Vailankanni – Lourdes of the East

At times few things happen, when these are least expected.

That’s what happened on the evening of February 19, 2010. We were on way back from our company’s ATM manufacturing plant after the third and final day of the grueling session of the so called ‘kick off” to our abode at “Nalla Echo Beach Resort” at Puducherry (many people still call it Pondicherry). The day was awfully long, to compensate which the company had planned a gala musical evening at the resort. During the cocktails, I casually mentioned about the Vailankanni Shrine (Meaning: Virgin of Velai, the town), a holy place which a cleric friend from the US had been visiting practically every winter for the last fifteen years. One of the locals told me that it was only 160 km from the resort and the time taken would be around 4 hours. I looked at Vinod Varghese, a close friend, who took a few minutes to arrange a cab for six of us who had consented to undertake an overnight journey (we were supposed to take a flight back home to Delhi on the next day).



After a hearty meal at the resort and some rest, we started at around twelve in the night and passing through Chidambaram, Karaikal and Nagapattinam, reached Vailankanni (also spelt as Vellankani), a small hamlet at the shores of the Bay of Bengal, at four in the morning. The doors to the main chapel normally open at around 6 A.M.

I think before taking you around the shrine, it would be pertinent to say a few words about the brief history of the place as shared by my cleric friend.

As per the tradition, devotion to Our Lady of Good Health of Vailankanni (as the place is popularly known) can be traced to the mid -16th century.

Tradition recounts that a shepherd boy used to carry milk from the small hamlet of Vailankanni to his master at Nagapattinam. One day performing his usual duty, passing by a pond, he felt tired and placed the milk pot near a banyan tree close to the pond and decided to rest for a few minutes. While he was slumbering, our Lady appeared to him and asked for milk for her son and the boy gave her some. The boy reached his master’s home and while apologizing for the delay in reaching, narrated the incident that happened on the way. The master removed the lid from the pot, but was startled to see the pot full to the brim.


(Since photography inside the chapel is strictly prohibited, this is the best we could capture through the glass window)

The bewildered master did not believe the story of the boy but had a feeling that something miraculous had happened and asked the boy to take him to the place where this apparition took place. When they reached the tank, Our Lady appeared again and blessed them.

Back to the town, the wealthy man narrated this incidence to the local catholic community. The ecstatic community erected a thatched chapel for Our Lady at the site of Her second appearance. This chapel became a holy place of veneration to the Blessed Mother. She was henceforth called, Mother of good health. The place began to be called “Matha Kullam” – Our Lady’s tank.

The tradition also recounts that in the 17th century, a Portuguese merchant vessel was caught in a massive storm in the Bay of Bengal. The helpless sailors prayed fervently for Mother Mary, the Star of the Sea to have mercy and save them. They vowed to build a chapel at the place of landing in the name of their savior. The almost wrecked ship landed at the Vailankanni shore. Upon their arrival the local fisherman took them to the thatched chapel. On their return trip to pay obeisance and thank the merciful mother for saving their lives, they built a small permanent chapel, which they kept on improving on their subsequent trips.

With the passage of time, the fame of Vailankanni spread gradually and number of pilgrims to the shrine started increasing.

Vailankanni is also fondly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’ because like Lourdes in France, millions of pilgrims visit the Shrine throughout the year. For around four centuries, the pilgrims have been coming to the shrine praying to Our Lady for various requirements and thanking her for the favors received through her kind mercies.

It’s a common belief that ever since our Blessed Mother set foot on the sacred soil of Vailankanni some 400 years ago, she has been pouring out her tender Motherly care and compassion on all her children, who are tossed about on the sea of suffering and who come to her shrine at Vailankanni seeking her help. That is reason she is revered in Vailankanni as the Mother of Good Health.

The devotions of Our Lady of Vailankanni down through the centuries have proved the Shrine to be of divine origin and has assumed international character. No wonder during our visit, we could find pilgrims of different faiths, caste, creed and nationalities at the shrine.

Location:

Vailankanni is located on the sandy shores of Bay of Bengal – around 350 Kms from Chennai (the closest international airport), 12 kms south of Nagapattinam, the coastal town and as mentioned above, 160 kms from Pondicherry.

With plenty of time at our disposal before the opening of the gates of the Basilica, we had a cup of tea at a small time shack and proceeded for the beach, which was located almost at a stone’s throw. On being told that the old church precincts, which is around a km away from the main church opens at 5 A.M., we decided to spend some time there.


(The map of Tamilnadu and the above local map of Vailankanni have been taken from www.vailankanichurch.org for better understanding of the readers. Our grateful thanks to the publishers)

As seen from the above map, the road leading to the old church is flanked on both the sides by well laid paths with some of the most exquisite sculptures depicting the life of Lord Jesus Christ – path on the left is called “Stations of the Cross”, while the one on the right is called “Stations of Rosary”.

The Stations themselves are usually a series of 14 pictures or sculptures depicting the following scenes:

1.Jesus is condemned to death 2.Jesus is given his cross 3. Jesus falls the first time 4.Jesus meets His Mother 5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross 6.Veronica wipes the face of Jesus 7.Jesus falls the second time 8.Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalam. 9.Jesus falls the third time 10.Jesus is stripped of His garments 11.Jesus is nailed to the cross 12.Jesus dies on the cross 13.Jesus’ body is removed from the cross. 14.Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.

The Stations of Rosary depict the life Lord Jesus Christ and Mother Mary. Some devotees were seen praying with rosaries in their hands.

In between the two stations, there is a path strewn with sand right from the road closer to the Main Church to the Old Church. This is known as the “Holy Path”.


The Holy Path

It was around 4.30 in the morning and we were at least an hour and half away from the sunrise. At this hour of the day, seeing over a dozen devotees crawling on their knees was simply mesmerizing. I think for a normal person it is not easy to take even ten steps in the kneeling position, what to talk of covering a mile long stretch and these devotees were praying and step by step trying to reach the place where the apparition took place. We were told that many of the devotees pass through the holy path for prayers and for thanksgiving after their prayers are answered and wishes fulfilled.

The church spread over a very large area was very well maintained and green with lots of beautiful trees. A home for the Aged, an orphanage, the Mercy Home for the handicapped and a hospital were all situated in that compound. We were told that the church runs a higher secondary school , an English medium school and a girls school nearby.


The Holy Well

We were perhaps one of the first entrants to the main hall of the church. The statue of Our Lady holding an infant and the shepherd boy offering the milk pot to the Mother appeared so live that for a minute we thought that we were almost there at the time of apparition.

By the time we came out of the chapel, the candles selling store had opened. We bought candles and proceeded for the pedestal by the side of another deity of the Mother, smiling and blessing the devotees.

To the dozens of already lit candles, we added our offerings.

At the shrine it was interesting to see the devotees posting letters written to God, asking for some merciful favours or for thanksgiving. It was the first time I saw such a direct contact with the Almighty.

The time for the first Mass at the Main Church was fast approaching. We covered the mile long way back hurriedly and reached on time to be a part of the Mass. On the way, we saw the proposed design for a new chapel, close to the old shrine.

The white storied architecture of the Basilica that loomed in front of us was an extremely beautiful site. Neatly paved stones surrounded the entire basilica. The whole place was kept absolutely clean radiating rays of hope and piety. The Shrine Basilica has three churches – the Main Church, Annex Basilica and the side Church.

There were already more than a thousand devotees and the hall was almost overflowing. Someone guided us to a vacant place close to the altar and we were lucky enough to have a glimpse of the altar and the beautiful paintings on the roof of the chapel.

The main shrine has a large decorative arch built by the Portuguese. The high altar was decorated with rare porcelain plates that illustrated scenes from the Bible. We believe that these were brought by the Portuguese from China. The altar has Our Lady of Health with a child in her arms. She looked so beautiful wearing a red sari. A statue of Jesus Christ was by her side.

The marble altar adds exquisite splendor to the shrine. It was heartening to observe that the ancient porcelain plates and paintings have been very carefully retained in their original beauty.

Although the 6 o’clock mass was a Tamil service, but having attended a few English services, I was able to co-relate a little through the body language of the priest. The accompanying choir singing, the best I had heard anywhere, also came to our rescue.

The mass finished at around 6.45 A.M. We visited the annex basilica which was built in 1975 and is normally used on special occasions like the annual festival. The entrance to the annex basilica was indeed the denotation of a wonderful aesthetic sense. Two long entrances on either side of the basilica lead to the entrance. The Gothic style of architecture was a unique feature of the church.

After our visit to the annexe basilica, we strolled towards the well
stocked shop selling pictures, paintings and mementos related to the shrine. There are a few shops outside the church, where some of us purchased give away mementos. By this time, the bus loads of pilgrims started arriving and the town became busier.

My wish of seeing the famous museum built to house the offerings which the devotees presented to the mother as a token of gratitude for the bountiful blessings they received, remained unfulfilled as we had to reach Puducherry before twelve in the afternoon to join our other office colleagues for boarding a bus, which would take us to Chennai.

To beat the traffic on the narrow road, Alex, our cabby suggested that we have our breakfast on the way at Karaikal, in stead of the favourite joint “Sarvana Bhawan”, located around half a kilometer from the shrine.

On the way he showed us the coastal areas of the worst affected coastal region in the Nagapattinam District, particularly from Nagoore to Vailankanni, as a result of the quake triggered tsunami, which lashed the Nagapattinam coast on December 26, 2004. Besides the large number of casualties, the tsunami caused heavy damage to houses, tourist resorts, fishing boats, soil and crops. We were told that it was only an act of providence that the damage to the shrine was minimal.

The journey to the coastal town of Karaikal, via Nagapattinam was pretty scenic, with the sea giving us the company. The authentic South Indian breakfast served by the small but neat restaurant of Hotel Krishna was perhaps one of the best meals I ever had.

We reached the resort at Puducherry around 12.30, grabbed a quick lunch, boarded the bus and almost half asleep, reached Chennai to take a flight back home.

Before I thank you for visiting, I would like to very humbly submit that I have written this post based on my observations and the things I learnt en route my short visit and being a non-christian, with my very little knowledge of the faith, there could be some gaps/shortcomings in my description, which I pray, may please be ignored.

35 Comments

  • Smita says:

    Simply beautiful! and the beauty lies in how simply you’ve put the emotions and sensibilities of religious travel. We, some of us, the so-called-new lot, find it difficult to relate to this aspect and alienate ourselves further.

    The early morning sky and the white building posing against it look really handsome.

    The impulsive decision to take off for a place 160 km away, especially with a flight to catch the next day, is really commendable, gutsy and needs kudos! (but please avoid night driving the next time) That’s the truest deepest originalest Ghumakkar spirit, so cheers to that!

    …wow!

  • Doli says:

    Thank you for this wonderful write up on your visit. I have always wanted to go there and this helps me so much to plan for a visit.

  • shaguna says:

    Very nicely written article. I’m not sure if i’ll ever be able to visit this place, but now i know so much about a place i had never even heard of. Thanks a lot :)
    And thanks to Ghumakkar for making this possible!

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Smita for your very sweet words.

    Although we religiously practice the dictum “No driving in the night”, as explained in the post, this was an instant decision since there was no other choice.

    Our cabby warned us that coming to Vailankanni sometimes becomes addictive. It could be true, as I already see myself planning another visit to the shrine in the coming winters, when I would try to visit Chidambram Temple, Auroville and may be Rameshwaram.

  • Thanks Ram Uncle for enriching us with this beautiful written account of your visit to “Our lady of good health” at Vailankaani.

  • Deepak says:

    Ram Saab,
    We visit Vellankani almost every year, so extremely close to my heart. Your depiction is so wonderful that it upholds every aspect of the place as well as the “Mother” of the place. When you say you have missed seeing the museum, your are absolutely right. It fills you with so much of awe to see the countless thanksgivings & the innumerous blessings.
    Best Regrads
    Deepak

  • Nandan says:

    Ghumakkar was missing the kind of ‘thorough and complete account’ for a while. Welcome back again, I hope you broke the hiatus for good.

    I have not even heard of this place before and after reading your log, it feels as if I just came back from here.

    Write more as you find time. Ghumakkar has been missing you.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Deepak,

    What a pleasure hearing from you and thanks for such sweet words.

    You must be one of the luckiest persons to visit the shrine on frequent intervals. I have been wanting to visit Vailankanni for many years. This year Our Lady was kind enough to give me an opportunity (rest you would have read in the post). The joy of being there, just can not be put into words.

    Warm regards.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Nandan,

    Needless to say that I have been missing ghumakkar immensely.

    I am happy to be back home.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Manish, Shaguna, Doli: I am extremely grateful to you for your sweet words. Good to be back amongst you all.

  • Aditya says:

    Very well narrated. The best thing about your stories is that it gives the complete background and knowledge about the place with your travelogue.

    Thanks for sharing. Glad to see you back in action.

  • RT says:

    I have always known that there is a very important place by this name in Tamilnadu, going by the numbers of buses with Vailankani as destination, when in Chennai back in time.

    I caught many other buses which took me to Trichy, Puduchery, Kanchipuram, Tirutani, etc but could not catch the buses to this place. I remained curious.

    So I thank you so much for taking me on a guided tour of the reverred land of Vailankani. Hope to visit many places with you.

  • chicmagnet says:

    Don’t know if visiting the place makes it additive, but your surely made me want to visit Vailankanni soon. Loved the pics, especially of the Annex basilica.

  • Dinesh Sharma says:

    RAM Sir,
    This again the nicely written review about Vellankani. I completely agree with Nandan that we all were missing you from last few months. Yours writing ability is tremedous ” Seriously” I mean it, yours articles makes the places so beautiful and always enhance the tempetations towards that.

    Keep up this good work Sir.

  • Roop says:

    Really beautiful! Lot of details..Nice one..made me nostalgic :)

  • Gaurav Chopra says:

    Dear Ram Saheb,
    What a beautiful narrative !!! I felt as if I was there my self. Your style of writing is truly beutiful and lucid.
    Keep it up. Looking forward to mre articleasn travelogues from you.
    And as in the Johnnie Walker’s advertisement,
    Keep Walking …..
    Warm regards
    Gaurav

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Aditya, RT, Chicmagnet, Dinesh ji, Roop: I am extremely grateful to you all for your very kind and generous remarks.

    Gaurav: Your Johnnie Walker comment did amuse me. Keep walking — Ahm and make it large.

  • tiger says:

    thank you for coming back and writing. through this, many of us have discovered another place to visit in India. such is the beauty and humility of your writing that one almost feels touched by some kind of faith.

    thank you once again.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Tiger,

    I am deeply touched by your very kind words.

    I too am very happy to be back home.

    May God Bless you.

  • Rajiv Gupta says:

    Sir

    Excellent article … it seems to the reader as if he is there with you in the journey .. loved reading it

    Rajiv

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Dear Rajiv ji,

    I am overwhelmed by your very sweet words.

    I know your writing prowess and would be happy if you share your knowledge and experiences at this site.

    Warm regards.

  • monicasaurabh says:

    Respected Sir,
    This write up can not be given any rating as it is much above the ordinary. I have been a student of English Lit. but never had the occasion to read stuff after entering Law (and marriage of course). This was a journey which can’t be described in words. I just visited the holy place with you and purified my soul as well.

    :) great work

    Hope to read much more.

    MonicaSaurabh

  • Ram says:

    Monica,

    I am totally overwhelmed by your very kind words.

    Thanks and keep on visiting us.

  • RENJITH KUMAR says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    I have been talking about the areas every day in the office. This comes under my operational area… Heard about Velankani several times.. but once run through the details and the way its explained really entered into my heart…. next target is to visit this place ASAP….

    keep writing.. your kerala visit is still pending… much more to explore in the region…

    with love
    jith

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Renji,

    I am glad that the post was to your liking.

    Yes, my visit to Kerala is long overdue. I want to visit the Ashram and shall be grateful if you would find out from Amma’s schedule, the exact dates of her holy presence at the Ashram. It would be prudent to visit the Ashram during those days.

    Take care.

  • Malar says:

    Ram sir,

    The way you have presented is really awesome.

    People who have never visited this holy place will definitely be eager to go there and experience the same.

    There is a movie in Tamil on this wherein they have captured all the miracles happened here.

    Thanks for such a detail note

    Regards
    Malar

  • Terence D'Souza says:

    Dear Ram,
    God gifted you with the ability to translate thoughts and experiences into words like very few people can. You don’t have to post script that you are a non-Christian. I go to Church but how ‘Christian’ I am, is worth measuring up against wonderful people like you (& most of us do not match up anywhere near you!). The Holy Spirit has given you this quality of utterance and we are blessed & privileged to have the pleasure of reading your articles; no matter if they are in the context of travel or religion or music or literature. Thank you for taking me on a trip to Vellankani through your article. As promised, we shall make a trip together with Marie & Madhu, God willing.
    Lots of love and prayers for your continued good health and happiness. Affly, Terry.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Dear Terence,

    Your very kind words have deeply touched my heart and soul to the hilt.

    I do not know,if you are aware that caught in the web of “Fikre Duniya”, I had virtually gone into a sort of literary hibernation for over an year. The evening of February 19 during my first ever visit to Pondicherry, was just the usual stuff. Suddenly at 9.00 P.M. my query, amidst the loud music and the tinkling of the glasses, to a local about the Valenkanni Shrine, was probably pre-destined. After three days hectic schedules, rather than enjoying the cocktails and dance, someone was quietly making arrangements for the overnight trip to the shrine. Looks like it was a call from the Holy Mother and the six of us were on our way to the shrine at midnight.

    Our timing of reaching the shrine, as explained in the post, was perfect. We had amazing ‘Darshan” at the old shrine and were able to attend the early morning mass too and despite our last minute arrival at the church where over a thousand pilgrims were already seated, our getting a place close to the altar, was nothing short of a blessing.

    Holy Mother’s mercies did not stop there. Immediately upon reaching Delhi, I was inspired to put up my humble submission on the shrine and was happily merrily back with my “ghumakkar family”, which I have been missing for over an year.

    I do not know, what people may call it, but to me it looked like a merciful act of providence.

    Thank you once again for your most encouraging words.

  • Pawan Anand says:

    I visited Chidambram Temple and Auroville few years back but Velankani was not on my radar that time. Thanks to your article, I could catch up with the missing part. Excellent narrative.

  • Munnabhai says:

    wow what a story. the structures / architecture looks alien.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Your kind words are very comforting, Munnabhai.

  • Sameer Kumar says:

    Hats off to you on this meticulous write off. This is simply amazing and reminds me of explanations of hindi poetry in 10th std. “Kavi ne apni bhavnawo ko itna sajiw roop se chitrit kiya ki yu pratit hota hai hum ussi sthan par vicharan kar rahe hon” I wonder why dont you start writing. Sir you reminded me of Amitabh Ghosh with your writing.

    With due respect, well done sir !!

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Sameer,

    I am extremely grateful to you for your very kind and encouraging words.

    Please do keep on visiting and enrich us with your views.

    Warm regards and God’s blessings.

  • please pray for my solution of my financial problem .and peace in family

  • Dilshan says:

    Love the Article………

    Good job.

  • Nicolas says:

    Nice I love this place

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