Indian clergy and pilgrims alike refer to the Velankanni Shrine as the "Lourdes of the
East" This reputation is not derived from the miraculous power of any of the numerous
statues of the Virgin Mary of Lourdes brought to India in the nineteenth century by
fathers of the "Missions Etrangeres de Paris" or French Jesuits, but rests on the
authenticity of the Virgin Mary's apparitions in India, on the recognition of the
therapeutic power of the Virgin called Arokkiya Mata (Mother of Good Health), as well as
on the heavy attendance of pilgrims. However, this comparison seems unwarranted insofar
as the atmosphere and the practices at the Velankanni Shrine differ from those
characterizing Lourdes. Were it not for the immense white basilica which rises
prominently above the small thatch-roofed huts, the displays of statues and colour
prints of the Madonna and the saints, the accumulation of candles of various shapes,
colours and sizes, or the blaring of religious celebrations from the numerous
loudspeakers which line the approaches to the shrine, might well cause one to imagine
this to be one of the centres of Hindu pilgrimage in the region.
The existence in this region of a Catholic shrine, having national and
federative dimensions, visited as it is by Catholics from throughout India as well as
Tamilians from all castes and all religions, is surprising when one considers the minor
presence of this faith. Of course, some twenty kilometers from Velankanni there is the
town of Karaikal where the diffident French presence left its legacy, a Jesuit cathedral
and a small shrine to Saint Antony of Padua, but this is an exception. As for the small
town of Nagappattinam located ten kilometers from Velankanni, it is difficult to imagine
that, beginning in the sixteenth century, it was once an important Portuguese commercial
and missionary centre, to such an extent have the vestiges of this past disappeared.
Although history offers little towards the understanding of the emergence and
renown of Velankanni, one can turn to the particularisms which lend the shrine its
originality and contribute to its reputation. This text therefore examines these
particularisms, especially those defined by the Catholic religion which present
pan-Indian cultural or denominational specificities.
Are these particularisms the consequence of the "hinduisation" of Indian
Catholicism? Of an "indianisation" of the form of worship? Of the convergence of complex
phenomena involved in the encounter between Catholic practices and Indian culture?
Rather than immediately offering an analysis of these phenomena,, I shall present here
the elements of an ethnographic survey which will make it possible to compare the
practices and conceptions in the Catholicism of Velankanni with those such as are found
in Hinduism and in Indian culture.
I shall approach the complexity and plurality of the processes of contact and
transformation of Catholicism in Velankanni through two main themes, namely, the caste
system and representations of the Virgin Mary according to community, an approach which
will be developed in three sections.
The first section will examine the social, political and economic organization
of the village, through which the structure of the caste communities of Christians will
be analysed with reference to the social and spatial organization of the Hindu
The second section, which consists of a combination of the two themes, will
consider the Virgin Mary at the Shrine Basilica. The organization of the shrine and
above all of the patronal festival conditioned by the local caste system will enable us
to describe the roles assumed by the Virgin among the dominant caste of pattanavar
fishermen, and to observe the manner in which their precedence is exercised and
perceived by those who do not share it. While the basilica possesses a local dimension
because the pattanavar look upon the Virgin located there as their caste deity,
Velankanni has two other Marian shrines, the Chapel of the Apparition and the Chapel of
Viyakula Mata, which are specifically visited by pilgrims.
The roles of the Virgin established in each of these places will be analysed in
the third section. It will be seen that at the Chapel of the Apparition the Virgin is
invested with powers for dispensing familial well-being such as are inherent in village
deities, of which Mariyamman is the most widespread, while in the chapel where she bears
the name Viyakula Mata, her function is to re-establish desperate situations
attributable to a ceyvinai, sorcery, or to pey picacu, "evil spirits".
Back of the Book
Each year, hundred of thousands of pilgrims belonging to all the caste and all the
creeds converge towards the village of Velankanni to take part of the festival of its
patron organized from the 31st August to the 8th September. This important mobilization
is in keeping with the fame of the thaumaturgical power of the Virgin, known as Arokkiya
Mata, "Our Lady of Good Health". Nevertheless, this is not the sole explanation and
other factors will emerge during this study.
Social and economical relations between different communities of caste and
religion established in the village, composition and organization of the festival,
representations of the Virgin according to the villagers or to the pilgrims are the
points will be explore. They will allow on the part, to enlighten about the complexity
of the phenomena of "indigenization" of the Catholicism in India and the plurality of
its expressions, and on the other part, to do emerged the federal qualities of the
Virgin and of the shrine that justify their position of predominance.
Chaque annee, des centaines de milliers de pelerins de toutes confessions et de
toutes castes convergent vers le village de Velankanni pour assister a sa fete patronale
qui se deroule entre du 31 aout au 8 septembre. Cette forte mobilization est consequente
a la renommee des qualities thaumaturges de la Vierge, connue sous le vocable d'Arokkiya
Mata. Notre Dame de la Bonne 'Sante. Cependant, ce n'est pas la seule explication et
d'autres facteurs vont apparaitre au cours de la recherché.
Les relations socials et economiques entre les diverses communautes de caste et
de religion resident dans le village, la composition et l'organisation de la fate
patronale, les representations de la Vierge en function des gens du village ou des
pelerins sont les domains qui seront explorer. Ils vont permettre d'une part, de montrer
la complexite du phenomene d indigenization du catholicime en Inde et la pluralite de
ses expressions, et d'autre part, de faire emerger les qualities federatrices de la
Vierge et du sanctuaire qui justifient leur positioned precellence.
Brigitte Sebastia has studied Social Anthropology at Centre of Anthropology of
Toulouse (E.H.E.S.S.-CNRS-Universities of Toulouse-le-Mirail and Paul Sabatier) up to
2001. One of her interests is the study of the phenomena of "indigenization" of
Christianity in India. She is now affiliated to the French Institute of Pondicherry as a
research scholar where she is studying the shrine of St. Antony of Padua at Puliyampatti
situated in Tuticorin district that is frequented by persons suffering of mentally
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