Vailankanni” (Meaning: Virgin of Velai, the town), also known as “Velankanni” or “Velanganni”, is a hamlet on the sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal. It is located 350 kilometers south of Chennai (previously called Madras the capital of Tamil Nadu, a South Eastern state of India) and 12 kilometers south of Nagappatinam. Nagapattinam, a town on the coast of Bay of Bengal, was referred by early writers and the Portuguese as “the city of Coramandel’ (Imperial Gazetteer of India, XIX, 3). Vellayar river, a minor branch of the river Cauvery, runs on the south of the village and flows into the sea.
Readers may be startled to learn that Vailankanni was once a port and there is evidence to prove this. Historical notes reveal that people in this area traded with Rome and Greece, the ancient commercial centers of the western world.
In the course of time, Nagapattinam expanded and this tiny commercial center (Vailankanni) gradually lost its importance. The canal that had been dug once for navigation between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam still lies to the west of Vailankanni. The site of this important Christian shrine, Vailankanni was one of the worst hit areas in the Tsunami that followed the Dec 26, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
Where To Stay
The office of the church is situated exactly opposite to the Vailankanni bus stand, from where boarding arrangements can be made. Both rooms and cottages are available. The church has 1,620 rooms and 11 halls (50 to 100 people can stay in each). Tariffs range from Rs 40 to Rs 100 per day.
Apart from that there are about 50 other hotels, which offer clean but simple rooms. They are situated in the town where the tariff ranges from Rs 60 to Rs 500. Both air conditioned or non-air conditioned ones are available. Extra payment has to be made for hot water. At the festival time people rent out their houses as well.
To cope with the rush during the September festival, the church is building a huge hall on one acre of land. Fifteen thousand pilgrims will be able to stay here. Food is cheap and is available in small “eating houses” and food stalls on the main road. There are stalls on either side from the bus stop to the church. There are only two STD booths (for making long distance calls) here. One in the church compound and the other near the bus stop.
The Shrine Basilica provides cheap and best accommodation facility. The Shrine ‘Rooms Booking Office’ renders excellent service round the clock. The Shrine has 13 lodges housing 933 rooms of different types. Voluntary Maintenance charges ranging from Rs.20 to 100 per day (24 hrs.) is collected.
The Shrine canteen caters to the needs of all standards of people mainly at the reach of the poor & helpless, with both veg and non-veg food, at moderate prices aiming at no-profit and no-loss motto to serve the pilgrims. It functions every day from 6.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m.
Vailankanni festival is celebrated every year from August 29 to September 8. September 8 is considered auspicious because it was the day the Portuguese sailors first landed in these parts and they built the first actual church.
On August 29 a huge procession of devotees make their way to the church. The impressive flag hoisting ceremony marks the beginning of the festival. This ceremony is attended by the district collector and other VIPs.
At 8 pm, the chariot procession starts with three chariots of The Mother, St Michael and St Joseph. This chariot procession takes place every day of the festival. On the penultimate day six chariots join the procession and on the last day seven.
Mass is usually conducted in Tamil, Malayalam and English, from 6 am in the morning till 6.30 pm in the evening (rosary and novena prayers). During the festival days the Mass is also conducted in English, Konkani, Marathi, Malayalam and Telugu.
On September 7 and 8, the evening prayers are conducted by the Bishops of Thanjavur. Cultural programmes are also conducted for the pilgrims. The festival ends with the lowering of the flag on the September 8 at 6 pm.
Throughout the year a chariot procession takes place every Saturday. The chariot procession is also conducted on special occasions such as Independence Day. The procession involves a candle-lit parade, with hymns.
On the first Friday of every month, a procession is conducted around the shrine at 6.45 pm. This is followed by benediction from the front balcony of the extension of the basilica.
On the first Saturday of the month, after the chariot procession, the blessed sacrament is displayed for worship. A layman, from Chennai, comes specially to grace this occasion. People who are sick attend this ceremony in large numbers. The layman divides the crowd into groups according to their illness. Each group is separately blessed with the holy sacrament. This is followed by a special mass from 9 pm to midnight
As per the 2001 India census, Velankanni had a population of 10,144. Males constitute 48% of the population and females 52%. Velankanni has an average literacy rate of 69%, higher than the national average of 59.5%: male literacy is 75%, and female literacy is 64%. In Velankanni, 12% of the population is under 6 years of age.
Christianity in India
Indian Christians claim an ancient heritage. According to tradition, the Apostle Thomas landed on the Malabar coast of southwest India in A.D. 52 (now Kerala). He healed the sick and demon-possessed, converted people from various castes, and finally died in Mylapore (now within the huge city of Madras, recently renamed Chennai) at the hands of hostile Brahmans. The second-century Acts of Thomas relates that Thomas encountered an Indian official named Abban in Jerusalem, who invited him to come to India to build a palace for King Gundaphorus. Thomas agreed to go with Abban, and the king eventually became a believer. Indian Christians still make pilgrimages to shrines that remember Thomas.
Tamil Nadu is the supposed burial place of the Apostle Thomas and is associated with a number of famous Christian leaders including the Irish missionary Amy Carmichael, the historian Stephen Neill, the theologian Lesslie Newbigin, and the popular apologist Ravi Zacharias.