Pilgrimages and Social Capital: Experiences in 'Bonding' or 'Bridging' - Part II

14 March—Day 2

Second Parallel Session

Mr. Gunalan B.Pharm.,
AMET University
Mr. Gunalan B.Pharm. on Bodhidharma and Xuanzang. He also spent much of his time railing against the West, and I think he never really made his point. Also, I don't think the two can be compared, for while Xuanzang's was cleary a pilgrimage, Bodhidharma went to China as a missionary, and never returned. The two are very distinct in tenor, and have different implications for social capital.

Augustine Naveratnam,
Eastern University Sri Lanka
Augustine Naveratnam of Eastern University Sri Lanka spoke about Marian shrines and the attempt of the Catholic Church in reconciling the Tamils and the Sinhalas.

Dr Cynthia Jude talked about the feast of Lazarus at Pattinapakkam. Lazarus Church was established in 1582 and since been rebuilt many times, and is a rare Catholic double shrine, for it is now officially dedicated to Mary. There is a car procession during the Church's two festivals on which various saints are taken around the 'gaothan'. The cars are lent to them by the Kapaleeswarar Temple at Mylapore. And they have a Mother Arathi too, replete with camphor lamps and bells!

Dr. Cinthia Jude, Stella Maris College, Chennai

The procession of Lazarus Festival

Third Plenary Session

Dr. William De Silva,
Alva's School of Advanced Studies,
Mudbidri, Mangaluru
Dr. William De Silva spoke on the evolutionary perspective of pilgrimage. He argues that the pre-agricultural search for food is the basis of pilgrimage. As pilgrimage is a temporary journey with the right to return, as opposed to asceticism, it is rooted in the symbolism of death (emerging and returning to the soil), womanhood (marriage and right to return to the birth home) and the cycle of seasons (spring vanishes and returns).

'Pilgrimages' according to him, begin in such practices as visits to Niyamgarh in Odisha or Uluru in Australia, places imbibed with a sense of origin and source of life, without ascription of Divinity. 'Enshrinement' of such places into codified religious practices is a later post-urbanisation development, such as Mount Kailash or the Temple Mount. And after the Moon missions and the rise of the Environmental Movement, the Earth itself (Sagan's 'Small Blue Dot') is, for some, a 'pilgrim focus' and a convergence of Mythopoesis/Mythophany.

Pilgrimage gets rooted in the transition from pastoralism to urbanisation, as a temporary relief from sedentariness to the vagabondage of an imagined past. It remains in a sort of conflict with organised religion which seeks to control the direction of faith. And so sancta are created that may be denied to non-believers, but the periphery may not be denied, so Mary is open to worship by all but Mass is only available to Catholics; Ekadashi pilgrimage to Pandharpur does not require the pilgrim to seek actual darshan. I found this interesting, though I have my reservations.

Dr. Geetesh Nirban,
Delhi University
Dr. Geetesh Nirban of Delhi University spoke on the ethics of pilgrimage as discussed in the Mahabharata. Pilgrimage is rooted in bhaktimārga, as anubhava and anubhūti, but stands alongside karmamārga and dnānamārga. Yudhisthira meets some 107 rishis in the pilgrimages mentioned in the Anushasana Parva, and by observation of the  topography of the tīrthas, absorbs principles of dharma. The rigours required of the pilgrimage are the disciplines that the Pāndavas must learn. I can't say I absorbed everything; she spoke a great deal in Sanskrit (citing chapter and verse). The Mahabharata then goes on to argue that manasa (a clear mind) is the highest tīrtha, for which rational thought and meditation are the paths.


No prizes for guessing. Channa masala again. But after lunch, I had some time 'bridging' with Dr. Jeremy Saul and we toured the departments. UoM's departments are really well-endowed when it comes to their libraries.

Third Parallel Session

Dr. Vincent Shekhar,
Loyola College, Chennai
I went to the Saiva Siddhanta department again. Dr Vincent Shekhar talked about the Maasi festival at Karumathur, which is used for matchmaking. There are 7 temples patronised by the Thevar community, and each temple had its clans (not to be confused with gothra). Marriage outside the clan can be lethal. Pilgrimage to each of these temples acts as a bond in the clan, but unfortunately there are no social 'bridges' between the 7 temples. Non-conformism is controlled by Kodangis and Samiyaadis, members of the clan (usually elderly men and women) who get possessed by the deity. The poojari is not a Brahmin, but a male community elder who gets his rights by turn. For a few years, the job had to done by a govt appointed priest because the elders squabbled among themselves, but now it is back in community control.

Fr. Ulagam Raja,
Dept. of Christian Studies, UoM
V Ulagaraja (left) presented three years of fieldwork comparing pilgrimages to Velankanni, and old, established site, and Melmaruvathur Parasakthi, which is an emergent site of pilgrimage. Women pilgrims to Melmaruvathur wear red for it is the colour of blood and masks any bleeding; they also take leading roles in decorating the icon and in leading the prayers ('bonding'). Thus it is an inclusive shrine for all kinds of women, though it tends to be patronised mostly by Hindu women, who mingle irrespective of caste ('bridging'). While there was some criticism (one fellow was a persistent heckler), I felt his study was designed well and executed with rigour.

[These notes are a lot more critical than the speakers themselves, several of them being being very reverent of their subject, and not objective enough.]

Valedictory 'function'

Valedictory Function. From left to right: Dr. Chellaperumal, Dr. S. Pannerselvam, Dr. Priyadarshana Jain

Dr. S. Pannerselvam,
Dept. of Philosophy, UoM

S. Panneerselvam (not O.), giving the Valedictory address (as the third-last speech) spoke about the models used to study pilgrimage as social capital. For some reason, I have no recollection of what he spoke about (I'm basically an honest person. I'm also prey to the cliche of basically.) I think the lunch acted on me and left me a bit drowsy.

Students of Dept. of Jainology
present their skit
Dr. Priyadarshana Jain,
Dept. of Jainology, UoM
The Jainology Department decided to present their talk in two parts. The first was a skit about the conflict between the soul, which is egged on by its conscience to take the inner journey towards kevalajnana, and the body which is trapped in material cares by students, followed by a lecture Dr Priyadarshana Jain on Social capital in Jain pilgrimage. I grade this #EpicWin for the department to include M.A. students.

Dr. Chellaperumal,
HoD, Anthropology
Pondicherry University

The last lecture of the conference was given by Dr. Chellaperumal of Pondicherry University on the anthropology of pilgrimage. He says that studies of pilgrimage must go beyond examing and documenting the religious aspects, and involve social and anthropological methodology. Aspects of social identity that dissolve during a pilgrimage help create bridges beyond social classes, but do these bridges persist after the pilgrimage?

He also spoke of how interesting new pilgrimages are being created by tour operators, like Navagraha Yatra in Tamil Nadu; and new pilgrimages are being promoted through religious magazines and social media. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a specific marketing tactic, using a social not a religious/spiritual reason. On the other hand, many other sites emerge as pilgrimage centres in uncontrolled, autochthonous ways, and anthropologists have a chance of observing emergent myths and rituals live. In an answer to my question about there being a southern equivalent of the song 'Shirdi Wale Sai Baba' (Amar Akbar Anthony), he said that the movie Annai Velankanni played a role in suddenly boosting pilgrimage to the shrine, especially among non-Catholics.

At last we got to the certificate-giving ritual, which Dr. Chellaperumal went through with the patience of an experienced certificate hander-over.

That expression is priceless.
Fr. Ulagara reads out
the Vote of Thanks.
It's when you come to the real 'Vote of Thanks', that you realise the conference is really built up, and the social capital you built up must now be banked, for immediate expenditure opportunities have come to an end (see, I'm already talking like a sociologist). But thanks though given by Fr. Ulagaraja, was really due to him, for he more or less single-handedly ran the conference for the two days, and in the run-up to it. I should say he will be an asset to the State and the Church, whichever can make better uses of his talents.

My 18:14 time stamp says that the conference is now well and truly over!


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