Approaching the La Salette church, we passed a TV tower, houses, gardens and then a long, gloomy building—Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory, shut down in 2001 under public pressure but not yet gone. This structure was still full of missionaries—or so I heard. The English word in my interlocutor’s Tamil was not ‘missionaries’ but ‘machinery’. Mercury persisted in the soil years after the closure; so had machines, apparently.
Still, my error approached another truth. In 1846, near the village of La Salette in France, two shepherd children reported a vision of a weeping Virgin Mary, which Catholic authorities accepted as authentic. The church subsequently built at this Alpine site soon had a counterpart in our Palani Hills. By 1866, Kodaikanal had its own shrine to La Salette—or ‘La Saleth’, the spelling favoured on local signage. (I will stick to ‘La Salette’ for easy movement between French and Indian sources.) The founder, a French Jesuit priest named Louis Saint-Cyr, is buried along with two colleagues under the extended shrine. The missionaries are still there, literally.
Among the buildings up there (the southern ridge of Kodaikanal), only the Doordarshan signal tower is easily visible—mist permitting—from the lake below. Spindly yet monumental, it feels like the Eiffel Tower to go with Notre Dame. While such a comparison may smack of a colonial mentality, Kodaikanal’s links with the West are complicated, reducible to no single encounter.
Alongside British administrators, as well as American and Swedish Protestant missionaries, French and Belgian Catholics shaped aspects of the landscape. ‘Hailing from Savoy, a land of lakes, [the priest Joseph Ciceron] recommended to Levinge the formation of the lake . . .’ The implied logic of this phrase from Badri Vijayaraghavan’s Veil of Mist may remind TKC readers of Richa Kaul Padte’s essay on placefulness and nostalgia, or the piece on sauntering by her mother, Anjuli.
The latter takes up Thoreau’s riffs on sans terre (landless) and sainte terre (holy land)—both obliquely relevant to Saint- Cyr—before mentioning my own mother, Sheila. If I appreciate Thoreau, lake walks or Saleth Matha, it is all thanks to Amma. I have more to say about mothers, but we are not yet done with fathers. I first learnt of the priest’s role in creating the lake when I went to the Jesuit Archives in Shenbaganur. There, Father Anto and an archivist, Mr Lobo, helped me find texts pertaining to Father Saint-Cyr.
La Salette’s arrival in Kodaikanal is documented on the Madurai Archdiocese website, in some English histories of the town and in Father P K George’s Tamil Saleth Matha Charithai. All build on primary sources presented most comprehensively in Vie du R P Louis Saint-Cyr de la Compagnie de Jésus (1813–1887), a biography by a fellow Jesuit identified as François André in Nora Mitchell’s The Indian Hill Station.
André quotes a witness to Saint-Cyr’s initial resolution, made while he was suffering from ‘Madagascar fever’: ‘. . . he vowed to build in Madurai a chapel in honour of Our Lady of La Salette, if he was healed through the intercession of this stricken mother who had wept in our mountains . . . His prayer was granted.’
Here, Madurai is not the city but the Jesuit province headquartered there, the oldest and biggest in India. Saint-Cyr devoted much of his life to this province. ‘Condemned’ by doctors to return to Europe, he was allowed to try a sanatorium in the Nilgiris first. Restored by this sojourn, he envisioned a similar place for Jesuits within Madurai province, and ascended Kodaikanal to assess its suitability. A Father Trincal’s account describes Saint-Cyr as riding up on a pony, making the perilous ascent ‘in high spirit’. Trincal interrupts his French with the English phrase, dropping the plural s’. Later, Saint-Cyr himself would frequently use English (with the local authorities) and Tamil (with his congregation).
But first he had to preach the benefits of Kodaikanal, using the language of contemporary science to convince his superiors. He argued for the health benefits of mountain air: ‘Who would dare deny it in the face of scientific evidence . . . before the facts to which the Nilgiris bear witness each day?’ Turning Baynes’ Bungalow into a training centre for priests, he renamed it La Providence. (The bungalow is now a hotel, but the training centre has grown in Shenbaganur.) As for the promised shrine, its site was determined by a local apparition, according to one oral history. Priscilla Mohl (once a student at Kodaikanal International School, later a teacher and parent) tells me a story from her grandmother: ‘In the late 1800s, two boys were grazing their cows on the hill where La Salette church now stands. Mother Mary appeared to them and said, “Build a church on this site.” The boys ran and told the French priests at La Providence about their vision.’ The foundations were laid in 1863. The Gothic building (now painted blue and white) was consecrated in 1866 by the Bishop of Madurai. No longer a parish church, it remains a shrine to La Salette. Upon Saint-Cyr’s death, he was buried in front of the building. Further extensions mean he is now under the shrine itself.
A few years ago, the current sacristan, Mr Arputharaj, saw Saint-Cyr’s remains. When granite slabs above the tombs were moved for renovation, he tells me, a small crucifix was found by Saint-Cyr’s skeleton. It is now in a reliquary near the altar and apparently has healing powers, in keeping with La Salette’s reputation.
Early funds for the Kodaikanal shrine’s construction came from Madame d’Oultremont, a widowed Belgian countess who became a nun and even founded a religious order. She offered these in gratitude for her daughter’s miraculous healing. Jean Berthier’s 1898 Merveilles de La Salette narrates that she ‘. . . seemed to see at her daughter’s bedside the holy Virgin, as she is represented in La Salette, resplendent, and heard these words. “Call her; I will raise her up.” Without hesitating, the mother called to her daughter . . . in a flash, the daughter was in her mother’s arms, having recovered her mobility, feeling no pain.’
Another story of healing comes from Mohl, though her family is Protestant: ‘Anna Mary, who worked for my family, lit a candle and prayed at La Salette to Mother Mary for healing and strength for my mother. She prayed that my mother should be healed and light a candle the following year. She did not tell my mother. The following year, my mother and her sister were compelled to visit the church. They visited, prayed and lit candles.’ If I remember correctly, the Susai Mary who worked for my family, and still acts like a mother to me, has taken me to La Salette. I was there a couple of months ago for a wedding, because I knew the bride’s mother, a Kalpana Mary.
The church initially served a small Catholic population; many in the congregation worked for Protestant foreigners. Today locals and tourists alike, including Hindus and Muslims, come to it with requests and thanks. This is evident from the sacristan’s account, TripAdvisor reviews and the inscribed names of donors. (Even as places of worship are precariously poised in India’s highest courts, the secular spirit of La Salette in Kodaikanal feels salutary—anything but the so-called ‘sickular’.) The diversity and generosity of devotees is especially evident every August, during the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
I am not a Catholic, but I belong to La Salette more than any other church. Willingly suspending disbelief, I am moved by layers of mediation in the miracle narratives. So many mothers. So many Marys. Meaning in trivial detail: names, numbers and mistakes. At Carleton College—founded in 1866, like Kodaikanal’s La Salette—I took a course with Kristin Bloomer called ‘Many Marys’. At Harvard—for a course taught by my guide, Francis X Clooney, S J —I read Ramanuja’s commentary on Bhagavad Gita 18.66: ‘Abandoning all dharmas, approach me alone for refuge.’
When I search for ‘Salette’ or ‘Saleth’ in my email, most of the results are messages from my mother asking me to place myself entirely in Saleth Matha’s hands. Amma invited me to approach other figures—from people like Susai Mary to abstractions like a not-very-Hindutva Bharat Mata—as supplementary mothers. Brought up Catholic, she would take our family to mass there every couple of weeks. I have involuntarily internalised much of that Tamil service: sometimes, as I am whistling, an unrelated tune segues into ‘Nithya sthuthi kuriya’ and ‘Aradhikinrom’. To Amma, a radical resignation of interests in general was not incompatible with specific requests. She often prayed for healing, especially for my sister’s health, sometimes making vows. Embarrassed, proud, I witnessed the theatrical self-humiliation that one vow entailed. During one of our last festivals in Kodaikanal, she had her head shaved and briefly became a beggar on the steps to the shrine (now lined by Stations of the Cross). Amused, serious, a neighbour tossed her a coin. The old man who had expertly shaved Amma’s head complimented her on the newfound baldness. ‘Like a baby’s head,’ he said.
I got a haircut today, getting ready to leave Kodaikanal again. The barber asked me if he could use the ‘machine’, meaning the electric trimmer. The English word in his Tamil sounded to me, again, like ‘mission’. I remembered mornings in Somerville: the hum of my housemates, Buddhist monks at the divinity school giving themselves buzzcuts. Baldness can mean many things: holiness, healing, disease. Altitude, likewise, carries complex associations: holiness, difficulty, ease. Unlike Golgotha or Calvary, Kodaikanal is not a bald hill—at least not yet.
Father André rhapsodies about Kodaikanal: ‘This was the place that Fr. Saint-Cyr chose for the sanctuary of Our Lady of La Salette of the Indies. From the mountain peaks as from a majestic throne, the Queen of heaven will rule over the burning plains, rule over the chilly hills, rule over all of India, and will summon its unfortunate peoples to the blessed sojourn of the eternal hills.’ The spirit of our local archive goes somewhat against the grain of fin-de-siècle French literature on the French La Salette. Take Joris-Karl Huysmans, best known for his À Rebours. He drafted parts of a work to be called Là-Haut ou Notre-Dame de La Salette. ‘Up There’ (Là-Haut) was a contrast with ‘Down There’ (Là-Bas), the title of his own earlier work on Satanism.
The draft reveals a subtler contrast between the difficult message of La Salette—with its weeping, threatening apparition—and the supposedly easier message of the more popular Lourdes, situated in the Pyrenees. A character observes that Lourdes is popularised even by writers like Zola, who are sceptical in their approach. Some writers, he says, ‘seem to be chosen Up There to accomplish certain needs’.
I do not claim that I was chosen from on high to write this essay. Nor is it likely that I will ever be up there in a literary or religious canon. Still, I believe this piece responds to a need: if not La Salette’s need for literature, at least my own need to approach La Salette.