My visits to Vailankanni or Virgin of Velai, the town, and the shrine of Our Lady of Good Health would never qualify for the tag pilgrimage, which the place is famous for. Vailankanni or Velankanni, a small hamlet at the shores of the Bay of Bengal, is home to one of the world's biggest Catholic pilgrimage centres.
Visiting this place as a six-year-old, I was both fascinated and deflated by Velankanni — enchanted by the divine interventions and appalled by the human 'intercession'.
The legends recounted to me about the three apparitions of the Blessed Mother, which paved way for the building of the basilica, drew many of my dreams as a boy. Velankanni was the first church I visited in my life. Apart from the key to dream land, it offered me a first-hand lesson in life — ignorance is the main cause of pain. Illiterate of the Christian practices, after a long early-morning service when the rector of the shrine started giving away a small appam (bread) and something to drink (wine) I was happy to join the queue. Just as the line started moving an announcement came through the old horn speakers of the church — “only those who have received baptism should step in to receive the holy Eucharist” — making that bread and wine a distant dream. Only the soft idli and vada dipped in hot sambar and chutney could wipe out my tears and embarrassment.
Cherishing the food I heard the first three miracles associated with the church
Among the three, I felt the third story, the one involving a Portuguese ship and its sailor, the most fascinating one. The legend goes like this: Some time in the 17th century a Portuguese merchant ship was caught in a deadly storm when they were crossing the Bay of Bengal. The sailors prayed to the Star of Sea, Mother Mary, for help. They promised themselves to build a chapel at the place of landing if they ever escaped the violent sea. When the storm subsided, the sea had spared the nearly-wrecked ship and its 150 crew. The violent sea had guided them to the shore of Vailankanni/Velankanni and coincidently it was September 8, the Nativity of Mother Mary. As promised, the crew rebuilt the chapel of Our Lady of Good Health and kept on improving the building each time they crossed the Bay of Bengal.
I gobbled down every bit of the story even faster than the idli, as it had everything I wanted to hear — the sea, adventure and magic.
Violent seas again
My second visit to Velankanni was in 2004, weeks after the Boxing Day tsunami wreaked havoc on its shore. The tsunami that killed 275,000 people in fourteen countries across two continents, demolished everything other than the church's main building killing over 1,500. I was visiting the place as a student volunteer associated with the college's rebuilding activities in tsunami struck areas.
Faith was in turmoil. My first assignment was in a Kerala island, a base of Hindu woman monk, which was the worst hit area in the state. Personal losses were raising questions in believers' hearts about the intentions of their saviours. The story was no different in Nagapattinam. I heard heart rending stories of non-believers turning into ardent followers and faithful devotees becoming atheists—all thanks to the violent sea and its mad waves.
You don't mess with Mom-in-Laws
I returned to the Lourdes of the East after six years and out of compulsion. My mother-in-law had vowed to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health when my wife had troubles while giving birth to our son.
Thus I was on the road once again, heading towards Velankanni. According to the church website and Tamil Nadu tourism website, Velankanni is best connected with road. Though, since 2010, Velankanni is connected by rail only couple of local trains ply to here from Nagapattinam. Nagapattinam is connected to all major cities in the country through rail and visitors could choose the road or the local trains after reaching the coastal district via train. The nearest airport is at Tiruchirapalli, about 165 km away. It is an international airport with daily services to major cities in India and abroad.
Six years' story in one night
After reaching the place late in the night, I took my wife for a stroll, putting our sleeping son under the care of my mother-in-law. Walking under the starlit sky, the sea-kissed breeze rushed to us like how the kindergarten children would swarm their favourite teacher and started telling us stories of how things changed from my last visit to this place.
Massive rebuilding has happened, the stores and damaged parts of the church was all back in place. Seeing the place back into its good looks, I wondered about fate of the faith— was it also restored?
We walked to the main church and then to the old one through the 'Holy Path' flanked by the Stations of Cross and Stations of Rosary. These three places along with Nadu Thittu Church, Adoration and Reconciliation chapel and museum should be on your must see list if you are on a devotional trip to Velankanni.
In the morning, following the tradition of offering Our Lady of Health a silver shape of one's prayer, my mother-in-law offered a baby's figure. According to the church notice board, a person praying to get a heart ailment cured would first offer a candle in the shape of a heart and once the prayer is answered he/she would return to the church and offer a silver or gold heart as a thanksgiving. Some times offerings are dropped into the sea sealed in bottles or big hollow bamboos with the address of the shrine written on them. Such offerings are believed to reach the holy spot without fail.
As the day grew old the place in and around the church started getting crowded — amongst all the noise I could hear the waves breaking on the sandy beach of Velankanni.