In Karnataka, a church that is also a temple
Hindus attend mass at the Snanika Arulappanavara Virakta Mutt in Belagavi that has a Siva lingam, Jesus and Mary idols
About 28 km from Belagavi in north Karnataka, in a picturesque village called Deshanur, stands the impressive stone building of Snanika Arulappanavara Virakta Mutt, or the Church of Saint John the Baptist.
The structure, built in the Banarasi Nagara style, is seen as an example of syncretism: it has a Siva lingam, flanked by the idols of Jesus and Mary. Its walls are adorned with the sayings of the saint-poet-reformer Basaveshwara, the icon of the Lingayat movement, poet-musician Purandara Dasa, and also the Bible.
The Jesuit priest who runs the Church, Menino Gonsalves alias Sri Menino Swamy, wears saffron robes and a rudraksha mala with a cross. He performs pooja with aarathi during mass, and claims to be an Ayurvedic healer. He has visited Rishikesh and Haridwar and also the Vatican. He speaks eight languages and conducts mass in Kannada. In a village that has no Christians, the church has full attendance during Sunday mass.
“Nothing I do makes me uncomfortable or is alien to my faith,” says Sri Menino. “I call this assimilation of cultures. I don’t force my beliefs on anyone. In fact, preaching is only a small part of my routine. Most of my time is spent teaching, healing and in social work.”
The assimilation began with the founding father of the Mutt, Armado Alvares, who called himself Sri Animananda Swamy. His ancestors hailed from Goa, but he was born in Africa — where his father was a government officer — in 1903. He moved to Goa for his studies and worked as a teacher in Belagavi for some years before settling in Deshanur, arriving a few months after independence in 1947. He started a home for destitute boys in 1950 and a Kannada-medium school for girls in 1953. Now, the destitute home has 50 boys; while the school has become a co-educational one, with 350 boys and girls.
Faith in magnanimity
Giving full credit to the villagers for the survival of this decades-old church-temple, Sri Menino says, “If the villagers have allowed us to serve them despite the difference in faith, it is because they are large-hearted.”
The villagers use hybrid terminology to describe the institution and its branches. The convent is called Padri Mutt and the temple, Church Gudi. The entire village comes together to celebrate Makara Sankranti and Christmas, on the model of village fairs.
Sri Menino says, “Jesus Christ wants us all to be better human beings. We want Hindus to be better Hindus, Muslims to be better Muslims and Christians to be better Christians. I have never advocated conversion. I have advised a Hindu girl who wanted to marry a Christian boy to stay a Hindu and marry under the Special Marriages Act. It is not religion that ensures a lasting marriage — it is love.”