The Velankanni church in Tamil Nadu marries Catholic beliefs and Hindu rituals

Built by the Portuguese in 16th century, it is a symbol of syncretism

54-Post-the-pandemic Flocking back: Post the pandemic, more than 20 lakh devotees are expected to visit the church this year.

Francis Xavier and his wife, Rose Mary, have thrice walked all the way from Chennai to Velankanni—a distance of more than 310km. And every time he reaches the holy town, Francis tonsures his head and donates the hair.

People here follow more of the Indian style or the Hindu tradition for prayers and offerings. It is their belief. —Rev Fr Irudayaraj, rector of the church

“It has been my practice,” he says. “I feel blessed whenever I come to Velankanni during novena (a nine-day prayer in August-September). I did not come here for the past two years because of the pandemic.”

Francis and Rose are among the millions of visitors who reach the tiny town on the Coromandel Coast every novena. The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health stands tall as a symbol of syncretism. Men walk in and out in colourful dhotis; the women have shawls draped over their heads. “People from all religions and all walks of life visit the shrine,” says the Rev Fr Irudayaraj, rector of the church. “It is a place of peace and serenity. People believe that this place offers them solace and that Our Lady of Health blesses them with good health and prosperity.”

Every year, the novena begins with the hoisting of a flag on August 29 and ends on September 8, when it is lowered. There are car processions of Mother Mary every day.

Inside the church, built in the Gothic style of architecture, is a statue of Mary holding Baby Jesus and standing on the globe. The Portuguese, who built the church in the late 16th century, are said to have brought the statue. There are verses from the Bible on the walls, with illustrations. “In 1771, Velankanni acquired the status of a parish,” says Irudayaraj. “Fr. Antonio de Rozario was the first parish priest. Pope John XXIII raised the status of our church to a basilica in 1962.”

The shrine was originally a small prayer hall under a thatched roof. Several phases of expansion took place over centuries. This year, post the pandemic, at least 20 lakh people are expected to visit the church.

The Velankanni church marries Catholic beliefs and Hindu rituals. Irudayaraj says that people tonsure their heads, pierce their earlobes, walk on their knees, roll on the floor and even tie a thread called a thali (mangalsutra), locks and toy cradles while offering prayers. “People here follow more of the Indian style or the Hindu tradition for prayers and offerings,” he says. “It is their belief.”