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August - September 2004


Black Madonna of Montserrat

by Bhupendra Gandhi

When we booked our annual holiday to Costa Doroda, one of the most beautiful part of Spain, we had no idea, no inclination that one of the most revered Christian holy place, "The Monastery Of Montserrat with the famous statue of Virgin Mary, popularly known as The Black Madona will be on our door-step.

Montserrat means a shorn off mountain and looking at the sheer cliffs surrounding Montserrat, one can understand why it is called Montserrat. Black Madona is a patron saint of the people of Cataluna and is said to to have a mystic healing power. Madona is a beacon of hope and joy to millions of her worshippers among all faiths.

As we have lived happily and prosper in England, a Christian country, for the past thirty five years, we consider ourselves honorary Christians. The beauty of Hinduism is that we can be flexible and can accommodate, mingle with and even participate in the holy, religious rituals of other religions, especially Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity, without diluting our Hindu faith in any way. We feel at ease in any religious confinement, that is the greatness of our culture, our up-bringing and Hinduism.

The History and Evolution That Created Montserrat:
The area of Montserrat was part of the Mediterranean sea some 25 million years ago. Gradually the sea retreated, dried up and rock formations were created, so often accompanied by volcanic eruption and violent earthquakes, that was an every day occurrence in the beginning. The present day Montserrat is a long process of evolution, perhaps a minor miracle for Virgin Mary?

The incomparable mountains of Montserrat is unique in the world, in it's particular silhouette and formation and stands some fifty kilometer from Barcellona.

As Montserrat is practically on the French door-step, it has a troubled history. Our guide Pillar, a Catalan patriot, did not mixed words when she narrated history. She described in detail how French army, under Napoleon Bonaporte, the Emperor of France who introduced centralized despotism and ruled France with an iron fist, destroyed Montserrat more than once and converted the buildings into a military fortress.

Montserrat is perched on a precipice with a bird's eye view of the plain below and can be easily defended from the rampant, patriotic Catalans who hated French. The French army vandalized the monastery and destroyed not only the monastic life but destroyed and looted the artwork, ancient treasureand burnt thousands of books, along with the liberary buildings. French destroyed in just two months that has taken centuries to built. It was a mindless, unwarranted act of vandalism akin to Attila The Hun.

The statue of Black Madona which has been carved out of Oak wood, was taken to Barcelona for safe keeping. It took another thirty two years to rebuild Montserrat which became an abode of monks who were euradite historians, physicists, students of science, music and philosophy.

The popularity of Montserrat, the culmination of this period of splendure for the holy place was reflected into the construction of new monastery buildings to accomodate the growing demand from the modern day pilgrims.

Being a Hindu, I know that no Hindu king would ever destroy a Hindu temple, a Hindu place of pilgrimage where other Hindus worship. There are so many sects in Hinduism, worshipping different deity but there is no conflict what so ever between them. So I was at a loss to understand why a Catholic king of France would destroy another Catholic place of worship where Catalans pray.

So when I asked this question to Pillar, she had no logical answer, an acceptable explanation except that Napoleon was not a religious person and the military conquest was more important to him than religious sentiment. Moreover it was the charactor, the requirement and the tradition of the time when colonization was a byword for progress.

In Montserrat
Our coach was in it's parking slot by 11am. There is a long walk from the car park to the Montserrat Complex. As we were going to spend some four hours here, our pace was leisurely. We were lucky the our guide Pillar accompanied us throughout and continued to give us the benefit of her immense knowledge of the area.

The roads, lanes and foot-path surrounding Montserrat have existed ever since the mountains were inhabited by humans dating back some two thousand years, around the time Lord Jesus was born. Bht Montserrat became a holy place, a spiritual centre for Christianity when a monastry and a basilica were completed in 1592, although the foundation of the faith was laid back in 1025AD.

The basilica is the home of La Marc De Dev, the mother of God. It is a small wooden statue no more than five five feet high, blackened by the smoke of millions of candles lit at her feet over the centuries. That is why it is known as The Black Madona of Montserrat. The statue is kept in a glass cabinet but her right hand is outside the cabinet so that a pilgrim can hold her hand and make a wish, in the privacy of a tiny cabin that can accommodate only one person at a time

It is said that if you are sincere and have faith, your wishes may be granted, your dreams may become a reality. That is why so many sick, disable and disappointed pilgrims make this pilgrimage. It is famed of rumers that include cures for the sick and dying. Some pilgrims have been so impressed that they abandoned their wordly possessions, gave it all to the Montserrat and went their to live, devoting the rest of their lives to Virgin Mary.

By the time we reached basilica, there were already 200 people in the queue, that is a waiting time of over three hours, even if each pilgrim take only a minute to pray at the foot of Black Madona. Fortunately our wheel chair and people with crutches gained us an instant entry.

It was an emotional moment for me when I hold the hand of Black Madona, prayed and made a wish, although I would not like to disclose what my wish was and to what extent it was fulfilled. The fact that I have faith is my reward and the fact that I was able to undertake and complete this gruelling and extremely exhausting excursion without any ill-effect was a minor miracle in it self.

The full article is available in the print edition.

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