Velankanni: Where Catholic faith blends with Hindu rituals

A tradition of syncretism: The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health attracts millions of visitors.

A tradition of syncretism: The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health attracts millions of visitors. | Photo Credit: M. MOORTHY

Velankanni in Nagapattinam district means different things to different people. This quaint little town located on the banks of Vellaiyar, a branch of the Cauvery River, harbours numerous churches, each with a unique significance but bound by a common faith in Mother Mary.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health attracts millions of visitors from across the country and beyond, transcending barriers of caste, creed, language, religion and nationality, some drawn by religious beliefs and others by the exquisite architecture.

“Many carry it as a tradition to visit the Shrine, a place of peace and serenity, at least once a year to spend time reflecting on the bygones and refocusing on the future. For others, it is a stunning heritage landmark that boasts of several churches with the most exquisite Gothic-style architecture,” Rev Fr. Irudhayaraj, Rector of the shrine, told The Hindu.

What draws many pilgrims to the centre, devotees claim, is the belief in the power of the visit to the shrine and the solace it offers them. Our Lady of Good Health blesses one with health and prosperity. It is claimed that thousands of devotees from across the globe head to Velankanni to offer prayers when it is time for ‘Novena’.

Attending mass, flag-hoisting and car procession of Mother Mary every day form the routines for the devotees here during the nine-day annual feast from August 29 to September 8. “It also offers them a break from the routine. From the busy life, dedicating nine days of your life to prayer and worship rekindles your hope and meaning in life,” says Jerome Lazarus, a devotee.

Bound By Faith

The church brings together Catholic beliefs and many Hindu rituals, and the denomination respects the vast and intense outpouring of faith expressed using an Indian idiom. For thousands of years, Indians have been familiar with the idea of Amma, or mother-goddess who protects and provides for the village. The shrine is also unique as it is one of the few places where Mary is portrayed wearing an Indian saree.

The pilgrims, who throng the Shrine to express love and gratitude to Mother Mary, follow the Hindu tradition of tonsuring their heads as an offering and perform an ear-boring ceremony. The other common rituals are offering wax replicas of various body parts seeking recovery and healing from ailments, walking on their knees on the sand along the Holy Path reciting the rosary, tying ‘thali’, cradle and locks praying for their intentions.

Dressed in kaavi (a mild shade of yellow or orange), devotees undertake ‘padayatra’ from their home town to the Shrine, especially during the festival. With full of faith, they bathe devoutly in the sea, walk all the way to the church on their knees. Rolling up to the shrine is also considered holy among the rituals.

“Our Lady of Vailankanni heals every wound and wipes away all sufferings. She understands the suffering of humanity,” says Fr. Irudhayaraj.

The Basilica

The Velankanni shrine came into the limelight after the Marian apparitions believed to have taken place here in the 16th Century and the saving of Portuguese sailors in the 17th Century. The first apparition was of a mother with a child who appeared in front of a local shepherd boy who was delivering milk and the second is believed to be to a young boy who was crippled and selling buttermilk.

It is also believed that Portuguese sailors, who were in the middle of a storm, invoked the protection of Mother Mary, and soon the sea became calm and the ship landed in Velankanni on a September 8. Since then, this day, the Nativity of Mary, is celebrated with a great fervour. These apparitions resulted in a shrine that was built to honour Our Lady of Good Health.

The shrine, which started as a thatched chapel in the mid-16th Century, became a parish church in 1771 when Catholics in India were under persecution from the Dutch. In 1962, it was granted the special status of a Minor Basilica by Pope John XXIII.

Several phases of expansion took place with the increase in the number of pilgrims and visitors over the years. Besides the main Basilica and its extensions, there are smaller churches in the vicinity with specific significance. The Naduthitu Church is situated at the beginning of the road leading to the Basilica. This church signifies the place where the lame boy was healed by Mother Mary. It is a symbol of the many miracles that are believed to have taken place here.

From Our Lady’s Tank, known as Matha Kulam, the shepherd boy is believed to have drunk water and Mother Mary appeared to him. This tank has never run out of water since and its water is believed to be holy that devotees consume and carry back home. Holy Path leading to Our Lady’s Tank has beautiful depictions of The Way of the Cross and The Mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

The Adoration and Reconciliation Chapel is a place to spend time in silence and experience tranquillity. The latest addition to this conglomerate of churches is the Morning Star Church. This magnificent church is an architectural marvel and leaves one in awe.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus Statue, a structure that is 56 feet tall, is another wonder in this town. This enormous statue can be seen from across the miles. Another attraction is the church museum, which is dedicated to the miracle that happened in the 16th Century and also has the greatest collection of exhibits imparting immense knowledge about the churches.

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Printable version | Aug 19, 2022 8:31:09 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/velankanni-where-catholic-faith-blends-with-hindu-rituals/article65782944.ece