Sunday, 5 August 2012

Trip To Vailankanni

I joined my family for a visit to Vailankanni last Friday, a two day trip. My aunt's family was with us too. They all went mainly for religious purposes while I went for sight-seeing and to have some good time together. Looks like we both got what we wanted.
It was really a joyful experience. A long, fun trip after almost a year. So I am definitely not going to reduce it to the religious aspects, I'll remember it for the laughs and the good moments we had. That being said, there were some not-so-pleasant things I noticed which are hard to dismiss, and since this is the only place where I can pour out, thought I'd write it down.
We left on Friday evening. The journey was smooth and fun, except for a little trouble in the beginning where my dad had to lift me to the bus. I could have walked in with some support on my hand had it been a low-floor bus and I wondered how long it would be before manufacturers actually started realizing about the existence of disabled people, wheelchair users in particular. And what about the elderly who can't climb high steps? Don't they need to travel as well?
Throughout the journey whenever I look outside the window, I would check to see how many places has a ramp to its entrance. The result was disappointing as expected. I really felt bad that the need to keep a ramp next to a door is such a difficult concept to understand! I remembered about a disability rights activist I had met once who works towards creating accessibility in public places and wondered how much progress they might be making.

We reached there by next day morning and rented a single room house. After a quick freshening up (the salty water made you want to bathe because you bathed in it) and breakfast, we left for the shrine. The structure was absolutely stunning. More so the awe at how much our species has evolved from using primitive tools to creating such architectural sophistications. Simply being there made me marvel and feel proud of our human history.  

The good feelings were however short lived, till the moment we entered the church. I felt like a drop of oil in a pool of water, not able to mix with the atmosphere of religious binding. I couldn't be a participant (didn't want to either), only be an observer. Many of the practices all so familiar and yet oddly, revealing new meanings that stayed hidden during those years of blind conformation.

There was this ritual of making people, mostly those with illnesses, sit as 'adima' (slave) to the Velankanni Mary and I was thinking, 'yeah right, that's some 'love' she's got there to require people to be slaves.' The name Vailankanni (meaning 'Virgin of Velai') itself made me cringe when I Googled it, the religious obbsession with virginity was so apparent. At one place there was a nearly one kilometer long paved way filled with beach sand for a custom in which people had to go through that full distance on their knees. My dad somewhat pressured me to participate but I stuck to my refusal. We saw a two year old kid doing it (mainly by his father forcing him) and everyone were like ''so cuute''. The words coming to my mind were 'child abuse'.. Later, on returning to our rented house, we were to find our neighbor sitting ouside with his knees bleeding after he went for that.. There was also a Thirupathi style head shaving and applying of a cinnamon powder misture. Many of our bus mates returned bald.

Some of the things actually made me laugh, the kind of unreasonable behavior even seemingly well educated people were exhibiting (like couples wanting children tying handkerchiefs in the shape of a cradle on sacred trees). Showed how deeply entrenched superstition is in our culture and how education does not necessarily guarantee rational thinking. But the thing I felt most bad was when after the Mass, which had a huge attendence of people from different parts of the country and outside, I saw most of them crying, some badly weeping, as the procession brought holy water and statue of Jesus. I felt so bad that all these people were being cheated..the amount of faith they were having..all for nothing.. It was so unfair.. Many of them were spending money they otherwise wouldn't have. Many of them had left their medicines or given up hope on treatment and come with so much expectations for being cured. And some would even return with the false belief that they really had been, and stop their medications, where in fact the healing could be only a temporary placebo in effect. I felt so enraged at the same time, the fucking church spreading their lies and taking advantage of so many innocent people's trust and sorrow, mercilessly cheating them with their dogma for wealth, power and control..

It made me realize no 'loving' god, if there was one, would ever want to put his children through such an ordeal where they had to flatter him and beg for relief from a fate he himself impossed on them. No 'merciful' god would punish you if you failed to do so according to standards set by people claiming to have telepathic connections to him, unprovable to others.
In the end, I liked the trip. I really did, not just because it was a fun journey with family and cousins but also because it was an eye-opener for me. I went on a pilgrimage and came back more of an atheist. Life is only once. It's up to us to give, take and make the best of it, without relying on man-made myths and monsters. This world, with all it's beauty and indifference, can surely be made a better place if we lived and worked with that understanding.

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