By Harihar Swarup
History often fails to do justice to social reformers who have been religious leaders. Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, who triggered renaissance in Kerala in the 19th century, was one such reformer—which was commemorated on January 3—is an occasion to revisit his life and works.
Saint Chavara was a social reformer, an educationist, a social entrepreneur, and a prolific poet. He deserves a place in the pantheon of social-religious reformers that includes Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Jyotirao Phule, Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Sree Narayan Guru. Millions, irrespective of caste and creed, benefited from his work, which triggered a social, cultural and intellectual awakening in Kerala.
Saint Chavara was a pioneer of education reforms. When education was the privilege of the social elite, his Pallikkoodam movement (setting up schools in church premises) enabled universal access to education. As the Vicar General of Syro-Malabar Christians, he ordered that the schools be set up on church premises and threatened to close down those that failed to comply. He also started free mid-day meals and provided clothes and books to reduce drop-outs among the poor and Dalit students. For this purpose, he mobilized resources by collecting a handful of rice and tithe from well-off families. The practice initiated by saint Cavara in Christian schools influenced Diwan, Travancore, C P Ramaswami Iyer, to plan mid-day meals in government schools in 1936. In 1846, Saint Chavara established a Sanskrit school in Mannanam in Kerala, that established ordinary people to study the sacred Hindu literature in Sanskrit.
The first indigenous Catholic religious congregation for men (CMI) he founded in 181 supplied dedicated and highly skilled personnel for managing schools and institutions. The first religious congregation for women (CMC-CTC) he founded in 1866 established schools to promote education for woman with boarding facility. It was a starting point for women’s empowerment in Kerala. These congregations continue to pursue Saint Chavara’s vision of universal and affordable education, by running hundreds of educational institutions across the country. In the words of the late President R. Venkataraman, Saint Chavara “represented a major manifestation of the Indian renaissance, which was to and raise our underprivileged, to alleviate distress and infuse our people with a sense of pride in themselves”.
In 1846, with the permission of Swathi Thiruns, the Maharajah of Travancore, Saint Chavara founded a printing press in Mannanam, and published educational material and books to promote social harmony. He was convinced that the print media was a powerful medium to further learning. This venture not only contributed to expansion of knowledge in Malayalam, but also effectively resisted the monopoly of colonial interests in the publishing domain. Deepika, the oldest Malayalam newspaper now in circulation, was started from this press in1887.
As a mark of his exceptional altruism, Chavara founded a House of Charity in 1869 at Kainkari, his native village, for aged, the abandoned and the sick. Saint Chavara raised resources for his educational and social interventions through paddy cultivation and small contribution from the local community.
Saint Chavara was an apostle of peace and religious harmony. In his autobiography he vividly narrates how Hindu, Muslims and Christians together toiled hard to establish his monastery in Mannanam. He realized that God’s glory relies on greatness of humans. He was a true Karma yogi , contemplative in action and working tirelessly to liberate people from the tyrannies of ignorance, poverty, and sickness. (IPA Service)