There is a hushed silence, here in the Shrine of Sainte Sara la Kali, but that does not mean you are alone. This place, revered by the Roma, is filled with the presence of those who have visited and those who have yet to arrive.
Romani Rise boasts a replica of the genuine sanctuary of Black Sara, the original crypt being found in the Church at Saintes Maries de la Mer on the Ile de la Camargue, France, at the mouth of the Rhone River. Every year, thousands of Gypsies undertake a pilgrimage to Sainte Sara's crypt. Until 1912, only the Rom had the right to enter the sacred haven, but now it is open to all. So, have no fear wanderer...you will not be subject to the evil-eye by setting foot upon this hallowed ground.
To the left, as you enter, you will see an old altar...the pagan altar that some believe was once used to sacrifice bulls in the worship of Mithra, but this has never been proven. In the center, there is the Christian altar, erected in the Third Century...and, to the right, the statue of beloved, miracle-working, Sainte Sara la Kali. Upstairs in the Church, are the altars of Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe, mothers of Saints James and John, but the crypt housing the effigy of Sara is perceived by the Roma as "Our Mother's Womb," and she is associated with Kali of India, the mother-goddess of the Gypsy homeland. She is thought of as a wise woman, imparting secret knowledge. The female Rom are particularly known to have access to veiled vision and Sara represents this gift. She is clothed in real outfits, which are constantly changed, and stands upon a black rock, often swathed with tapestry, at normal height so that her devotees may easily kiss her face.
Although no flowers are associated with the worship of Sara, she is surrounded in the darkness by hundreds of candles. A small wooden monument beside her statue holds letters attesting to her miracle-workings and a variety of little shoes. The abandoned crutches and metal braces of children are laid behind her on the rock wall...testaments to the divine healing powers of Sainte Sara la Kali.
Despite their reputation as an incredibly chauvanistic people, when it comes to religion, the Roma preference appears to be veneration of the female, rather than the male. Sainte Sara of the Gypsies varies in many respects from the Saint Sara of the Catholic Church, the major difference being that Sara la Kali has never been conferred sainthood by that Catholic body.
The first historical mention of Sara is found in a text written in 1521 by Vincent Philippon entitled, The Legend of the Saintes-Maries. Its hand-written pages now reside at the library in Arles. In this version of the tale, Sara lived and traveled through the Camargue, providing for the needs of a small Christian community. Apparently, the practice of begging for alms undertaken by Sara gave early authors a good reason to make her a Gitane, but in all truth, she is an enigma which is difficult to solve and the accounts of her origin, to the say the least, are mercurial.
According to one narrative, Sara was an Egyptian by birth and came to Palestine as the maidservant of Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe (identified by various sources as both the relatives of Mary Magdalene and the aunts of Jesus Christ). While the three women were journeying by sea a few years after the Crucifixion, they encountered a severe storm and Sara guided the occupants of the vessel, by means of the stars, to the far distant shore.
In another legend...and many say a much more interesting one, especially to the Roma...Sara was a Gypsy, camped on the shore when the boat in question approached. The telling from that point, according to Franz de Ville (Tziganes, Brussels 1956), is as follows:
"One of our people who received the first Revelation was Sara the Kali. She was of noble birth and was chief of her tribe on the banks of the Rhone. She knew the secrets that had been transmitted to her....The Rom at that period practiced a polytheistic religion, and once a year they took out on their shoulders the statue of Ishtari [Astarte] and went into the sea to receive benediction there. One day Sara had visions which informed her that the Saints who had been present at the death of Jesus would come, and that she must help them. Sara saw them arrive in a boat. The sea was rough, and the boat threatened to founder. Sara threw her dress on the waves and, using it as a raft, she floated towards the Saints and helped them reach land."Other stories have been equally proposed: that Sara was an Egyptian Abbesse of a large convent in Libya; that she figured prominently among a group of Persian martyrs with the two Saintes Maries (previously mentioned) and Sainte Marthe, who arrived in Gaule by ship; and, citing an apocryphal text from the Eleventh Century, that Sara (together with two Saintes Maries and Sainte Marthe) discovered the empty tomb of Christ and left with the Apostles to spread the news of the Resurrection.
Yet another tradition, prevalent throughout the Provencal district of France where Sainte Sara's crypt is located, describes the early Christian figures of Mary, "Sister of the Virgin," and Mary, "Mother of Saint James and Saint John," together with their "black servant" Sara and others, who miraculously escaped persecution in Judea around the Year 40 and landed in Saintes Maries de la Mer in a frail craft. Their relics were put into a local oratory which was replaced in the Twelfth Century by the present fortified church.
So, exactly how did this French village, the site where pilgrims have prayed since well before the French Revolution, come to be the resting place of the Gypsy patron saint? The chronicles vary...you are free to make your own decision. The Roma themselves do not question Sara's authenticity.
Part of the pilgrimage celebration of the Roma in Saintes Maries de la Mer takes place annually on during the last third of May. On the first morning, a great procession, escorted by gardians riding white horses, winds its way through the narrow streets to the sea, where the plaster statue of Sainte Sara, carried by specially chosen men, is symbolically submerged. This frail memorial, blackened by the smoke of the candles in her crypt, is draped in bright, new robes for the occasion, while the Gitans sing hymns and shout, thousands-upon-thousands of times, "Vive Sainte Sara!"
The cortege, which follows the next day in honor of the two Marys, is more of a local Provencal festival, with Gypsy participation, and offers the Roma an important opportunity to renew family and social contacts, discuss any potential bethrothal and, possibly, conduct a piece of business. The faithful, however, arrive in droves a full week preceding the days of celebration and make evening visits to the fortified chapel, accompanied by violins and guitars. Each person adds a candle to the multitude of tapers already lit within the shrine. Notes with intentions are placed near the statue, as are the linens and clothing of children, humble jewels and naive messages. Catechism is taught in the caravans and heartfelt conversations are commonplace. Many Gitans use the sojourn to hold a family assembly and as a time to baptize their infants in the sanctified Church of Saintes Maries de la Mer.
Before departing this place and following the chirrup of the Pied Wagtail to the vardos which await,
to either transport you along "The Open Road" or carry you to the gaiety of "Appleby Fair,"
you might wish to light your own candle in honor of Sainte Sara la Kali. It will certainly do no harm
and may provide you with some manner of security during your visit to Romani Rise. Not that there
is any need to be apprehensive, of course...but a little Gypsy Luck is not to be sneezed at and such
a promise of potential good fortune can surely never go amiss.