HOW A LITTLE VILLAGE IN KERALA GOT SWEPT UP IN AN APOCALYPTIC PANIC, THEIR IDEA OF THE END OF DAYS A HYBRID OF CHRISTIANITY WITH SOME EASTERN ELEMENTS THROWN IN.
An hour away from Thrissur, in central Kerala, lies a little town that, to use a popular Indian usage, I call “my native place.” The town of Pavaratty is best known for the massive warehouse-like shrine of St. Joseph, a bustling local pilgrimage centre. The shrine looms over the town with a population of about 11 000, emotionally, geographically and architecturally. Distances are measured from the shrine. Events are remembered in reference to the shrine’s calendar of feasts and festivals. In Pavaratty the shrine is pole star, magnetic north, prime meridian and equator all rolled into one. This pivotal presence of the shrine imparts a certain intensity to the religion of the local Christians.
It is not a hostile intensity – the kind that leads to xenophobia or agitation. Quite the opposite. It is the benign intensity of Star Trek or Star Wars fans who, while acknowledging the unassailable superiority of their own beliefs, are quite happy to play along with your own under-educated biases. So while my grandfather had no doubt that Christians were God’s chosen people, he still believed that the great Hindu temple at Guruvayoor, 30 minutes away, was a source of divinity and power.
There is also a thick syncretic vein that runs through the Christianity of the region. Over the centuries, customs and rituals have changed hands between religions more times than many like to admit. For instance, each year before the shrine’s major annual feast on the third Sunday after Easter, a flag is hoisted up the pole in front of the church. The flagpole lines up almost exactly with the crucifix above the altar inside. But is slightly shifted to one side, out of deference to the deity.
Temples in the region do the exact same thing before their festivals. Flags are hoisted on flagpoles placed in the temple courtyard that line up almost exactly with the idol in the sanctum sanctorum, but not quite. Out of deference.
And all this intensity, devotion and syncretism came together in the winter of 1999 when we began to prepare for the impending end. In the last few months of that year there was a kind of apocalyptic frenzy among some of the terribly Catholic, god-fearing, and all round well-meaning inhabitants of Pavaratty.
Mankind has been obsessed with the end since the very beginning. Every culture and religion in every corner of the world has its own version of the end of days. It is as if no religion is complete without a concept of genesis and a concept of armageddon. And every now and then this concept of armageddon has a knack of driving believers into a frenzy.
In Pavaratty, the frenzy came at the end of several years of anticipation and anxiety. At some point in the run up to the end of the last millennium many of my relatives – not just senile granduncles, grandaunts and grandparents, but also an alarming number of young and middle-aged folk – came to the conclusion that the world would come to an end in the year 2000. Every semi-devout Catholic I knew began to talk about the year 2000 with some apprehension.
I recall asking many of them at the time why they thought so. What religious or scientific proof did they have for these convictions? While the Bible itself warns of the impending apocalypse in spectacular terms that are begging to be made into a summer blockbuster, there is nothing remotely like an approximate date mentioned in the holy book. All it tells us is that:
1. The apocalypse is imminent;
2. The apocalypse will come without warning;
3. The apocalypse will be spectacular;
4. If you aren’t in God’s good books you’re going to get your ass kicked;
5. Most people will get their ass kicked.
No one could tell me the origin of the rumour. But then the Christian faith has always had a thing for millennia. Much of this obsession is thanks to Chapter 20 in the Book of Revelation that talks of a reign of Christ for 1000 years after which Satan would be “loosed out of his prison.” There is plenty of literature, most of it hotly disputed, according to which much of Christian Europe was caught in a great apocalyptic panic in 999 AD, ahead of this satanic turn of events.
The verses from Revelation are hardly convincing by themselves. But by late 1999 I remember being subject to all kinds of dubious documentaries on things like the prophecies of Nostradamus that seemed to vouch for impending doom. The Y2K crisis merely added fuel to the speculative fire. My grandmother made it a point to tell every visiting NRI Malayali that they should avoid flying on the night of the 31st of December. “The computers will not work and the planes will crash,” she would say, trying to sound casual but failing.
They saw proof everywhere. “Look at that statue of Jesus,” an older cousin told me once when we went to St. Antony’s Shrine at Chettikad near Ernakulam in the south of Kerala. The shrine is very popular with ill pilgrims. One of the highlights of a trip there was browsing through hundreds of letters from pilgrims framed and hung from tubular metal racks. Many of these letters had explicit photographs of scars, wounds and surgeries. They were often quite morbid.
The freshly painted statue my cousin pointed to was of a shimmering Caucasian Christ with a long but not emaciated face framed with flowing chestnut hair. The statue had its right hand up in a sign of blessing, the palm facing outwards. The first and middle fingers roughly pointed vertically upwards, the other fingers gently curved inwards into the palm.
“What do you think the statue is saying with those two fingers?” my cousin asked before answering with a whisper: “Two thousand.” Did a shiver go down my spine? I don’t remember. But it probably did.
One central aspect of the Christian version of the end of days is that it is going to be horrible for almost everybody. The paintings and scriptures all talk of sound and fury and torture.
Michelangelo Buonarotti’s The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in Rome is a case in point. While Michelangelo’s spectacular ceiling is what draws tourists to the Chapel by the coach-loads, The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar is no less a masterpiece. The fresco is a spectacular, massive and intense piece of art. Squint your eyes a little and it looks remarkably like a “Where’s Wally?” painting for the Renaissance. In the centre is the Christ and around him unfolds the agony and ecstasy of the last judgement, a critical phase of the Christian faith’s apocalypse. On the bottom left good souls are being summoned from their graves and being elevated to heaven, while on the bottom right damned souls are being pushed down into hell.
When I went to the Sistine Chapel last winter, the painting left me with a disproportionate sense of dread. Given that the painting is about good and bad souls being judged, one expects to experience reasonably equal feelings of good and bad. But this is not so. Apocalyptic Christian art like The Last Judgement, almost always draws you towards hell and the damned. You linger on the demons and the pitchforks and the poor sinning wretches getting their guts ripped out.
Why is this so?
Perhaps it is because most of us are so well aware of our own duplicities, follies and pretences. We know, the religious amongst us in any case, that barring some very liberal judging by the almighty, or a last minute intervention by a cracking defence lawyer-cum-saint of some kind, our destinies are infernal.
Perhaps it is because human beings, then during the Renaissance and now during the Justin Bieber phase of our cultural history, are fascinated by the macabre. Compared to the slash and gore of hell, heaven’s ecstasy, harmony, milk, honey and incessant singing of god’s praise seems terribly lame. Indeed I wonder if one of the rewards awaiting the virtuous in heaven is a 24-hour video feed from hell.
But that is the entire point of the apocalypse in Western religion. To scare the sin-prone mortal onto the path of righteousness by convincing him that while his evil ways may yield rich rewards in this life, the terrible agonies of the final judgement are inevitable. So don’t worry if you keep seeing good things happening to bad people and vice versa; God won’t forget.
In Eastern eschatology, there is a greater sense of the fact that things will get a lot worse before they get better. Before they get worse. And this cycle of life will restart all over again. In contrast to the Christian tradition, which promises one cataclysmic end followed by one new beginning and then stasis, the Hindu and Buddhist concept of the end of days is all about cycles of birth, death and regeneration. This world will end. And the one after it. And the one after that. There is little you can do but be good and enjoy the ride. Things, in a sense, are less climactic here in the East.
Perhaps this is why, while many Indians say that we are living in the Kalyug, or the last period of chaos before the end of this world, you don’t see this fervour leading to doomsday cults. In the East the doomsday is seen less as an examination and more as a rite of passage. And surely there is always a pooja you can do, or a sacrifice you can make, or a pilgrimage you can complete that secures your salvation.
And because everything is cyclical, the East always gives you a second chance. This, I think, has a profound impact on the way even Christians like my grandmother approached the “end”. For instance, the Western idea of the “Rapture” has God spiriting away all the good people, leaving the naughty ones to be tormented by Satan.
The version of the apocalypse we prepared for in Pavaratty in 1999 was entirely different. Here we would be left alone, while around us sinners would get obliterated. Afterwards the few good people left would be allowed to carry on as before, albeit in a world free of evil.
The challenge, then, for people like my grandmother, was to figure out how to not get caught in the crossfire. There was no doubt in her mind that her family was virtuous. But was there a way to ensure that when the apocalypse unravelled in 2000, we would be safely on the side of the good? Were there any strings we could pull? The Hindus have their poojas and mantras.
What do good Christians have?
If only there were an instruction manual to lasting the apocalypse.
There was, of course.
At some point in early December 1999, merely weeks away from the “end,” someone went to all the homes in our neighbourhood and distributed a free instruction manual for lasting through the apocalypse. I remember this document being a small piece of teal coloured card, the size of an open passport, that had been cyclostyled with black ink on both sides.
The little teal guide to the apocalypse made for ominous reading. The most important thing to do, it said, was to stay indoors and keep all windows and doors shut at all times. On no account were true believers to step outside. Even, the guide said, if we heard our neighbours or friends or even our own family being tormented outside by the forces of good or evil. They had spent their lives in sin. Now it was time for them to suffer.
Instead we were supposed to spend the whole time in prayer. Outside, the manual said with unflinching authority, there would be terrible noise and light. Thunder and lightening would come and go in sudden waves. Balls of fire would fall from the skies. And most of all there would be the incessant sound of wind. Meanwhile, heavenly marauders would chase down the sinners and infidels and destroy them. All in all, it would sound like the last 20 minutes of a Transformers movie. But with less agony for everyone involved.
The manual was instantly incorporated into the family prayer session each evening. My grandmother carefully kept it beneath the coffee table in the living room, along with all the other hymn and prayer books. Even my usually reasonable cousins began to prepare for the end. “Don’t laugh about this Sidin,” they would say, “what if the Y2K bug made a plane fall down on top of the nuclear reactor in Chennai and it exploded and killed everybody?”
“So are you sure the world will end in 2000?” I asked my grandmother and an aunt. They had both taken to reading the “apocalypse manual” on a daily basis. “I see from your nodding heads that you are tentatively certain. Then in that case do I have to give all these exams?”
It wasn’t a particularly original quip, I admit. But the response – they told me to go study – shows that by the 20th century people had become more… rational about their approach to doomsday predictions.
For a country that still takes astrology, numerology and other pseudo-sciences fairly seriously, India also harbours an ability to laugh at charlatans. Television astrologers and fortune-tellers routinely make fools of themselves predicting celebrity pregnancies or cricket tournaments. It is a calculated risk for these frauds. If their predictions come true they can leverage that into more income and perhaps even a small cult. Fail miserably and they know that after the immediate humiliation the public will forgive and forget quickly. The dichotomy of living in a country where almost nothing real works and everything unreal is supreme is that people believe in everything, but trust nothing.
This is why, while praying every evening in preparation for the end, my grandmother and the rest of my family carried on living as usual. They continued to buy shares, enrol in colleges, build homes and make travel plans as if this prediction wouldn’t come true. Which was just as well. Because none of them do.
In 2011 Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster from Colorado in the United States was the butt of worldwide belly laughs when he predicted that the “Rapture” would take place on May 21 and the world would end on October 21. Both these events, as far as we know, have not taken place. However hundreds of Camping’s followers, many of whom sold their homes and gave up their jobs, did experience their own private apocalypse of sorts.
In October, after the end had not materialised, a disappointed Camping reportedly told a reporter that “God has not given anyone the power to know exactly when the Rapture would come.”
The latest doomsday prediction of choice, and one no less ludicrous than previous ones, is the Mayan prophecy. This prediction, that the end will unfold on December 21 this year, is based on nothing more profound than the fact that the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar purportedly ends on this day. A 5 125 year-long cycle, or b’ak’tun, ends this year and the Mayans, it is said, believed great transformations would take place after this.
Unfortunately my grandmother passed away a few years ago, and was robbed of the opportunity to worry about the Mayan prediction. It’s likely she would have come across it on television, done some background reading of her own, before augmenting her daily routine with some anti-Mayan prayer of some sort. She would have enjoyed the fracas tremendously.
The good thing about an apocalypse prediction that goes bad is exactly that. Yay! Nothing ended! Nobody died!
I suppose my grandmother took to the morning of the 1st of January, 2000 remarkably well. In much the same way that she would be utterly convinced of a daily newspaper horoscope one morning, but seem unfazed the next when she did not “make a large sum of money overnight.” The teal guide slowly got relegated first to the bottom of the stack of daily prayer books, then into the stack of prayer books for special occasions, before disappearing altogether.
I myself spent New Year’s Eve lumbering around a bonfire outside a seedy youth hostel in Kodaikanal, eating chilli beef out of a plastic bag and drinking vodka out of a plastic bathroom mug. Or vice versa.
As a sinner of reasonable frequency and a victim of my fair share of perverse tastes, I will not be disappointed at all when the Mayan prophecy will also be proved false in due course of time.
Or will it be? Who knows? At least I recall most of an instruction manual to deal with the apocalypse. What about you?
Byline: Sidin Vadukut
Illustration: Reshi Dev