Archive for November, 2005

Notes from Velankani

Posted: November 26, 2005 in Travel
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There is little to distinguish this temple town from the scores of human habitations that dot the Tamil Nadu landscape. Except an unusual interaction between two cultures, moulding the destiny of the people of that land. This then is the story of Velankani.

It was off the shores of Velankani that Dutch sailors in the throes of a terrible storm are said to have seen Mother Mary beckoning them to the shore. It was a vision that drew them to the safety of the shores. And so it was that the event culminated in the creation of the Basilica of Velankani.

That ancient monument still stands. A modest structure shrouded in mighty legends woven across centuries, inspiring multitudes to make the pilgrimage to Velankani at least once in their lifetime.

The twenty-first century pilgrim finds in the midst of lush paddy fields, garish colourful signage that welcomes him to the Basilica of Velankani. Simultaneously, a mosque and a temple rear into view.

As one enters the township, numerous pilgrim centres make themselves visible. Comfortable, but spartan…a whiff of the cloisters of medieval Christianity in the air. In the distance, rise the spires of the new Basilica of Velankani.

Built slightly off the beach, the new Basilica rises in cool white splendour – reminiscences of the European middle ages under the tropical sun of the Indian subcontinent.

In the curious intermingling of cultures that is Velankani, the marketplace that has sprung up around the Basilica is that of a Hindu temple town. Thatched huts line the path from the beach to the Basilica. It is here that vendors lay out their myriad wares beckoning the pilgrim passing by. Coconuts, flowers, incense, figurines, shells, audio cassettes… – all the familiar motifs of a Hindu temple town lie scattered around this Christian shrine.

In this amalgamation of cultures, even Jim Reeves and Cliff Richards find their place – playing their melody off the local audio store opposite the Basilica. Their music giving way to the droning of the mass, inviting the faithful to prayer.

Mass begins in the early hours of the morning and continues till dusk. Sometimes in Tamil, sometimes in English. The language notwithstanding, the hordes of pilgrims remain, seeking their comfort in the sweet oblivion of religion. For it is to Velankani that the devout of different faiths turn in an expression of their faith. It is here that those who hope against hope turn to ask for the fulfillment of their deepest seemingly impossible desires.

Do miracles happen at Velankani? Is the hand of God at work? Controversial questions that demand an intellectual respomnse. But, it would suffice to say that one finds faith and hope in abundance here… Pilgrims enter and depart with their dreams still intact… It’s more than most towns can boats of these days.

The museum bears testimony to the tradition of hope represented by the township. There on display is the gold stethoscope offered by the pilgrim who fulfilled his dream of becoming a doctor.

Elsewhere, in another shrine, pilgrims light candles, each representing a desire still to be fulfilled, placed before a God in whom they have put their faith. I notice that some burn on, some flicker away.

The path that connects the new Basilica to the old Basilica is marked by the 14 stations of the cross. Sculpture marks the 14 stages that Christ passed through between his acceptance of the cross and his ascendancy into heaven.

Outside the Basilica is the Tank of Mary. In the gigantic red embossed pot of this structure, European architecture meets the Indian love of vibrant rich colour. Elsewhere, one cannot miss the talis tied on a tree outside the shrine – unwed girls who have come of age making their supplications to the deity for a worthy husband. Another Hindu motif making its presence felt in the European Christian imagery of another age.

The old Basilica has more of the solemn attitude associated with Christian penance. While the new Basilica takes the impact of the tourists, the solitude of the ancient structure offers solace to the more devout and the care worn. They make their way here, sometimes even crawling on their knees over the sand strewn path between the new and the old Basilica. Catholic rigour? Hindu ascetism? Islamic devotion? The distinguishing lines are transformed into a gigantic blur.

In place of the prasad carried back from Hindu sacred places of worship, the faithful here carry back their own relic – holy water blessed at the shrine of Velankani.

As afternoon gives way to dusk and then to the darkness of the night, the lights come on at Velankani. It is a glorious use of light to highlight architecture, typical of the peoples of the subcontinent. The carnival spirit that engulfs the surrounding marketplace brings with it the scent of Europe of the Middle Ages.

The scores of pilgrims with tonsured heads emerging from the townships many Tonsure Halls bring the final touch of an Indian sacred ground. Even in it’s European influence, still uniquely Indian… This then is Velankani, the temple town.

But, in a curious twist, the pilgrims of the tonsured heads come from many beliefs. Christians, Hindus, Muslims… They can all be spotted here… Joined not by religion, but by a faith in the divine.

And so it is that in the small township of Velankani, the exclusivity of Christianity turns uniquely inclusive. Cultures intermingle. Religion itself is obliterated.