On Sunday mornings, when they are not working in the fields that surround Deshnur, around 200 of the village’s 12,000 people go to Snanika Arulappanavara Virakta Mutt, a shrine where they attend mass that a Catholic priest holds in Kannada.
Yet, not a single inhabitant of the village is Christian. Within the imposing building of large stone blocks, also known as the Church of St John the Baptist, is a tabernacle in the form of a Shiva linga – a reminder that it once was a Lingayat mutt.
The Jesuit priest who conducts mass and runs the church, Menino Gonsalves, introduces himself as Sri Menino Swamy. He wears saffron robes and a rudraksha mala as his congregation worships Jesus and Mary in Lingayat style, burning camphor and agarbatties and with vibhuti smeared on their foreheads.
Since its establishment as a church in 1947, five Christian priests have served in the shrine, said Sri Menino. “We all adopted Hindu names,” he said. “Our founding father, Armado Alvares, called him-self Sri Animananda Swamy. Father Sebastien became Swami Arulananda.”
All the Jesuit priests who have served at the church became vegetarians and wore rudrakshamalas, he said. Sri Menino sees no incongruity in the mingling of Hindu and Christian elements in the mutt. It is an experiment in social integration, Sri Menino said. Prelates of the Catholic Church described the shrine as an example of assimilation of local culture.
Sri Menino, who has been in charge of the church for 11 years, dismissed as an “unnecessary controversy” the uproar on social media about alleged conversions at the shrine, triggered by photographs of Belgaum Bishop Derek Fernandes wearing saffron robes and with a tilak on his forehead during a recent visit to the village.