By Fr Pratap Naik
Sep 7: On Tuesday, September 8, Catholics and Orthodox churches celebrate the feast of the Nativity of Mary. In Goa, in the sixteenth century, this feast was called Monthi Fest. Today, Monthi Fest is the most popular and important feast among the Catholics, especially those in Karnataka who migrated from Goa in the 16th century due to famine, epidemic, persecution by the Marathas, inquisition as cultivators at the request of Bednore Kings, and availability of fertile land.
The Goan Konknnis carried this festival along with them when they migrated to Karnataka. It was fostered by priests from Goa who were serving in Coastal Karnataka. Till 1838, Coastal Karnataka was under the jurisdiction of Goa archdiocese. Further, the priests from Goa were appointed as parish priests. Now let us see how Monthi Fest took its origin in Goa.
On November 25, 1510, in the second attempt, the commander of Portuguese army Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515) conquered Tiswadi from Adilshah of Bijapur. Soon after the conquest, he ordered a chapel to build in honour of Our Lady to thank her for his escape from Kamaran Island in the Red Sea. Thus in c 1513, Capela de Nossa Senhora do Monte (The chapel of Our Lady of Mount) was built on the hillock at City of Goa (present-day Old Goa). He died on December 16, 1515, and according to his will, he was buried in that chapel. It was probably reconstructed twice. It had a dimension of a church and in fact, it was a parish when the city of Goa was densely populated. Since the church was on the mount and in Portuguese ‘Monte’ means mount, that church was called in Konknni Monthi Saibinnichi Igorz (the Church of Our Lady of the Mount). It had 3 altars, the main altar was dedicated to Our Lady of the Mount. The side altars were dedicated to St Anthony of Padua and St Anthony, the Hermit. This church still exists in Old Goa. Due to this church, the universally celebrated feast of the Nativity of Our Lady on September 8, in Goa came to be known as Monthi Saibinnichem Fest or Monthi Fest.
In 1543, the Portuguese conquered Bardes and Salcete regions from Adilshah. These two regions with Tiswadi came to be known as Velhas Conquistas (Old Conquest). On May 6, 1542, Francis Xavier the first Jesuit priest of the Society of Jesus arrived in Goa. He was followed by many other Jesuits. In 1552, Fr Gaspar Barzeus, a Jesuit priest of Dutch origin came to Goa. He was a good preacher and was known to be clever. Francis Xavier appointed him as the rector of St Paul College in Goa and the vice-provincial of the eastern province of the Society of Jesus. Fr Gaspar died in Goa on October 18, 1553. When he was alive, he introduced the field of teaching music at St Paul College. He made liturgy lively and asked the newly converted children to bring flowers and to sprinkle them around the statue of Our Mother Mary, during the novena days preceding September 8. The reference to this custom is found in his letters written to the General of the Society of Jesus published in Documenta Indica vols 70-72. This custom was borrowed from local Ganesh Chaturthi and adapted for the newly introduced Catholic religion. Let me explain how this was done.
According to the Indian calendar, after the Shravan month, Bhadrapada month starts (Corresponding to August/September of Gregorian calendar). On the fourth day of Bhadrapada month, Ganesh Chaturthi in Konknni, Chovoth 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 the festival. Before the festival, houses are cleaned, painted, and decorated. On the first day of Chovoth, 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 days, fresh local fruits, flowers, and sweets are offered to the almighty. Local vegetable dishes are prepared. Anything prepared or offered to Ganesh is in odd numbers, namely, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and so on. The Harvest Festival (Noveachi Pon’chom’) 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 and non-vegetarian dishes and liquor are strictly forbidden.
In Old conquest of Goa in the 16th century, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady was celebrated on September 8 and it was called Monthi Saibinnichem Fest. 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 local cultural roots of Hindus. Monthi Fest is the best proof of this. Some of the cultural traits of Ganesh Chaturthi are reflected in Monthi Fest as it is celebrated by Konknnis who migrated from Goa to Coastal Maharashtra and Coastal Karnataka. During the nine days of novena and feast day of the Nativity of Our Lady, he encouraged the Christian children to bring flowers to honour Mother Mary, to the Church of Our Lady of Mount and standing around the statue of Mother Mary, to sprinkle these flowers singing hymns of Mother Mary. Every day 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 September 8. Gradually due to Portuguese influence, this custom disappeared. Now for the nine days of novenas and feast, a sprinkling of flowers is replaced in several parishes of Goa, by placing a flower at the feet of the statue of Mother Mary by everyone who comes to the church.
In Goa now Monthi Fest is also known as Fulanchem Fest, Feast of Our Lady of Vailankanni. The Catholics of Goa do not combine the Harvest Festival with Monthi Fest. It is celebrated in August. Raia village has the first privilege of celebrating it on August 5. In Salcete, mostly it is celebrated on August 15. In Bardes, Aldona and Salvador do Mundo are the first to celebrate the Harvest Feast on August 6. In Tiswadi, this feast is celebrated mostly on August 24. However, the village of Taleigão has privilege over the others for this festival. It starts on August 21 and ends on 24. The priest blesses the new paddy crop and harvests a few sheaves of corns. 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. In Coastal Karnataka Monthi Fest combined with Novem (the Harvest Festival) is celebrated by all Catholics with great enthusiasm and joy. It is a family feast, which unites the members. Therefore, as far as possible, members who far away prefer to come to their family for the celebration of this feast. There is a misconception in Karnataka that Fr Joaquim Miranda, a diocesan priest of Goa archdiocese, who was serving at Farangipete, South Kanara district started the Monthi Fest in Coastal Karnataka. This misconception is far from real facts. When their ancestors migrated to Karnataka, they took cultural traits and adapted them to this feast. During the novena days, children search for flowers everywhere. As a boy, I after school, in the evening have walked 2 to 3 kilometres in search of flowers, especially golden trumpets, hibiscus, champa, marigold, periwinkle, tiger claw. In the morning or evening, especially children with their parents come to the church for Novena Mass with flowers arranged artistically in a basket or a plate. After the Mass, children come in a procession singing the most popular song of Mother Mary 'Sakkad Sangata Melyam' and lay one main flower at the feet of baby Mary’s statue called Maria Bambina. It is a translation of the
English hymn 'Let us Mingle Together', done first at Mangaluru. From there it spread to Mumbai and Goa. In Goa, it changed as 'Sogllim Sangata Mell’ia' replacing a few original words with local Konknni words. In the 19th century, the Italian nuns brought the statue of Maria Bambina to Mangaluru. The multiple productions of this statue were done by Simon and company and St Joseph Workshop at Mangaluru. It is a beautiful statue of baby Mary in sleeping posture in a cradle. After laying a flower, all the children stand in a horseshoe shape around the baby Mary’s statue and sing the song 'Moriek Hogollxiam' and sprinkle three times flowers around the statue. Afterwards, the priest incenses the statue and the novena prayer is said. Finally, the priest gives blessing and the novena of the day ends by singing any hymn of Mother Mary and kissing the statue. This novena ritual continues for nine days.
On the feast day on September 8, 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 type of vegetable dishes from local vegetables is prepared in odd numbers, namely, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9,… A sweet dish called vorn or payasam is prepared. In some places, fish curry of fresh fish is prepared. 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 sweet dish vorn or 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 2004-2005. 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 September 8. Monthi Fest is now celebrated by Catholic Konknnis of Karnataka in all parts of India and abroad, even in USA, Canada, and Japan. 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 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. Monthi Saibinn (Our Lady of Mount) is originally a native Konknni word of Goa. Unfortunately, In Goa, day by day Monthi Saibinn and Monthi Saibinnichem Fest terms are dwindling and Vailankanni Saibinn name, which was originally from Tamil Nadu is getting prominence among Catholics. It is true that Our Lady is called by hundreds of names, but a name of Goan origin should have been maintained and popularized. 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'.