When we were visiting Tanjore, in Tamil Nadu, India, we took a side trip to the coast to visit Our Lady of Velankanni (alternately spelled Vailankanni) Church, called “The Lourdes of the East” and also “Our Lady of Good Health.” It carries these names because of three miracles that happened associated with the Mother Mary. It was built in the late 16th century. Later, modifications were made by the Portuguese. Velankanni Church of India is a colossal structure, built in the Gothic style of architecture.
Velankanni receives many visitors. The largest crowd is up to 500,000 on September 8 of each year, for the nativity of the Virgin Mary.
We visited as a part of our trip through southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala, shown in this post.
The local tradition talks of the apparitions of Virgin Mary at Velankanni, at least three times. It is seen as a place of healing, and attracts many thousands of visitors, mainly Indians.
As we entered the area, we were greeted by this welcome sign.
In the town there were many hotels and residencies. Below are two.
Driving, we got our first glimpse of the church.
Down a long street we see another church building. This one is round.
There is no parking near the church, so we need to drive through a street lined with shops selling their wares to the many visitors.
Looking back at the entrance to the church.
We drove two blocks to find parking. At the end of this short road is the ocean and a beach. And some squatters’ shacks on the beach. Next to the parking area, a small herd of goats graze. I have never seen goats at the beach before.
We start walking up the street. The Velankanni Church is up ahead.
Here is a mother and child we saw on the street.
This store has candles. But what are the white things hanging down?
These are white wax replicas of body parts. To pray for healing, you get one of these for what needs to be healed, and offer it at the church. One major reason many people come here is to ask for healing.
We get closer to the church.
A number of the stores sell Christian goods — plaques, figurines, etc.
Candles are big items to sell here. Some will be offered in the church, many will be taken to the homes of the purchaser.
In places like Tiruvannamalai, were we live, you will see many stores named for Hindu gods like “Ganesh Medicals.” Here we see stores names after Christian figures, like Mother Teresa.
Even before we get to the church, there are Christian shrines.
Naturally on the altars we see flower malas given as offerings to god, just like you would at any Hindu temple.
We get closer to the church.
The twin Gothic spires are magnificent. The history of the church says that these are about 400 years old, built around the end of the 1600s.
Next to the church is this building.
It houses the priests and the church offices.
Before we enter the church, we stop at the official ‘offerings’ store. We will buy a few candles to light. When I offer the candles later I notice that there is a big bin next to the candles filled with partially burned candles. I guess so many are offered that the priests must have to snuff them out and remove them to make room for new ones.
Below are our taxi driver, Valen, and his new wife, Sathya. We suggested he bring her with him. They never had a honeymoon and live with his mother and family, so have never had any time alone since they were married. We pay their hotel bill and for meals for them.
This sign is at the entrance of the church.
Looking into the church.
I copied the next four photos from the Internet. (http://www.vailankannishrine.org/ Photo gallery) They show the main altar.
Here is the famous figure of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus, as she is said to have appeared in the early miracles.
This picture of Jesus tops the altar.
Below, one of the main spires over one of the altars. Note the fenced walkway. It is where petitioners will come out of the church carrying their offerings and give them to a priest to be offered to Mother Mary. If you have healing that needs to be done, this is where you will give the wax organ model to the priest, so that he may ask for healing from God.
Just outside the fenced walkway is a rack, where many orange-stringed bags hang. These are ‘wish bags,’ just like you will see at Hindu temples. Women will buy a bag, and make a wish (often for a baby, but here probably for healing) and tie it to the rack. If the wish is granted, you are supposed to take a bag off the rack. In a Hindu temple, these are often tied to a temple tree.
One other custom here, again, I think borrowed from Hindus, is fixing a lock to secure a husband.
Inside the offering hall.
The priest will add the flowers to be offered, and put any other items (such as a limb to be healed) into a box in the altar, then say a prayer. The items will be removed from the box then, to make it ready for the next petitioner.
Another photo of spires, this time a central spire and a north facing one. The church is in the approximate shape of a cross with a double bar across it, with the twin spires on the eastern entrance (the main entrance, just like a Hindu temple), the central spire, and spires on the other three cardinal entrances, north, south and west.
Looking into the church on the west side. Here there is an altar dedicated to Jesus.
Here is the west entrance. It has two spires as well, not as tall though, as the two on the east. There are also curving ramps to get up to the second floor entrance.
This is one of the other shrine buildings, built in a circle.
On the way to this building there are a number of images, illustrating key moments in Christianity.
This is the wedding of Cana.
This is the transfiguration of Jesus.
A closer view of the building.
People sleep in the shade of the building.
The ‘Garden of Jordan’ is laid out in a large grass covered area.
There are many figures in the garden, mainly animals, and a few humans. This one looks like a Hindu Sadhu, sitting under an umbrella. I don’t really understand it.
Next to the garden is a grotto with white stone figures. Here is Jesus, healing the sick.
Next is a long building filled with paintings in three dimensional diorama settings. I just photographed a few of these.
This illustrates “God’s Nature.” It shows the Garden of Eden, with the first woman, Eve, tasting the Apple (of the knowledge of good and evil, for which Adam and Eve were thrown, by God, out of the garden of Eden, ever thereafter to toil.).
Here God speaks to the prophet Elijah, “through a sound of sheer silence.’”
“How does Jesus speak to me? I was hungry and you gave me food.”
The following three stories are taken from the Our Lady of Health Vailankanni website. They tell of the three miracles that are the reason for the founding of the church, and its reputation as a site of Mother Mary’s miracles.
“Sometime during the sixteenth century, Our Lady with her infant son appeared to a Hindu boy carrying milk to a customer’s home. While he rested under a Banyan tree near a tank (pond), Our Lady appeared to him and asked for milk for her Son and the boy gave her some. On reaching the customer’s home, the boy apologized for his lateness and the reduced amount of milk by relating the incident that occurred on his way. On inspection, the man found the milk pot to be full and realized that something miraculous had happened. That man, also a Hindu, wanting to see the place where the apparition occurred, accompanied the boy.
“When they reached the tank, Our Lady appeared once again. On learning that it was Our Lady who appeared to the boy, the residents of the local Catholic community became ecstatic. The tank where the apparition took place is called “Matha Kulam” or Our Lady’s tank.”
“Some years later Our Lady appeared again. This time to a crippled boy who was selling buttermilk near a public square on the outskirts of the same village of Vailankanni. She asked him for buttermilk for her infant son and the boy complied. Our Lady asked the boy to inform a certain wealthy Catholic man in the nearby town of Nagapattinam of her appearance. Not realizing that his crippled leg was miraculously cured by Our Lady, the boy rose up and began his journey. The man also had a vision the previous night in which Our Lady asked him to build a chapel for her. Together, the man and the boy returned to the site of the miracle.
This time Our Lady appeared to both. The man erected a thatched chapel for Our Lady at the site of Her second appearance. This chapel became a holy place of veneration to Our Blessed Mother and She was called henceforth, Mother of Good Health (“Arokia Matha”).”
“A few years later, Our Merciful Mother rescued a few Portuguese merchant sailors from a violent storm that wrecked their ship. When the merchants reached the shore of Vailankanni they were taken by local fisherman to the thatched hychapel. To give thanks and pay tribute to Our Lady, they built a small permanent chapel on their return trip. On subsequent visits they improved on it. The merchants dedicated the chapel to Our Lady on September 8th to celebrate the feast of her nativity and to mark the date of their safe landing at Vailankanni.
Today, the celebration of this feast is an annual festival which lasts for 9 days and draws more than a million and a half pilgrims. Vailankanni attracts more pilgrims than any other sacred shrine in India. Not only do multitudes of Catholics travel there throughout the year but many non-Christians visit as well. Hundreds of miraculous cures are reported every year.”
In the front of the building is this dramatic statue of Christ on the Cross.
Here are the two entrances on the south side.
Looking towards the west end of the church.
I just cannot get enough photos of the church and its fantastic 400 year old Gothic architecture.
The main east entrance, from the south side. The red tile roof is clearly visible.
Looking back to the two south entrances.
One last look at the church, then we will walk to the beach.
We see women carrying a child with the head shaved and rubbed with yellow turmeric. Maybe this child had his first haircut, and it was used as a sacrifice for the Church?
And here is an official looking hall where this is done, both Tonsure (head shaving) and Ear Boring (ear piercing). These are major rites of passage for young Indian boys and girls.
Long colorful candles for sale.
Short thick candles for sale.
Carol stopped by a photo parlor, and they let us take this snapshot of Carol standing with Mother Mary in front of Velankanni Church.
Here is a boy getting his head shaved at a barbershop.
We got to the beach. Sathya walked into the surf’s edge.
Valen and Sathya play a bit in the water.
Sathya, Valen and Carol.
Many people are in the water. All of them Indian.
An Indian woman in the water in her saree. Her husband had his head shaved (as a sacrifice for the church).
Sathya again in the ocean.
Now Carol joined her.
Many people stand at the ocean’s edge.
Boys on a beach ride, an auto merry-go-round. Both have their heads shaved. You can see that this is a big tradition for going to this church.
As we leave the town, we pass by the Naduthitu Shrine, at the location where Mother Mary appeared to the crippled (“lam”) buttermilk vendor boy.
Note that this is the only location where one can remove one’s Penitential rosary.
Here is the Naduthitu Shrine. This is another round building, in the same Gothic style as the main church, so I would guess that it was built at the same time.
It was interesting to visit “The Lourdes of the East,” and see the traditions that still are kept at this church. Chief among them is as a place to pray for healing. It seems that this is why many people visit here.
I also like to see Indians at Christian churches and observe how they worship. The traditions of Hinduism never seem far away, but modified a bit to fit better in Christian rituals.
To see more posts that you may be interested in, please look at these links:
Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore)
The Tanjore Palace
Trichy’s famous “Rock Fort” Temple
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Trichy
Kanyakumari – The Southernmost Tip of India
Padmanabhapuram Palace, Magnificent Wooden Palace of Kerala
A Day in Trivandrum, Kerala
Varkala Beach – Fun in the Sun in Kerala
Kathakali – an Evening of Traditional Kerala Dance
Alleppey and the Kerala Backwaters