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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.