Making Mary: Hinduism, Roman Catholicism and spirit possession in Tamil Nadu, south India

Author: 
Bloomer, Kristin C.
Year: 
2008

     This dissertation is an ethnography of Marian possession in Tamil Nadu, south India. Specifically, I consider the discourses and practices of two women who believe they are possessed by Mary, the mother of Jesus, and who enact healing rituals and other wonders in that state. Working in the interpretive traditions of anthropology and the history of religions, I pay close attention to these two women, their families, and the devotional communities connected to them, while attending to questions of agency, subjectivity, gender, and the body. I also investigate questions of conversion and embodiment in the Marian pilgrimage site of Velankanni after the 2004 Asian Tsunami. I have set the dissertation in the context of a larger pattern of Marian devotion in contemporary Tamil Nadu, in which devotion to Mary appears to be on the rise among Catholics and Hindus alike.
     I have focused on the stories of two women in the city of Chennai - Rosalind, a single mother, and Nancy, a young unmarried woman who started to become possessed by Mary about a month after meeting Rosalind. Because they and other people in the region who claim possession by Mary define themselves as Roman Catholic, I set the dissertation within the historical context of Roman Catholicism in Tamil Nadu. I explicitly consider contemporary official (priestly orthodox) Roman Catholic discourses and practices related to possession and understandings of divinity as well as contemporary non-official, popular discourses and practices related to these matters.
     Given the social and cultural context in which these discourses and practices reside, and given the history of Roman Catholicism in Tamil Nadu, I also examine discourses and practices that generally are not considered Roman Catholic, but that are still locally available to these Tamil women - so available that they are part of the very air that they breathe. I am referring here to discourses and practices generally understood to be Hindu and/or Tamil but not Roman Catholic - that is, local Hindu Brahmanical and indigenous discourses and practices regarding deities, spirits, and the interaction between this spirit world and that of human persons.

Advisor(s): 
Doniger, Wendy, Tanner, Kathryn
Department: