SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012
I have arrived at Maramon in Pathanamthitta for the 117th annual Maramon Convention held, as usual, on the vast sand bed of the Pampa River near the Kozhencherry Bridge. The Convention is held each year on the eight days before Lent.
The convention is run by the missionary arm of the Malankara Mar Thoma Church Syrian Church, the Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association. It has been held here since 1895 and its origins can be traced back to the vision of Mar Abraham Malpan the great reformer of the Mar Thoma West Syrian tradition in Kerala. It is based on the idea of the great evangelical tent revival meetings I think.
This convention is known for being one of the largest gatherings of Christians in the world. The main panthal (tent enclosure made from bamboo and thatched with palm leaves) holds over 160,000. Usually the daily attendance is over 1/4 million people with an average attendance over the course of the week of over two million. When you stand at one side of the panthal it is difficult to even see the people at the other end.
The convention draws international speakers of the very highest quality, usually from Episcopal traditions. The Archbishop of Canterbury usually comes to Maramon once during his incumbency. The main speakers besides the Mar Thoma Metropolitan and other Mar Thoma Bishops are the Malaysian born Chinese Missiologist of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) based in Oxford UK, Doctor Kang San Tan, the Tamil-Nadu born US Methodist Minster the Rev’d Martin Alphons, and the Anglican South African Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana. There are days devoted to ecumenism, evangelism, as well as social issues that effect the peoples of Kerala and the world.
The Day begins with Bible study with children, youth, women and men each having their own sections. Then there are three main gatherings at 10am, 2pm, and 7pm. Half an hour before each section as well as interspersed throughout the day there is live music performed by a huge choir. They sing hymns and have a custom of introducing sixteen new hymns every year that they sing throughout the week so that people get used to them.
Here are three of the more popular hymns this year. The first one is my favourite.
Two of the things that are bragged about by those associated with the convention is the fact that the main enclosure and all the other buildings as well as the music is donated and supplied by the local parishes. The other is that the members police themselves as no security is present and the police are not allowed into the gathering. The discipline and decent behaviour of the participants is legendary.
His Beatitude brought me as he came just for one evening and one day. He has been coming every year for forty-nine years. I hope they remember his Golden Jubilee of attendance next year.
I will remember several things about this week. One is meeting His Grace The Most Rev’d Doctor Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan. What an extraordinary man. He has a presence that few prelates I have met can match. During one of the speeches he somehow spotted in the crowd of a quarter of a million people a solitary man selling some sort of publication – perhaps a political tract or a newspaper. Using his stick, he somehow clambered up onto the podium before his Secretary could realise what was happening and help him. He politely stopped the speaker, pointed to the man who seemed about half a mile away and addressed him in a voice that immediately silenced the whole valley. He forbad the selling or distribution of anything at the convention and tersely told everyone that they were not to encourage this parasitic behaviours by purchasing anything. There was no question in his mind, or theirs I am sure, that anyone would. What an extraordinary power to command the allegiance of so many with just the power of your voice.
I felt privileged to share several meals with him during my time there. Although I must admit to feeling rather odd about the way I just arrive places and am immediately placed at the head table, the main platform or in some other position of prestige. In the case of Maramon I arrived just before a meal and found myself placed at the head table of the Mar Thoma Metropolitan where I remained for every meal until I left. At first I was not even sure anyone knew who I was but it turns out the Metropolitan had not only received my e-mail saying I was coming but seems to have read it himself, remembered the contents, and informed everyone. All this in the middle of one of the busiest weeks of the year.
The other thing that will remain with me is the experience of being the only white person here. The speakers are Indian, African and Chinese. No westerners this year. I have not seen another white face for over a week. When I walk along the river bed I am stared at by literally tens of thousands of people. It is not my comely physique or my episcopal fuchsia sash they are looking at either. I am a foreigner, the lone member of my race here. I stand out, or I should say I stand out more than usual. Children especially are fascinated by me. They come around the corner or emerge from a crowd holding a parents hand, see me, and sort of go into paralysis as their mouth drop open and they stare googly eyed at me while their parents drag their rigid bodies away bumping along in the dust.
It is a fascinating experience that helps put humanity into its proper global perspective. I wish everyone could, at least once in their life, know what it fells like to be a clear and visible minority lost in a vest sea of another culture and race.
However there is one experience which will mark Maramon as a turning point in my life. I stood outside the main tent this evening at dusk listening to the music and watching the cattle egrets fly down the river to roost, the men bathe in the river, and the first stars begin to come out.
Then I began to realise that the white cattle egrets that I had been watching just a minute before had been replaced by a couple of much bigger, black birds lazily flapping their huge wings as they also flew downriver presumably to roost. The couple then became four or five. Then ten then twenty. The numbers just kept growing. I knew they were too big to be crows, way too big as their wings were about five feet across. I was wracking my mind trying to remember what kind of gigantic black birds were indigenous to the area. Then as a cloud of them flapped over my head it suddenly hit me like an electric shock – BATS!
Enormous, mind confusingly giant bats - Greater Indian Fruit Bats or Indian Flying Foxes to be precise, Pteropus giganteus to be even more precise (please note the second Latin word in the scientific name). I was transfixed, something I had seen on nature documentaries a hundred times was happening right above my head and no one around even bothered to look up.
Maramon marks a line in the sand for me. Before Maramon I lived in a world where such things existed only on television. After Maramon I live in a world inhabited by wonderful, hauntingly beautiful, gigantic bats!