Sunday, 26 August 2012

A trip to Vailankanni

Vailankanni is the place where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to two poor Indian children over 400 years ago. It is situated on the south eastern coast of India in the state of Tamil Nadu. So popular has this shrine become today that it is known by many as the “Lourdes of the East”. Every year it attracts millions of pilgrims. They come from near and far and from all different walks of life - rich, poor, able and disabled - and from different castes, creeds and religions. This is remarkable in a country where only a small fraction of the population is Christian.

Statue of Our Lady of Vailankanni at Matha Kulam
I had visited Vailankanni before as a young teenager, but I did not enjoy that trip. I was sick at the time and I had little knowledge of Our Lady’s apparitions in Vailankanni.  However, in recent years, having learnt more about the events associated with Our Lady of Vailankanni, I decided to make another trip there with my wife and daughter on our next visit to India. How would it compare to other more famous Marian shrines like Fatima and Lourdes?

Just as in Fatima and Lourdes, Mary appeared to two poor young children, bereft of great talents and well acquainted with suffering. These were the chosen instruments by which God decided to act. Initially only a small thatched chapel stood at the site of Mary’s second apparition. Then with the arrival of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors - fervent believers in Mary – the thatched chapel was replaced by a modest brick chapel. In the twentieth century the chapel was extended further, and in 1962 it was finally raised to the exalted status of a Minor Basilica by Pope John XXIII. Thus the shrine gained implicit approval from the Church for the apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

Matha Kulam

Our Lady's Tank Church
It was a long overnight journey by bus across the breadth of Southern India to Vailankanni from Kerala. We arrived at 5.30am on the first Saturday of August. After checking into our hotel, where we rested for a while and breakfasted, we started our tour of the shrine. It was a warm sunny morning. We walked along a narrow road to Matha Kulam (“Our Lady’s Tank”) where Mary first appeared. I saw small houses and nondescript buildings, and we passed some untethered goats along our way. One could sense that poverty was still a reality of the area alongside the hotels, restaurants and shops.

At Matha Kulam there was a small church, known as Our Lady’s Tank Church, built over the site of the first apparition to a shepherd boy. Once there had been a pool here, and the water drawn from this place is still believed to the source of many miraculous cures. There was a store where people could buy holy water, holy oil and candles. I could see there was a lot of demand for these things.

Holy Path & pilgrims

The Holy Path with some pilgrims crawling on their knees
As we walked down the Holy Path that led to the basilica, I saw some pilgrims crawling on their knees in the sand. This act of penance I have also seen in Fatima. Some pilgrims had tonsured their heads as another act of penance. Alongside the path were depictions of the Stations of the Cross.

There were a good number of pilgrims. The Malayalam mass was just finishing when we arrived at the basilica and a great number of people came out. We attended the English mass at 10am. It was nice to finally sit inside the church, partake in the mass and receive the Holy Eucharist. That day was the feast of St John Vianney and the priest paid special homage to him in his sermon.


Front of basilica
The basilica is a lovely white building built in Gothic style. It has high domes and contrasting red tiles on the roof. The basilica complex doesn’t contain just one church but different ones within it, having been extended at various times. In the brilliant sunshine the basilica looked a magnificent site.

After mass, I went to the Shrine Depot near the front of the basilica. There one can buy all sorts of religious souvenirs and paraphernalia. I also made a visit to the Museum of Offerings. Here are exhibited various items people have sent as offerings to Our Lady of Vailankanni. With these items were letters written in their native languages expressing gratitude for the help they believed they received through the intercession of Our Lady of Vailankanni. Some offerings, including golden jewellery, looked very expensive.

By this time, Anya and Nithya were tired. With the hot sun beaming down on us and our faces dripping in sweat, we decided to return to our hotel for some rest and lunch. Later on, while Anya and Nithya were asleep, I went out again on my own to Matha Kulam. There I sat in the church and prayed.

Car procession

A statue of Mary and Infant Jesus being carried
In the evening I joined the car procession with other pilgrims. This involved a statue of Our Lady and Infant Jesus being carried from the basilica to the seafront and back while prayers were recited. The proximity of the basilica to the sea became evident for me. How the building avoided major damage when the tsunami struck in 2004 seemed almost miraculous.  The car procession was followed by the Blessing of the Sick, Benediction and mass in Tamil. After visiting the old church and the Adoration & Reconciliation Chapel, we finally returned to our hotel. The next morning, at 7.30am, we were on the bus again back to Kerala.

Final thoughts

I enjoyed my visit to Vailankanni. I had set out to visit the sprawling basilica, pray, experience the atmosphere and reflect on my life and God. For those reasons my trip was accomplished. I found the experience spiritually refreshing and I will cherish it for a long time. To be honest, Vailankanni is not everyone’s cup of tea. The heat, sand and crowd can be uncomfortable; the water has been known to cause stomach upsets; but if one is careful and has a genuine interest all these things are not insurmountable.

What Vailankanni demonstrated to me was the great love people had for Mary, seeking the divine consolation only she diffuses, and their desire to pay respect to the Queen of Heaven who decided to set her feet upon its soil in the sixteenth century. If it wasn’t for her apparitions there, Vailankanni will probably still be an obscure remote seaside town in Southern India. Indeed, just as in Fatima and Lourdes, Vailankanni has been transformed over the years into a major pilgrimage destination. Despite the very real challenges the Church in India today faces, this shows how vibrant it is.