Borders blur as they walk in faith

Lisa Monteiro
Panaji: As a majority of the faithful in the state slip into their vehicles or catch a bus to attend the novenas and feast of St Francis Xavier, their counterparts – mostly people of Goan origin settled in Kolhapur, Sindhudurg and Belagavi – will walk to Old Goa; a tradition they have been observing for years.

Guru Santaji Lobo, director of Prarthana Kendra in Belewadi, Kolhapur, will mark his 38th padayatra to Old Goa this year. Now 69, he was one of seven pilgrims who first set out on foot in 1980, led by the late Fr Prabhudar, a Jesuit priest who revived the tradition. Lobo has not looked back since.

The ritual began with Prabhudar’s mother, who was without child for a number of years and made a vow to St Francis Xavier. When her prayers were answered, she carried her one-year-old son on foot to Old Goa.

Years later, when Prabhudar was parish priest at Our Lady of Rosary Church, Ajara,
Kolhapur, the watchman of the boarding school suffered an extreme asthma attack. His situation looked bleak, leading his family to persuade him to make a vow and walk to Old Goa before he breathed his last.

“The entire parish bade him farewell and expected his body to be brought back any moment. The second day, he discarded both his walking sticks and the day he reached Old Goa, he was completely healed,” Lobo recounts.

Initially the group walked both, to and from Old Goa. “During the seventh year of the pilgrimage, some government employees told us that while they would have liked to join us, they couldn’t take leave for 11 days. They requested us to reduce the pilgrimage to four days. From then on, we began walking only one way,” Lobo, the ‘wandering preacher in Indian culture’ tells STOI.

News spread and the group expanded, with faithful from other districts and the neighbouring state joining in. Last year, around 800 pilgrims from three districts made the 200km journey on foot.
This is a special year for the group from Sindhudurg, which is celebrating its silver jubilee year. Their current edition of their diocesan magazine is dedicated to their pilgrimage and is complete with experiences of pilgrims who have participated over the years.

Lobo, who is overall in-charge of the padayatras from Kolhapur, Sindhudurg and Belagavi, has made prior visits to the state and to various churches and chapels on the way to ensure they are prepared to host the pilgrims, from toddlers to senior citizens.

“This pilgrimage has its roots in Indian spirituality and culture. It is in keeping with the Hindu tradition of Bhakti Sampradhai, where devotees make the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur – the seat of Maharashtra deity, Vithal. That’s why Hindus walk with us, too,” explains Fr Joseph Monteiro, who was recently appointed assistant to the rector of the Basilica of Bom Jesus.

Monteiro also links the tradition to St Francis Xavier himself, who, he says, walked a lot and even accompanied devotees to Rome on foot. “We’re walking to keep the spirit of St Xavier alive. There have been many examples where devotees have received spiritual benefits,” Monteiro says.

Having served as the parish priest of the Ajara church for nine years, Monteiro recalls leading a 150-odd group of pilgrims to Old Goa, of which 50 were non-Catholics, including Muslims.

On his part, Lobo ensures the atmosphere is always lively, with participants playing the tabla, harmonium and taal. “This helps the group forget about the pain and swelling feet,” he says. “Some even undertake the journey barefoot.”

The pilgrims walk around 35km each day, halting at schools, chapels and churches along the way. A number of people have been sponsoring food and other items along the route and even during the group’s stay at Old Goa. Each of the groups is accompanied by a vehicle carrying belongings and vessels, and can be used if a member is unwell.

Interestingly, the devotees adhere to two simple rules: they don’t accept lifts from anyone and don’t enter hotels. “Our aim is to experience suffering and pray for all the intentions of the world,” Lobo says.

Cyril Carvalho, a parishioner of the Immaculate Conception Church, Belagavi, who operates a wholesale fish business, will undertake the padayatra for the 14th time. His wife and he began when their 10-year-old son contracted a severe eye allergy that was hampering his education. Eventually, they saw their son’s health improve. For a couple of years, the boy also joined the pilgrimage.

Carvalho is also the treasurer of the century-old St Francis Xavier Association, which was constituted to assist pilgrims walking to Old Goa from Belgavi, Chandgad and Khanapur. He has in his possession, books dating back to 1937, when Goan settlers not only made the annual pilgrimage to Old Goa but also visited for their children’s baptisms and communion.

A number of Goans have also pitched in to help. For instance, Bernard D’Souza, a senior advocate from Margao, founded the St Francis Welfare Pilgrims Trust in 2010, through which he has ensured that the pilgrims who earlier rested under trees and at convents in Old Goa, have a pandal erected for them each year. He continues to champion the cause of a permanent pilgrim house in Old Goa, where faithful from the middle and lower classes can reside.

(Source: The Times of India)

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