Santi's Lila: God-bearing in India

Richard Donald MacPhail, McMaster University


This study examines the construction of the sacred in a person, Maryamma of Vadiyakkadu, and the symbolic resources which constitute her identity as a Marian seer in India. It examines how sacred selfhood has been personally and socially initiated, constructed, challenged, reconstructed, dramatized and revalued. The origins of the symbolic resources and transitions involved in these processes are the presence of a nearby major Marian pilgrimage shrine, the existential circumstances of the seer herself, internal dynamics among the variety of adherents who have formed a cult following around her, and external pressures which have come to bear on her and on her disciples.

The study shows how the symbol of the Virgin Mary is used by Tamil Catholics and how it accommodates and is assimilated by non-Catholics. Called Amma, or Mother, the Virgin Mary is at the heart of Maryamma's cult. She is the source of healing and the context for meaning in cult members' lives. Speaking in Tamil, the Virgin displays distinctively Indian characteristics and many of her devotees are non-Christians. Amma has chastised Roman Catholic Church authorities in her messages, and although the Church has inderdicted the sacraments at the cult's shrine, its priests continue to celebrate them.

There is a thinly veiled claim to the identity of Maryamma with Amma herself in the recounting of her miracles, and this identification is only the hub around which are connected more profound theological claims concerning privileged intimations of the premillenial Second Coming of Christ.

Maryamma's personal visionary charisma, her imaginative rendering and interpretation of miracles, and the theologically astute correctives of a popular Jesuit and other priests, have generated a symbolic resource at Vadiyakkadu which promises to pose a continuing challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in India. [Arokkiya Mada, caste, charismatic, Christian, Coromandel, ethnography, field work, goddess, Hindu, Kaveri, Our Lady, possession, subaltern, syncretism, Tanjavur (Tanjore), thaumaturgy, Velanganni]