Lourdes of the East

Velankanni was a small obscure fishing village located near Nagapattinam district, in the state of Tamil Nadu in India.

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400 years ago a few miraculous incidents and appearances by Our Lady occurred in Velankanni which put it on the global map as the ‘Lourdes of the East’. Read more about the miraculous apparitions in section below titled as Timeline and History.

These miraculous encounters have been narrated through the centuries by the locals of Velankanni and the surrounding areas. Miracles continue to occur even today.

Thousands of pilgrims from within India and other countries visit this bustling town throughout the year, to put their petitions forward or give thanks for answered prayers and miracles.

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The high season is during the months of August and September when pilgrims make their annual visit to celebrate the birthday of Mother Mary on 8th September. A nine day novena in honor of Our Lady begins every year from 31 Aug to 8th Sep. This event should be experienced atleast once in your lifetime.

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From a thatched hut to a Basilica, this holy and miraculous place now known as the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health had humble beginnings in Velankanni. Read more about the history in section below titled as Timeline and History.

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The Gothic styled white washed building is home to the original statue of Mother Mary. The main altar though modified through the centuries, retains the blue and white porcelain tiles brought by sailors to build the altar. Read more about the sailors miraculous escape from the storms in section below titled as Timeline and History 

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The Basilica is divided into 2 sections. The older section houses the miraculous statue of Our Lady and the new section or Church Annex has been created to celebrate daily mass.

On a Friday morning I start my pilgrimage at Velankanni hoping to spend some quiet time by myself.

A narrow entrance flanked by body scanners greets me as I enter the older section. It’s been several years since I last visited. Some of the people remove their footwear before entering, which is a normal practice in India before entering a holy place.

The seating is informal. People are sitting down, kneeling down in prayer while some are standing. Some recite the rosary.

Looking down serenely at her children, Mother Mary is dressed in an Indian saree looking every bit like a royal local. A crown adorns her head and she carries baby Jesus in her right hand. Gold and diamond jewelry complement her attire. She is surrounded by the blue and white tiles, which illustrate stories from the Bible.

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Photography is not allowed inside so you will have to visit the Basilica yourself to experience this divine place.

The atmosphere inside is heavy. People are deep in prayer. Many of them have travelled great distances or made difficult journeys to come here to personally put their petitions forward to Mother Mary.

Prayers are offered either for themselves, family or loved ones going through a difficult time. Some come in thanksgiving for an answered prayer.

People mostly offer flowers, candles or sarees. Some make special wax offerings of a house, child, car etc. Some offerings are in gold and silver as a token of thanks for answered prayers.

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Mass is usually celebrated in multiple languages at the Church Annex. Check the Velankanni website for timings – http://www.vailankannishrine.net/

The Velankanni beach is a few minutes away and is a popular place with pilgrims. I was not very keen to visit as the lane towards the beach was very crowded and the beach too was packed with pilgrims. However the evening was free and I decided to explore the not so crowded area of the beach.

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I sat on one of the many fishing boats parked on the sandy shore and watched the sun go down.

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I was observing the people from a distance, as they jumped the waves or simply relaxed on the shore.

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The salty air was cool and the sand soft.

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A fisherman was offering boat rides into the backwaters and I impulsively hopped on.

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As the sun set, shades of gold and orange splashed into the horizon.

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The Church spires could be seen in the fading light.

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The sun was peeking from the coconut palms, waving goodbye for the day.

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The rain clouds hung heavy across the sky. I could see fishing villages hidden behind the trees and several fishing boats were huddled near the shores.

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This serendipitous experience was one of the highlights of the pilgrimage.

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Speaking of highlights, another surreal experience was the night procession which began at 9pm.

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A wooden palanquin bearing the statue of Our Lady is carried around the church premises. The 9pm candle lit procession is recommended as the temperature will be cool and the experience is truly heavenly.

It was almost time, the crowd had swelled near the main entrance of the Basilica waiting in anticipation for the procession to begin. Policemen were politely controlling the crowd.

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People were made to stand in two rows, one to the left of the Basilica and the other to the right. The path in between is left free for the palanquin.

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The candle lights flickered in the cool sea breeze. People jostled to have a glance at the palanquin. The scent of jasmine filled the air. The rosary is recited in multiple languages as we follow the brightly lit statue.

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Everyone sang Ave Maria at the end of each decade of the rosary raising their candles in honor of Mother Mary. This prayerful walk ends inside the church with the priest blessing the congregation.

You only need a weekend to experience this divine and holy place, but the faith of the people and positive energy experienced is lasting.

Here is a layout of the Basilica Complex to help you navigate the area:

The Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health – This is the main place of worship and prayer and can be your first stop. Read more about its history and humble beginnings in section below titled as Timeline and History.

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Our Lady’s Tank – This miraculous chapel stands on the far opposite end to the shrine.

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A long sandy path is laid out from the Shrine Basilica to Our Lady’s Tank. Some pilgrims prefer to roll or kneel on their way from the Basilica to the tank.

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Again this is an Indian practice of performing a penance either to ask an important favor or fulfilling a vow in thanksgiving for an answered prayer.  Read more about the miracle of Our Lady’s Tank in section below titled as Timeline and History 

Adoration and Reconciliation Chapel – Can be visited for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. In addition there are counselling services and priests available for confessions near the chapel.

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Nadu Thittu Chapel – A recent addition to the Shrine complex, this chapel recreates the apparition of Our Lady to the boy selling buttermilk. Read more about this boy’s miraculous healing story in section below titled as Timeline and History 

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Smaller structures depicting the Stations of the Cross, the mysteries of the rosary and the seven sacraments line both sides of the footpaths throughout the shrine complex.

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Morning Star Church – A must visit on the way to Our Lady’s tank, is the Morning Star Church that has been recently built.

Other buildings of importance – Adjacent to the main basilica there are several smaller buildings serving different purposes.

Ave Maria – A counter is open in the day to accept gold / silver and other precious thanksgiving offerings. A priest is also available for blessings.

Shrine Magazine – for those who like to be updated about the Shrine happenings, miracles, and other holy topics, can subscribe to the Shrine’s magazine, ‘Velankanni Calling’. A small room near Ave Maria accepts subscriptions.

Prayer Offerings – Several counters are open accepting masses for specific prayer requests. A paper lists down the requests. You need to fill your petitions and pay for the mass that will be offered for your written requests.

Holy items – Medals, rosaries, holy oil, holy pictures, statues and many more holy articles are for sale by the church. It is recommended to patronize the church counters as these will be authentic rather than buy from the stalls outside.

Travel Guide

Velankanni is connected by air, road and railway to all major cities.

The journey by road takes around 6 to 7 hours from Chennai and the same time by train. Velankanni has its own railway station.

I would recommend to use the air-conditioned sleeper buses from Chennai which are comfortable and timely. They drop you at the Velankanni bus stand after which you can either walk to your hotel or take an auto.

The nearest airports are Chennai and Tiruchirappalli.

Stay

There are multiple stay options depending on your budget.

The church offers air-conditioned and non air-conditioned rooms, but they need to be booked at Velankanni. I did not find any online booking options. The Shrine room booking office is opposite to the bus stand.

I would recommend to stay at the comfortable and clean Dravidar Hotel. It is a minute away from the Basilica The staff are helpful and friendly. The food is good. I stayed alone and felt safe.

Weather

Velankanni can get very hot and humid. Wear cottons, comfortable walking shoes, carry a hat or umbrella. Carry drinking water.  The Shrine Basilica complex can be covered by foot so it is necessary to be dressed comfortably to beat the heat.

Places to see nearby

Experience Danish nostalgia by taking a half day trip to the offbeat but picturesque Tranquebar. This former Danish colony houses a fort, an old printing press, a couple of ancient churches and a beach strewn with colorful boats. More on my visit to Tranquebar coming soon.

Timeline and History 

For those who would like to know more, here is a brief history of the apparitions and miracles that occurred around the 16th century and how the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health came into existence.

Matha Kulam – Our Lady’s Tank 

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A shepherd boy from Velankanni was on his way to deliver milk to a rich man in Nagapattinam.

To escape the heat, the boy took a break near a pond, when a beautiful lady appeared to him carrying a child.

She asks him for some milk for her baby. The boy was captivated at the dazzling apparition in front of him and happily offered a cup.

When he reached the house of the rich man, he narrated the incident. The man went back to the pond where the lady had appeared and was convinced that it was Mother Mary with baby Jesus who had appeared to the boy.

From that day, the pond became a special place for healing and miracles, and the miracles continue even today. It is now known as Our Lady’s Tank or Matha Kulam.

A chapel has been built near the tank to mark the place of the apparition. The tank continues to have water to this day and is provided free for those who would like to take some, back home.

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Arokia Matha – Our Lady of Good Health

A differently abled boy used to sell buttermilk under a banyan tree in Velankanni at a place known as Nadu Thittu.

On a hot summer’s day, a lady in pristine white garments appeared to him holding baby in her arms. He was entranced by her motherly smile. She asked for some buttermilk for her baby, which he generously offered.

She then requested the boy to meet a rich man in Nagapattinam and ask him to build a chapel in her honor at Velankanni.

The boy stood up, thinking about the difficult journey he had to make to Nagapattinam as he was lame. However he discovered that he could walk normally. He was overjoyed at being cured by this lady and almost ran to meet the man in Nagapattinam.

The gentleman did not doubt this appearance as he had a dream the previous night about building a chapel in her honor.

A thatched hut in Velankanni was built as the chapel and a statue of Our Lady holding baby Jesus was installed.

Miracles and healings took place in this chapel. It soon came to be known as Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni (Vailankanni Arokia Matha). These were the humble beginnings of today’s Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni.

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A stormy rescue – The Portuguese  

A ship full of Portuguese sailors was sailing towards Colombo, when it was engulfed in a fierce storm. Being devout Catholics they fell to their knees in prayer to Mother Mary asking to be saved. They promised they would build a church in her honor wherever they landed.

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Soon the storm ceased and their ship washed ashore in Velankanni.

On knowing there was a chapel already there, they rushed towards it in thanksgiving and promised to build a better structure in the coming years.

During their subsequent visits, they rebuilt the chapel and also brought blue and white porcelain plates to decorate the altar. The tiles are retained even today and can be seen around the main statue of Our Lady.

This miracle occurred on Sept 8th, the birthday of Mother Mary. And so began the nine day celebration of Our Lady’s birthday at Velankanni from 31 Aug to 8th Sept.

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The positive energy and divinity this place emits is something to be experienced atleast once in your lifetime.

Ave Maria!

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