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Mannanam: Pilgrim centre of a social reformer saint

At a time when untouchables or Dalits were not allowed to get education, he brought in Dalit students to his schools and thus broke the caste restrictions and barriers.

Mannanam: Pilgrim centre of a social reformer saint

By Joe Palathunkal
The beautiful pilgrim centre on the top of a hill in Mannanam, near Kottayam town, will naturally attract anybody for its scenic sights. Here every day hundreds of people come to pay homage to a saintly visionary who drastically changed the education scenario of Kerala, the first state in India to achieve cent percent primary education.

But few would know that the beginnings were from an unassuming scholarly Catholic priest, Chavara Kuriakose Elias, who founded the first Malayalam daily newspaper Deepika and its press from the very spot. He was born on February 10, 1805 at Kainakari, Kuttanadu, to Kuriakose Chavara and Mariam Thoppil and died at the age of 65 on January 3, 1871. During this comparatively short span of life, he accomplished much more than what anybody could ever imagine.

Inspired by the European Catholic missionaries who spearheaded education in Kerala, Father Chavara, elected as the Vicar General of Syro-Malabar Church by Archbishop Bernardinos, sent out the most radical education circular in the history of India, with the official seal of the archbishop. It was an order and warning saying “each parish should establish educational institutions, or else they will be debarred from the communion”. Every Catholic knows what a grave punishment it is to get debarred from receiving communion during Holy Mass.

The seriousness of the circular dawned on every parish priest and as a result a number of schools sprang up in various parts of Travancore. But the education mission he started, was not only for the Catholics but it was for all the people. At a time when untouchables or Dalits were not allowed to get education, he brought in Dalit students to his schools and thus broke the caste restrictions and barriers.

The most revolutionary act of St. Chavara Kuriakose was his starting of Sanskrit schools and allowing Dalits to learn this presumed sacred language or 'Dev-Vani' at a time when the punishment for such an offence was pouring molten lead into the ear of the Dalit student. Forget about those days, when an Adivasi girl took M.A. in Sanskrit and also a doctorate, it made a big commotion in Ranchi, Jharkhand, three decades ago. When she was appointed as a Sanskrit lecturer, a high caste man filed a case against it saying Sanskrit was only meant for the highest caste, though court dismissed the case saying any Indian citizen can learn Sanskrit.

From this you can understand what an iconoclast Father Chavara was! That is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced at an event at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan to celebrate Fr. Chavara's canonisation by Pope Francis on November 23, 2014: “Saint Chavara was a man of prayer and also a social reformer. In an era when access to education was limited, he stressed that every church should have a school. He thus opened the doors of education to people from all sections of society. Few outside Kerala know that he started a Sanskrit school, and also a printing press.”(February 15, 2015)

The midday meal scheme St. Chavara started for the poor and Dalit students was replicated by the Travancore king for the government schools, perhaps it is the precursor of the midday meal scheme in schools all over India. Such a thought and vision will come only from a holy man.

So Mannanam is a pilgrim centre where Saint Chavara calls you to pray and meditate in the holy precincts which are maintained very well. It is one of the cleanest pilgrim centres of India where I have gone as a pilgrim a couple of times. Saturdays are devoted to the saint, the second male saint from India after St. Gonsalo Garcia. My wife says in her childhood, she used to walk to Mannanam from Kaipuzha, six kilometers away.

Through the religious congregations, CMI(Carmelites of Mary Immaculate) founded for men and CMC(Congregation of the Mother of Carmel) for women, Kuriakose Elias Chavara continues his education mission. The crowning effect of that mission is the founding of Christ University in Bangalore by the CMI Fathers.

Besides schools, St. Chavara’s several spiritual writings like Atmanuthapam(Lamentations of a Repentant Soul), Meditations on divine vocation and others spiritually renew many people. But if you go to Mannanam to visit his room and tomb, you will realize that there is an aura of spiritual energy that invites us to the place again to be in the presence of this great scholarly saint of Indian Catholicism.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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