“Though I Sang in my Chains like the Sea” Part I: Post XII - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Mountain of the Cross

The last three days have been unexpectedly poignant for me. I do not know why some places instantly ‘feel right’. I cannot tell if it is the community itself except to say that when a tall thin monk named Brother Jose came out to welcome me wearing the rough cut wrap of a sannyasin and smiled innocently in welcome I immediately felt at home. I was transported back to my youthful days when I lived with the Franciscans, or rather, transported back to the wonder and excitement I had as a teenager when first exposed to the Poor Brothers of Christ. I recognised another of His poor brethren, a genuine one, in the monk who stood before me. Despite my jaded knowledge of Franciscanism, it was my first spiritual love and it can still manage to call down to me through the years and move me. I should point out, by the way, that the entire community is Indian. The white man in the photograph below is the Abbott General of the worldwide Trappists who was making one of his visitations when it was taken.

Kurisumala Community

The mountain itself is extraordinary. It is peaceful in a way that only a few places I have experienced can rival. What is different about the peace and tranquility here is that it is so alive. I have been used to the cold, windswept silence of the far north of Scotland or Canada that stems from desolation and barrenness. Here there are trees and flowers everywhere and birds sing continually and either flit from tree to tree in a riot of colour or soar silently above the mountain in lazy circles. The wind regularly blows down from the the higher mountains of the Ghats down towards the Arabian Sea. There are tea bushes,  streams and ponds, holy banyan trees growing out of the boulder strew hillsides, and the ashram cats sitting majestically on stone walls looking down on the valleys. Whole clouds of dragonflies will come sweeping through the hill tops and once I was disorientated by an overpowering buzzing which I could not place until a huge  swarm of bees appeared above the treetops making its way up the mountainside. There are huge turtles sunning on rocks in the ponds and brightly coloured lizards basking on the stone walls and crickets lazily chirping away the afternoon. The smells seem almost alive in their diversity and the way they appear and disappear so suddenly like invisible versions of the vast variety of birds.

What there isn't here are mosquitoes (they only come out at night and we are too high for there to be very many of them), midges, or any other kind of annoying insect that makes you wan to be indoors. There are no dogs barking, no traffic noise, no airplanes, and few people. The people you do see are usually off in the distance working in the ashram’s rice paddies, tea plantation, or cutting the long grass on the hillsides with hand sickles to feed to the cattle.

Reading Spot near Hermitage

Somehow I feel more alive here. I am aware of my body in a way that I do not think I have been since I was last in an ashram when I was eighteen. It is most likely a psychological trick of the mind that I have become conscious in this way again after so long. Only this time, instead of being aware of how much energy I have and how flexible I am like when I was a teenager it is, unfortunately, the complete opposite this time. I find myself consistently realising that my jaw is clinched in tension, that my toes are curled, or that my back is hunched and I have to take a deep breath and relax. Sitting on the ground makes me aware of how inflexible I have become and, like my fat cat, how many ways I can no longer turn. I am aware of how quickly my body protests when sitting reading in an half lotus, or half reclining upon the slopes or a rock whilst reading. It is hard to sleep on a the pallet, sit on the floor to meditate and eat, hard to use the Asian loo, as well as hard to sit on the hard stool/table (even with my padding). I feel like I am rigid and inflexible and will never be comfortable. Yet, at the same time it feels good, even if it is embarrassing to involuntarily let out a loud “ooomph!” when trying to casually drop from a standing position onto the floor to meditate or do prostrations (which Syrian Christians simple love doing).

For almost a month I have ingested no alcohol, tobacco (smoking of any kind in illegal in Kerala), meat, cheese, or (I think) wheat. My caffeine consumption has been restricted to two or three cups of tea a day (and I mean cups – not mugs), two of these early in the morning and one at three o’clock. I have been in bed by 10pm and up by 7am almost every day. I have watched no TV, listened to no radio and read no news except the morning papers. I have spoken to no friends or family and corresponded with no one. I have walked everyday and in sandals (although indoors I go barefoot). So perhaps I am simply becoming healthier and so becoming more aware of myself. But I do not think this is the main reason.

Fr Bede Griffiths OSB

I think it has to do with the Indian people themselves. They move so freely and in an almost femininely gracefully way. I think they are making me feel stiff and awkward and self conscious by the fact that they lack these traits. Bede Griffiths wrote in The Marriage of East and West:

“My discovery began even before I reached India. I travelled by boat and I remember how at my first encounter with the east, at Port Said and Aden, I was fascinated with the spectacle of this world of immeasurable beauty and vitality. It was not the beauty of nature which stuck me now, but the beauty of human nature, of what Blake called the ‘human form divine’. It was the same when I reached Bombay. It was not the poverty and the misery which struck me so much as the sheer beauty and vitality of the people. On all sides was a swarming mass of humanity, children running about quite naked, women in saris, men with turbans, everywhere displaying the beauty of the human form. Whether sitting or standing or walking there was a grace in all their movements and I felt that I was in the presence of a hidden power of nature. I explained it to myself by saying that these people were living from the ‘unconscious’ . People in the West are dominated by the conscious mind; they go about their business each shut up in his own ego. There is a kind of fixed determination in their minds, which makes their movements and gestures stiff and awkward, and they all tend to wear the same drab clothes. But in the East people live not from the conscious mind but from the unconscious, from the body not from the mind. As a result they have the natural spontaneous beauty of flowers and animals, and their dress is as varied and colourful as that of any flower garden.”

Since my arrival in India I have been struck by the elegance of the women in their saris, every one different in wildly diverse range of colours and yet all beautiful. I have yet to see one ugly or tasteless sari. Watching them go up for communion is hypnotic. Like Father Bede I too am struck by their natural beauty.

This is also true for most of the men although the more educated older men do seem to lack the fluid natural movement of the other males. What has struck me the most is the relaxed affectionateness showed by the younger men. They will often walk together with arms over each other’s shoulders, sometimes three in a row. Others will hold hands, or a finger, or walk arm in arm. It is unselfconscious and lovely to see. I only regret that this freedom to show affection does not extend to the girls. You never see females showing any affection in public at all. I know that one runs the risk of sounding racist if you make any analogy to a monkey and a person with dark skin. However, this is exactly what it reminds me of - the natural affectionateness of monkeys who seem to always be touching or holding onto one another. I hope you the reader will believe that If I had observed this behaviour in even the the most bleached white human beings  nature could provide they too would have reminded me of monkeys! Speaking of monkeys here is one I saw in Munnar! Its quite ugly I’m afraid (as well as Caucasoid).

Unaffectionate Monkey

The other thing I have noticed is that people seem happy most of the time, especially the young. There is a group of young men, eighteen to twenty years old,  from a junior seminary staying at the ashram this week awaiting the results of their senior seminary entrance exams which will decide which of them will continue their training for the priesthood. They cannot marry, will earn little money, and should be at least a bit nervous about their future. Instead they seem much happier and full of life than a similar group in the West would be. What is most striking is what Fr Bede calls the unselfconsciousness of their movement. The way they sit in chapel, eat, interact, smile, or walk or hold themselves is simply different. Better.

Syro-Malabar Junior Seminarians

So I am becoming very conscious of the way I walk with my hands clasped behind my back, head slightly down and have begun to try and relax into a ‘normal’ way of walking although I have no idea what that is for me anymore. It is fascinating to me that when other people around you are unselfconscious it is catching. I have caught myself two or three times striding along quite unaware that I was walking with my head up and my arms swinging along at my sides in a totally different way than I usually walk. A better way.

When people sit on the floor regularly they often will fold both legs to one side of themselves and support themselves with the opposite arm. It is very natural but somehow for a westerner it seems undignified or womanish. After a few weeks watching everyone doing this I found myself in this position whilst reading in one of the higher meadows. I did not consciously decide to try this position and only became aware I was in it because a Franciscan Friar and a friend came walking up one of the mountain paths. I immediately became aware of how I was sitting and almost simultaneously realised that it was perfectly natural here and relaxed again before I could even get uptight.