Only thirty kilometers away from the infamous Meenakshi Temple Complex in Madurai, a Christian shrine stands in distinction betwixt fluorescent green rice paddies and the traditional homes of a quaint rural village. Idaikattur is a world away from the frenetic pace of desperate pilgrims vying for a glance of their favored Hindu idols in such monolithic temples. However, if it were not for the Sacred Heart of Jesus Shrine, a gothic church replicated after the Rheims cathedral in France, this village might be just any other. Built in 1894 AD by the French missionary Fr. Ferdinand Celle SJ, this holy place of worship is a hidden gem amidst the well-trodden temple trails of the south.
I have always found Tamil Nadu’s ability to absorb any culture and ‘Tamilize’ it a remarkable feature of this Indian state. Though this church undoubtedly sticks out like a palm tree growing in snow, there is also something distinctly South Indian about its appearance. Instead of the classical Dravidian towers with their ascending layers of carved deities, the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus has 153 angels, 200 varied types of tile and molded brick, and a showcase of saints, archangels, and of course, Jesus himself.
While my family sat in the dark and cool pews and performed their prayers, I took a much-needed break to explore the village on my own. As incredibly unique as the church itself was, I have always opted for encounters with the human or natural world to connect with the divine. With camera in hand I walked along the few dirt roads of Idaikuttur village and as is the case in many small towns in rural India, I immediately became a sensation. Children stopped playing to gather around me, women laughed shyly as I intimated that I wanted to photograph them next, and old men eyed me suspiciously until I showed them their picture, immediately breaking out into smiles and laughter.
Idaikattur was something like the Tamil Nadu of bygone days. Signs were hand-painted, many of the roofs of houses were either tiled in clay or covered in grass, and absolutely everything was painted in tropical colours. At the corner store, bananas hung on the vine for picking and the thresholds of homes were decorated with kolams; an auspicious symbol inviting blessings and protection. In a short amount of time, I had become enamoured with this place.
It wasn’t more than a half hour later when my phone began to ring with the worried voices of my family inquiring where I had disappeared to. I was visiting my church, I thought to myself.
I had connected to the true 'Sacred Heart' because it had filled my own up with the immeasurable bounty of a tiny village in my motherland.