"But, for sisters, don't they look rather different from each other?" I
asked. A calendar image of the goddess, pinned up behind him, showed
Bhagavati as a wizened hag wreathed in skulls and crowned with an
umbrella of cobra hoods. In her hand she wielded a giant sickle.
"Sisters are often a little different from each other," he replied.
"Mary is another form of the Devi. They have equal power." He paused:
"At our annual festival the priests take the goddess around the village
on top of an elephant to receive sacrifices from the people. She visits
all the places, and one stop is the church. There she sees her sister."
"Mary gets on an elephant too?"
"No," he replied. "But when the goddesses visit each other, the
sacrifice in the church is just like the one we have here: we light
lamps and make an offering. The priests stay in their church, but the
congregation of the church receives us, and makes a donation to the
"So relations are good?"
"The people here always cooperate," he said. "Our Hindus go to the
church and the Christians come here and ask the goddess for what they
want - for everyone believes the two are sisters."
This was something I had seen for myself ever since I had arrived in
Mannarkad, a small village 80 km to the south of the Keralan capital,
Trivandrum. In the large courtyard of the church - newly rebuilt and
enlarged around a medieval core - many of the worshippers were Hindu
rather than Christian.
"I have come here from 70 km away," said K.N. Prakashan, a middle-aged
school teacher. "Yes, I am a Hindu, but Mary is our holy mother. She is
your mother and my mother, too. I believe she is a powerful goddess.
Every time I come, I ask her to let the sufferings go from my life."
"And does she answer your prayers?"
"Of course," replied Prakashan. "It works. Otherwise I wouldn't be coming back here."
No less surprising were the Hindu customs practised by the church's
congregation. The devotees coming in and out proudly told me that during
the annual festival of Our Lady, the pilgrims would all take a ritual
bath, shave their heads and eat only vegetarian food to purify
themselves. They would join processions under torches, banners and
coloured silk umbrellas of exactly the sort used by Hindus in their
temple processions. The church also had a reputation for its powers of
exorcism - the Christians sharing the Hindu belief that certain rituals
can rid a possessed person of an unwanted spirit.
All this was mixed up with forms of devotion usually specific to the
Orthodox churches. Booths along the side of the courtyard sold bronze
plaques of arms, legs, eyes, hearts and other body parts to place in
front of a holy icon to remind the saint to cure a particular ailment -
something practised in Greek and Syrian Orthodox churches across the
The Christians seemed wholly at ease with the idea of praying alongside
Hindus. "I believe Mary is more generous to the Hindus than she is to
us," said Thomas Daniel as he prayed at the stone cross at the back of
the enclosure. "Yes, we also believe Bhagavati and Mary are twin
"So you believe in the Hindu gods, too?"
"Yes, of course. Those gods are there. I go to the temple with my Hindu
friends, though I don't tell the priests. And I participate in their
festivals, though I don't give offerings." Thomas smiled: "This has been
passed from generation to generation... All the people of Kerala
believe in all of the gods."
Kerala is the greenest state in India: hot and humid, still and
brooding. The soil is so fertile that as you drift up the lotus-choked
backwaters around Mannarkad, the trees close in around you, a vault of
palm and bamboo. Mango trees hang heavy over the fishermen's skiffs. All
around this central part of Kerala live the St Thomas Christians - so
called because they believe that St Thomas, the apostle of Jesus who
famously refused to believe in the resurrection "until I have placed my
hands in the holes left by the nails and the wound left by the spear",
came to India from Palestine after the resurrection, and that he
baptised their ancestors.
Over the centuries, almost every western traveller to southern India,
from Marco Polo to the first Portuguese conquistadors, told the same
story of Thomas' missionary journey. According to the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle, King Alfred sent Bishop Sighelm of Sherborne "to St Thomas in
India"; years later the bishop returned, carrying with him "precious
stones and the odiferous essences of that country". In Kerala, St Thomas
is said to have converted the upper caste Brahmins with the aid of
miracles and to have built seven churches.
Whatever the historical truth, there can be no doubt that Christianity
has deep roots in the soil, in all probability stretching back to the
first century A.D. Over the centuries of unusually close coexistence,
the Hindus and the Christians of the region have found their myths and
their rituals fusing slowly together. There may be violence between
Christians and Hindus in some parts of northern India, but there has
never been any serious tension between the two faiths here in Kerala.
Until recently, the St Thomas Christians were awarded places of honour
in the great temple processions and the churches were allowed to borrow
the temple elephants for their own festivals.
When the Portuguese arrived in India in the 16th century they criticised
the St Thomas Christians' clergy for the many "pagan" practices they
had adopted: ritual ablutions, the casting of horoscopes in the Hindu
manner, the belief in the transmigration of souls - traditions which
survived into the 20th century, some of them still common today.
The same fusion of Hinduism and Christianity is seen in the Christian
art of Kerala. Every church in the region has a large stone cross in its
churchyard; but these unambiguously Christian symbols rise out of
lotus-shaped Hindu bases, decorated with lion-headed, fish-bodied
makaras, cows, elephants, tigers and dancing girls. Paired peacocks are
especially popular, doubling as they do as eucharistic symbols and
vehicles of the god Murugan, son of Shiva.
At the village of Angamally, near Trivandrum's airport, there is a
17th-century wall painting in the church which reveals something of the
complexity of the relationship between the two faiths. It is in many
ways a conventional hell scene, paired with the Last Judgment facing it
across the nave, but there are many idiosyncrasies. The devil is made to
resemble the goddess Kali, with her tongue stuck out, a crown of snake
heads above and a trident in one hand. To the side, what could be either
a Portuguese Catholic priest or a money lender - he is wearing priest
robes and holding a big bag of money - is being tortured; the floor of
hell is slithering with king cobras, and a blue-skinned elephant is busy
Today, even if St Thomas is no longer carried in temple processions, in
village after village the shared myths and festivals survive. Even the
story of St Thomas' martyrdom has been fused with Hindu myth, so St
Thomas is said to have met his end in Mylapore, south of Chennai, while
hiding from his enemies in the form of a peacock, the sacred bird of the
nearby Mylapore temple.
In Puthupally, near Kottayam, the villagers associate St George - the
saint the English think of as their own patron - with the goddess they
say is his sister: the dark Kali, whose temple lies to the side of the
church. In the church, St George is shown killing a dragon; in the
temple his sister Kali is sculpted slaughtering a demon in the form of a
water buffalo. Both brother and sister are believed locally to be
ferocious carnivores, and during festivals both are fed the blood of
Not far away, at Piravam, Shiva is locally celebrated as the travelling
companion of the Three Wise Men. According to local myth, the four went
on a long pilgrimage and became close friends during the course of their
journey. Elsewhere, there are tales of friendships struck up between
Krishna and St Sebastian, believed locally to be a Keralan Brahmin who
was converted to Christianity by St Thomas.
Not that relations between Christian saints and Hindu deities are always
unproblematic. There is a story of St Thomas and the goddess Bhagavati
having a spat, with St Thomas chasing the goddess to her temple at
Kodangallur, and sticking his foot in the door to prevent her locking
him out. Even in Mannarkad, it is said that the crack in the church's
bell is due to Bhagavati damaging it as its tolling was waking her up
during her sleep. In retaliation, the Virgin Mary is believed to have
cracked one of the sacred conches at her sister's temple.
Such myths may hint at periods of tensions between the different faiths,
and certainly there are those today who frown on the extreme porousness
of religious practice in the region. The Christian clergy at the church
of Mannarkad, while welcoming Hindus into the church, do all they can
to stop their own Christian flock from visiting the temple. When I asked
the local priest, Fr Kuriakos, about the forthcoming visit of the
goddess Bhagavati to the church to see her sister, he made it clear that
he would on no account be present to welcome the goddess. "The Virgin
Mary comes from Jewish tradition," he said, clearly exasperated. "She is
the daughter of Joachim and Anna, and was from Palestine, not India."
He paused, looking me in the eye: "There is no relation between the
Virgin Mary and Bhagavati," he said. "We cannot encourage this belief.
It is a myth. Worse, it is nonsense."
With the noise of firecrackers exploding, six cymbal clashers clashing,
12 temple drummers drumming, and the women of the village loudly
ululating, the procession set off up the dirt track behind the temple
and into the jungle. It was 8.30 on the morning of January 6 2008, and
the goddess Bhagavati, in the form of a silver image hoisted on to a
wonderfully caparisoned temple elephant, was setting off to visit her
devotees and relations across the village of Mannarkad. From the top of
her mount, the goddess looked down in splendour at her devotees, her
eyes bulging in her rounded skull-like face, her skeletal teeth and
fangs grinning with pleasure. This ceremony had been carried out in the
village for hundreds of years.
As we walked along the village boundary, through pepper and rubber
plantations, groups of devotees were waiting for the annual visit of
their deity. Trestle tables had been loaded with burning lamps and
offerings - coconuts and bananas, baskets of puffed rice and jaggery.
Each time the elephant stopped, offerings would be given and blessings
received. Then more firecrackers would be let off - scaring the children
and grazing goats - and on the procession would trundle.
"She is the mother of the village," said Saraswati Amma, an old lady
waiting on her verandah for the goddess, with her grandchildren around
"In ancient times, this was forest," said her son, Anish, holding his
youngest boy in his arms. "We needed the goddess to guard against bad
spirits. They are still here, hiding in the forest, and we need her to
keep them at bay."
"Everyone in the village gives her something," said Saraswati. "Even if the Christians sometimes do it in secret."
The site of the final sacrifice has always been located at the back of
the church, in the Christian area of the village. A small platform was
prepared, crisscrossed with bamboo, incense sticks placed at each
corner. When the goddess drew near, the priests blew their conch shells
and the drummers increased their tempo. The camphor was lit, Sanskrit
slokas were recited, and the bamboo grid doused with the blood-coloured
"We used to sacrifice a rooster," said one of the onlookers, a Hindu shopkeeper named Raji. "But that is stopped now."
"From time immemorial the sacrifice has taken place here by the church,"
said his wife, Susheela, "where the Devi fought and defended the
"I have always heard that the two Devis of the village are sisters,"
said Raji. "If you go to the temple you must also go to the church,
otherwise one of the sisters will be jealous."
"It's true," said Susheela. "They say that if you want your prayers
answered you must pray at both the temple and the church. They say that
if you light a lamp at the temple, that light also can be seen
flickering in the church, and vice versa. The two are really one."