Velankanni, officially spelled as Vailankanni (Virgin of Velai, the town), also spelled as “Velanganni” (due to Tamil to English Transliteration), is a panchayat town in Nagapattinam district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and a parish under Tanjore Roman Catholic Diocese. It is a smalltown located on the shores of the Bay of Bengal 350 km south of Chennai (Madras) and 12 km south of Nagapattinam on the Coromandel Coast, in Tamil Nadu, India.
Once a port that traded with Rome and Greece, the tiny commercial center gradually lost its importance to the larger city of Nagapattinam. The canal built to link this town with Vedaranyam still lies to the west. The Vellayar, a minor branch of the Cauvery River, runs south of the town and discharges into the sea.The town is home to a significant Roman Catholic shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health. The church can be traced to the mid-16th century and its founding is attributed to three miracles: the apparition of Mary and Jesus to a slumbering shepherd boy, the curing of a lame buttermilk vendor, and the survival of Portuguese sailors assaulted by a violent sea storm.
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Although all three events resulted in the erection of a shrine, it was the promise of the Portuguese sailors that caused a permanent edifice to be built at Velankanni. The chapel was dedicated on the feast of the Nativity of Mary (8 September), the day of their safe landing. More than 500 years later, the festival and celebration is still observed and draws nearly 2 million pilgrims each year. The Shrine of Our Lady of Velankanni, also known as the “Lourdes of the East”,is one of the most frequented religious sites in India. The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health was built in the late 16th century with modifications by Portuguese and further expansions later on due to influx of pilgrimages.
The Gothic style of architecture is a unique feature of the church. The church itself is an imposing building with inspiring architecture. While the buildings have been painted white, the roof of the church is made of red tiles, providing a striking contrast to the colour of the walls.
As a token of gratitude to Mary, Portuguese sailors who escaped from a severe cyclone, built a 24 foot by 12 foot shrine with a dome overhead. In their subsequent visits, they brought porcelain plates and other artistic offerings to beautify it. The main ornamentation was a statue of Mary holding her infant son, standing on a globe. The keepers of the shrine eventually built a museum to display theofferings. Periodically this is changed and the new items are added to the showcases.
In the year 1771, Velankanni acquired the status of a parish with Antonio de Rozario as the first parish priest. The church building was raised to the status ofbasilica in 1962 by Pope John XXIII.Every year, 10 days of festivals are celebrated in August and September, attracting about 1.5 million people.Masses are conducted in at least eight languages including Tamil, English, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, Hindi and Marathi.
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.