India’s Great Shrine to Our Lady of Vailankanni
A major shrine of Marian devotion is dedicated to Our Lady of Vailankanni in Southern India which draws huge throngs, even of non-Christian pilgrims. WALTER MIDDLETON writes about the shrine and recalls a personal miracle.
Over the past year our focus was on the centenary of the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima, Portugal. And linked to that was renewed interest in other Marian shrines and apparitions.
Indeed, The Southern Cross will lead a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Knock in Ireland in May 2018.
But one shrine of apparition and miracles that rarely gets a mention is that of Our Lady of Good Health in India, where three miracles took place.
The Latin-rite basilica of Our Lady of Good Health is located at the small town of Vailankanni in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Devotion to Our Lady of Good Health of Vailankanni can be traced to the mid-16th century and is attributed to three miracles at the sites around where the basilica now stands:
- the apparition of Mary and the Christ Child to a shepherd boy,
- the curing of a lame buttermilk vendor, and
- the rescue of Portuguese sailors from a violent sea storm in the Bay of Bengal in the 17th century.
These accounts are based on oral tradition and there are no written or attested records in support of them. It should be noted that the Holy See has not approved these apparitions.
The Three Apparitions
The first apparition is said to have occurred in May 1570 when a local shepherd boy was delivering milk to a nearby house. Along the way, he met a beautiful woman holding a child, who asked for some milk for the little one.
After giving her the milk, the boy continued on his way, and upon making the delivery discovered that the jug was inexplicably completely full of fresh, cool milk.
A small shrine was built near the site where the boy encountered the woman, a location that came to be called MathaKulam, which means Our Lady’s Pool.
The second apparition is said to have happened in 1597, not far from MathaKulam.
A beautiful woman with a young boy in her arms appeared to a young crippled boy selling buttermilk. The woman’s little boy asked for some buttermilk, which the vendor gave him.
After the child drank it, the woman asked the boy selling the buttermilk to visit a man in the next town and ask him to build a chapel in her honour at that location. The buttermilk boy set out quickly and realised that he was no longer lame.
A small thatched chapel was quickly built in honour of Our Lady of Health, called in Tamil ArokiaMatha.
The third incident occurred when a Portuguese ship sailing from Macao to Sri Lanka was caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal.
The crew invoked the help of the Blessed Virgin under her title Star of the Sea. The storm subsided and the 150 men on board were saved.
It was September 8, the feast of the Nativity of Mary. In thanksgiving, the sailors rebuilt the shrine to Our Lady of Good Health, and continued to enhance it whenever their voyages brought them to the area.
The shrine that started as a thatched chapel in the mid-16th century became a parish church in 1771 when Catholics in India were under persecution from the Dutch.
Much later, in 1962, it was granted the special status of a minor basilica by Pope John XIII.
When the pilgrims come
At the shrine Mary is depicted wearing a sari.
The usual time for pilgrimage is during the annual festival from August 29 to September 6 and at Christmas.
Some pilgrims, instead of using a mode of transport, perform “walking pilgrimages” to it.The pilgrims sometimes shave their heads as an offering and perform ear piercing ceremonies, both being Hindu traditions. Another ritual considered sacred is to dip in the pool.
I first visited the shrine in February 1969, along with my uncle and aunt. I was young and unemployed, and prayed at the shrine for a job. Within three month, I got a good job with an international organisation.
Since then I have visited the shrine 27 times as I have received many favours and experienced miracles.
We Visited When We Were Pregnant
One which I would like to mention took place when my wife was expecting our first child.
My wife was in labour for 36 hours. Eventually, the nurse came out to the waiting room — these were the days when the fathers had to wait outside while their children were being born — and told me that since the baby was not being born naturally, they would have to do a Caesarean section. A doctor qualified to perform that procedure was on his way.
I immediately prayed to Our Lady of Vailankanni, asking her to intercede on behalf of my wife so that she could have a normal delivery, especially since this was our first child.
In fewer than three minutes the nurse was back to congratulate me and give me the good news that my wife had delivered a beautiful baby girl — by normal delivery.
I couldn’t believe it. Of course I gave thanks to our good Lord and to Our Lady of Vailankanni.
I have heard the testimonies of miracles experienced by people who went to Vailankanni. The museum in Vailankanni is testimony to the miracles: one will see offerings of gold and silver legs, hands, eyes, babies in cradles, lungs, hearts, brains — all the witness of people cured of various diseases.
Annually several million pilgrims make it to Vailankanni, some from overseas. Surprisingly 80% of these pilgrims are non-Christians.
One has to be there to witness the devotion people have to Our Lady of Vailankanni.
More information can be found at www.vailankanni.com.
Walter Middleton writes from Johannesburg.