Monti Fest: Feast of The Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary- The Cultural Identity of Konkani Catholics

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Monti Fest: Feast of The Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary- The Cultural Identity of Konkani Catholics

On 8th September, Catholics and Orthodox Churches celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary all over the world. In Goa, in the sixteenth century, this feast was called Mônti Fest. Now, unfortunately, this name is forgotten in Goa and it is merely called the Feast of the Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary. However, today Mônti Fest is the most popular and important cultural and family feast among the Konkani Catholics of Karnataka. It must be noted that 98 to 99% of Konkani speaking Catholics and Hindus of Karnataka, are originally from Goa and they migrated from Goa to Coastal Karnataka from the 16th century onwards for various reasons such as famine, epidemic, persecution by the Marathas, inquisition, as cultivators at the request of Ikkeri Kings, availability of fertile lands, and skilled labourers such as carpenters, fishermen, masons, potters, goldsmiths, businessmen, etc. The Konkani speaking Hindus migrated from Goa to Karnataka and Kerala as early as the 13th century. The Catholic Konkani (Konkani speakers) who migrated from Goa took this Mônti Fest from Goa along with them to Coastal Karnataka. Now, these Konknni Catholic settlers of Coastal Karnataka are spread out in India and all over the world and they celebrate Mônti Fest with great enthusiasm, wherever they have settled.

Konknni and Konknnis as the cultural identity:

Unfortunately, and wrongly, Konknnis of Coastal Karnataka are labelled as “Mangaloreans”. Mangaluru is the district headquarters of Dakshina Kannada district. It is unfair to label Konknnis who live in Uttara Kannada, Udupi, Shivamogga, Mysore, Bengaluru, Chikkamagaluru, Dharwad, Belgavi, Kodagu, Hassan, and elsewhere, who have nothing to do with the city of Mangaluru, to be clubbed together as “Mangaloreans”. Moreover, Mangaloreans, Goans are regional identities and not cultural entities. In India, the cultural identity is primarily based on language affinity. For example, Gujarati speakers are known as Gujaratis, Sindhi speakers as Sindhis, irrespective of their place of birth or dwelling. In this logical sense, all Konknni speaking persons and those who belong to Konknni speaking lineage are to be rightly called KONKNNIS.

Goa Archdiocese and Mônti Fest:

Mônti Fest was fostered in Coastal Karnataka by priests from Goa who were serving in Coastal Karnataka till 1838. In 1838 Dakshina Kannada district (Mangaluru as its headquarters) of Coastal Karnataka was separated from the jurisdiction of Goa Archdiocese. Similarly, on 19th September 1953 Uttara Kannada district (Karwar as its headquarters) and Belgavi district were separated from the jurisdiction of Goa Archdiocese and Belgavi Diocese was erected. Irrespective of these developments, Mônti Fest continued in Coastal Karnataka the most popular feast. Now let us see how Mônti Fest took its origin in Goa.

The arrival of the Portuguese:

On 25th November 1510, in the second attempt, the commander of the Portuguese army Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) conquered Tiswadi from Adil Shah of Bijapur (now Vijayapura). Soon after the conquest, he ordered a chapel to be built in honour of Our Lady to thank her for his escape from Kamaran island in the Red Sea. Thus in between 1510 -1519, Capela de Nossa Senhora do Monte (The chapel of Our Lady of Mount) was built on the hillock at the City of Goa (now known as Old Goa). He died on 16th December 1515. According to his will, he was buried in that chapel. In 1566, his body was moved to Nossa Senhora da Graça church in Lisbon. The chapel of Our Lady of Mount was probably reconstructed twice. It had a dimension of a church and in fact, it was a parish when the City of Goa was thickly populated. Since the chapel was on the mount and in Portuguese ‘Monte’ means mount, that chapel was called in Konknni “Mônti Saybinničhem Køpel” (the Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount). It had three altars. The main altar was dedicated to Our Lady of the Mount. The side altars were dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua and to St. Anthony, the Hermit.

Due to this chapel, the universally celebrated Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady on 8th September, in Goa came to be known as Mônti Saybinničhem Fest or Mônti Fest. Daily Mass was celebrated when it was a parish in the 16th century. The feast is now celebrated in this chapel on Sunday after 8th September. Besides, on the 8th of every month, an evening Mass was celebrated. I do not know whether this practice still continues or not. Until 2001, this chapel was in ruins. A restoration project was then planned and funded by the Fundação Oriente in association with the Goa government. This restored chapel still exists in Old Goa and it has become famous to host the much-acclaimed Monte Music Festival to integrate the Indian and Western forms of classical music. It attracts both music performers and lovers from various countries. Besides, this chapel has been the backdrop for many Bollywood films.

The arrival of the Jesuits:

In 1543, the Portuguese conquered the Bardes and Salcete regions from Adil Shah. These two regions with Tiswadi came to be known as Velhas Conquistas (Old Conquest). On 6th May 1542, Francis Xavier, the first Jesuit priest of the Society of Jesus arrived in the City of Goa. He was followed by many other Jesuits. In 1552, Fr. Gaspar Barzeus (1515-1555), a Jesuit priest of Dutch origin came to Goa. He was a good preacher and a talented person. Francis Xavier appointed him as the Rector of St. Paul College at the City of Goa and the Vice-Provincial of the East Province of the Society of Jesus. Fr. Gaspar died in Goa on 18th October 1553. When he was alive, he was introduced to teach music at St. Paul College.

He was responsible for introducing the cultural phenomena for the creation of Latin Indian culture, like plainchant, polyphony, western musical instruments (like organ, piano, trumpet, guitar, violin, viola, harp, shawm, flute, vihuela, lute, harpsichord, and percussion drum), as well as Western musical forms like oratorio, cantata, villancico and even opera. He made liturgy lively by initiating the custom of the sung Mass and of chants accompanied by the organ, as well as by instituting the post of choirmaster (mestre capela). Drama and music were conjoined most effectively in the Passos (sufferings). Passion plays enacted with the aid of images, including scenes from the Last Supper, the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the Ecce Homo, the judgement of Pilate, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion and the entombment. These ceremonies were first performed with great pomp, in the first monumental Church of St. Paul College (now Old Goa), of the Jesuits (cf. “Baroque India” by José Pereira, 1995 pp 19-20).

Fr. Barzeus and Mônti Fest:

The Mônti Fest with flowers, introduced by Fr. Barzeus was held in commemoration of the Nativity of Mother Mary on 8th September. He asked the newly converted Catholic boys to come to the church in two long rows in white tunics and crowned with chaplets of flowers, dressed as “angels” carrying bamboo baskets of flowers. They would walk in procession, a pair at a time, to the statue of Mother Mary in the Jesuit church of St. Paul College, empty their baskets at her feet, and return to their places, singing “O Gloriosa Virginum” The reference to this custom is found in the Jesuit letters written to the General of the Society of Jesus published in Documenta Indica vols 70-72. This custom of bringing flowers was borrowed by Fr. Barzeus from the local Ganesh Chaturthi festival and adapted for the newly introduced Catholic religion.

Ganesh Festival and Mônti Fest:

According to the Indian calendar, after the Shravan month, Bhadrapada month starts (corresponds to August/September of the Gregorian calendar). On the fourth day of Bhadrapada month, Ganesh Chaturthi in Konknni Chøvøt is celebrated. It is the most important, popular, and loved festival along the Western Coast of India among Hindus. Since it is a family festival, persons who are residing far and near come to their ancestral house to celebrate Ganesh festival. Before the festival, houses are cleaned, painted, and decorated. On the first day of Chøvøt, the idol of Ganesh is normally installed in the ancestral family house. The festival lasts for 1½, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 days. It is celebrated with great splendour. During the festival, every day fresh local fruits, flowers, and sweets are offered. Local vegetable dishes are prepared.

Anything prepared or offered to Ganesh is in odd numbers, namely, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, and so on. The Harvest Festival (Nøvyačhi Pøn’čhøm’) is celebrated the next day. Newly harvested paddy corn is brought home from fields and is worshipped. A few grains are put in the day’s meal. The corn is artistically tied to bamboo sticks decorated with jungle flowers. This is fitted above the main door and removed in the next year after procuring new corn, with the belief that the house will be full of rice throughout the year. Pure vegetarian meals are served on banana leaves or other leaves. Sweet dishes are prepared. During the festival, non-vegetarian dishes and liquor are strictly forbidden.

In the Old conquest of Goa in the 16th century, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary was celebrated on 8th September and it was called Mônti Saybinničhem Fest. Chøvøt and Mônti Fest come very close to each other in terms of dates and certain customs. Fr. Gaspar Barzeus adapted the existing local tradition of Hindus offering fresh flowers to Ganesh, now to Mother Mary of Christianity. Jesuit missionaries who spread Christianity in Goa took care to retain or adopt the local cultural roots of Hindus. Mônti Fest is the best proof of this. Some of the cultural traits of Ganesh Chaturthi are reflected in Mônti Fest as it is celebrated by Konknnis who migrated from Goa to Coastal Maharashtra and Coastal Karnataka.

During the nine days of novenas and Feast Day of the Nativity of Mary, he encouraged the Catholic boys to bring flowers to honour Mother Mary, to the Church of Our Lady of Mount and everyday fresh flowers were brought. Within no time this tradition became very popular among Catholics in every church of Old Conquest. In those days the newly converted Catholics of Goa were eating only vegetarian food on 8th September. Gradually due to the Portuguese influence, this custom disappeared. Now for the nine days of novenas and feast, the sprinkling of flowers is replaced in a number of parishes of Goa, by placing a flower at the feet of the statue of Mother Mary by everyone who comes to the church.

The Feast of Nativity of Lady in Modern Goa:

In Goa now Mônti Fest is known as “Saybinničhya Zølmačhi Pørøb”, or “Fulančhem Fest”, or the Feast of Our Lady of Vailankanni. The Catholics of Goa do not combine the Harvest Festival known as “Kønnsančhem Fest with Mônti Fest. It is celebrated in the month of August. Raia village of Salcete has the first privilege of celebrating it on 5th August. In Salcete, mostly it is celebrated on 15th August. In Bardes, Aldona and Salvador do Mundo are the first to celebrate the Harvest Feast on 06th August. In Tiswadi, this feast is celebrated mostly on 24th August. However, the village of Taleigão has the privilege over the others for this festival. It starts on the 21st and ends on the 24th of August. The priest blesses the new paddy crop and harvests a few sheaves of corn. In Goa, this feast among Catholics is celebrated by the Gaunkars (original settlers) only in rotation. The Gaunkar who celebrates the feast in a particular year has to offer a lavish lunch to other Gaunkars. The other parishioners have no role in it. Thus, unfortunately, the Harvest Feast among the Catholics in Goa is limited only to Gaunkars and not to the entire parish community.

Coastal Karnataka and Mônti Fest:

In Coastal Karnataka Mônti Fest combined with Nøvem (the Harvest Festival) is celebrated by all Catholics with great enthusiasm and joy in their respective parishes. It is a family feast, which unites its members. Therefore, as far as possible, family members who are far away, prefer to come to their family for the celebration of this feast. This custom too has its origin in Ganesh Festival. There is a misconception in Karnataka that Fr. Joaquim Miranda, a diocesan priest of Goa Archdiocese, who was serving at Farangipete, Dakshina Kannada district started the Mônti Fest in Coastal Karnataka. This misconception is far from the real facts. When their ancestors migrated to Karnataka, they took cultural traits and adapted them to this feast. Fr. Miranda was a known missionary serving in Dakshina Kannada district must have given the boost to this festival.

Maria Bambina Statue and Mônti Fest:

In 19th century, Sister of Charity of St. Bartholomeo Capitanio and St. Vincenza Gerosa Congregation from Italy, who came to Mangaluru to establish their convents brought the statue of Maria Bambina to Mangaluru. The multiple production of this statue was done by Simon and company and St Joseph Workshop at Mangaluru. It is a beautiful statue of baby Mary in a sleeping posture in a cradle.

During the novena days children search for flowers everywhere. As a boy, I myself after school, in the evening have gone 2 to 3 kilometres in search of flowers, especially golden trumpets, hibiscus, plumeria, marigold, periwinkle, tiger claw, balsam. When these flowers were not available mother would ask us to take wild sesame flowers and pumpkin flowers. In her simple faith, mother would tell us that Mother Mary accepts all flowers brought to her with faith and love. We children took with great reluctance because other children would laugh at us. In the morning especially children with their parents came to the church for Novena Mass with flowers arranged artistically in a basket or a plate. After the Mass, children came in a procession singing the most popular song of Mother Mary “Søkkødd Sangata mellyam” and laid one main flower at the feet of Baby Mary’s statue called Maria Bambina.

This hymn is a translation of the English hymn “Let us Mingle Together”, done first at Mangaluru. From there this hymn spread to Mumbai and Goa. In Goa, it changed as “Søgllim Sangata Mell-ia” replacing a few original words with local Konknni words. After laying a flower, all the children stood in a horseshoe shape around the Baby Mary’s statue and sang the song “Møriyêk Hogollxiyam” and sprinkled three times flowers around the statue. Afterwards, the priest incensed the statue and the novena prayer was said. Finally, the priest gave a blessing and the novena of the day ended by singing the hymn of Mother Mary and kissing the statue. This novena ritual continued for nine days. More or less with a little variation the same custom continues for nine days of novenas.

Feast Day Celebration:

On the feast day 8th September, sheaves of new corn are kept on a table near the grotto of Mother Mary or in an open place of the church compound. People gather there and children are ready with their flower baskets. The priest then blesses the new corn and it is carried in procession to the church by singing the hymns of Our Lady. Children sprinkle flowers during the procession. Then, Feast Day Mass is celebrated. After the Mass, each family is given one or two sheaves of blessed corn. People carry it to their homes. In some parishes sugarcane or sweet dish “vorn” is served to everyone, especially to children by the sponsors. On the feast day, various types of vegetable dishes of local vegetables are prepared in odd numbers, namely, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, … (as it is done for Ganesh Festival by the Hindus). A sweet dish called “vorn” or “pays” is prepared.

Most of the Catholic families strictly eat only vegetarian meals on this day. However, in the northern part of the Udupi district and Uttara Kannada, Catholics besides vegetarian dishes do prepare fish curry of fresh fish. If fresh fish is not available, then the curry of dry prawns is prepared. No meat dishes or alcohol is served on this feast. In some places, the blessed corn is peeled and mixed with milk, served to family members after saying a prayer in front of the altar. In other places, the peeled corn is put either in the sweet dish “vorn” or in all dishes. The remaining corn is placed on the altar. That day people eat their lunch on a banana leaf. To those who could not attend the feast at home, a few grains of blessed corn is sent to them by post. My parents sent it to me faithfully from the time I joined the Jesuits in 1971 till their death in 2004.

The customs of this festival have changed according to the locations, times, circumstances, and local customs. For example, banana leaves for meals are replaced by plates. In cities, the feast is celebrated on Sunday after 8th September. Mônti Fest is now celebrated by Catholic Konknnis of Karnataka in all parts of India and abroad, even in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan in their own way, even including non-vegetarian dishes!!! In Goa, the cultural importance of this festival is totally lost, but it is still preserved among Konknni Catholics of Karnataka origin, especially in Coastal Karnataka. However, the core of the feast, namely, honouring Mother Mary with flowers has still remained both in Goa and elsewhere.

In Goa there were two churches dedicated to Our Lady of Mount. One at Old Goa and the other built by the Jesuits in 1590 at Chinchinim. Later, Chinchinim church was dedicated to Our Lady of Hope. The reason for this decision is not known to me. I do not know how many chapels in Goa are there dedicated to Our Lady of Mount. Outside Goa, many churches are dedicated to Our Lady in Karwar, Udupi, Mangaluru, Belgavi and Sindhudurg dioceses where Konknni Catholics are in majority. Surprisingly, in these dioceses, not a single parish is dedicated to Our Lady of Mount.

Why? It is a great mystery for me. Mônti Saybinn (Our Lady of Mount) is originally a native Konknni word of Goa. Unfortunately, In Goa, day by day Mônti Saybinn and Mônti Saybinničhem Fest terms are dwindling and Vailankanni Saybinn name, which was originally from Tamil Nadu is getting prominence among Catholics. It is true that Mother Mary is called by hundreds of names, but a name of Goan origin should have been maintained and popularized. Here the role and leadership of the diocesan clergy is important. This is not happening. The probable reason could be, for Catholics of Goa, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”.

About Author:

Fr. Pratap Naik, S.J., is a Jesuit priest based in Panjim-Goa. He is the director of the Thomas Stephens Konkkni Kendr (TSKK), a research institute working on issues related to the Konkani language, literature, culture and education. The institute is based in Alto Porvorim, on the outskirts of the state capital of Panaji, Goa. Fr Naik was one of the proponents for founding the TSKK. The proposal to do so was brought up before the provincial congregation (one of the official bodies of the Jesuits) in 1978.

TSKK is named after Thomas Stephens, the 16th century English Jesuit priest missionary who came to Goa in 1579 and lived in the region till his death. Stevens authored the Arte da lingoa Canarim, which was written in Portuguese and was the first printed grammar of what is now called the Konkani language. In 1982 TSKK was registered as a society, and it commenced operation in January 1986 from its former premises at Loyola Hall in Miramar, Goa. Miramar itself is a centre for training young men wanting to become Jesuit priests.

The TSKK focuses on education and research of the Konkani language, literature and culture. Speaking about the professional activities of the TSKK, Pratap Naik has said, “We are not limiting ourselves only to Goa, but wherever Konkani is spoken. Shortly, we are going to study Siddi Konkani, spoken by a community of former slaves who were once located in Goa, and are now based in Yellapur in Konkani. For this we are collaborating with two Brazilian professors.”. Since 1986, Jesuit scholastics training to become priests were sent for a one-month training in Konkani. In 2003, a Konkani postgraduate diploma course was proposed. In 2006, Naik was involved in a campaign to get official recognition for the Roman script of Konkani, along with the Devanagari script, which is the sole officially recognized script for Konkani in Goa.


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