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India's Velankanni shrine welcomes millions of pilgrims each year

Local shrines play an especially important and visible role in Indian Catholic towns, and parish feasts can attract visitors from some distance. In addition to these many local sites, there are several important pilgrimage sites that draw pilgrims from a distance. The most important of these is Our Lady of Velankanni (or Vailankanni), an enormous basilica shrine referred to by many Indians as the "Lourdes of the East," which is said to draw millions of visitors a year, especially at Christmas and during the shrine's feast in the nine days leading up to September 8. Pilgrims come in parish groups or as families, to make or fulfill vows, to offer penance or seek a miracle, or simply, as many say, to "find peace" and to connect with "mother Mary."

Located on the coast on Bay of Bengal, this shrine is believed to have been the site of three 16th century miracles, one involving the Virgin sparing the life of sailors at sea, another involving appearance of the Virgin to a shepherd boy, and the third involving a cure of a lame buttermilk seller. Velankanni is "Our Lady of Health," and devotees claim that miracles from her continue today. Like most Indian shrines, there is a "museum" of gifts and plaques left behind as offerings to attest to miracles received there. Silver ex-votos there symbolize healing of hearts, eyes, legs and more. Stethoscopes with notes thank the Virgin for help passing medical school exams, and a small silver airplane accompanies a thank you note for passing a pilot's exam. Many small replicas of houses thank her for help finding a house, and pictures and silver cradles give thanks for a suitable marriage or for the birth of a child. One woman interviewed at the shrine, a frequent visitor, said she witnessed to an occasion when an elderly lame woman was able to get up and walk, and another time when a deaf girl had an apparition and was able to hear again.

The shrine is a large compound, anchored by a basilica church complex about .5 km from the sea. In the front of the basilica church is the shrine of Our Lady of Velankanni, where pilgrims bring candles, flowers, and other symbols as offerings.  Behind that are large chapels for Masses. A sand path, a little more than .5km long, runs between the basilica and Our Lady's Tank Church, the site of one of the appearances of the Virgin and a place where pilgrims go for holy water. Along the path, which is lined by Stations of the Cross and Stations of the Rosary, some devotees crawl the full distance on their knees in acts of penance or self-offering. A huge, new "Morning Star" church has been erected along the path enabling the shrine to absorb the large number of pilgrims at Christmas and on feasts. The complex also features a round Adoration church and a parish church, gardens, convents, dozens of biblical and Marian dioramas, meeting places, a counseling center, a marriage bureau, and a secondary school. The church operates 13 large pilgrim hostels and dormitories, and there are many hotels nearby for pilgrims as well.

Along the street in front of the basilica is a tonsure hall, where boys and young men often have their heads shaved as a sign of submission to the Virgin. Tonsure can serve as an act of penance, a dedication of a child to a saint for protection, or a gift of thanksgiving to honor some great favor received, such as a marriage, a child, a house or an educational opportunity. The practice is common inside Hindu temples for the same purposes.

A. Maria Arul Raja describes the pilgrimages to the feast at Velankanni:

"During August-September, many pilgrims across the entire Taminadu undertake pilgrimages, a majority on foot, to the shrine of Velankanni. They make it to visit Mother Mary there either on the day of flag-hoisting or of the car procession on her birthday, September 8th. For this pilgrimage, the devotees prepare themselves with 40 days of intense prayer and penance. Long hours of prayer, community singing, and abstention from sex, meat, arrack and smoking are rigorously followed. A large majority of the pilgrims choose to stay in the local chapels that are conducive to such practices. Sacred clothes in saffron, green and black colors blessed by the local elders or parish priests and the Rosary to be worn throughout the season are important at such times. These externals signs...of prayerful communion with the sacred will be ceremoniously ended in Velankanni with holy dip in the sea or the tonsuring of the head, or by intense prayer in surrender in front of the statue of the Mother."1

The area between the shrine and the sea was devastated by the Tsunami that hit the Indian coast the day after Christmas in 2004. The shrine was crowded with pilgrims, and more than 5,000 residents and pilgrims are reported to have been killed. Many faithful struggled over the theodicy of such carnage at a miraculous Shrine, while others saw the survival of the shrine itself as a miracle. Pilgrimage was down after that carnage, but is said to have returned to normal since.

Read More: 

Margaret Meibohm, "Cultural complexity in South India: Hindu and Catholic in Marian pilgrimage" (January 1, 2004). Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.  

  • 1. A. Maria Arul Raja, S.J., "Pilgrimages to Shrines: Subaltern Perspectives," in Vidyajoti Journal of Theological Reflection, 75/1 (January 2011) 39.
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