This is a story about memory, sildenafil or at least a deep commitment never to forget.
That’s the only explanation for why the earnest pilgrims of the Bardeshkar community walk 150 kms every year from Maharashtra and Karnataka to honour a Roman Catholic saint in Goa.
Their ancestors persecuted, driven from Goa in the 16th and 17th centuries, members of this 1000-odd community retrace their trail every year for their faith in St. Francis Xavier. On December 3, some 900 of these pilgrims will converge on the Old Goa church complex for a massive feast.
With red, angry blisters on their feet, old and young, men and women, Christians and even some Hindus from the upper reaches of the Western Ghats mountains in Maharashtra trek the long distance from Ajra to seek blessings of the Spaniard who evangelised large parts of Goa in the 1500s.
After they begin their journey, they will be joined by fellow Bardeshkars from Karnataka, who, like them, once hailed from the Bardez region in north Goa. Their ancestors left to escape religious and cultural persecution, epidemics and continuous Portuguese-Maratha wars over Goan soil.
“There are some who pray for better job prospects, there are childless couples who make the pilgrimage and many others for various devout reasons,” according to Father Joseph Monteiro, Ajra’s parish priest.
All of them speak either Marathi or Kannada now, depending on whether they live in Ajra in Maharashtra or just across the state border in Karnataka, where most of the families are farmers. But in their homes and amongst themselves, most still speak Konkani and regularly visit their ancestral temples and churches here in Goa. Before the trek, women come together to clean rice and then beat it into puff to be carried for the four-day journey.
“In fact the entire pilgrimage is one of the best examples of enculturation and communal harmony, with all the pilgrims walking together with one aim in mind, singing bhajans (traditional prayers) and praying along the way for the four whole days that they are walking to Goa,” Father Monteiro said.
The four-day walk to Goa is not unlike a religious and cultural tradition called the wari, where millions of devotees of Lord Vitthal walk to holy city of Pandharpura in central Maharashtra from across the state to pay tributes to the deity.
The Bardeshkar tradition is today maintained by the Goa Jesuit missions who run these parishes and were among the first to evangelize these areas, Father Monteiro said. But the pilgrimage is not just a jolly trek. Logistics can be complicated.
“Today, we have to carry around 200 kilos of rice, dal, almost 50 kilos of beaten rice just to feed ourselves. This despite there being families who continue to regularly feed and shelter us (along the way) despite this group getting bigger and bigger by the day,” Father Monteiro said.
Water does not need to be carried along, Indian roads are still benevolent enough to allow a thirsty pilgrim a sip of water, the priest said.
The pilgrims have six fixed road stops along the journey, where they rest for the night and during the afternoons, either in government schools, village open spaces, temples and even private homes.
“But the most difficult (part) is the walking. It is for four continuous days. There are many who do not make it and return by bus,” Aaron D’Souza, a veteran of two pilgrimages, told Streets. Joseph Nazareth, another regular pilgrim from Ajra, says that it takes time for unaccustomed feet to develop blisters.
“When walking on the second day my feet developed blisters and I felt that I should give them rest. But then, looking at the resolve of the elders who seem unaffected by the distance they have walked, I too was encouraged to carry on walking,” Joseph says.
But if you thought blisters were all bad news, think again.
They are like holy mementos to Christu Bandekar, who regularly walks to Goa with his family for the December 3 feast.
“It is a very spiritual experience. It is penance as well as an identification with the life of St Francis Xavier. Francis Xavier, too, wherever he went, went on foot, ignoring frost bites and other maladies to spread the word of God. This is our form of imitation,” he says.
As Streets spoke to them, the Bardeshkars were readying for their pilgrimage. Their bundles were packed and the rice cleaned and ready.
Four centuries have passed, to be sure. But Bardez still calls.