It was a tip from Mr. Ramamurti, the manager of the budget hotel where I was staying in Pondicherry on the south-east coast of India.
I stayed there for almost a week, not because I found Pondicherry so interesting, but rather because when I arrived there I was very sick. I’d come down with a bad case of dysentery and limped into Pondicherry with no other aim than to find some place where I could rest a while and recover.
And recover I did thanks in no small part to Mr Ramamurti who brought well cooked meals and bottles of soda water to my room – and just as important, offered me his sympathy, which at the time I so desperately needed.
I should also mention that at the same time I began a course of powerful antibiotics.
Yes, he was a good man Mr. Ramamurti. The other tourists in the hotel called him ‘Mr. R’ and I got into the habit too.
I have fond memories of Mr. R.
He was terrible liar.
Of all the lies he told me surely none was greater than what he told me about Vailankanni.
And look, to be fair, I needed the lie.
As the amoebas eating away at me from inside were defeated and I regained my physical health, I was left feeling lost and depressed.
Where to now? What the hell was I doing with my life?
I needed a reason to venture forth, to continue, and it was hard to find.
It seemed as if the antibiotics only did half the job. They killed the foreign invaders and left me feeling kind of hollow.
Mr. R. came to my rescue.
Long after I’d left Vailankanni, I thought about Mr. R.
Perhaps that great fabricator of facts, that distorter of reality, Mr. R. had known all along what he was doing. That story about the Portuguese fishing village was told because he wanted to convince me to go there and he knew that I didn’t like big, crowded places. Being a devout Hindu he thought that Our Lady was the tonic I needed and I have to admit, he was absolutely right about that but not in the way he thought.
When I left Vailankanni, it was with a smile on my face. My cure was complete:
All thanks to Our Lady.
Mr. R. told me that Vailankanni was a fishing village on the coast south of Pondicherry.
Centuries ago the Portuguese had used it as a port and a trading post. They had built a beautiful cathedral there.
That got me in. I’d spent time in Goa during the 1980’s and the idea of finding an enclave of Portuguese history and culture attracted me.
He warned me: the accommodation was basic. There were only a few hotels and places to eat.
The line that really got me in and as it turned out, the only thing he told me which was true was:
‘I am telling you Mr. Peter that no western people you know are going to this place, if you go there Mr Peter I can assure you that you will be seeing no other tourists from Europe….no, no, it is not being on the tourist trail you see, maybe it is being too lonely for you …’
‘Too lonely’ for me?
‘I don’t think so Mr R., I’m going!’
‘May God bless you!’
An inevitable part of travelling is forming an impression of a place long before you’ve reached it. Often such impressions are formed on the basis of just a few words or even nothing much at all. The mind seems to want to grasp the future and too often grasps at thin air.
My idea of Vailankanni was of a small end- of- the-world town with some little shops and stalls and fishermen’s huts. As for the old Portuguese church: I imagined a church with a high ceiling and a carved and gilded altar, gravestones with Latin epitaphs on the floor, stone columns, statues in alcoves, and stained glass windows; an old gem and probably one which had suffered from centuries of neglect and the tropical weather. Outside there would be palm trees and sand. In the town of Vailankanni there would be a couple of basic eating stalls serving up the usual fare of masala dosa, idly, and rice on a palm leaf. The hotels also would be quite basic, maybe with shared toilets and bathrooms.
Even allowing for the fact that I have never arrived in a place which resembled my preconceived image of it, Vailankanni came as a shock.
When I arrived there, it was to be greeted by the sight of thousands of people.
Vailankanni wasn’t a small, end of the world town at all. To the contrary: it was the site of a gigantic pilgrimage industry, one of the largest in India – and that’s saying something, because when it comes to the pilgrimage industry, no country in the world can compete with India.
I said some highly uncomplimentary things about Mr. R. until I realised I was wasting my time as well as my limited reserves of energy.
I set about finding some accommodation.
This was no small task.
Two hotels in Vailankanni?
Directly opposite the bus stand where I got down (feeling distinctly shell-shocked) was a ‘Church rooms booking office’.
I made my way over there.
There was a big sign listing the pilgrim lodges run by the pilgrim site management. It was a long list. There were lodges catering for every budget. I peered inside the booking office – and gave up. It was cram packed with people. There were long lines standing before various counters and there were whole groups camped outside waiting their turn to join the cues. It could have been a crowd waiting to get into a Champions League game in Europe, minus the riot police.
There were lots of privately run hotels and lodges.
Most of these were full too.
Finally I got a room in a narrow, shabby, multi story hotel – one of dozens – set back against palm trees.
Behind the hotel was a rubbish dump where crows and dogs fed greedily. And also, cows: India’s most sacred animal.
I watched one cow eat a newspaper – an entire edition of ‘The Times of India.’
I loved cows. I loved their peaceful nature. The newspaper-eating cow I noted was an attractive animal. She had short horns and doleful eyes and unlike the other cows, she was coloured with mottled areas of black and white and dark brown.
I watched her for a while. Maybe it was my vulnerable psychological condition but I felt a wave of sympathy for such a beautiful cow consuming a newspaper instead of munching on rich green grass.
My room was on the top floor (there were four levels). From my small balcony, I could see many spires protruding above the hotels.
Vailankanni claimed to be the ‘Lourdes of the East’ but the ‘Lourdes’ claim was based upon the number of the spires projecting above the horizon rather than their historical antecedents. In general, one of the great draws of Indian pilgrimage towns – and this is especially true in Southern India – is the ancient lineage of the temples dotting the horizon; they are monuments which have been worshipped for centuries and in some cases, longer.
There was nothing like this in Vailankanni; it exuded an overwhelming atmosphere of newness. The spires filling the horizon had a classical design obviously borrowed from Southern Europe but they were made of newly moulded concrete and they freshly painted white. They burnt in the intense tropical sun like beacons. And as I subsequently discovered, they belonged to buildings which had more in common with a temple than a church. And there was logic to that because many of the pilgrims, if not at least a half of them, were Hindus, not Christians.
It’s easy to understand how Hindus might find an affinity with Catholicism. Idol worship is basic to both religions, along with rituals and miracles and mysteries. Just as the Catholics have their saints, so the Hindus have their deities. In the layers of sculptured gods and demons in the gopuram of a Hindu temple is the equivalent of a grand altar in a Catholic cathedral. Both religions are colourful and extravagant. The antithesis of Hinduism and Catholicism are Islam and Protestantism: religions which very explicitly forbid all forms of idol worship, ritualism and ceremony. And so too Hinduism, a polytheistic religion with a huge diversity of deities male and female, human and animal (not to mention all the incarnations of deities), had an enormous absorptive capacity. It was like a theological kind of blotting paper. Hindus had no problem worshipping Jesus along with any other number of deities including Mohammed, Buddha, Shiva, Rama, Ganesh…every god or goddess being seen as being another aspect of an almighty supreme being.
However the thousands of Hindu pilgrims who came to Vailankanni didn’t come just to worship at a catholic church. They came for Mary – and not Mary as we in the West might know her, but rather in another incarnation: as a Mother Goddess. The image of Mary which was displayed everywhere around the pilgrimage site – and hung in the hotels and was available in poster form in countless little shops and stalls – was like no image Mary I had ever seen. She was portrayed in the fashion of the other Hindu deities: as a resplendently dressed Queen clad in long golden robes with a tall golden crown on her head, a gold sceptre in her right hand, and in her left, a little baby Prince Jesus – who was also attired in golden robes and sporting a tall gold crown.
I joined the masses as they thronged passed a long line of stalls selling souvenirs and drinks and snacks, and head to the main cathedral, hopeful of finding some suggestions of an old Portuguese cathedral (e.g. like in Old Goa). In 1962 the then pope had declared it to be a basilica or ‘sacred place.’ From the outside, it was nothing special. Its gothic towers were impressive enough, but gleaming in their new coat of white paint, they looked like something you’d expect to see on top of a wedding cake.
Unfortunately only one section of the cathedral was open. I was told I could go into the main basilica when there was a service. I made a mental note of that.
In the section open to the public, there wasn’t much to see really. It had undergone extensive renovations about a decade ago. There were no high ceilings, no grand altar, no alcoves with paintings and statues, and no gravestones on the floor. It had been divided into two sections. In one section there was a narrow hall dedicated to Our Lady. On the wall was the ubiquitous image of the Queen with her little Prince. It was very crowded. As was the Hindu custom, everyone had left their sandals and shoes outside the entrance. People were standing in front of Our Lady pressing their palms together and kneeling, as they would in a temple before a Hindu deity. And true to the Hindu custom, there were lots of flowers gathered on the floor at the foot of the image.
In the other section of the church was a wide room with a low ceiling from which hung loops of bright red tinsel as if it were an office decorated for a staff party. At the front there was a podium and microphone. Next to the podium, on a raised platform, was a doll house recreation of the birth of Jesus. There were coloured plastic figurines of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus and the three wise men. There were camels and cows and sheep. It looked like something which a bunch of primary school kids had put together as an end of term project. In front of it, on the floor, were people kneeling, locked fervently in prayer. Others were lying on the floor, completely prostrated. I found it difficult to fathom how anyone could kneel or lie in reverence before a set of coloured plastic dolls. I could understand someone worshipping before a god finely sculptured from wood or stone, a sculptural equivalent of Bach. If people had to worship idols, the idols could at least be beautiful. The coloured plastic figurines were, for me, the artistic equivalent of garden gnomes and the antithesis of anything sacred.
But this was just the beginning.
The main church was originally an old structure which had been renovated.
The other shrines had all been built during the last decade in order to provide more places of worship (read: religious attractions) for the steadily increasing stream of pilgrims. Growth begets growth and that’s certainly so in the case of Vailankanni. At the main church, I had simply got the first taste of what was, on a larger scale, a religious Disneyland.
I followed the masses to a shrine called ‘Our Lady’s Tank’.
This had been built to commemorate one of the two occasions when the Blessed Virgin was said to have appeared before mortals at Vailankanni and performed a miracle. In this case, she appeared before a Hindu boy carrying a pot of milk who had rested under a banyan tree. She asked him for some milk for her baby and he gave her the pot. When he turned up at his employer’s house with an empty pot, the employer was not happy: then a miracle happened and the pot filled up to the brim with milk.
The shrine was built at the site of the banyan tree where the Blessed Virgin had appeared.
There was a series of white gothic towers and inside a circular room, where there was a blown up digital image of a tropical scene with palm trees and a lake and a banyan tree and the Hindu milk boy, and in the sky, the image of Our Lady with her little Prince.
The approach to the shrine consisted of a wide bed of sand flanked on each side by stone paths. On the sand were people edging forth on their knees, crawling on their hands and knees, or, lying on their sides and rolling. The distance to the shrine was a good half a kilometre and it was hot: the devout had an awful lot of edging, crawling and rolling to do. On the stone paths were long streams of people. Some of them were chanting, others, singing. At regular intervals on the way there were alcoves featuring scenes from the story of the crucifixion of Christ portrayed in yes, more plastic figurines.
At the shrine of Our Lady’s Tank, thick with pilgrims, a brisk business was going on selling plastic bottles of Holy Water and Blessed Oil. There was a separate building to handle the sales, with long guard rails to ensure that everyone had to cue to get to a counter. The Holy Water and Blessed Oil, it was believed, had miraculous healing qualities. If someone was sick or suffering from some kind of disability, the water and oil was rubbed on like a kind of magic salve. Instinctively I thought about the dysentery which only days before had been gouging me away from inside; I was glad that I had a strip of powerful antibiotics to deal with it rather a bottle of holy water or holy oil.
There were also a large canteen and some banyan trees – real ones, not digitalized images.
I sat in the shade and watched the crowds of people lining up to buy their holy water and blessed oil.
Departing the shrine and heading back down the long path, I saw a sign for an ‘Institute of Mariology’.
Visiting the other shrines, I discovered a familiar theme: the triumph of kitsch.
What a sad contrast Vailankanni made with the churches and cathedrals I had seen in old Goa not to mention Europe.
Here, the worship of Barbie dolls had triumphed.
On the other hand, unlike old Goa, Vailankanni was thriving. It was popular and it was growing.
Someone had put together a business plan here and it was working.
From the main church, in the opposite direction to Our Lady’s Tank, there was a long arcade about twenty metres wide and half a kilometre long leading down to the beach.
How many people can you fit into a space twenty metres wide by half a kilometre long?
There must be a fixed mathematical answer to that question.
Whatever it is, that’s how many people were in that arcade.
There was not an open space or even a suggestion of an open space to be seen anywhere.
It was quite a sight.
I joined the crowd and allowed it to push me slowly towards the beach. On either side of the arcade there were lurid souvenir shops and kitsch emporiums with big signs and flashing lights. Religious fervour apparently led to consumer fever. Rarely have I seen a greater quantity of cheap junk on sale in any one place (though I admit I’m not an expert on this subject).
Why was it that amongst all those hundreds of stalls and emporiums, no one sold any kind of religious artefacts of any quality or artistic integrity?
Why couldn’t Our Lady inspire something else in the hearts of the human race than banality?
I found it hard to take Vailankanni seriously.
The kitsch was only part of the story.
It was one thing to believe in a Divine Creator, Intelligent Design, a life after death and so on, but it was another thing entirely, as far as I was concerned, to believe in apparitions and miracles. Much of what I had seen at Vailankanni qualified in my own mind as voodoo, superstition, backwardness: the ultimate proof of Man’s deep irrationality.
The following day however I got another perspective on matters.
This happened when I went in search of an English language book about Vailankanni and how it was established. I wanted to find out how a church built centuries ago, when the Portuguese commanded a mighty seafaring empire, had metamorphosed into a modern Indian spiritual industry and a corporate success story.
Near the basilica, I saw a sign for a ‘bookshop’. The bookshop however did not have any books. There were only souvenirs, including Mary statues big and small, framed posters and flashing light displays, and a full range of cassettes, CD’s and DVDs – about Vailankanni and Our Lady. The only trace of the English language in the ‘book shop’ was the music playing. It was country and western and I think it’s a fair thing to say, from an American who was a born again Christian. It was all about his momma. She was the best momma in the whole world etc. One day she was called to Heaven and even if she’d known how to come back to earth she wouldn’t have done it because she was up in Heaven with the Angels and the Lord ….and two days after she went away, the first snowflakes for winter fell and ..
Someone pointed me in the direction of a place opposite the bookshop called the ‘Offerings Museum’. In the museum they told me, there was a shop which sold books including in English.
I’ve visited a few museums in my time, but never one like this.
In long rows of glass display cabinets there were testimonials from people who claimed to have been helped in a miraculous way by Our Lady.
The testimonials took the form of a typed or neatly hand written letter detailing the nature of the miracle, along with a photo of the person or persons involved. Many of the testimonials were in Tamil, but there were quite a few in English too. There must have been hundreds of letters in the ‘Offerings Museum’. I went from one glass cabinet to the next avidly reading every one. Some of the letters came with a gift or the announcement of a donation.
The great majority of the testimonials were from Hindus.
I had to smile at some of the miracles attributed to Our Lady. One couple wrote that they had been very poor but after going on a pilgrimage to Vailankanni and praying to her, money ‘came from an unexpected source’ and they were able to buy a house and a new car. A woman detailed how she had been involved in a land dispute with her neighbour; after praying to Our Lady she got a ‘much bigger settlement than expected’ (words underlined). Another woman described how her six year old son swallowed a fish hook but after the whole family got down on their hands and knees and asked Our Lady to save the boy, he miraculously ‘excreted’ the fish-hook, which she’d thoughtfully enclosed with her letter (the hook I mean). A man wrote to thank Our Lady for helping his daughter to gain entrance to Chennai Medical School.
Most of the testimonials however were about your, shall we say, ‘conventional’ kind of faith healing miracle. I found these letters very moving. A typical letter was that of a Mr Rama Krisna. He pointed out that he wasn’t a Christian. His son Raju had been diagnosed with liver cancer. The doctors had given him only months to live. Mr and Mrs Krisna and their son went to Vailankanni and prayed to Our Lady for a month. The boy recovered. Wrote Rama Krisna: ‘The doctors declared that my son’s cure defied all medical knowledge. Our most sincere thanks to Our Lady of Vailankanni for this miraculous cure’. Many other letters were variations on this theme. In some cases, the sick person was treated with Holy Water and Blessed Oil, as well as praying to Our Lady. I had no doubt that if one believed in something strongly enough, it could affect a cure where medical science had given up. The human psychology was a mysterious place. Other letters were from women who wanted to thank Our Lady for their happy marriages to gentle, non-drinking husbands, or couples who wanted to thank Our Lady for having blessed them with beautiful children. There under the glass panes of the cabinets in the Offerings Museum was a display of human hopes in all their simplicity and urgency: basic human desires a long way removed from the high ideals of visionaries and ideologists. Good health, a good marriage, a happy family, a happy home: there it was: the ambitions of most people on the planet. You couldn’t help but sympathise with the parents who turned to Mary in desperation to save their sick child or the husband who turned to Our Lady to save his wife (or vice versa). Vailankanni may have been a symbol for Man’s irrationality, yet to deny humans the need to be irrational, to believe in the unbelievable, was to deny humans an essential part of what it meant to be human. It was to force humans to be something they weren’t. And it was to deny the relentless cruelty of Life, which often left human beings with little choice but to grasp at whatever straws they could.
In the Offerings Museum, there was indeed a bookshop.
Most of the books were in Tamil, but there were a few in English.
I found one called ‘Shrine History of Vailankanni’ and bought it. I still have it today.
Flipping through the pages, this is what I discovered: Vailankanni was one of the biggest spiritual complexes in India. Besides the numerous pilgrims accommodation lodges, there was a counselling centre, a renewal centre, a retirement centre, hospital, orphanage, primary and secondary schools, dispensary, open air auditorium, canteens, homes for the mentally challenged, aged and disabled, retreat centre (conference hall, chapels, 75 rooms, dining hall), institute for Mariology (promoting ‘the study of the Blessed Virgin on basis of intellectually convincing knowledge of God’).
Then I read the following:
‘From 1963 onwards the Shrine witnessed a rapid progress in its growth, largely due to the zealous and dynamic priests …..each vied with the other to make the Shrine of Vailankanni an ideal place for worship for pilgrims by providing a prayerful atmosphere in and around the Shrine campus. They also strove …to provide adequate facilities for the ever increasing number of pilgrims’.
In this they had been very successful. The Shrine had displayed an impressive degree of growth. A key figure in this proud history had been the Very Reverend Maria Susai. It was he who during the early 1960’s, after the Vailankanni church had been made a basilica by the Pope, had seen the potential for Vailankanni as a major pilgrim destination. Besides initiating the program to build pilgrims quarters and to renovate the basilica, he was responsible for the building of the shrine at Our Lady’s Tank. Furthermore:
‘He had been instrumental in bringing out the movie ‘Annai Vailankanni’ which presents not only the history of the Shrine but also the miracles taking place there. It is no exaggeration to say that this film was largely influential in the sudden surge of pilgrims to the Shrine of Vailankanni in the last twenty years. Indian Overseas Bank was opened in the new block during this period. ‘
Susai ‘s pioneering work had been continued by the other priests.
On my last night in Vailankanni, I wanted to attend a mass in the basilica: to enter the main section of the cathedral and take a look around and also, to experience a service attended by hundreds of people. Cram-packed cathedrals were a rare thing in Europe.
Every day, masses were held in five Indian languages, and English. I wanted to attend the English one. But I got the timing wrong and as I approached the basilica, throngs of people were pouring out on to the pavement outside, which was already quite crowded with people out for an evening stroll.
Music was playing from loudspeakers. It was identical to temple music with drums, flutes, clarinets, and interchanging male and female vocals.
Then She appeared, another highly revered Lady for the Hindus: Our Lady, Mother Cow.
The crush of people miraculously separated to let Her pass unimpeded.
It was really quite touching.
Then I stared in disbelief: it was the very same cow which only the day before I had seen eating ‘The Times of India’.
The photos accompanying this article can be viewed on: