The proper technical term for the veneration of Mary, in the Catholic Church, is hyperdulia. This means a higher level than dulia – the veneration of saints – but less than latria, degree of adoration reserved for the Holy Trinity. Marie is the only character who can receive hyperdulia. This subtle refinement of the gradations of reverence consecrates the Catholic Church’s strategic response to the accusation leveled against her by several Protestant schools of thought of “Mariolatry,” the idolatrous worship of Mary.
Whatever the official theological position, the proliferation and vital centrality of Marian images in the Estado da India tells a somewhat different story. Here it is explicitly clear that the veneration of Mary was, for Indians newly converted to Catholicism from multiple caste and sect groups within the Hindu fold, in deep psychic consonance and continuity with their worship of the Devi, the Goddess. Mother, in her various facets. forms – among them Durga, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Mahakali.
In Goa, in particular, the worship of the Mother Goddess is deeply embedded in the indigenous belief system at all levels of social formation. Like Santeri, one of the seven sisters of the Saptamatrika (“Seven Little Mothers”), she is a guardian figure, “meaning her special attributes of peace, fertility and protection which Goa is proud to bestow as her special contribution to Indian tradition”, as writes researcher Maria Aurora Couto.
Santeri continues to be worshiped in an aniconic form, like a consecrated anthill, in the strong folk religious traditions of Goa; during this time she was also absorbed into the religious system of the Saraswat Brahmins, immigrants from the north who settled in Goa, as the iconic Shantadurga, the consort of Shiva in her aspect of Mangesh or Mahangirisha. Not surprisingly, these religious archetypes informed the response of new converts in Goa, in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the Virgin Mary.
Indeed, the worship of the mother goddess forms a confluent link between the Hindu and Christian cultures of Goa. This is perhaps best represented by the annual feast of Mary as Our Lady of Miracles, known in Konkani as “Milagres Saibin”, which is usually celebrated the third week of Easter at St. Jerome, built in 1594 near the ruins of a famous Santeri temple, in Mapusa.
Milagres Saibin is popularly considered an avatar of Meerabai, one of the six sisters of Santeri: she bears witness to the active persistence, in the continuous sacred everydayness of ritual experience, of the ancient Saptamatrika cult which is an integral part of the deepest stratum of religious consciousness in India. “Hindus and Catholics gather in large numbers to worship the Saibin and offer her oil and candles. Similar festivals of Catholics and Hindus are held in Santeri-Saibin churches in several villages in Goa. The union of worship despite the separate religions is a factor that explains communal peace and harmony in Goa,” writes Couto.
Participating together in these ceremonies with fervor, Hindus and Christians of Goa are united by a Mother Goddess whom they approach as alternative but intertwined versions of a transcendent reality, neither version excluding or canceling the other. ‘Saibin’, meaning ‘Lady’, is the feminine form of ‘Saib’, the Konkani adaptation of the Arabic word Sahibmeaning “Lord”: this etymology speaks of another confluence of cultures through the centuries-old trade circulations of the Indian Ocean, by which Goa was connected to the Arabian Peninsula and the East African coast.
Festivals like the Feast of Milagres Saibin demonstrate both the resilience of local forms of religious experience and the well-attested human tendency towards syncretism and synthesis, despite theological or ideological differences. In Goa, in particular, such confluent joints record a historic challenge to the oppressive measures adopted by the Inquisition, which ruled the Estado da India from 1560 to 1820, with a brief interval, from 1774 to 1778, when it has been temporarily removed. . Under the Inquisition, converted Christians were forced to renounce all customs and practices that tied them to their matrix culture, including lavish costume forms, food and language choices, and floral offering preferences.
Despite these strict measures of prescription and proscription, significant elements of Hindu culture have found their way into Christian iconography and forms of worship, generating an idiom of improvisation and cultural innovation irreducible to one or the other. another of the parent cultures. Terms such as “Indo-Portuguese” or “Indo-Lusitano” refer to this idiom, but – by suggesting a simple, mechanical mix of binaries – fail to convey its rich and unpredictable complexity.
I conclude this essay with a brief reflection on a singularly exquisite 20th century ivory carving, Nirmala Matha (“Mother of Purity”), a gift made to the museum by Father Joaquim Loiola Pereira de Benaulim (Inv. no. 09.1. 1) . The donor did not know where it came from; in a miraculous way, he found it one day in his room at the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, the pontifical seminary in Pune, with no indication of how it had been placed there or by whom.
This miniature sculpture marks the farthest European exemplars in Marian iconography in the Estado da India. Here, the Madonna is virtually indistinguishable from a Devi. Her disposition is that of the Immaculate Conception: she stands upright with her hands joined, and there is a crescent moon at her feet. But, for the rest, she would not be out of place in a Hindu sanctuary: she stands on a lotus base and is dressed in a sari; his crown is a Kirita Where mukuta Indian style.
His head is surrounded both by a halo or nimbus, and also by an elegantly adorned prabhavali or frame of glory – at the top of which, directly above the head of the Madonna/Devi, appears the Paraclete in the form of a dove. This icon communicates, with a particular and resonant intensity, the meeting of two traditions and belief systems – and the transcendence of their differences – in a symbol of infinite grace.
Supplicants and observers more accustomed to European conceptions of the Madonna might well be surprised by the seemingly complete inculturation that this image bears witness to. And yet, was not Nirmala Matha already foreshadowed in a poem of extraordinary grandeur, composed in a mixture of Marathi and Konkani by an English-born Jesuit in Rachol at the end of the sixteenth century?
Father Thomas Stephens wrote his Krista Purana as a sprawling two-part narrative in the style of the puranas, large-scale narratives enumerating and extolling the deeds of Hindu deities. It includes 11,018 lines defined in the ovi quatrains associated with the devotional poetry of many Bhakti saints of western India.
The Krista Purana resonates with its author’s passion to translate the story of Jesus Christ into the local languages of the Estado da India. Likewise, it resonates with his passion for conveying in biblical stories, drawn from the Old Testament and New, the flora and fauna, sights and scents, culture and ecology of Goa, which Stephens embraced like his homeland.7
Stephens (Wiltshire, 1549–Salcete, 1619) was a follower of the Jesuit policy of lodging, openness to local custom in the service of the faith, prototype of what would later be called inculturation. He has been a key protagonist in the stories of cross-cultural passage and confluent encounter that should act as our talismans against the afflictions of parochialism and xenophobia.
In the Krista PuranaStephens coined an extensive vocabulary of Konkani-Marathi terms for key figures that dominate the Old and New Testaments, such as Devabapa for God the Father; Devasuta for God the Son; Isphari Santa Claus for the Holy Spirit. For Mary, he coined more than eighty Konkani-Marathi and Sanskrit names and titles resounding with honorary praise and devotional ardor: among them, Devamata (Mother of God), Bhagyevanta Mari (Blessed Mary), Sadaivi Ankuvari (Eternal Virgin), Sadaivi Bhagevati Striyamaji (Eternally blessed among women), and Svarguichi Rani (Queen of Heaven), Chandrabimba Sundari (Beautiful as the Moon), Surya Nirmala (Immaculate as the Sun), and Pavitra Mata (Holy Mother).
This beatific gem from the museum’s collection of Marian images, Nirmala Matha, is the realization of Stephens’ vision of a Christianity that would be fully and abidingly at home in India, in words, images, thoughts and spirit.
Excerpted with permission from One hundred emblematic works of art from the Museum of Christian Art, edited by Natasha Fernandes, Pragati shift.