Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sara-la Kali - Part Three in the Lourdes Pilgrimage

Statue of Sante Sarah in crypt

The Lourdes pilgrimage started off as the intent only to attend the annual Gypsy festival of Sara la Kali in Saintes Maries de la Mer.  It has been my wish to attend this festival for about six years and I kept on putting it off.  I was attracted to spend time in this energy of two worlds coming together :  the Christian and the Hindu traditions of faith. And the festival did not disappoint.  I stepped into a magical world of legend, myth, faith and miracles!  

Last year I stayed in India for a few weeks visiting the many temples of Kali Maa.  The previous year I attended the Navratra the Festival of Nine Nights dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Durga Maa.  And now, participating in the festival of Saint Sarah le Kali, the Black, was magical and opened my mind even further to the unity of all people, all religions and traditions!

Hindu Goddess Kali Maa
Kali Ma is the fierce goddess in the Hindu tradition.  She is the Mother of Kundalini and the bringer of change.  She is often feared as change does not honour resistance nor reluctance, but calls for surrender to that which we have no control over.  She is known as the black or dark mother, 'Kali'.  And here, in the South of France, in a small Catholic Church and as Queen of the Rom (Gypsies), reigns the saint Sara la Kali - a fusion of the dark mother and one who serves Mother Mary.

This festival has been taking place for the past fifty years and attracts 20 000 roma (gypsies).

Gypsy wagon parked in main road Saintes Maries de la Mer

Legends are rife about the origins of the dark skinned Sainte Sarah - both the Rom and the Christian version.  The Roma speak their own language, they have a very distinctive culture and are wanderers and travellers, with a strong focus on music, dance and passion.  It is said that the Roma originally came from India and found their spiritual mother Kali Ma, in the black saint Sarah.  

The festival always takes place on Sante Sara's sacred day 25 May. The week before the caravans stream into the small sea side village.  As we travelled many motorhomes passed us.  The gypsies live in these modern motorhomes and many have enormous trailers behind.  They travel from fair to fair across France and Europe and sell their wares, such as hand made knives.

A wonderful exotic and festive market is on for the entire week before the religious festival days and the mesmerising sounds of the flamenco guitar can be heard far and wide.

Children and adults dress up in traditional gitane clothing

 Outside the church of Saintes Maries de la Mer you will find flamenco playing gypsies, dancing girls, small girls handing out images of Lakshmi and older women selling the holy medals of Sante Sarah, indicating that you have arrived at the destination of your pilgrimage!  What magic!!

Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and Abundance

  Saintes Maries de la Mer is a quaint village known for its white horses from the Camargue, the black bulls and the three Saints : Sara, Marie Salome and Marie Jacobe.  Legend has it that they arrived here on the beach with Mary Magdalene.

On the first feast day Sara is lowered into her crypt and dressed in layer upon layer of cloak representing all the prayers.  The crypt is underneath the church and the heat from the thousands of burning votives makes it almost unbearable.  For the Rom this is a homecoming.  They travel here once a year if they can, but those living further away in other parts of Europe sometimes only make it every few years.  They catch up with family and tears are flowing.  During her festival, those who seek her healing and blessings come to touch her skirts, put scarves around her neck, offer flowers, light candles, and give thanks for miracles and prayers answered in the preceding years. She is paid homage to in the Gypsy Prayer, a copy of which sits framed to the right of her feet. Combined with the intense sounds of the gypsey crooners outside the church, the smell of burning incense and one's own heart, this makes for an intense experience - and all of this before the actual celebrations have even started.

In the crypt of Sainte Sarah
On the feast day a mass in celebration of Sainte Sarah is held early in the morning.  The church is packed full and every bit of standing space is taken.  The overflow of people stand outside in the courtyard and loudspeakers bring the service outside.  The chanting of 'Sante Sarah' at times completely overpower the voice of the priest and there is not a person who does not sing along!  What an experience of intense passion!  The statue of Sainte Sarah is then carried along the main road of the village and down to the sea.  There is a strict hierarchy to the procession.  It is led by the town elders on their white horses, then followed by representative of the various Gypsey tribes and families, then the priest in a motor vehicle and then the various parishes from across Europe who bring their colours and emblems to be blessed.  And then those taking part in the procession.  The procession took four hours to reach the sea - this walk would normally have taken 15 minutes.

The horses are decorated with paint spots

After the statue had been immersed in the sea water, everyone enters the water as it is now sanctified.  As in Hindu traditions, it is an act of purification and sanctification to be washed by the waters of the mother (la mer).
Sante Sarah on her way to the sea

Sara, toi la sainte patronne des voyageurs et gitans du monde entier,
tu as vécu en ce lieu des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Tu es venue d'un lointain pays au-delà des mers.
J'aime venir te retrouver ici, te dire tout ce que j'ai dans le Cœur,
te confier mes peines et mes joies.
Je te prie pour tous les membres de ma famille et tous mes amis.
Sara, veille sur moi!

(Sara, patron saint of travelers and gypsies the world over, you who lived in this region of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. You came from a far-away country from across the seas. I love to come and find you here, to tell you all that I have in my heart and in you confide my sorrows and joys. I pray to you for everyone in my family and all my friends. Sara, come to me!)


  1. Another outstanding post! I always wanted to be a gypsy when I grew up. Who knows, it might happen yet! I love seeing Mary in all of her godly forms and cultures!

  2. I find this enchanting. This type of adoration could unite different beliefs. That would be a true miracle, I think.


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