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Pilgrim's Progress

K.G. Kumar

TRADITIONALLY, pilgrim travellers have been the mainstay of the tourism industry in India. While precise disaggregated figures are difficult to come by, it is likely that the pilgrimage tourism sector still constitutes the chunk of travel nationwide, in terms of the number of travellers, even if not perhaps in terms of total revenue generated.

Thus the recent news that next month will see celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the consecration of the Santa Cruz Basilica at Fort Kochi, is welcome not just from a socio-cultural point of view, but also from the perspective of the travel and hospitality trade.

The Santa Cruz Basilica, one of the oldest churches in India, is among the most historically significant structures in Kerala, adding to the development of Kochi as an important centre of Christian missionary activities in the Indian subcontinent.

When work began on it in May 3, 1505, under the initiative of Francesco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy in India, it was just a church. In 1558, under a decree from Pope Paul IV, Kochi became Kerala's first and India's second diocese. Pope Paul IV raised the Santa Cruz church to the status of a cathedral.

Following the Dutch conquest of Cochin in 1663, most buildings and structures in the area that is now Fort Kochi, were turned into storehouses for goods and weapons. Only two buildings escaped this fate — the St. Francis Church and the Santa Cruz Cathedral.

However, when the British conquered Cochin in 1795, they destroyed the cathedral. It was rebuilt and consecrated on November 19, 1905. Impressed by its historic role, Pope John Paul II raised the cathedral to the status of a Basilica through a special decree in 1984.

The year-long celebrations of the Santa Cruz Basilica, which will start on November 20, will be marked by religious amity meets, family get-togethers and cultural programmes. The organisers would also do well to kick off plans and activities that seek to bring in more visitors to see the basilica, as several towns and tourism development authorities around the world have done with their own similar heritage sites.

Today, for instance, one million tourists visit the Maltese town of Valletta each year, attracted by churches like the Sanctuary Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In Italy, apart from the Sistine Chapel, what lures the throngs year after year is St Peter's Basilica, one of the most gloriously ostentatious displays of papal wealth, as well as a monument to some of Italy's foremost artists and architects, including Michelangelo and Raphael.

In Batangas City, Philippines, the Basilica of Immaculada Conception, built during 1851-1857, is a stunning model of early Rennaissance architecture. In 1946, by a decree of Pope Pious XII, the church was elevated to the `Basilica Minor' of the Infant Jesus, the first basilica to be vested that honour in Far East Asia.

In 1987, the historic centre of Oaxaca in Mexico was officially declared to belong to the Heritage of Mankind by UNESCO. Today, most visitors come to take in the sights of the colonial buildings such as the Basilica of La Soledad, the Church of San Felipe Neri and the Convent of Santa Catalina.

Closer home, the Bom Jesus Basilica at Old Goa has been attracting crowds, especially for the feast of St Francis Xavier in December. Soon, Kochi too may become a must-see destination on the pilgrim's tour calendar.

The writer can be contacted at kgkumar@gmail.com

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