Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rejuvenation on a river bed

The Maramon Convention, which has been held for 116 years, on the sand bed of the River Pampa, is one of the most important spiritual meetings for Christians in Kerala

Photos: The Maramon Convention; the author with Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysosthum, 93, one of the senior-most bishops of the Mar Thoma church. Photo by Rajeev Prasad

By Shevlin Sebastian

Anglican Archbishop Roger Herft from Perth, Australia has an astonished look on his face. “This must be the only convention in the world where lakhs of people are willing to set aside one week for spiritual rejuvenation,” he says. “I am amazed that they are so patient and attentive. They are so focused on a renewal of their faith and their ties with family and friends.”

The Maramon Convention, where Archbishop Herft is one of the featured speakers, is one of the great annual events for Christians in Kerala (see box). Conducted by the Mar Thoma Evengelistic Association, the event was held from February 13-20.

The most unusual aspect of the convention is that it is held on the dry sand-strewn bed of the River Pampa in Pathanamthitta district.

“A few weeks ago, the entire area was under water, thanks to an abundant monsoon,” says P.P. Achankunju, a member of the organizing committee. “It is difficult to believe, since the waters have receded now.” But the river flows with considerable speed at one side. On the other side, there is the large canopy of a forest.

The meeting hall, spread over a large area, is set in the middle of the sand bed. It has a thatched roof which is just 10 feet high. If you jump, you can touch the ceiling. Through gaps in the leaves, the sunlight falls, in coin-like designs on the bodies of the faithful sitting on the ground. There is a breath-taking beauty about it. Thanks to an ample circulation of air, and a cool breeze from the river, it is wondrously cool. “All the coconut branches, to make the roof, have been provided by parishioners who live in adjoining areas,” says Achankunju.

Among the audience is HR consultant Jacob Mathews from Ahmedabad. “I want to gain some insights about the contemporary world,” he says. Jacob was happy with the talk he had just heard, by Rev. Dr. Isaac Mar Philoxenos Episcopa. “Mar Philoxenos told us not to keep wealth for oneself, but to use it for the betterment of society,” says Jacob.

Walking across the sandy bank is Thomas Mathew, a manager in a stock-broking firm. “When I was younger, I never used to come,” he says. “But I am in my forties now and as life gets more complicated, there is a desire for a spiritual awakening within me. So I am happy to be here.”

But not everybody is a happy participant. Abraham George (name changed), a former Army officer, lives in Pittsburgh, USA. “My wife and I look after our grandchildren,” he says. “We are glorified nannies. My son and daughter-in-law lead very busy lives.” He gives a rueful smile, and says, “It is not right for me to complain while I am at Maramon.”

It is clear that many people with emotional aches and pains have come to the convention to get some spiritual balm. And perhaps that is the reason for its abiding popularity.

“The crowds are increasing every year,” says Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysosthum, 93, one of the senior-most bishops of the Mar Thoma church, and a revered leader. “This convention educates people on how to be a religious person. Our aim is also to help them meet the problems of life.”

Meanwhile, on the perimeter are numerous stalls, again made of thatched coconut leaves, selling books and CDs on the Christian faith. There are other stalls set up by various organizations looking for donations.

Young Aimy Johns, who is standing in a stall belonging to the St. Thomas Mission Hospital at Kattanam, says, with a winning smile, “If you donate Rs 1000, you will be able to fund surgeries for poor people.” Others looking for donations include the School for the Deaf in Kasargod and the Hoskote Medical Mission and Medical Centre, near Bangalore.

Near the centre of the sand bed is a church-like structure. This is the Mar Thoma Museum. There are photos of eminent Bishops and a hand-written copy of a Bible. “This is 150 years old,” says guide Thomas George, a theology student. “There are Bishop’s orders written on the bark of trees and rosary beads worn by Bishops.” There is a photo of Benjamin Bailey who published the first Bible in Malayalam in 1829.

In the afternoon, it is the turn of the tall, charismatic Swedish preacher Dr. Ulf Ekman to speak. Standing beside him is Rev. T. Sam Koshy, who will translate the speech into Malayalam. Ekman says, “We come from different backgrounds, but have the same faith. We believe in Jesus Christ. Turn to Him for help. He will always be there for you.”

Ekman says that his wife, Brigitta, was born in India. “So when I married her, I promised to love her as well as India,” he says. He pauses and then says, “I am happy to say that I have fulfilled both my promises.”

The audience is delighted. And, indeed, it was a delightful time for me also to spend a day at the unforgettable Maramon convention. It was spiritual rejuvenation of the most inspiring kind.

116 years old and going strong

In 1877, there were two factions in the Malankara church. One was known as the Methran Kakshi, while the other was Bava Kakshi. On September 5, 12 members of the Methran Kakshi faction formed the Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association and started small prayer sessions among the faithful.

However, the first convention, which lasted 10 days, took place from March 8-17, 1895, at the present location: the sand-bed of the Pampa River at Maramon. The people of the local parishes made a large pandal and that practice continues to this day. Even in those days, there was an average attendance of 15,000. Because of poor roads, people travelled by boat and stayed in houses nearby.

And for 116 years, this convention has been going on, year in and year out. It is the oldest such event in India.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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