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Ancient church on the shore



Mother Mary worshipped by the Portuguese and the Dutch ... Pic. by Stephen Sumithran

FROM THE 16th to the 18th centuries A.D., Pulicat Lake and its opening into the adjacent Bay of Bengal were so deep that the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British ships were using the lake as a natural harbour for their trade in spices, diamonds, textiles and medicinal herbs. A legend goes to say that one day, a local fisherman caught, in his net, nothing but a log which he threw away angrily into the sea, but he got the same log again the next day also. This time, however, he threw it on to the shore and cast his net on the sea, and caught an incredible amount of fish. A gatherer of driftwood along the shoreline came along and tried to split this log with his axe. But blood gushed out and splashed onto the woodcutter's eyes and blinded him totally. And he could not find his way home. Late in the evening, when his wife came looking for him, he narrated the episode and smearing the blood on his eyes, she prayed to the log and eventually he regained his sight. The couple carried this strangely carved 'holy log' to their fishing village and informed the folks about the incident. Listening to this miracle, the people put the log in their huts and started worshipping it. This is the history of the ancient church at Pulicat. Church for Holy Mother Next year (1515 A.D.), a Portuguese ship, trading between Pulicat and Malacca, returned from Malacca and when they heard of the fisherman finding a strangely carved log in the sea, off Pulicat, the Portuguese sailors identified it as the wooden statue of the Holy Mother Mary, which they lost on the Pulicat shores, during the cyclone in the previous year, on their way to Malacca. The Portuguese however, retained the statuette for the fishing village itself, but out of sheer joy of rediscovering it, constructed a small shrine and called it the church of "Our Lady of Joy." Legends say that the Holy Mother appeared subsequently to several fishermen in distress on the sea so that their faith in the Mother increased day by day and hence the Dutch who followed the Portuguese (1605-1690), called it this church the church of "Our Lady of Glory," a name by which it is known today. Subsequent to the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British at Pulicat also have added their own architectural, ritualistic and cultural contributions to this ancient fisher folk's church at Pulicat. Baptisms, marriages and funerals for all these colonials were solemnised for four centuries in this here. Some of the Dutch soldiers got married to local girls in this church. About 100 metres from behind this ancient church, lies the old cemetery containing 19 tombs of Dutch soldiers, as an uncared-for relic today. However, west of the dilapidated Dutch Fort "Geldria," there is another Dutch cemetery for 76 tombs, with very impressive tombstones, carved in Holland itself. This cemetery is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. English translations of the Dutch inscriptions on the tombstones show that most of the Dutch at Pulicat died strangely in their middle ages, may be in war against the British from Santhome. These inscriptions also express the transience of earthly life and the hope of resurrection. This Catholic church is said to be the earliest church in the present Madras-Mylapore Diocese. The week preceding the second Sunday after Easter, every year, is observed as an annual festival and many people, transcending caste and creed, go on a pilgrimage by boats, to this fisher folk's temple of joy and glory.

P. J. SANJEEVA RAJ

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