Spirituality, taste and labour: The story of Jaffna’s nelli crush | Daily News


Spirituality, taste and labour: The story of Jaffna’s nelli crush

The following narrative is a combination of three visits to the tranquil village of Achchuveli made between 2016 and 2019. The name of the village has its own historic tale. The family of the late linguist and scholar Rev. Fr. Gnanapragasar had influenced the art of printing in this village, and ‘Achchuveli’ is derived from the Tamil (and Sinhalese) word ‘atchu’ meaning ‘print’. A printing press had been here for decades. There is a statue of this priest in the garden of St. Joseph’s Church. However, my focus was directed to another priest, the late Rev. Fr. B.A. Thomas and his mission for the Catholic community.

My quest to trace the legend of Fr. Thomas began with a glass of nelli crush, served by my friend Terry, a senior well versed in Northern culture. One might wonder what connection a sweet beverage has with a departed priest. This is the amazing story of spiritual awakening, innovation and faith.

Since 1930, this humble drink has come to be part of the cultural identity of Northern folk. On my first visit, I boarded bus number 751 at the Jaffna main bus stand. The curious

Tomb of Rev Fr B. A. Thomas

conductor quickly identified me as a “Colombo person” and engaged me in friendly conversation. All around were palmyrah trees, scattered in clusters. I got off the bus at Achchuveli after 35 minutes and hailed a three-wheeler driven by a middle-aged man whose teeth were stained red by chewing betel.

I asked to be taken to the Catholic ashram (monastery) where I was welcomed by Fr. Jebathasan. Within minutes another priest, Fr. Dennis served me a glass of nelli crush. Fr. Dennis pointed towards the right side of the verandah where a portrait of the late Rev. Fr. B. A. Thomas, OMI, was visible. Both clergymen took turns to explain to me the life and work of this outstanding priest, to whom we owe the recipe for nelli crush.

Life of Fr. Thomas

Today the name of late Fr. B.A. Thomas is spoken with veneration by the Catholics of the Northern Province. Rev.Fr. Thomas had carried his cross and won his crown. Bastiampillai Anthony was born on March 7, 1886, in Pandianthalvu, Jaffna. His father was a building contractor. It is said that shortly after birth, the infant was taken ill and many thought he would die. Yet the grace of God was already on young Anthony. He began his schooling at St. Charles School and later at St. Patrick’s College, one of the premier boys’ schools in Jaffna.

One of the foreign clergymen at the school, Rev. Fr. Maingot had a huge influence on Anthony. After completing his education, Bastiampillai Anthony passed the Government Clerical Service Exam. However, he decided to serve God and joined St. Martin’s Seminary in 1904. He was often afflicted with illness, but remained faithful to his calling. He then joined St. Bernard’s Seminary in Borella, Colombo. He was subsequently ordained as a priest in April 1912 at the Jaffna Cathedral.

A glass of refreshing nelli crush

In 1926, Pope Pius XI made a request to establish Contemplative Orders in all the mission regions. Bishop Guyumor knew that the best priest for the task in Ceylon was Fr. B.A. Thomas. The request of the Vatican was made known and Rev. Fr. Thomas accepted this challenge with humility and faith. An abandoned presbytery at Tholagatty was allocated to him. After three months of prayer, Rev. Fr. Thomas along with six young men established the Rosarian Congregation on February 2, 1928. The Brothers lived a simple life with a vegetarian diet. The religious congregation was accepted and canonical recognition was given by the Bishop in August 1934. Hence, Fr. Thomas created history as the first Sri Lankan priest to establish a Contemplative Order, a fact that is obscured today.

From this small monastery in Jaffna, by divine providence, he established three monasteries in India, in the regions of Tuticorin, Tiruchirapalli (both in South India) and Ambikapur (in North India). The lifestyle of unity and faith spread and requests were made to begin an order for women. In 1948, the Contemplative Rosarian Sisters was established in Vasavilan, Jaffna.

By 1964, the health condition of Rev.Fr. Thomas began to decline and he lived at Bishop’s House, Jaffna. The amiable apostle of Achchuveli was called to his eternal rest on January 26, 1964. The Rosarian Order had lost its dynamic founder. It is recorded that the funeral route was filled with thousands of people who had come to salute this humble priest. Jaffna had lost her pious son. He was declared a ‘Servant of God’ by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. His beatification process has been initiated.

Nectar of heaven

Fr. Jebathasan explained, “It was in 1930 that Fr. Thomas decided to try his hand at making nelli crush. He had mastered and perfected the recipe. Making nelli crush for us is a sacred duty. We only make a reasonable profit to sustain our monastery.” Decades ago, the green gardens of Tholagatty were full of nelli trees. Today nelli is also collected from other places to supplement the demand.

Rev Fr B.A. Thomas

The present custodian of brewing is Fr. Rajeshwaran. I immediately noticed his hands were calloused by years of faithful work. He invited me to watch the monks engage in their work. The entire process is done by hand. Fr. Rajeshwaran explained, “Our nelli is harvested and stored for a few weeks. The season for the best yield is in February and March. Each tree can give up to 20 sacks of nelli. The nelli is boiled in a large iron cauldron (the cauldron is heated by a furnace below). After cooling, the nelli juice is collected in barrels and fermented for three months. We add liquid glucose to enrich its flavour.”

Fr. Jebathasan emphasised the greater role of their mission: “We rise at 5.00 am daily. We spend an hour in prayer. This is followed by Holy Mass at the chapel. Our motto is ora-et-labora which is Latin for ‘pray and work’.” During one season of each year, these hardworking priests produce a pomegranate-based juice. This juice has now become famous in Colombo, especially for pregnant women. Accompanied by some priests, I walked into the chapel. On the altar are written the Latin words, “Hoc Estenim Corpus Meum” which are the words of Jesus: “This is my body”- in reference to communion. Having made my first contact with the Rosarian monks, I returned to Colombo.

Women of faith

On my second visit to Jaffna with Timothy Nanthagopal, we visited Achchuveli to meet the Rosarian Community of Sisters in Vasavilan. We reached the convent and a nun attired in a blue habit opened the gate. Like their male counterparts, these religious women engage in manual work. Helped by a few laborers, they tend the vineyards. We were mesmerised to see a lush vineyard in Jaffna. The vines were full of succulent grapes. The nun in charge of producing wine is Sister Baptist. She explained, “The vines were supposedly planted by Indian priests, decades ago. We harvest the grapes. Each barrel can hold 50kg of grapes. We use a method passed down to us from our seniors. The local wine is sold by the bottle.”

The sisters take turns to maintain a prayer vigil throughout the day. As we entered their beautiful chapel, we saw a young nun in prayer. In addition to wine making, they have a poultry barn which provides them with eggs. A few elderly nuns were collecting the eggs.

On my next visit to Jaffna, I found time to go to the Mother House of the Rosarian Order in Jaffna. Located on Temple Road, it is a famous venue for prayer. There is a large grotto on the right side of the garden. Here I met two young priests, Fr. Vincent and Fr. George. A separate room displays photographs of the founder Fr. B.A. Thomas, alongside his tomb. The life and mission of these men and women of God has impacted generations of Christians. I close with a quote from Fr. Thomas: “There is nothing by chance or accident. That is the human way of seeing things. Everything is planned by God from eternity.”

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