Marian Shrine of Vailankanni in India: The ‘Lourdes of the East’

That’s how Pope St. John Paul II described Asia’s biggest Marian shrine, dedicated to Our Lady of Health, which remains distinct in many ways.

The Marian Shrine of Vailankanni is a beloved place of pilgrimage.
The Marian Shrine of Vailankanni is a beloved place of pilgrimage. (photo: Anto Akkara photos)

CHENNAI, India — Alongside the leading Marian shrines worldwide — like Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal and Guadalupe in Mexico — comes the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health at Vailankanni, 200 miles south of Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state.

The biggest Marian shrine in Asia, thronged by more than 10 million pilgrims a year, is known as the “Lourdes of the East,” the history of which is more than 500 years old, with miraculous appearances of Mother Mary.

Portuguese sailors who survived a shipwreck with what they believed was the intercession of Mary on their way from Macao to Colombo in the 18th century rebuilt the church that had been built after she had appeared to a lame boy whom she then healed, according to tradition.

“The church had a miraculous beginning,” Father John Zakarias, author of the book Vailankanni — Yesterday and Today, told the Register Feb. 22.

“In the later part of the 16th century, Our Lady is said to have appeared and indicated the spot where she wanted the chapel to be erected,” said Father Zakarias, who is chancellor of the Diocese of Thanjavur, under whose authority the shrine falls.

Though there is “no historical evidence” about the first chapel at Vailankanni, Father Zakarias noted “the existence of the chapel at Vailankanni is mentioned” in the early 17th century by historian Paulo da Trinidade, who composed a chronicle of Church events in Asia during 1630-1635. “He refers to the church under the patronage of ‘Our Lady of Health’ and cites ‘plenty of miracles’ attributed to Our Lady at Vailankanni.”

The chapel, which remained under the care of Franciscan missionaries from Portugal for centuries, is now a shrine that spreads across nearly 100 acres, including the basilica, which faces the sea and the serene beach of the Bay of Bengal.

The basilica in its present form has been built in stages since 1928, with the more spacious rear-side extension constructed in the mid-1970s to accommodate multilingual services.

The magnificent “Morning Star” Cathedral, blessed in 2013, stands on the far end of the sprawling campus that also includes churches dedicated exclusively for adoration and confessions. A 60-foot-high statue of the Sacred Heart overlooks the basilica, and pathways with scenes of Stations of the Cross and the Rosary offer pilgrims an atmosphere conducive to prayer.

This all makes for a uniquely bustling pilgrim center, complete with lodging options. Shops and street vendors selling rosaries of all hues and designs do good business, along with offering specifically Vailankanni Marian memorabilia.

Healing Remains Central

The potential for a healing remains the biggest attraction to the shrine, which was appropriately acknowledged by the Vatican with the celebration of the 10th World Day of the Sick at Vailankanni on Feb. 11, 2002.

The shrine has a testimonial center that has chronicled nearly 10,000 personal acknowledgements of miraculous healings, blessings to childless couples, dream houses built, jobs granted and lost things found.

Pope John Paul II, in his message on the occasion, referred to Vailankanni as the “Lourdes of the East.” He also recalled an earlier July 31, 1988, message in which he noted, “Today millions of people are coming to Vailankanni throughout the year to seek the intercession of Our Lady of Health, Vailankanni.”

Besides the people of Tamil Nadu, thousands of pilgrims from across the country and outside, especially from the Catholic heartlands of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Mumbai and other parts of India, flock to the shrine.

The Sept. 8 feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, preceded by a novena, draws nearly 2 million pilgrims each year. The biggest weekly attraction is the Saturday evening Rosary procession, with cries of Ave Maria renting the air as sick people, some in wheelchairs, are brought in seeking healing.

Dozens can be seen crawling on their knees saying the Rosary — the devotion that remains the crux of the pilgrimage to Vailankanni.

A lay group could be seen distributing free lunch for the destitute and beggars under the umbrella of “Vailankanni Cares” at noon during a visit to the shrine a week before Christmas.

“We started the service during the COVID time, in March 2020, when the poor were in a difficult situation. Now, we are doing it every day for at least 150 people. Sometimes we have sponsors. If not, we meet the expenses ourselves,” said Leon Anton Vijay, who coordinates the effort.

Tonsuring heads (cutting of hair to show religious devotion) in thanksgiving is a unique custom in Vailankanni. The church runs a huge tonsuring center where dozens can get tonsuring done simultaneously at a nominal fee apart, and several private salons offer the same service.

And the shrine does not only attract Christian pilgrims.

“A lot of pilgrims are Hindus and even Muslims,” Father C. Irudayaraj, rector of the shrine, told the Register.

A 2023 calendar with a Vailankanni Mother picture was being distributed free during a December visit to the shrine. Kathir Vel was the man behind the calendar distribution.

“My business is doing very well now,” the Hindu businessman who has a textile showroom, told the Register on Feb. 22, speaking from his base at Pondicherry, 100 miles away, highlighting the faith of even Hindus about the intercession of Mary.

When the devastating 2004 tsunami stuck the Tamil Nadu coast, nearly 900 people died in the vicinity of the Marian shrine, including hundreds of pilgrims. A memorial pillar has been erected over where those who perished were buried together.

As reported at the time, despite the death and devastation around the shrine, water miraculously did not enter the church when Mass was in progress. Consequently, not a single person died in the church.

Personal Experience

I have also experienced the miraculous intervention of Vailankanni Mother personally, with the release of my book Early Christians of 21st Century at the silver-jubilee assembly of the Catholic Bishops‘ Conference of India (CCBI) by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, on Feb. 11, 2013.

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the CCBI president, had agreed to my request to release my book, which chronicles the remarkable witness of faith stemming from the deadly 2008 persecution of Christians in Kandhamal in eastern Odisha state, at the assembly of 130 bishops. But two days beforehand, Cardinal Toppo announced that the session was canceled because Cardinal Filoni’s flight was delayed, and the book release instead would occur at an earlier dinner. That was not what I wanted, with my entire family of five brothers scheduled to come to Vailankanni for the event.

So I took the first copy of the book to be touched and blessed at the main shrine statue. Seeing the book, the attendant almost refused, because normally they take only sacred items like rosaries, crosses and Marian icons for touching on the statue. But I insisted. When I reached the conference venue after that, Cardinal Toppo and Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay were awaiting Cardinal Filoni’s arrival at the portico.

Seeing me, Cardinal Toppo told Cardinal Gracias that he had planned to release my book at dinner but said, “That is not fair.” So, he said, it will happen at the closing session of the conference. But he told me that it would be for just two minutes and advised, “You cannot speak,” as Cardinal Filoni’s felicitations, Pope’s Benedict XVI’s message and the CCBI silver jubilee closing program would all have to be presented in that hour timespan.

But when the Holy Spirit works, things go differently. After his opening remarks at the closing session, Cardinal Toppo said, “Now we will have a special book release,” and he proceeded to speak eloquently about the Kandhamal witnesses and called me on to the stage. Cardinal Filoni formally released the book, and then Cardinal Toppo asked me to speak. Meanwhile, Cardinal Filoni went through the book, and he too spoke highly about Kandhamal’s martyrs and the book. Later, he even wanted a photo with my entire family.

That is how the Vailankanni Mother draws millions to the shrine. Mother Mary, thank you for your intercession.