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Faith And Culture Converge At India´s Largest Marian Shrine

Updated: June 24, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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Meenakshi Kumaran´s family arrived at the Vailankanni Marian shrine all dressed in saffron.

After buying a bamboo plate and filling it with flowers, candles, incense sticks, coconut and turmeric, the Hindu family walked on their knees from the shrine´s entrance to the main altar. There, they prayed silently with open arms before the nearby statue of the Blessed Mother.

Kumaran then gave the bamboo plate to an attendant to place near the statue, and accepted some of the flowers that the attendant handed back to her.

The family later shaved their heads and took a dip in the sea nearby before changing into everyday clothes. Their pilgrimage had ended.

Kumaran´s family members are among thousands of Hindus who go to pray at the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Health, India´s largest Marian pilgrimage center.

Thanjavur diocese in Tamil Nadu state manages the shrine, which is about 2,400 kilometers south of New Delhi. "We worship Mother Mary as we worship our Hindu goddesses," Kumaran, 43, told UCA News. The devotion "reflects our culture and local sentiments," she said.

The fishing village of Vailankanni, which means "the virgin of Velai," is known as the Lourdes of the East. Church officials estimate that around 5 million people annually visit the shrine from all over India. More than half of them are people of other faiths, not Christians.

The practices at Vailankanni are "intercultural," Father Anthony Sebastian told UCA News on June 24. The 40-year-old anthropologist explained that people express their love for the Blessed Mother in ways with which they are familiar and comfortable. Father Sebastian teaches social anthropology in the Christian Studies Department of the government-managed University of Madras.

According to the priest, Vailankanni´s "huge popularity" stems from the "deep sense" of belief in the "motherness of God," evident in Tamil culture.

According to a local belief, the Blessed Mother appeared to a disabled Hindu boy in the 16th century and healed him at the place where the shrine now sits.

The shrine´s museum has recorded thousands of testimonies of miracles from pilgrims. Even the basilica´s wooden flag pole, from a 16th-century Portuguese merchant ship, has a story to tell. Its sailors reportedly believed that the Blessed Mother saved them from a storm.

Pilgrims express their faith in different ways at the shrine.

Sundaraman Lakshmi, another Hindu woman, tied a red thali on one of the iron railings surrounding the flag pole. Thali is a thread a bridegroom ties around his spouse´s neck when they get married to symbolize their union. Lakshmi told UCA News on June 17 that she had prayed for her daughter´s early marriage.

Those praying for a house buy a lock, clamp it around the railings and drop the key into an offering box. Thousands of such thali and locks encircle the iron railings, which the shrine workers remove once a year.

Many Catholic pilgrims pray the rosary as they walk from the basilica to a nearby pond where the Blessed Mother is believed to have appeared to a boy who sold buttermilk. Some pilgrims cover the entire distance on their knees.

Stephen David, a 24-year-old Catholic, told UCA News it took him about two hours to do so. The ritual "is terribly painful, especially in hot weather," he said, "but it is a way for me to express my devotion to the Blessed Mother."

Some Hindus roll on the floor with arms raised above their heads the whole distance. Pilgrims also queue to drink pond water, believed to have miraculous powers.

According to Father Sebastian, being tonsured, walking on one´s knees and rolling on the floor are forms of sacrifice that Dravidians, southern India´s prominent race, practice, while offerings of flowers and fruit come from the Aryan or Brahminical culture, the more pastoral race of northern India.

Narayanan Selvam, 38, tied a tiny cradle to a mango tree near the pond. "We´ve been married 12 years without a child," the Hindu man told UCA News.

Most pilgrims of other faiths are content just to pray to the Blessed Mother and seldom seek information on Christianity or Christ, Father Sebastian said.

Father Sagayaraj Muthusamy, a shrine official, told UCA News, "We do not interfere in their private devotions. We respect their beliefs and customs."


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