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Avila in Mahe: A Spanish connection in French India

Lakshmi Sharath
24 December 2013
Travel Church of St Theresa of Avila at Mahe
The church of St Theresa of Avila at Mahe, an exclave of Pondicherry in Kerala.

A couple of autumns ago, I was in Spain, in a lovely little town called Avila, admiring its 11th century fortified walls that towered around me. A Roman town and a World UNESCO Heritage city, Avila looked lost in its dreamy stupor of the past when I first set eyes on it. A town of stones and saints, the city is proud of one in particular who calls it home.  Standing in front of a 17th century convent, which was once the home of St Theresa, I realized that Avila is synonymous with her. The convent was built after her canonisation and is closed to the public but tourists could visit the chapel located inside the Baroque church.

We walked in to see her relics and amidst the rosary and other personal effects was a fragile finger with a ring placed there as well. It was believed to be her finger from the right hand. But it was not just the relics. The silence in the chapel drew me like a magnet as I sat there for a while inside a reconstructed version of a cell where she prayed, listening to stories. It was a moment that I could not forget.

Stepping out into the old town, I met St Theresa everywhere – on names of squares and streets, her statues standing out almost in every corner. I stopped at a sweet shop to get a taste of Avila – a traditional sweet of made of egg yolk. And it went without saying that it was called – Yemas de Santa Theresa, a tribute to the saint who had made Avila her home. I visited many more churches and heard tales of legendary saints, but none stood out in my mind more than St Theresa and her chapel.

Years later, I was driving around India in northern Kerala, crossing a montage of dusty old towns and forgotten hamlets. A mishmash of cultures greeted me as a bridge took me from Thalasseri to a little town. It was barely 9 sq km of space and was part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry but locked in by the boundaries of Kerala. The first thing I saw here was a wine store and then I spotted more of them, one almost in every corner of the town. The second thing I noticed was the policeman with his trademark red hat, a souvenir from the French India days. Amidst the smattering of Tamil and Malayalam, I saw a kitschy residue of European influences here.
Mahe had a rather poetic name, Mayyazhi – translated as Eyebrow of the Sea. But it was its connection to the French East India Company that gave it a new identity. The French made an arrangement with the local king and built a fort here in the 18th century. Almost every war and uprising in Europe and India, from the French Revolution to the conflict between the British and the French, had its echoes in the small town. Even after the French left the country, Mahe got tagged along with Pondicherry for its French connection and became a part of the Union Territory.

A church in Mahe caught my attention. There was a carnival like atmosphere in the town as I landed there during the annual feast. We walked along as Angry Birds balloons flew in our faces and locals beckoned us with knick-knacks. When I reached the church, I was in for a surprise. A board mentioned its name: it was called “The Shrine of St Theresa of Avila in Mahe.” I was immediately transported to the little chapel that I had seen in Avila, the birthplace of the saint.

I was curious to find out more about the church. There was a huge crowd and we barely got a few minutes at the shrine. It was brightly lit and teeming with pilgrims who were waiting to get a glimpse of the saint. I learnt later that the 18th century church was built by a missionary from Rome representing the Carmelite order. The shrine had borne the brunt of the wars and had been renovated as well but it was the legend around the idol that interested me. It was believed that a ship carrying the statue along the coast stopped at Mahe and was unable to proceed further. Locals then believed that it was the saint’s will to be housed in this town. As I stood there mesmerised, my mind journeyed through Rome, Spain and France all in one moment as I stood in a tiny patch of land in India that belonged to a Union Territory of Pondicherry but locked in by a different state, Kerala.

History and geography can be rather confusing at times.

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