Sunday, January 17, 2010


In a village called Gollahalli, which is in the Kolar district east of Bangalore , an Ashram community was started by Sr. Celestine, who belongs to the sisters of ‘St Joseph of Tarbes’. The actual community headed by Sr. Celestine only came about after she retired as the Regional Superior in 1987. But during the period 1983-86 the Ashram gradually took shape under the leadership of Sr. Jude, as a centre for local leaders to reflect on the problems facing those who were once the workers in the gold mines.
Sr. Celestine met Caroline Mackenzie when she was the Regional Superior staying in a convent in Mysore from 1982-87. At this time Caroline was living in Melkote, and was also designing a series of wood carvings representing the stations of the Cross for Anjali Ashram. It was during this period that Caroline was thinking of being baptized into the Catholic Church, and so she asked Sr. Celestine to be her godmother.
In the autumn of 1982, Fr. Claude De Souza sj, asked me and Caroline to help design the prayer hall, and also the main Ashram building at the Maithri Sagar Ashram. Fr. Claude was at that time in charge of the Ashirvad centre in Bangalore, committed to inter faith dialogue. Earlier he had been thee national chaplain of the All India Catholic University Federation, when I first met him in 1975, and had worked with him on the design for a chapel in the Chennai centre for AICUF. Fr. Claude had encouraged Sr. Celestine to start an experimental Ashram not far from the Kolar Gold fields, which was where she had been brought up as a child, her parents having come from Tamilnadu to work in the gold field area. She and Sr. Jude, were both from this community of Tamil people many of whom had been brought as indentured labourers to work in the mines which had been managed by the British since the mid nineteenth century.
In fact the mines celebrated their centenary in 1980, and by then they were already more or less defunct, as the shafts which were the deepest in Asia, no longer yielded the rich gold ore which had been in the hay day of the Kolar gold fields around 1920. Thinking about the history of those who worked in often appalling conditions in the mines, the exodus story of the Old Testament came to mind. There Moses had struggled to free his people from their state of forced labour, and bring them out of Egypt into what he envisioned as a “promised land”. In this journey the people encountered many difficulties, and were often despairing. They were led, however, by a pillar of fire which showed the way to liberation. Primal images from this exodus event were taken as symbols for the pillared hall or ‘mandapam’ that was designed as a meditation space at the heart of the Ashram. Sr. Celestine had shared her dream of understanding the link between contemplation, and action. She spoke of the link between God, Nature, and the human community. This seemed to be also the basis for an understanding of the triangular structure.
The conditions under which the workers in these gold mines had to labour was very close to what is understood by the term “bonded labour” in that the workers were paid a lump sum, and not a regular salary. Also because of a complicated system of indebtedness, the labourers were never able to free themselves from being bonded to the work force. Though this system of bonded labour was officially abolished in 1976, the system continued to enslave people who had no other means of livelihood well into the eighties. It was this condition that made Fr. Claude particularly interested in the plight of people who had been bonded in this way to contractors and landlords in this once very prosperous district that grew up around the gold mines.

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