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Syncretism of La Divina Pastora

Of all faiths The bust at the La Divina Pastora in Siparia, near Port of Spain, in Trinidad and Tobago.  

In a Roman Catholic church, the La Divina Pastora in Siparia, about a 90 minutes’ drive from Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago, people of various faiths worship a dark-coloured wooden bust. While the Catholics worship the figure as Mother Mary, the Hindus do it as Siparee Mai (Mother Siparia), an embodiment of Goddess Kali or Durga or Laxmi.

Walking into the church, one is struck by its modesty and simplicity.

The bust is two-and-a-half feet high, made of dark, reddish-brown wood with jointed arms and a round face. It gives the impression of a full statue when dressed. Two most popular annual celebrations in the church are the festival of the worship of Siparia Mai by Hindus on the Thursday before Good Friday and the other a Catholic feast for Mother Mary on the third Sunday after Good Friday.

A host of cross-cultural legends surrounds its presence in Siparia. One of them is that the figure emerged out of the sands of Siparia (Siparia meaning “city of sand”) Another one claims that the statue is of an Amerindian girl who saved a Catholic priest’s life. Still, others say it was discovered on the ground by a woman. The church, however, traces its origin to the Capuchin Catholic monastic order of Spain.

Theresa Noel, a researcher at the church, says the Capuchin order set up missions in Venezuela around 1715 to popularise Christianity among Native Indians and by the 1750s, it had expanded its activities in Trinidad, establishing one of the missions in the hilltop of Siparia. The bust, she says, was brought from Venezuela by a priest who possibly fled to Trinidad in the mid-18th century. The priest stated publicly that the statue saved his life. However, the church has no more details of this account.

Indentured Indians began making pilgrimages to Siparia, probably soon after they arrived in Trinidad in 1845. Between 1845 and 1917, nearly 1,44,000 indentured labourers came to this land, almost 85% of them Hindus and 14% Muslims. Ms. Noel adds that according to the church records, by 1890, the statue was attracting large numbers of indentured workers, mostly Hindus, some Muslims and also Orisha followers.

Throughout the year, the church remains open. Devotees pray for success, prosperity, love, fertility and cure of chronic diseases. Holy Thursday before Good Friday marks the start of weeks of worship by devotees of Siparee Mai and La Divina Pastora. While the Catholics offer the deity olive oil, flowers, candles, dresses and coins, the Hindus offer rice, money, flowers, pieces of gold jewellery and other valuables. Father Alan Hall, the priest of the church, says the crown on the statue was made by melting part of the gold offerings. The devotees also offer food to the needy. Besides, Hindus get the first haircut or tonsuring of their children done here.

A procession follows a high mass on the Catholic feast day at Sunday mid-morning through the streets of the town with the statue dressed in new clothes. It is carried on the roof of a car so that the large crowd could see it from a distance. Vendors and shopkeepers keep their stores open.

Shared history

Trinidad has a shared history of Amerindian existence, African slavery and Indian indentureship. Post-emancipation, as they coexisted and built their lives collectively, faiths interacted, languages mixed, and races intermingled. Veneration of the statue at La Divina Pastora as a saviour Mother by members of all religions is an outcome of that shared organic living. As they struggled, laboured and endured sufferings, sorrows and grief, the Mother provided hope for much-needed comfort and strength to meet day-to-day challenges. The figure has become a universal symbol of divinity beyond any specific religious order or institution.

(The author is the High Commissioner of India to Trinidad & Tobago. Views expressed are personal)

arun.sahu68@gmail.com

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 1:05:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/syncretism-of-la-divina-pastora/article33535961.ece

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