Vineyard of life | Sunday Observer

Vineyard of life

For decades Nelli crush, the sweet green beverage has sustained its position as the refreshing drink of the Northern Province. Its liquid green visual is soothing to the human eye. I have been quite a fan of this drink and set off to Jaffna this past weekend to discover the deep spiritual roots of this drink- which has defined the cultural identity of the Tamil people of the North.

Travelling from Palaly one encounters the tall palmyrah trees, scattered in clusters in this somewhat dry frontier. As our vehicle reaches Achuvely we stop and ask an old man where the Rosarian Monastery is. He points ahead. Shortly we arrive at Amalaivanam. As we walk towards the monastery the image of a cross rises from a small chapel. Soon a Catholic priest clad in white cassock comes to greets us, “God bless you son, please come in,” and ushers us to a verandah.

Fr. Jeban is the third priest of the Rosarian Order I have met. On my previous visit to Jaffna in 2016 I met Fr. George and Fr. Vincent along the roadside leading to the Archbishop’s House. Fr. Jeban is delighted when we tell him that we travelled from Colombo to visit this sacred abode, and his face lightens up with a radiant smile. He points towards the right side of the hall and shows us the black and white photo of the late Rev.Fr. Thomas OMI, the founder of the contemplative Rosarian Order in 1928.

It was in 1930 that the prudent priest decided to try his hand at making nelli crush. I believe he has mastered the recipe and the process which is used today.

As we are engaged in conversation a motorbike makes its way into the compound. Its rider is Fr. Dennis, and we shake hands. Fr. Jeban says, “Making nelli crush for us is a sacred duty, we don’t want to make it a large scale commercial industry. We only make a profit to sustain our monastery”.

The 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 gunny bags of nelli. The present master of brewing this sacred fruit juice is Fr. Rajeshwaran.

We walk towards the production house to meet him. The first impression of him is somewhat contrasting- the fact that he is clad in T-Shirt and trousers, with the build of a gladiator. I soon realize that this is from his long years of faithful labour.

He explains to us the process of making nelli juice, all done by hand. The nelli is boiled in a large iron cauldron (the cauldron is positioned about 5 feet from the ground and heated by a furnace below). It looks directly below to a marble tank which houses another massive cauldron that holds the hot liquid.

The nelli juice is collected in barrels and fermented for 3 months. Thereafter, the robust clergy adds liquid glucose to enhance its flavour. The entire room is filled with a natural sweet aroma.

Fr.Jeban invites us to try a glass of Tholagattynelli crush. He goes onto explain ‘We rise at 5 am each day. We spend an hour in prayer and meditation. This is followed by an hour of Holy Mass and adoration at the chapel. Our motto is oraetlabora- pray and work. There are 14 Rosarain monks in the Northern Province.” The nelli is gathered from various areas including, Tholagattey and Vavuniya.

The refreshing green drink is a favourite among schoolchildren, adults and soldiers stationed in the North. Fr. Jeban was quick to point out the kindness shown to them by Major. General Dharshana Hettiarachchi, Security Forces Commander- Jaffna.

As we are ready to leave I walk into the chapel. On the altar are written in Latin the words, “Hoc Estenim- Corpus Meum” which are the words of Jesus “This is my body”. The words capture the physical sacrifice of these hard working priests. As we board our vehicle Fr. Jeban asks us to visit the Rosarian Community of Sisters who live about 600 meters away.

As we park and walk towards the Community of Sisters we see a small brass bell. A solitary nun attired in blue is sweeping the garden. She is mildly hesitant at our intrusion, as this is a contemplative Order of Nuns. Soon she engages us in friendly conversation.

Sister Thavarani has spent 25 years at Achuvely, after studying 5 years in a seminary. There are 14 other nuns with her, who all contribute by manual labour to produce wine. The sister in charge of wine making, Sister Baptist is not in. The pious nuns use grapes from the vineyard behind the convent to make the wine.

The vineyard was supposedly planted by Indian priests, decades ago. Each barrel can hold 50Kg of grapes. The local wine is sold at Rs 400/ a bottle. The sisters take turns to maintain a prayer vigil throughout the day. As we enter their beautiful chapel painted in blue, the clear voice of a young nun in prayerful adoration, shows the commitment of this religious Order. In addition to wine making they have a poultry which provides them with eggs.

As we leave Achuvely we are challenged by the simple and happy life of these clergy.

Pix: N. Timothy