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  DEVOTIONAL  
 
   
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  COUNSELING
 
Back to infancy -- they n
 
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
     
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  TRAVEL  
     
 
   
 
  Serampore, Carey's karmabhoomi
  By A.J. Philip  
  EVERY time I visited Kolkata, I wanted to go to Serampore, but the visit never materialised. This time, with a free day at my disposal, I decided to go to that small town in Hoogly district, whose historicity is not known to many even in Kolkata. Thus when I mentioned "Serampore University" many raised their eyebrows, for they had never heard about such a university.

It is a tragedy that Serampore does not get its due. It is the first university in India, established in 1818, less than a year after the first college -- Hindu College, renamed Presidency College -- was set up in Kolkata. It was decades later that Calcutta, Bombay and Madras universities came into being. Even more important, from a journalist's point of view, is that the first proper newspaper in the country -- The Friend of India -- was launched from Serampore in 1818.

The puritans may say that James Hickey's 'The Bengal Gazette' was the first newspaper. But then, it was more a scandal-sheet than a newspaper. I would call Serampore as the place where Indian Renaissance began, though many may laugh at it. I will come to that in an instant.

My colleague from Pratichi (India) Trust Paromita Haldar and The Herald of India contributor from Romania Mihaela Gligor were happy to join me on the trip. They had heard about Serampore but had never visited it. The car we hired over the phone -- a Maruti Omni -- was a disappointment. Far more disappointing was the driver, who claimed he knew the route well, but was found to ask for direction at every junction.

As a salute to Prof Amartya Sen's 'The Argumentative Indian' that Mihaela Gligor was translating into Romanian, we decided to call the driver by that time. As we crossed the Nivedita bridge, named after Sister Nivedita, the driver suddenly stopped the vehicle. He was trying to figure out which road to take, the one that goes straight or the one that goes to Dakshineswar temple.

Suddenly, Mihaela, who is otherwise parsimonious with the spoken word, turned garrulous. "It is a beautiful temple, much like a cake". Since I had never heard anyone comparing a temple to a cake, I instantly wanted to see the temple. That solved the driver's problem, too, as he had already driven a bit on that road. It was only when I neared the temple did I realize that nearly three decades ago, my wife and I had visited it while holidaying in Calcutta.

We realized it was a wrong day to visit the temple -- the car couldn't move caught as it was in a terrible jam. Serpentine queues of devotees, each carrying a small basket containing flowers, camphor and incense as an offering to Goddess Kali, were found in the temple premises. Paromita's pleadings with the security guard to let us get in to just have a view of the temple from inside the compound received the expected rejection.

In any case, all three of us had visited the temple built by Rani Rashmoni in 1855. Its fame doesn't rest on its nine spires but on the fact that Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Vivekananda's guru, served as its priest. Situated right on the bank of the Hoogly, it has a beautiful garden and two large ponds around it. The ponds are closed for visitors except the winged variety that arrives from far and wide.

As the multitudes were growing, it was far more difficult to drive out than drive in. "Lunch is ready, lunch is ready" beckoned a restaurant employee in Bangla and English as the driver tried in vain to wriggle out of the jam. After much effort and time, we were back on the national highway, built originally by Sher Shah. We realized the driver had chosen the wrong road only when we reached some sort of a dead end and had to pass through a congested market.

We were so tired of the "Argumentative Indian" that the sudden sight of a small Baptist church on the bank of the Hoogly gave me a pleasant surprise. I could not but exclaim, "Yes, we have reached the right place." A few seconds later, we found a majestic white colonnaded building whose pictures I had seen.

We got down to have a look at the Hoogly that flowed calmly. We could see a temple on the other side of the river at quite a distance. We erroneously thought it was the Dakshineshwar temple. No, it is another Kali temple from where Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were immersed in the Hoogly. Just across the river was the Barrackpore Park, once the seat of political power in Bengal. The Governor-General always stayed at Barrackpore while his later 'avatar', the Viceroy, ruled from Calcutta before shifting to Shimla and New Delhi.

Serampore's real story begins with the arrival there of three great men, whose contributions to India's development have not received due recognition. Known as the Serampore trio, they were William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. They were Baptist missionaries who were not allowed to disembark at Calcutta because the British, whose only interest was to make money, did not want any "trouble-makers" in their midst.

They, therefore, went to Serampore, a Danish colony which the Danes called Fredericksnagore in honour of their king Frederick the Sixth. Their intention was not to make money but transform the nation. They had a harrowing time but they persevered, to use a Biblical expression, in the Lord's vineyard. We drove into the main campus. Outside the gate, volunteers of the Students Federation of India (SFI) were pasting wall posters to canvas votes in the college elections due a couple of days later.

The Serampore College has two wings, the arts and science section under Calcutta University and the Theology section under the Senate of Serampore University. It is the world's largest theological institution with 1301 graduate students passing out this year alone. There are over 10,000 theology students studying in various institutions affiliated to this university. The college has a common principal for both the theology and arts and science sections.

The campus has many exotic trees. This is not a surprise as William Carey was a pioneering Botanist and horticulturist as well. There is a museum but it is closed. All we could do was to take the pictures of Carey's statue in the foyer of the museum. "Why don't you meet the Principal? He may have it opened for you", suggested an employee.

We realized how mistaken the employee was only when we knocked on the doors of the two-storied house in one section of which Principal Lalchungnunga stayed. This was the same house where William Carey stayed towards the end of his life in 1834. "The Principal is taking rest. He has a function to attend at 3 p.m." said his wife, whose name is "Hillary" but with a different spelling. Despite my dropping all names, including that of a common friend, she would not disturb her husband's siesta.

Mrs Lalchungnanga showed us a functional pedestal organ in the living room, perhaps, used by the Serampore trio. At our prompting, she gave us a glass of water which Mihaela, understandably, declined to accept. For all her love of India, she does not trust un-packaged water. From there, we walked towards Registrar Rev Dr Ravi Tiwari's house, across the road. I knew him as I had once interviewed him for The Herald of India.

Dr Tiwari exuded warmth as he received us. He is a second-generation Christian, whose family tree can be traced to Tulsidas, who translated the Ramayana into Hindi and made it popular in North India. He showed us the photograph of his grandfather. "Look at his cap. Those days Muslims and Brahmins wore almost the same type of caps". I took the close-up pictures of both his "framed" father and grandfather. Mihaela and Paromita might have wondered why I was doing so.

They did not know that I had a plan to write a piece on Dr Tiwari's father, who had translated the liturgy of my church -- the Mar Thoma Syrian Church -- into Hindi. It is still being used in the church service in North India. After offering us tea and biscuits, he led us to the terrace to give us a panoramic view of the Hoogly. "I have never seen the water so low as this year" said Dr Tiwari, echoing the sentiment of Copenhagen. This residential building known as Mack House is relatively new.
"Sometimes I shudder when I stand here" said the Registrar. It was at this spot that a horrible incident had occurred. This was soon after William Carey arrived at Serampore. He saw a young widow being dragged and pushed on to the funeral pyre of her husband. He protested but he was asked to mind his own business.

Carey wrote a booklet on the horrible practice of sati. When it appeared in Britain, William Wilberforce, nicknamed "God's own politician", raised the issue in Parliament. The tract went a long way in building public opinion against the evil practice. Serampore was also notorious for infanticide. Carey and Company used every forum available to them to campaign against the practices. One of the threesome, Ward, was a printer by profession. They set up the best printing press in India at Serampore.

Meanwhile, Carey began learning languages like Sanskrit, Bengali and Marathi. And when the British started a college at Fort William in Calcutta to train their newly recruited civil service officers, Carey was appointed to teach them these languages. "Carey used to commute daily between Calcutta and Serampore by boat taking advantage of the high tides from the Bay of Bengal."
Carey became a friend of Governor-General William Bentinck and whenever they met, he used the opportunity to demand abolition of sati. Carey's friendship with Hindu reformer Raja Rammohan Roy, who was also against the practice helped in clinching the issue. The day Sati was abolished Carey worked day and night to translate the proclamation into Sanskrit, Bengali and other Indian languages.
He feared the government might withdraw the proclamation under religious pressure and he, therefore, wanted to make it a fait accompli. He was so busy translating the notification that he could not attend the church service on that day -- a Sunday. It was the first time he missed the church.

From Serampore they published the Bible in many Indian languages. Carey was also the first to publish dictionaries and grammar books in many Indian languages. And when the British introduced censorship, it was his 'Friend of India' which was penalized. He used the media to campaign against the compulsory cultivation of indigo. More important, he set up over 100 schools in the region, where students enjoyed equality and a sense of oneness, unheard of concepts those days. Thus, I am not wide of the mark when I say Indian renaissance began at Serampore.

"A jute mill is now situated at the spot where the press stood" said Dr Tiwari who came out to show us William Carey's grave about two kms from there. On the way, he showed us the Danish church which preceded the arrival of the Serampore trio. The Danish court building is now being renovated with generous assistance from the government of Denmark.

A few minutes later, when we got down at the newly-built flyover in the town, a passerby asked me, "Are you visiting Carey's grave?" A hundred metres from the main road was a small graveyard surrounded by a boundary wall. There were three large graves of the Serampore trio like the three points of a triangle. Weeds and plants grew luxuriously around the graves. There were also smaller graves of their family members, besides those who taught at Serampore College.

"My father, who was a professor at Serampore, wanted to be buried here. But as ill-luck would have it, he died when I was posted at Shillong. I can be buried here if I die in harness, not otherwise," said Dr Tiwari with a smile on his face. "No, you have a long way to go before you can even think of death," I told him as we took leave of the Serampore trio and returned to Kolkata. How truly had William Carey said, "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God"! (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
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Serampore College - Photo by A.J. Philip
 
   
   
 
  Kerala's holy land
  By Elizebath Philip  
  IT was as if my thirst was being quenched, when I recently visited Bharananganam and Kudamaloor, the 'karmabhoomi' of Saint Alphonsa. I had no hope that the visit would happen so soon. So, it was indeed a blessing that I could visit these places during a short three-day visit to Kerala.

Saint Alphonsa was in the news in 2008 due to her canonization and in 2009 because of her birth centenary. Though a non-Catholic, I had opportunities to be associated with Catholic nuns during my student days at Assumption College, Changanacherry. Their dedication and faith always attracted me. I could identify St. Alphonsa through them in that she belonged to the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) and my lecturers, Sr. Pancreas and Sr. Flower, and my hostel warden, Sr. Sales, all belonged to the same order.

I found it a blessed coincidence that both St. Alphonsa and Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, whose canonization is on the anvil, were born in August 1910 -- one on the 19th and the other on the 26th.

Travelling through Kottayam and Pala, we reached Bharananganam, now considered a holy place because St. Alphonsa's convent and tomb are situated there. The small convent has been converted into a museum that displays all her memorablias. It helps the visitor to undertake a journey through her life.

The small room where she lived and died was full of people, young and old kneeling and praying. Even children were crawling on their knees and taking rounds of the cot used by the Saint. They were either praying for favours or giving thanks for favours received.

A five-minute walk across the road and we were in front of the main church at Bharananganam. On a small hillock is the shrine and tomb of St. Alphonsa. The white-marbled tomb inside the shrine was surrounded by people on their knees praying to the Saint. Among them were some foreigners too.

After praying at the tomb, we left for Kudamaloor, the birth place of St. Alphonsa and the Kudamaloor church where she was baptized. Her house has been converted into a museum. Pilgrims drink and take home water from the well adjacent to the house. The water is believed to have curative power, particularly against skin diseases. The sisters are only too happy to offer water drawn from the well.

It was a humbling experience to hear the life story of St. Alphonsa. Born in a very interior village, faced with problems of all sorts -- losing her mother when she was just 29 days old, constant ill-health and sickness, confined to bed for years, spending all her life in just two places -- Changanacherry and Bharananganam -- never establishing any institutions or organisations, never travelling around the world giving speeches, making disciples or groups and taken to the Lord at the young age of 36 -- she did nothing great in the eyes of people.

She led such an obscure life that there were not even enough people to carry her coffin when she died. In fact, only a small gathering, mostly sisters belonging to her order, attended her funeral. Yet, she is a Saint for the whole world -- granting solace to all who pray to her and relieving others' pain, answering their prayers, granting their requests, known not only in Kerala, but all over the globe.

Yes, she is the mother of endurance, bearing, identifying with her Jesus, wearing the crown of thorns all her life, called back to be by His side at a young age, to do more for Him, to give favours to all around the world...

St Alphonsa nee Annakutty was born on August 19, 1910, as the fourth child of Joseph and Mary of Muttathupadam Pazhooparambil family. She was a premature baby and there hangs a story. When Mary was eight months pregnant, a rat snake crawled over her body when she was taking rest. She got frightened and fell unconscious. Because of the shock, Mary gave birth to a premature baby. She died when the baby was only 29 days old, leaving her to the care of her grandmother.

Annakutty was later taken by her maternal aunt Murickan Annamma of Muttuchira to feed her and to bring her up as she also had a son of the same age. But her grandmother took her back to her home at Kudamaloor after six months. Annakutty suffered from many kinds of illness right through her childhood. She used to hear inspiring stories of saints and martyrs from her grandmother.

After primary education, she was again taken to Muttuchira for completing Classes IV, V and VI in the local school. Her maternal aunt was a strict disciplinarian and wanted to marry her off into an aristocratic family. But Annakutty wanted to be the bride of Jesus, join a convent and become a nun. This was not liked by the family.

They did not pay heed to her pleadings and arranged a marriage for her. On the day of betrothal, to escape going to the church for the ceremony, Annaktty tried to burn her foot in the pit where husk and chaff were being burnt. While doing so, her dress caught fire and she fell unconscious. Thereafter the family dropped their decision to marry her off. She had to take Ayurvedic treatment for several months to be cured of the burn injuries.

In 1927, she joined the Convent at Bharananganam of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) and completed her 7th class at a local school there. She got her veil on August 2, 1928, and took the name of Alphonsa because that day was the feast of St. Alphonse Ligoury. She was sent to Changanacherry to continue her studies but due to ill-health, she could not complete the 9th class. On May 19, 1930, Sr. Alphonsa received the official dress of the FCC order.

In 1932, she was appointed a teacher for Class III but due to ill-health she could not continue and returned to Bharananganam in 1933, after a year.
On August 12, 1935, she was sent to FCC, Changanacherry, for her canonical novitiate. Novitiate is the period of strict practice in prayer, meditation, self-empting, humiliation and all other spiritual exercises. But after a short time she became seriously ill and began to bleed profusely through nose and mouth. Her illness was becoming worse and worse and still she practiced her spiritual exercises as rigorously as possible.

After about seven months, she was almost on the verge of death and she and others prayed a novena to Fr. Chavara Kuriakose Elias, who was the founder of the CMI Congregation and was considered a saint. He appeared to Sr. Alphonse on the last day of the novena and blessed her. He said she will be completely cured of the present illness, but would have to suffer from many other diseases in her life.

The bleeding stopped but many other diseases attacked her later. She considered all these as a gift from her spouse -- Jesus. Her motto was -- "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

On August 12, 1936, she took her perpetual vows at the age of 26. It was the happiest day in her life. She returned to Bharananganam and spent the days in prayer and service to others. Again, she had severe attacks of pain, fever and cough. While other sisters were praying in the chapel and doing community chores, she was in bed. But, by herself, she recited the daily prayers and canonical office.

One evening in October 1940, when Sr. Alphonsa was in deep meditation, she heard footsteps and saw a big black figure nearby. Though the thief ran away, she was extremely frightened and because of the shock, lost her memory. Her mind seemed almost broken and she became like a child and fell into coma very often. Still she could be heard praying for favours for others.

Hardly had she recovered from this trauma than she developed a very painful swelling all over her body, making her every movement painful. The swelling became a very big ulcer oozing out blood and puss. The pain was so severe that she could not take food and she became very weak. Her colleagues thought she was going to die. So she was given the last sacrament, though she was telling them she would not die.

On September 30, 1941, on the feast of St. Little Flower, she rose from the bed without any help. Suddenly, it was found that she was able to speak and read Tamil, a language she had never learnt before. For some time, pain disappeared and she could lead a community life.

Fr. Romulus, CMI, was her spiritual father and confessor during this period and he directed her to perfection. Sometime in 1943-44, she prophesied the death of a relative of a sister that came true. People began to realize that Alphonsa was a saintly person. However, illness continued to plague her.

Although she suffered from painful diseases, she never prayed for her own cure. Rather, she prayed for others and they got relief. After a period of convulsions, she had a kind of trance in which she enjoyed the vision of Jesus comforting her in person. She was ready to suffer more, than pray for her own cure. She suffered for the sake of the world which was going away from God seeking worldly pleasures. As days passed into weeks and weeks into months, her pain became unbearable.

For once, she realized that her end was near and requested her spiritual father Fr. Romulus, CMI, to come to Bharananganam. He came on July 5, 1946, and she sought his permission to pray for death because of the agony, vomiting and convulsions. He advised her to pray to God for her death if it was the will of God.

On July 27, 1946, she told Fr. Kuruvilla Plamthottom, chaplain of the convent: "There will be a fight tomorrow and I am preparing for that. You must pray for me". On Sunday, the 28th of July 1946, she attended the mass. Soon afterwards, her agonies started. She knew her end was near. At 12 o'clock she said, "it's time for my farewell. Dress me in good clothes". She said bye to all with a smile and when the priest administered the last sacrament, she slowly closed her eyes.

At the age of 36, on the 28th of July 1946, Sr. Alphonsa died. The burial was the next day. Since there were not many men around, the sisters themselves carried the coffin to the tomb. Fr. Romulus, CMI, who gave the farewell oration, prophesied that she will be declared a saint in due course. He told the people not to cry or feel sad as they have got an intercessor in heaven.

"If God wills, Bharananganam will become the Liseux of India. In future, pilgrims from all over Kerala and India will visit this tomb of Alphonso. Bishops ad Cardinals will come and pray before it." He also advised that all her personal belongings and items be kept sacred and safe.

How prophetic he was! Sister Alphonsa was beatified and elevated as "Blessed" on February 8, 1986. She was finally declared a saint on October 12, 2008. She is the first virgin saint of India. As I returned home, I wondered at the miracle of how a little-known sister, who suffered all her life for the sake of her bridegroom, became an icon for believers and a saint for the whole world, an intercessor for everyone of us.
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Elizebath Philip is Chief Manager, Oriental Insurance Company, New Delhi.
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Photo caption: The tomb of Saint Alphonsa at Bharananganam
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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