Published: Sunday, 2nd August 2009
The Republic of India is one of the most extraordinary countries in the world today. In fact it is a sub-continent located in South Asia, and it has a population of over 1.5 billion people. India is the second most populous country in the world, after China, and geographically, it is the 7th largest country in the world. It diversity and culture differs exceedingly, according to which area of India one visits, and it is as different again according to the major different languages spoken here. There are four major world religions in India namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Although Christianity is confined to certain areas, it is most prevalent in Kerela in the South West of India, having being brought there by Saint Thomas the Apostle who is buried in Orissa. Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism eventually came to India around the first millennium and contribute yet again to the extraordinary diverse cultures and beliefs.
Gradually annexed by the British East India Company from the early eighteenth century and colonised by the United Kingdom from the mid-nineteenth century, India became an independent nation in 1947 after a struggle for independence that was marked by widespread nonviolent resistance. I have no doubt that Mahatma Gandhi was central to this and that history must record how he saved millions of lives by this peaceful transition, thereby preventing civil war. India is a Republic consisting of 28 states and seven Union territories with a parliamentary system of democracy. It has the world's twelfth largest economy at market exchange rates, and the fourth largest in purchasing power. Economic reforms since 1991 have transformed it into one of the fastest growing economies; however, it still suffers from high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition.
Christianity in India, as stated already, was introduced by SaintThomas the Apostle in 52 AD. These Saint Thomas Christians were known as Nasrani Christians which means, believers in Jesus the Nazarene. These early communities however were governed by the Orthodox Bishops from Persia and Babylonia.
In the South East of India, there is a small town called Velankanni, which means “Town of Miracles,” and this town has the biggest and most important Marian shrine in all of India. Valenkanni is to be found in the State of Tamil Nadu and has a population of 15,000 residents, and like Lourdes, swells to over 3 million, as pilgrims decend on the town throughout the year to this Shrine, dedicated to “Our Lady of Health.”
Velankanni is in fact, fondly known as the “Lourdes of the East” as many come here in great expectations looking for graces, cures, and other miracles, or they come to represent others who cannot come personally. The pilgrims are not only Catholic, but diverse Christian, Jews, Muslims, and Hindu’s. Our Lady is the focus of this shrine, and the first noticible, great miracle here is the peace and harmoney among all the pilgrims.
The history of this amazing, and most beautiful shrine begins in the 16th century and which is founded on three main miraculous events.
The first and foremost of these is the apparition of Our Lady and the child Jesus, which occurred in May of 1570. A young shepherd boy was delivering milk to nearby houses in order to support his family. He was from a nearby town called Nagapattinam but was walking toward Velankanni, when he was overcome with tiredness, and the heat of the day. He had stopped by the water pond to place the milk in, to keep it cool, to refresh himself, and to take a rest. He fell asleep only to be awakened by the smell of a beautiful perfume, which was everywhere. Once wide awake he beheld “A most beautiful Woman,” and holding in her arms a child of exquisit beauty of “Divine appearance,” as he later describes the apparition. The boy stood in amazement, but the Lady and child smiled at him and asked him in a very soft, friendly and polite way “ can I please have some of your milk for my Son?” to which the boy, whose name was Sandi, said yes, “you can have it all.” Sandi was a Hindu and had never heard of Christianity nor of Our Lady. He really did know who was engaging him in conversation, but was altogether delighted and wished to continue to speak and to listen, but alas the beautiful Lady and Child, vanished before his eyes.
The time had passed quickly and Sandi soon realised that he was late with his delivery of what remained of the milk. When he finally arrived at the customers house, he began to apologise and he tried to explain why he was late. He also had to explain what the order quota of milk was not there, in fact there was so little milk left when he last looked into the jug, that he was embarrased. He explained that the reason why there was just a little milk left, was because he had given it to “ a beautiful Woman and Child that he had met at the pool up the road. The customer wanted to see exactly how much milk there was, and opened the milk jug. He was very surprised not only was it full of very fresh milk but it was very cool also. The customer, who was also a Hindu asked again where Sandi had seen the apparition, and if it were possible,could they go together to see the exact place. so they left together, one talking faster then the other and finally found themselves on the exact spot of the apparition.
They had no sooner arrived when in a flash, Our Lady and Child, appeared again and both the man and Sandi were overcome with joy, and delighted at what they saw. Immediately afterwards they went to the the local village, it was here that the local Catholic community lived. They recounted the story in exacting details amid a barrage of questions. This then left no-one in doubt as to what the two had seen. A small shrine was built there to commerate the event and this attracted some local interest. The exact place they called, Matha Kulam, which means Our Lady’s Pool.
The second apparition happened in 1597, also in Velankanni, and next to where the Catholic villagers had built the shrine, the Matha Kulam.
In this town a very poor widow, who has lost her husband early in her marriage, was left alone to look after her disabled boy, who was badly lame from birth. This boy tried to help his mother as much as he could, but he was unable to walk and had to drag himself here and there. One of the ways of getting some money to buy food was by selling butter milk near their house. He would go and sit under the tree nearby, in the cool shade of the day and cry out to anyone who was passing “fresh buttermilk, fresh buttermilk.” One day to his great surprise a “beautiful Lady” appeared to him in the midst of a very bright light and in Her arms was a “Divine Child”. The boy was asked for a cup of buttermilk which he willing poured out and gave to the beautiful Lady who smiled at him in thanks. The beautiful Lady then asked the boy if he would do her a favor, to which he immediately agreed. She asked that he visit a certain Catholic gentleman who lives a few miles away in Nagapattinam (about 5 miles away) and there, to ask this gentleman to build a chapel in Her honour on this site in Velankanni.
Without hesitation the boy rose up and went as he was directed. As he was running on this Divine errand, it suddenly struck him that he was no longer crippled, but that his two legs were normal. Naturally he was delighted, and he ran screaming with joy and thanking the beautiful Lady as he went along. All who saw him and knew him were totally amazed. When he arrived in Nagapattinam the Catholic man was also delighted to see him and to hear his story.The Catholic man then related to him, that he too, had just had a visit from the Queen of Heaven, and that the Lady in question was the Mother of God and of all humanity. He further stated that She had asked him to build a shrine in her honour, but She didn’t tell him where.They then went together both running, back to where the boy, had been selling the buttermilk and placed a stake in the ground to indicate to higher authorities where the Shrine should be built. The shrine of Velankanni now stands on this exact spot today. The boy then ran home to his mother and related all that had happened, and how he had met the Queen of Heaven, who had cured him. The mother and child were both in tears of joy. Both went that same day and asked the priest if they could be baptised into the Catholic Church. They had expressed an eternal gratitude to God and His Mother and stated that they wanted to thank Her eternally, for what she had done.
Within a week a small thatched chapel was built and it was called Shrine of Our Lady of Health which is called in Tamil “Arokia Matha.” This shrine is now the major centre of devotion to Our Lady in Velankanni and throughout the entire region. Already by the 1600’s many had already come from all over the south east of India and here they experienced the love, and intercession of a caring Mother.
The third important miracle happened a few years later, when a Portuguese sailing ship was caught in a violent storm in the middle of the Bay of Bengal.
This ship was sailing from Macao in China, to Colombo in Sri Lanka. The storm was equivalent to a storm force 12, and it tossed the ship from side to side. It main sails ripping in two and its other sails tearing while the storm ended up breaking the main mast. The captain called his men together to pray, and they entrusted themselves to Our Lady “Star of the Sea” asking Her to help save them. Almost immediately the storm subsided and the ship eventually entered the port of Velankanni, it was September 8th, the Feast of the birthday of Our Lady.
With some 150 men on board along with their cargo of building materials, they decided to do something in thanksgiving for having been saved. The captain had promised Our Lady that if She would save them, then the crew would build a Church in Her honour. Now the time for them to be faithful to their promises had arrived, and they set off to find the already existing shrine and to enhance it. They built a most beautiful new shrine to Our Lady. In fact is was on the same site as that as Our Lady of Health, where She had asked the Catholic man to build one earlier, and where She had cured the little lame boy, Stephan.
Every time that this ship sailed, either to China, and or to Colombo, the crew stopped and added more parts to the Shrine. They brought porcelain plates and tiles from Portugal, which illustrate biblical themes, and which even today can be seen behind the main altar of the shrine. Eventually over the next 10 years or so, they completed the shrine, and it stands today as a confirmation to that love and devotion that both the local Indian population had for Our Lady, and also the Portuguese.
A great Marian devotion is the pride of India’s some 20 million Catholics, which amount for only 2% of the population but it is the largest Christian community in all of India. Despite that even the rites of these Catholics vary for example one can say that there are 157 ecclesiastical units in India. These are made up of 29 Archdiocese, and 128 Diocese of which 127 of these are Latin rite, 25 Syro-Malabar and 5 Syro-Malankara Rite.
Catholic charitable efforts, also in India have been extensive. In Portuguese India, for instance, Saint Francis Xavier and his fellow missionaries were especially careful to help the local charitable institutions by tending to the sick, both spiritually and physically, and performing other works of mercy. The Jesuits' educational institutions, although never succeeding in missionary activities, had left a prestigious impact through their education institutions. Education has become the major priority for the Church here in recent years with nearly 60% of the Catholic schools situated in rural areas. Even in the early part of the 19th century, Catholic schools had left its emphasis on poor relief and welfare.
The Catholic Church provides an estimated 22 percent of all health-care services, throughout India, operating 5,000 facilities, and which employs 33 percent of Indian health-care workers, including 40,000 Catholic nurses.
The apparitions of Velankanni are extremely important for the Catholic Church in India. The Shrine and its popularity provides an inspiring impetus for all who seek the help of Our Lady, Catholic and non-Catholic, and as a pilgrim centre for all of India. Here in a special way the Indian Catholic can feel at home in this beautiful shrine, and where he will have all the sacraments available to him. Here too he will stand side by side with Muslims, Hindu’s and Jews, and others, despite the tensions elsewhere in India, where Catholic’s are being killed. This standing together in peace is a miracle in itself. On the Feast of Our Lady of Velankanni, which is September 8th, there are upward of 2 million pilgrims from all over the world, who converge on this shrine and to watch, and to walk, and to pray, in procession. Many find time to wash in the newly found spring water, which has begun to gush from the ground and from where there no apparent source. Many too wish to document a list of graces, blessings and miracles. These notifications are listed in a special book and which numbers now exceed one million entries.
India has produced a great number of Saints, some of those need no introduction like Blessed Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta). She was a great devotee of Our Lady of Health of Velankanni and who went to visit this shrine on numerous occasions.
Other saints include, Saint Gonsalo Garcia, who was already canonised in 1629. Saint John De Brito, canonised in 1947. Blessed Joseph Vaz, beatified by Pope John Paul II, the Great. Saint Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception, who was also beatified by Pope John Paul II but who was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on the 12th of October 2008.
There are many other causes underway in India but one thing is sure that all were devoted to Our Lady and sought her guidance and intercession on all matters.
Today in India the celebration of this Feast is an annual festival and which lasts for 9 days drawing some 2 million pilgrims for these 9 days alone. It is said that this shrine of Velankanni attracts more pilgrims than any other sacred shrine in all of India. Not only do multitudes of Catholics travel there but all others, believers and unbeliever’s alike visit at least once in their lives.
This shrine is now growing in popularity since the spring water began to flow.
The nearest airport is about 154 kms from Velankanni in the city called Tiruchy. There are many hotels close to the shrine, along with religious houses, and boarding houses. The website of the shrine is www.vailankannichurch.org/about-vailankanni.htm
This feature is categorised under Marian Shrines