A SOUTH INDIAN CHRISTMAS
Fishermen in from their catch re-set their nets. The Arabian Sea laps at our feet as we walk along the cream-coloured sand. All around us are frolicking native vacationers and foreign sun seekers. Holy cows commandeer a section of beach. Stray dogs chase scurrying crabs. Swaying palms sweep the sky.
Colva Beach in Goa is traditionally included in our India visits and ahhh…we remember it well. Being that this is the Christmas holiday season, festive splashes dot the small resort town…a Santa here, a decked-out tree there.
Not much changes in Colva, but we do note one difference this time-round: its Russian-haven prominence. Shops and restaurants have added Cyrillic to their signs and roadside vendors speak some Russian in hopes of increased sales.
Our intention to do as little as possible for two weeks is adhered to as if it were law. In our mellow state the most taxing decisions are: where to dine, whether morning or evening beach time (or both), a dip in the ocean…or resort pool?
The compound has high security check points, armed military and hundreds of volunteers to steer the masses. As we shuffle along in the lengthy outdoor queue the saint’s story swirls through my mind.
Francis Xavier was in his late 30’s when he came to Goa as a missionary in 1542. A decade later while sailing to China he fell ill and was taken to the nearest Chinese island where he died. Xavier was buried in a coffin filled with lime to speed decomposition so his bones could be picked up when the ship sailed back months later…but when exhumed his body is said to have been “as fresh as the day it was buried”. Physicians could find no explanation. Periodic opening of the coffin showed no deterioration for years; then desiccating and darkening skin was reported, again for no apparent reason. Xavier was canonized in 1622 for his tireless work with the poor, sick and imprisoned and the “miracle” that his body somehow escaped being reduced to dust. The first exposition took place in 1782.
We enter the cavernous Se Cathedral and file past the silver trimmed glass casket. The feet, one hand (the other was sent to Rome long ago) and head remain exposed – these extremities in dark brown solidity have fingernails and toenails; scalp-hair frames facial features still visible after 462 years. It’s a spine-chilling, yet intoxicating experience to be among the throng of emotionally charged devotees.
Back at Colva Beach on Christmas Eve, “Jingle Bells” ring out from speakers of our favourite restaurant as we feast on masala-butter chicken.
Up early on Christmas morning we’re off to the airport for our short flight to Chennai (Tamil Nadu state). It is barely noon when Santa greets us and a choir sings “Silent Night” in the lobby of our 5-star hotel. An afternoon Skype session with our family in Canada is heartwarming. And it’s a sheer delight to find roast turkey with all the trimmings on the hotel’s supper buffet.
The next day we are ready to re-visit our favourite Chennai spots. Pondy Bazaar area is a blast –people line up outside Hindu temples, the ubiquitous flower-garland shops do a brisk business. Further along the road, shops sell everything from foodstuffs, to bargain clothing, to gold jewellery—the streets so plugged with people dodging horn-honking vehicles and motorbikes you’d think they were giving the 24-karat commodity away.
Our next venture involves a tooth-rattling tuk-tuk ride which ends in a screeching stop. We have arrived! Chennai’s urban Marina Beach is the same as it was years ago – fully dressed locals (nary an ankle showing), small food stalls that can’t keep up with the hungry crowds, acrobats performing for rupees and carnival rides. Before we know it dusk creeps over the sands and the Bay of Bengal – the close of another great day.
Our split between Colva Beach and Chennai turned out to be the best of both worlds – fishing village to city chaos, highly Christian Goa to mostly Hindu Tamil Nadu, with friendly greetings embracing us at every turn – an unusual and sensational Yuletide!
IF YOU GO:
For more information:
Tourism India www.incredibleindia.org
PHOTOS by Rick Butler
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