Who is Saibinn Mai for the Bombay Catholics?

By Elroy Pinto. Elroy is an independent filmmaker, researcher, and writer based in Mumbai. His first short film-essay, Kaifiyat (2019) introduces Ustad Nizamuddin Khan’s music and explores the historical and socio-religious contexts of Deccani aesthetics. His writing has appeared in NCPA’s ON Stage, Public Parking, The Satyashodhak, and Shambhashan.

The six of us children, with our parents, grew up at the Agripada B.I.T. Blocks. Each block had three floors. When the majority of people on a floor were Catholic, they had a portrait of a saint or a version of Our Lady as their object of devotion. Every evening we used to have the rosary between 7 to 7:30pm and Benna uncle would sing the Ladinha for us.

October 13th is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. To encourage the ritual of family rosary, the Church started the practice of passing the icon of Our Lady from family to family. When Our Lady came to a particular family, she was kept for a full twenty-four hours. The family welcomed her and any other people who came along with fellowship.

Although our living space was a single room, it was cleared for a table placed in the center and usually covered with a piece of cerulean blue cloth. The family and the neighbours who visited that house recited the rosary and sang devotional songs dedicated to Saibinn Mai in English and Konkani. The house was decorated with abolims, white candles, and electric lights. At the end of the rosary, everyone present - including our Jewish and Muslim neighbours - were offered boiled channa and a cold drink. The next day, Our Lady went to another family's room accompanied by family members. The matriarch of the family would carry Saibinn Mai. And so, our fellowship grew.

This practice encouraged the family to have their family rosary with the Angelus prayer. It was a lovely custom. Each family member, though busy, would always make time for prayers and fellowship. And with that, our family bond grew stronger. Thus the saying, “the family prays together stays together”. It is also said, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”

This description comes from my mother’s memories of her childhood in 1950’s Bombay. The ritual of the traveling statue of Mary, or “Saibinn Mai” as she is popularly known, continues to be a prominent part of the Bombay Catholic’s socio-religious life to this day. In this essay, I focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and her relationship to her devotees in the communities of the western Deccan coast. I would like to tentatively call this form of Marian devotion Saibinn Mai bhakti.

The name “Saibinn Mai” is a reminder of the deep and historical ties that connect the western Deccan to the greater Indian ocean world. Saibinn is a feminine form of Saiba or Master. The term comes from an Arab-Persian context and reflects the legacies of trade and cultural exchange across the Arabian Sea. Mai means mother in a Konkani and the later Indo-Catholic social milieu. It speaks to the cultural dynamism of local communities throughout the region. Bombay’s Catholic community was shaped by migrants from diverse areas and castes along the Indian coast. Most of them arrived from nearby Goa, South Canara and Maharashtra but significant numbers came from Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well.

Louis Santan Rodrigues sings the Ladainha

Historically, major sites of Marian devotion were found at the shrines of Our Lady of Lourdes (France) and Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal). Shrines dedicated to Mary began appearing at several coastal sites in India as early as the sixteenth century. These followed the arrival of Portuguese colonialism and Catholic missionary activity. In India, the most popular site is Our Lady of Good Health at Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu. In Maharashtra, Our Lady of the Mount in Mumbai resounds with choral voices singing hymns in English, Konkani and Marathi.

For today’s bhaktas of Saibinn Mai, devotional practices sometimes intersect with Indian nationalism. For example, the Catholic Church often celebrates the Assumption of Mary and India’s Independence Day together on August 15th. This has nurtured a metaphorical bond between Saibinn Mai and the nationalist emblem Bharat Mata or Mother India.

One of the most important Mary festivals is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady held on September 8th. Catholic shrines across India host major celebrations on this day. People observe regular appearances at novena services for nine consecutive days prior to the feast. These services consist of a variety of prayers, songs, and short sermons.

The ritual of Saibinn Mai takes place over the Church-sanctioned “Marian months” of May and October. It is during this time that statues of Mother Mary circulate from house to house in every community. The adopted icon is usually a replica of Our Lady at Lourdes, Fatima or Vailankanni. These statues often have many local variations, including the use of unique sari prints.

The ritual of Saibinn Mai

Author’s family altar
(Source: Elton Pinto)

The focal point of the Saibinn Mai festivities is known as Konsachem fest. Just as in many harvest festivals, each parish blesses rice paddy and distributes it among the congregation. The Goans and South Canarans who moved to Mumbai were removed from their agricultural contexts. Therefore, it was a custom that their relatives would send fresh vegetables and paddy to the city.

At home, my grandfather would lead prayers for the success and safety of the harvest crop. After that, we would drink novem, a drink made of powdered paddy mixed with milk and sugar. Patriarchal norms ensured that my mother and grandmother were tasked with preparing a feast for the occasion. This feast combined the unique vegetables of ash-gourd and field marrow alongside dishes of chicken biryani and beetroot koshimbir. Patoloeos, a steamed dessert in which rice paste is laid on turmeric leaves and filled with a sweet mixture of coconut, jaggery and some cardamom, would be traded among neighbours and extended family. These exchanges melted geographical and social boundaries.

Author’s grandparents with altar
(Source: Elton Pinto)

The Saibinn mai bhakti that my mother described was an invitation for the community to take precedence over the individual. The geographical origins of community members appear to be inconsequential as religious identity seems to be foregrounded. The devotion for Saibinn Mai was such that if a neighbour wished to say a rosary while the statue was in the house, the host family would join in and prayers or maagni were offered together.[1] 

Saibinn Mai’s arrival at homes is seen as a unifying event for most of the families at the Blocks. For my mother, crucial elements of the ritual included worship, community, prayers, singing, altar decorations, flowers, and candles that were used as embellishments. It would be apt to say that the aesthetics and atmosphere were of critical importance to experience Saibinn Mai’s presence.

Local devotions to Saibinn Mai, Mahim
(Source: Author)

Mary is a powerful source of strength and community for working-class Catholics young and old in Mumbai. Limitations of money and material resources have made the nature of Saibinn Mai bhakti highly improvisational. Materials used in her rituals have parallels with most urban forms of Devi worship. As the clergy were never part of this ritual at home, this form of devotion has been nurtured by the majority of the working-class and agrarian jati Catholics and their neighbours.

Saibinn Mai Between the Local and the Universal

Saibinn Mai’s presence across diverse contexts has allowed her to draw devotees from a variety of religious backgrounds and embrace deeply local expressions of devotion. The shrine of St Michael’s Church at Mumbai hosts a replica of the Our Lady of Perpetual Succour icon held in Rome. This image was touched to the original icon and brought to Mahim in 1948 by an Indian priest who had witnessed her devotion during a visit to Europe.

St Michael’s Church, Mahim
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Every Wednesday, thousands of devotees, primarily working-class families visit this shrine at which thirteen novena services are offered in five languages: English, Hindi, Marathi, Konkani, and Tamil. The belief is that attending nine novenas will grant the devotee’s request. A novena does not include the rite of Transubstantiation of Christ which requires formal baptism as a Catholic. For this reason, it does not exclude non-Catholic supplicants.

As per orthodox Catholic doctrine, Mary should not be venerated separately from Jesus. However, it seems that the majority of her non-Catholic bhaktas are focused on her veneration alone. If we look at the economic base of her congregation it becomes clear that this form of worship is intimately linked with jati and class backgrounds.

Celebrating the Feast Day of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Rome, 2016
(Source: Scala News)

So a question on popular devotion rises – how does the modern devotee of Saibinn Mai relate to a European icon from the fifteenth century? Whom does the devotee imagine when they are venerating ‘Saibinn Mai’? Do they imagine her to be a new, different, or alternate version of the Goddess?

The simplicity of emotion and gesture that takes place every Wednesday at St. Michael’s Church—offering flowers, wax votives, money, or whatever one would like—belies the complexity of this Marian tradition. The novena instils in its participants an intimate feeling of being linked to a larger community of Saibinn Mai devotees.

The figure of Saibinn Mai contains the universal Catholic concept of Our Lady as well as local conceptions of the mother goddess. A number of popular shrines in Mumbai were originally established by the Koli fisher community and later co-opted by various communities.[2] The connections between Bandra’s Mot (Maut) Mauli and Our Lady of the Mount in Bandra are well known. Here, the Virgin assumes a form of the seven apsaras (water spirits) revered by the Kolis of Mumbai.

Our Lady of the Mount in Bandra may well be a much older Koli shrine dedicated to one of the local Devis. The influence of local goddess traditions on Catholicism is not unique. We can find examples of its impact on Islam and Judaism in India as well. There is also the case of Fatima veneration by the Nizari Ismailis and Satpanthi community. The Bene Israel Jews from Maharashtra once venerated Sitladevi to protect children from small pox.

The months of Shravan and Bhadra usher in celebrations of Onam and Ganesh Chaturthi among others. There are similarities between the manner in which Our Lady and the Palkhi visit the houses of the Devi bhaktas. Such processional forms of devotion are common in Catholic communities along the Deccan’s western and southern coasts.

Local devotions to Saibinn Mai, Bandra
(Source: Gautam Pemmaraju)

However, since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, Church leaders in Rome have actively tried to lower the importance of Marian devotion. Nevertheless, the global south is home to more Catholics than anywhere else. It is here where one sees the greatest number of devotees to “Our Lady.”

In the twenty-first century, the joy of worshipping Saibinn Mai has been embraced and reimagined by diverse communities through their active participation, rooting her image and veneration in regional socio-economic identities and cultures.

[1] For the amount of prayers refer here. Also there is an argument to be made for the local variations in Konkani prayers read here.

[2] Note that in some contexts, such as Ekaveera at Lonavla, the more elite Son Kolis have also co-opted entire sites for their own benefit over the Mahadev Kolis.

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