeared on the cloth, and they walked up and down several times. This takes place within the case. The best vision is on Saturdays. All those who came to church saw that.


Before we installed the cloth, didn't we see an apparition?


FATHER:NO, we didn't. The first sighting was three days after it was installed [by the Iraqi bishop]. The first appearance was to an Izhava woman [member of a Hindu community].


Yes, there was an apparition.


FATHER:Oh, that was only occasionally to individuals. The ap- parition to the Izhava woman did happen a few days before the installation. She was an old lady who came for prayer in the evening. This happened during examina- tion time when many children came to pray. The woman was frightened to see the vision. She came out of the church and was looking inside when the children came. The woman then said, "Come over here, I'll show you something." When all the children entered, they saw the apparition walking on the walls, up and down, up and down above the sanctuary. So all of them screamed and shouted.


Out of fear?


FATHER:Out of joy. So the children came here to report the matter, but by the time we reached there, it disappeared.

The fact that Father Mani's father wanted to draw attention to the power of the Iraqi cloth (also important to Father Mani during our conversation) counter to the woman who firmly insisted that the church can hold its own with apparitions indeed reflects a tension in emphasis between official sanc- tion and local efficacy. Similar to Father Mani's Christian frame around the Jewish Marttas'mfini story, the holy cloth, for some, helps to validate the church and devotion in Peroor through its connection to a larger tradition. For others, these kinds of connections do not seem worthy of mention or elaboration and, as expressed by the woman's response to the story told by Father Mani's father, they can even obstruct the force of the "real" story about a miracle. What seems important to many is the immediacy of Mart- tas'miini and her entourage: their ability to appear and perform miracles in Peroor itself for those who are devoted, without foreign mediation and regardless of caste or creed.

Katamaftattachan, whose pilgrimage site is the St. George Jacobite Church in Katamattam near ~rnakulam,'~

draws, as does MarttaSmiini, devotees

" Although the Katamattam St. George Church (originally dedicated to Mary) seemed unarguably Jacobite in 1994, I found this affiliation to be a matter of heated dispute when I returned during the summer of 1998. The rival group, as is often the case in such shrine fights, are the Othodox Syrians, whose membership is roughly equal in number to the Jacobites (see n. 4 above). The Jacobites and the Orthodox Syrians seem to have a particularly uneasy

from a variety of religious backgrounds. Also like Marttaimiini, Kata- mattattachan's status in relation to Christianity is variously interpreted- not because he was professedly non-Christian but because his miraculous powers are decidedly unorthodox and, therefore, for some, suspect. Dur- ing conversations in Kerala about famous or powerful saints, people often make reference to Katamaffattachan as ranking among such saints. Yet opinions about his good standing as a Jacobite Christian seem polarized. The fantastic exploits of Kafamattattachan have such an appeal that they have been published in numerous forms, staged by acting troupes, and, more recently, featured in a movie production. Yet, in spite of all his fame, people (predominantly Christians) regularly told me that he was, in fact, excommunicated for his methods because he relied on magic for his sen- sational powers. As a result, the Jacobite Church apparently has nothing to do, officially, with his current devotion. For his devotees, however, Christian and otherwise-and particularly among pilgrims to whom I spoke in Katamattam-Katamaffattachan is truly revered as a saint. So great is his devotional popularity that his place of pilgrimage receives a steady stream of visitors (fig. 3). To accommodate the flow, a large receptacle stands on the side of the road outside the church into which passengers on vehicles-whether bicycles or buses-can conveniently toss their coins as they ride past.18

In spite of the widely held perception among some lay Christians and many clergy that Katamaftattachan is a kind of flawed saint, nothing in the many stories I heard and read-even those told by dissenters themselves- directly suggests anything of his questionable standing. Similar to Father Mani's written frame on the Marttaimiini tale directing the reader to con- sider her in a Christian light, the message of Katamattattachan's miracu- lous exploits, rather than calling into question his means, describe his powers as serving a variety of noble ends such as managing evil, settling feuds, humbling the haughty, and winning wars.

A subtle exception to this-a story genre that seems to leave, for some, Katamatfattachan's techniques open for critique-are the tales depicting the saint as a youth, meant to explain the origins of his extraordinary powers. While these stories often contain great detail and variation, I offer here a summarized version of what was recited to me by a number of people. It

relationship when it comes to powerful (and lucrative) pilgrimage shrines. Since these shrines predate the Jacobite/Orthodox Syrian 191 1 schism, the question of ownership is of- ten murky enough to create battles of significant proportion. In the case of Katamattam Church (and others as well), tensions grew to such a level that the local police had to place the building under lock and key for a number of months.

I had never encountered this kind of roadside offering before visiting Katamattam. As a result, I discovered this large receptacle's function the hard way. I happened to be stand- ing in front of it while waiting for a bus-directly in the line of fire-when a bus stopped on the other side of the road and let loose a shower of coins in my direction.

granted the young man permission to leave. The other malayarayan (also referred to, particularly at this point, as pis'dcu [devils] or rak@san [demons]), lacking such sentimental ties, chased after him, threatening to kill him. Once he escaped, Katamattattachan sought refuge in the village church. The doors miraculously locked behind him while his pursuers (in some versions) furiously beat the outside walls with chains. Using his magical powers, Kafamaftattachan made the church spin, frustrating their attempts to break through the building and causing them to flee back into the wilderness. United once again with his Christian guru, Katamattat- tachan was eventually ordained and, after the elder vicar's death, succeeded him as vicar of the Katamattam church.

Other renditions of this story-also related by a variety of sources- maintain a similar sequence of events yet differ most significantly in the way they represent the cave-dwelling magicians. Some versions place the malayarayan in a more benign light: they are not cannibalistic, are not re- ferred to as pis'dcu or rak~dsan,and they allow Kafamattattachan to leave their cave without further provocation. Painting the most benign picture of the cave-dwelling magicians is the story told to me by K. P. Isaac, the ninety-four-year-old vicar of the Katamattam Jacobite church. (Although in good health when I met him in 1994, Father Isaac died two years later.) Highly esteemed by Katamallattachan's devotees, this vicar was described by pilgrims as possessing some of the same powers as the saint himself, passed on in succession from vicar to vicar "like electricity" (fig. 4). In spite of his locally exalted position, it seemed Father Isaac, as an ordained priest, had to negotiate the interests and skepticism of the institutional Church. The embellishments to the Kafamattattachan story that the vicar narrated (dramatically, in soft-spoken English) from his upstairs church office expressed this rather tenuous position.

Father Isaac began his tale by casting Kafamattattachan not as an orphan but as an only son to a poor widow. The boy and his mother, as Father Isaac put it, were discovered by a miracle-working bishop from Persia who later became the boy's guru. "Once a bishop came from Persia to the house of A~han.~'

He [Kafamattattachan] was then a small boy. They could not understand the teacher, but by gesturing with their hands, they could understand one another. Achan was very angry, and the mother was quite helpless. Nothing was there, nothing was there. This priest who had just arrived came to the house and asked for some raw rice, some three or four kernels in number. They handed over the rice and wondered, 'What could he be wanting with this? He asked the lady to put on a fire and boil the rice. When the rice was boiled it filled up the vessel, and the three ate and were fully satisfied."

20 Acan in Malayalam means "father." Achan, pronounced slightly differently, also means "Father" but refers to a priest.

Second, because the bishop-guru performs holy tricks of his own, Kafa- matfattachan's magical capabilities, by association, become less suspect. We cannot attribute them solely to lessons learned from the cave-dwellers; a high church official who passes on this "holy" knowledge to the boy is also responsible.

Father Isaac's rendition of the young Kafamattattachan's story further disassociates the saint from questionable forces by presenting the cave- dwelling "wild people" (his English term) as quite benign and shrouded in mystery. It seems that the reason these people kept Katamauattachan cap- tive was not due to explicitly or even potentially nefarious intent but, rather, for the sake of their own protection: for the preservation of their sacred secrets. Unwittingly discovered by a young man searching at night for his bishop's cow, these wild people had no choice but to keep him captive:

One day the [bishop's] cow ran away into the forest, and it was feared that she would be eaten by the wild beasts. To search for the cow they sent this widow's son as a leader-he was a leader there. So he rounded up many people, and they started out at night to search for the cow. To light their way, they burned coconut leaves, something which was done in those days. This light was necessary because of the wild beasts. In such a way they searched for the cow, but nobody could find her. When the party returned, Achan was missing and no one knew where he was.

In the forest there were wild people who lived in the caves in the rocks. Their work was as magicians. They went all over the place during the day gathering food for their meals, and at night they brought whatever they had found and ate it. No one was allowed to find out the place where they were living. This deacon [Kata- mattattachan], by chance, approached this cave. Finding him there at the entrance of the cave, they picked him up and entered the cave. He could not be let out at any rate. What is there, we do not know, but whatever they have is theirs. Their prayers they learned by heart-by hearing alone. No books, no church. In such a way, Achan also, who was a deacon, learned something. Perhaps. It is not so sure. That is a holy matter.

Noncannibalistic and prayerful yet ultimately cloaked in mystery, the wild people and their ways may have been-or maybe not-instrumental in Katamattattachan's training as a powerful holy man. This Father Isaac leaves up to our own imaginations.

For those who do not leave so much to the imagination-storytellers who seem less interested in disassociating Katamattattachan from ques- tionable influences-descriptions of the cave dwellers are rarely neutral. Nor are they always split between a good leader (from whom the saint learns his magic) and his sinister cohorts. Rather, many oral accounts refer to these cave dwellers uniformly as piSdcu and raksdsan whose magic is clearly pernicious. These demonic characters cruelly take Katamattat- tachan hostage in their cave, flatly deny the homesick young man his free- dom, and, when he eventually attempts an escape, they use their magical powers to keep him from leaving. But, since Kafamaftattachan has observed and learned so well over the years, the young hero ultimately overcomes their evil efforts by using their powers against them. One might assume that devotees trying to spare Katamatfattachan criticism might also spare him from associations with demonic powers as well, and that, as a conse- quence, the stories they tell would be less likely to expound on the evil ways of the magicians and on Kafarnaffattachan's acquisition of their powers. Yet I found that supporters and detractors alike often told tales of demonic cave magicians and lessons the saint learned from them.

For scholars of Hindu traditions, particularly as practiced locally, the theme in which "evil" gets converted for good ends is likely a familiar one. In Kerala, there are small shrines outside many Hindu temples-consisting of a sarpa stone and a yaksi stone-which are meant to be sites for offering devotion to the snake and the yaksi, respectively, thus transforming their potentially malignant powers. The Keralite yaksi most commonly gets portrayed as a kind of vampire-like female-a deceptively beautiful woman who dwells in the night-blooming pala tree.21 Lurking mainly in uninhab- ited areas, the yaksi's prey are commonly unsuspecting men whom she entices and later kills by sucking their blood. One of Kafamaffattachan's most widely told tales is the transformation and domestication of a fierce yaksi (she works temporarily as a servant in his elderly aunt's home) by driving a nail or, in some versions, a screw into the top of her head. Ir this instance, Kafamattattachan not only channels potentially demonic magical powers for good ends, but, on top of this, these powers work to tame and make good use of a potentially murderous woman.

The theme of transforming dangerous events and properties into be- nign forces-complicating normative distinctions between evil and good, calamity and cure-emerges not only within local Hindu traditions but in Christian ones as well, and not only in India but also in Europe (far from Hindu influences). Among the many Christian examples is the tradition of Saint Agatha, a martyr from Sicily, who is tortured by rods, racks, and fire, culminating in the torment of having her breasts sliced (or twisted) off. Consequently she is invoked for protection against diseases of the breasts as well as against fire, especially eruptions of Mount Etna-seemingly combining breast and fire motifs into one. The perspective that a type of "evil" gets transformed into posthumous power strikingly emerges in Agatha's iconographical emblem: two bloody breasts on a plate.22 Accounts of Saint Apollonia, deaconess of Alexandria, tell of a woman seized by pa-

21 The yaksi is a pan-Indian figure depicted differently in different regions. Normally as- sociated with Buddhism and Hinduism, the yaksi also appears in Christian and Jain tradi- tions as well.

22 David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

gan enemies who break all her teeth with blows to her jaws. Religious art most commonly depicts her as holding a tooth in a pair of pinchers or else having her teeth extracted by an elaborate machine. As to be expected, Apollonia has been traditionally invoked by people with tooth pain.23

I offer these examples of saintly transformations of and subtle com- plicity with evil as a means to suggest that Keralites' perceptions of Kafa- matfattachan as making good use of nefarious encounters render him-and them-no less Christian (or Hindu). As is the case with Apollonia and Agatha, Katamaffattachan's powers are not proven through his ability to banish or negate adversity (i.e., yaksis or cave demons) but, rather, through his consistent association with and manipulation of the same. In fact, as reflected in the popularity of the demon cave dweller theme in Kafamattat- tachan's story, the strength of his powers seems, in these cases, to rely pre- cisely on his relationship with and transformation of evil forces-forces over which the saint wields special control. As one Christian man who worked on the church grounds put it, "everything was under him, and, therefore, no one could control him." Lessons learned from both the church guru and the sinister guru of the wilds are what make Katamattat- tachan invincible. For those who come to his shrine, it is his invincibility, not his good standing with the Jacobite tradition, that makes him capable of bestowing blessings and, therefore, worthy of devotion. Similar to MarttaSmOni's devotees, it is the wonder-working capacity of their saint- not official status within a particular religion-that draws them into the human-saint relationship.


Although the final "saint" invoked to make my argument is not yet can- onized, she is, in contrast to the two discussed above, beyond reproach or apology in the eyes of her Roman Catholic community.24 Sister Alphonsa (1910-46), a nun from the Bharananganam Clarist Convent, Kottayam

23 Ibid., p. 28. As noted by Farmer, an "unexpected" by-product of Apollonia's cult is the naming of a dentists' quarterly out of Boston, Massachusetts, "The Apollonian." Further complicating normative expectations about saintly efficacy are local traditions portraying saints with decidedly ambivalent powers in contrast with institutionally prescribed notions of benign sanctity. For a study of Italian Catholic traditions in which the Madonna bodily harms those who ignore her wishes, see Michael Caroll, Madonnas That Maim: Popular Catholicism in Italy since the Fifteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). William Christian cites a number of local disasters such as hail, fire, floods, earthquakes, and epidemics that communities in sixteenth-century Spain interpreted as ei- ther a punishment by a particular saint or else a message for people that they should offer him or her their due public respect. See William Christian, Local Religion in Sixteenth- Century Spain (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981).

24 MarttaSmtini and Kafamatfattachan are not officially canonized saints within their re- spective traditions but are nevertheless devotional figures and most often referred to as saints. The Orthodox Syrian and Jacobite traditions do have a formal process of canoniza- tion, but such instances are quite rare.

district, was beatified in 1987 (one step short of full-fledged sainthood) by John Paul 11. She epitomizes not only officially sanctioned female holiness but also, for some, Indian Christian identity.

Alphonsa's story, as told not only by her pilgrimage pamphlets but also by devotees, is primarily one of suffering. Official hagiography depicts her agony as lifelong and multidimensional: she was raised by a stern fos- ter mother (her biological mother died shortly after Alphonsa was born), teased by schoolchildren, and later endured serious illness throughout most of her twelve years as a Clarist sister. Emphasized in songs sung and accounts given by devotees are Alphonsa's later years of painful suffering, beginning with her courageous leap into a smoldering ash pit, causing severe bums to her legs. To resist her foster mother's attempts to arrange her marriage, Alphonsa reportedly underwent this self-immolation in order to make herself an unsuitable match, thus securing her future as a nun.25 This focus on courageous self-sacrifice and bedridden agony in Sister Alphonsa's later life places her squarely in the most common category for female Christian sainthood: "fortitude in illnes~."'~

Commentaries on and interpretations of Alphonsa's life often portray her as an emblematic Indian Christian in that her life articulates reverse- Orientalist values privileging the "East" (i.e., spiritual, traditional, nonma- terialistic) over the "West" (i.e., hedonistic, modern, technological). Typical of sentiments related mostly by clergy and nuns but also by lay people at Sister Alphonsa's shrine, Salomi P. L.'s master's thesis argues that Alphonsa "reminds the materialistic world and inspires it to embrace suffering when it is not possible to avoid them [sic]."27 She goes on to write that Alphonsa "understood the meaning and value of suffering. The modern man who seeks worldly pleasures and luxuries of life could not see anything special in Alphonsa's life of ~uffering."~~

Although the author does not explicitly link the "materialistic world" and those who seek "worldly pleasures and luxuries" with the West, such associations are often taken for granted by Malayalis, especially Christian clergy or nuns. Imperalist dichotomies get perpetuated and adjusted in this case in order that Keralite Christians can assert their Catholicism as not only genuine but in some ways superior

25 A woman who deliberately burns herself as a form of resistance is a common motif in Indian folklore. See Velchuru Narayana Rao, "Epics and Ideologies: Six Telegu Folk Epics," in Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India, ed. A. K. Ramanujan and Stuart Blackburn (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 140-41. For a discussion of this and other ways in which Alphonsa's story resonates with Indian motifs of female sanctity, see Dempsey, Kerala Christian Sainthood (n. 4 above).

26 Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 234. 27 Salomi P. L., "Sister Alphonsa of Bharananganam" (master's thesis, University of Madras, 1992), p. 82. Ibid., p. 89.

due to their position as Indian (read Eastern), as opposed to European or ~merican.~~

Because of her good standing within her tradition and perhaps because her cult is a fairly recent one, details of Sister Alphonsa's life tend to vary only subtly between official and local tellings and between those who knew her and those devoted to her. The kinds of tensions between local and official perspectives reflected in variations of the young Kafamaffatta- chan story simply do not exist. More like Marttaimiini's narrative tradition, Alphonsa's life account is variously framed so as to offer the storytellers' exegetical perspectives. Because clergy and nuns often (though not exclu- sively or consistently) think of Sister Alphonsa as emblematic for Kerala Christian living, they often describe her life of pain and suffering as a model of asceticism to follow. More commonly, however, devotees relate an understanding of Alphonsa's pain not as something to emulate but as a powerful source for her healing powers. Like Marttaimiini's gruesome martyrdom and Katamaffattachan's trials with demons, Alphonsa's life- long tribulations act both to validate and to fuel her capacity as miracle worker in her devotees' lives.

As with Marttaimiini and Katamaffattachan, it is Alphonsa's reputation as a healer that draws people in large numbers and from a variety of religious and economic backgrounds to her shrine. As a result, it is also the nature and strength of her posthumous healing powers-not details of her life-that often generate the greatest enthusiasm for storytelling. Because of this mass appeal, accounts of Alphonsa's miracles highlight unconventional perceptions and negotiations of religious boundaries in ways that her life story does not. While some devotees place little emphasis on their own or Alphonsa's religious affiliation when relating miracle stories-a statement in itself-others refer to her apparent disregard for religious distinction as proof of a generous power that transcends affiliation. A minority view, held primarily but not exclusively by priests and nuns, reflects a different kind of support for such interreligious generosity. In such cases enthusiasm for Alphonsa's seemingly indiscriminate healing powers has to do, in part, with the fact that they see such miracles as furthering the Christian faith.

This brings me to the often told story of the Muslim boy, one of Al- phonsa's most famous posthumous miracle accounts. This cure, involving the correction of a boy's clubbed feet, took place in the northern Kerala district of Thalassery about fourteen years ago and is one of three official miracles recognized by the Vatican. The fact that storytellers-primarily

29 Keralite Catholics are not alone in their understanding that their Indian culture gives added impetus to their religiosity. For instance, during an address to visiting Indian bishops in Rome on December 19, 1985, the pope purportedly declared that "holiness is a language India understands." (See George Nedungatt, S.J., "A Language India Understands," The Passion Flower: Beatijication Special [1986], p. 31.)

nuns from the Clarist convent-consistently refer to the account as the story about "the Muslim boy" and not "the boy from Thalassery" or even "the boy with clubbed feet" attests to the fact that his religious affiliation is, for them, significant. If he were Catholic or even a non-Catholic Chris- tian, it is doubtful that people would refer to his story as the one about "the Christian boy." Several nuns at the Clarist convent told me abbreviated versions of the story, some of which highlighted the fact that the healing of Muslims is a means by which Alphonsa helps to spread Christianity.

At one point during my extended stay in Kerala I made a trip to Thalassery and arranged to meet with Bishop Sebastian Valopilly, an ardent devotee of Alphonsa. It was he who suggested to the Muslim boy with the clubbed feet that he pray to the saint for a miracle. Before meeting the now-retired bishop, I learned of his rather valiant reputation for champi- oning the cause of needy people, regardless of religious affiliation. Those particularly indebted to the bishop are the people who settled the thick for- ests of Thalassery during World War I1 and soon afterward. At that time, general shortages and hardships caused large numbers of Malayali Chris- tians and some Hindus to move northward to take advantage of available cheap land. Combating serious obstacles such as wild animals and rampant malaria, these impoverished immigrants were particularly vulnerable dur- ing their early years of settlement. Before their arrival, large communities of Muslims were already established in the area but primarily in coastal trade centers. Valopilly, apparently referred to as "our bishop" by people of all religious backgrounds, became famous for his ability to appeal to the government and other sources to assist the newly arrived agriculturists and poor Muslim locals. In 1957 when the Marxist Party came to power, a Brahman politician leaving Thalassery for Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital, "gave" (for a nominal price) Bishop Valopilly his oceanside estate as a token of his gratitude. This expansive property is presently the bishop's headquarters and home to Valopilly, a number of seminarians, nuns, and priests, and the current bishop of ~halasser~.~'

Prominently displayed in front of the main entrance to the bishop's house, raised up in the center of a large pond filled with lotuses, is a large statue of Sister Alphonsa. During my visit with Bishop Valopilly, he asked me to have a good look at the statue (fig 5). He wanted to make sure I

30 Although Bishop Valopilly is most famous for his politicking on a grand scale, he is also well known for having qualities of personal integrity and simplicity unusual in a bishop. For instance Sister Josephina, my research collaborator in Bharananganam, pointed out to me that the bishop, rather than taking trips in the customary official vehicle, prefers to take a bus for long trips. She also mentioned that, due to the shortage of priests in the North, he often did the unthinkable-for a bishop-by hearing confessions. Sister Josephina described her first encounter with the man over thirty years ago during a trip to Thalassery for a teach- ers evaluation. When she and another Sister anived at the bishop's house, he went into the kitchen and served them himself-unheard of behavior for a bishop. Reminiscing about the event, she remarked that he "acted just like a father to us." On second thought she said, "no, better than a father. he was like a mother to us."

Lessons in Miracles from Kerala

It was in the context of his reminiscing about Alphonsa and his own part in spreading her devotion that the bishop asked if he had told me the story about the Muslim boy. After telling him that I had heard it from others but not yet from him, he enthusiastically proceeded to relate his own account, filling in the missing details of the nuns' more abbreviated version:

About ten years ago, when I was in a small village in Wayanad outside Manata- vady, I saw a boy walking with some difficulty, using a stick. As he approached me I noted that both of his feet were turned upside down. I had a stack of holy cards in my pocket with Alphonsa's picture on them, so I pulled one of them out and gave it to the boy. When I told the boy that he should pray to this woman for the cure of his feet, the boy-he was quite smart for a ten-year-old boy-replied, "But I'm a Muslim, and, besides, I was born this way." I replied that God is very powerful, so let's pray. A few months later, a boy and a gentleman appeared at the house here. I didn't recognize them at first but soon learned that it was the Muslim boy with his father, here to tell me that his feet had been cured through their prayers to Sister Alphonsa. They showed me the calluses on the tops of his feet, and you could see the marks which had been made from the years of his walking with his feet turned under. Before they left, the three of us had our pictures taken.

The two visitors explained to the bishop that the boy had taken the holy card in his hands and "simply asked Alphonsa that, if she could help him, could she please fix his feet." Several days later, one of the boy's feet turned around. He and some members of his family then took up praying in earnest for the healing of his other foot. It eventually turned around as well.

Conditioned by the exegetical frame given to Alphonsa's miracle stories by some of the nuns at the Clarist convent and anticipating a similar per- spective from this high church official, I felt compelled to ask the bishop, once he finished with his story, whether "the Muslim boy" had become a Christian as a result of his cure. Responding as though I had not heard him correctly during his recital, the bishop insisted rather sternly, "No, he's Muslim." Conversion to Christianity, for the bishop, was not a foreseeable or even a desirable result of the boy's healing. Consistent with the views of a man well known for his efforts to improve the material well-being of those struggling within his jurisdiction-regardless of religious affilia- tion-the bishop concerned himself with the healing of a physical disabil- ity, not a denominational one. Bishop Valopilly does, in fact, tell this story to demonstrate his part in spreading good news throughout the region, but it is not the "Good News" of Christianity. It is that of Alphonsa's healing power.

This is not to say that the bishop does not, in other contexts, strongly identify with and celebrate his own Catholic Christian tradition. In spite of his concern for the community's health and well-being in a way that transcends religious division, the bishop still refers to this story as the one about "the Muslim boy,'' and he takes care to note that this "smart boy" initially resisted a cure from a Christian saint. Likewise, non-Christian de- votion for Kafamattattachan and Marttagmini, although involving a type of departure from normative religious delineation, does not necessarily mitigate the devotee's own sense of affiliation. Moreover, portrayals of MarttaSmini as unapologetically Jewish and Kafamattattachan as learning from demons does not compromise, for most people, these saints' affili- ation with their Christian places of devotion. Ultimately, it appears that involvement with and perceptions of religious healing offer instances in which normative categorizations of religious traditions-that is, institu- tional and scholarly-are breached but not obliterated.

It is also important to emphasize that this story of a bishop's tale breaks the dichotomy between local and official sentiments set up in this article's first two saint-cult examples-in which priests and nuns appear to be more concerned with their tradition's parameters than do the devotee "folk." More typical examples of separation from the devotional norm are Father Mani framing the Jewish Marttagmini's story so that she becomes a spokeswoman for the coming of Jesus and Father Isaac describing the Christian Kafamattattachan's questionable powers so that they are institu- tionally sanctionable. A similar split emerges when we compare interpre- tations of Alphonsa's life story of suffering. For many nuns and clergy, Alphonsa's stoic endurance of pain provides a framework for emulation and, by extension, a reflection of and means for identity formation. For others (although this does not exclude priests and nuns) the same life story often works to explain and validate their saint's posthumous capac- ity for healing.31 To be fair, it only makes sense that those closely tied to institutional structures would more likely be interested in clearly distin- guishing their parameters. Yet there are important exceptions to this trend, the Thalassery bishop being one of them.32


To conclude, I wish to point out that this tension or continuum between religion as a means for delineating belief and religion as conduit of mirac- ulous power-typically between institutional or scholarly representations

31 As discussed above, the kind of calamity a saint undergoes is often explicitly connected to their capacity to heal. Alphonsa's healing specialty, according to some, is that of clubbed feet. When I asked Sister Josephina why this was so she replied that it had to do with the damage Alphonsa did to her own legs in the fire.

32 It certainly was my experience in Kerala that some of the most ecumenically minded people were Christian clergy and nuns and Hindu religious officials. I first heard the adage, "We are all Hindus in India," a slogan commonly used by the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, from an Orthodox Syrian priest.

and localized expressions-is by no means limited to Indian Christianity. Arguing along these lines, Tala1 Asad's Genealogies of Religion notes that the category and function of religion as currently and broadly con- strued by religion scholars-by theologians and anthropologists alike- invariably reflect post-Enlightenment Christian understandings. Because, as Asad argues, the particular lens through which we view religion tends to see it as offering and reflecting internally held beliefs, religious sym- bols are thus meant to be understood and rituals are meant to reflect mean- ing. Asad identifies this narrow and disembodied construction of religion as part of a dehistoricization that allows religion "to be abstracted and uni- ~ersalized."~~

It is ultimately problematic that religion as a dehistoricized cognitive construct "invites us to separate it conceptually from the domain of power."34 While Asad's critique is aimed primarily at analyses of religion that underestimate its connection to political and institutional power, I am saying that to overlook miraculous power in our understanding of religion likewise runs the risk of dehistoricizing and universalizing.

As we have seen, the preceding stories show how perceptions and de- lineations of religion can be tied to efficacy rather than creed-to overlook the importance of a saint's miraculous power would largely be, from the perspective of his or her devotees, to miss the point. Speaking of miss- ing the point, it seems my initial confusion about the healed Muslim boy who remained Muslim as well as the Christian MarttaSmUni's Jewishness reflects, in a very basic and perhaps typical way, my narrow understanding of religion as tied to belief rather than to healing power. Demonstrating approaches similar to mine, Father Mani and Father Isaac's versions of the MarttaSmUni and Kafamattattachan stories seemed to shift the emphasis away from miraculous efficacy. At the very least, these priestly versions complicated the point of the stories by introducing issues of belief and in- stitutional delineation into the equation-concerns that devotees seemed to find, in this context, somewhat expendable.

Pushing this critique of dehistoricized, decontextualized constructs a bit further and on slightly different terrain is Nicholas Dirks's analysis of the caste system in India. Dirks argues that "caste itself as we now know it is not a residual survival of ancient India but a specifically colonial form of civil society." In contrast to what many people today understand to be the eternal order of things in India, "Kings were not inferior to Brahmans; the political domain was not encompassed by the religious domain."35 Accord- ing to Dirks, currently rigidified notions of caste identity have emerged through imperialist reductions of what was in fact a complex weave of so- cietal forces existent in precolonial India. This process that reduced Indian

33 Asad (n. 7 above), p. 42.
34 Ibid., p. 29.
35 Nichoas Dirks, "Castes of Mind," Representations 37 (1992): 59.

society to a "religious" category reflects "a striking disregard for ethno- graphic specificity, as well as a systematic denial of the political mecha- nisms that selected different kinds of social units as most significant at different times."36

Although I do not claim that religion scholars or even religious insti- tutions can unilaterally shape local perceptions in the same way that col- onizers shaped Indian society (which I think can also be ~verestimated),~~ it seems Dirks describes a dynamic not totally unrelated to Asad's view of the construction of religion. In the same way that British colonizers im- posed abstracted orientalist formulas reducing India to religion and caste, religion scholars' privileging of familiar forms and interpretations logically leads to similar reductions and misunderstandings. Decontextualized un- derstandings of religion that focus solely on established or projected belief systems and creeds at the expense of less-than-tidy practices forfeit vital complexities and, as this article demonstrates, notions of boundaries and identities that are more permeable than rigid.

In line with Dirks's argument, the problem with abstracted imperialist or scholarly views is not, as I see it, merely one of inaccuracy or insufficiency. Considering that ahistorical constructions of overly tidy categories-for example, "Hinduism" (or "Christianity" for that matter) in its most nar- row sense-have created situations where religious tension and violence erupt,38 it seems that we have a responsibility to pay attention to and doc- ument contextualized religious expressions and practices. This is partic- ularly the case when such lived expressions reflect religious affiliations and identities that defy politically contrived rigidities.

As I understand it, redefining or at least broadening our constructions and interpretations of religion through greater contextualization should be about decentering ourselves epistemologically or, put another way, pay- ing heed to other epistemological centers. The fact that Christians from Peroor house a Jewish patron saint in their church or that Muslims from northern Kerala garner blessings from a Christian figure or that Hindus

36 Ibid., p. 60.

37 For elaborations on the hybrid nature of colonial power and native responses, see Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983); Homi Bhabha, "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambiva- lence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi," Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): 145-65; and Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English lndia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). For a fuller discussion of the tenacity and resilience of indigenous agendas in the face of colo- nizing forces in Kerala-in spite of outward appearances-see Dempsey, Kerala Christian Sainthood (n. 4 above).

38 In an argument similar to Dirks's, Gyanendra Pandey convincingly proposes that an overly tidy understanding of "Hinduism," which has led to communalism and religious vio- lence, has been created by those who choose to ignore history ("Which of Us Are Hindus?" in Hindus and Others: The Question of Identi9 in India Today, ed. Gyanendra Pandey [New Delhi: Viking Press, 19931). More broadly speaking, Pandey states that "nationalisms are fun- damentally ahistorical" (p. 267).

Lessons in Miracles from Kerala

flock in large numbers to all three of the shrines described above make these people no less "centered" in Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism, respectively. As I have argued, the context of real life in which material suffering and hope are a part of religious expression often causes the center of gravity to shift, complicating such delineations (at least from a normative perspec- tive) without negating them.39 As Akeel Bilgrami puts it in his argument against Islam as a dehistoricized monolith, "'context is only the beginning of wisdom.' It does not sweep conceptual problems away nor does it her- ald the end of theory; it merely removes the rigidities of a long standing theoretical traditi~n."~~

Ultimately, while theological and institutional pa- rameters are of great importance to many, to scholars and devotees alike, they do not-and must not-tell the whole story.

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

39 I want to emphasize that the focus on healing and power in shrine and pilgrimage tra- ditions-and its subsequent messing with tidy boundaries-can be more the norm than the exception in many situations. For a discussion of how North Indian village shrines are most often centers for healing rather than the dissemination of religious teachings, see Ann Grodzins Gold, Fruitful Journeys: The Way of Rajasthani Pilgrims (Berkeley and Los An- geles: University of California Press, 1987). pp. 146-86. Christian points out the irony of the fact that scholars of religion tend to focus on institutional forms and understandings of reli- gion when these conceptions are held by an "elite" minority, including the scholars them- selves, of those practicing religion (see Christian [n. 23 above], p. 179).

40 Akeel Bilgrami, "What Is a Muslim? Fundamental Commitment and Cultural Identity," in Pandey, ed., p. 274.

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