Vijayawada (AsiaNews) The diocese of Vijayawada, in the Indian State of Andhra Pradesh, is home to the Shrine of Gunadala Lourdu Matha, one of the most important Marian places of worship in the Indian subcontinent. Its history is rooted in the Marian tradition of Fatima, Lourdes, and Velankanni.
For many years, it saw many acts of grace and miraculous healing. Pilgrims and the devout from across the State keep coming to pay homage to the Virgin.
The shrine's origins go back to 1923 when Msgr. Pezzoni, an Italian missioner with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, opened a school for orphans on 25 acres of land granted by the government at the foot of Gunadala hill.
The school's first director Father Arlati added more land to the property and officially opened an orphanage on June 15, 1924.
On the following year, he cleared a path up the hill and placed a small statue of Our Lady in a niche inside a grotto. Local worshippers started coming to pray before the statue.
A diligent lay missioner, Fr. Bertoli, promptly opened a path winding its way to the grotto. In a short time, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes became a regular festive event for local residents and Catholic institutions.
An iron cross was erected in 1933 atop the hill to commemorate the 25th jubilee of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It stands showing the way to each and every believer: "If you wish to find Jesus follow the example of the Virgin Mary."
Initially, the Feast day was set for September 8, but celebrations had to be postponed to February 11 because of heavy seasonal rains.
A new statue of Mary imported from Italy eventually replaced the original one and 15 paintings depicting the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary were placed along the path.
As the number of pilgrims grew, a church was built and the one-day celebrations became three.
Along the path that goes from the grotto to the base of the cross, a series of 14 stations representing the Via Crucis was built.
Msgr. Marampudi Joji, the diocese's fourth bishop, initiated the cause to elevate the Shrine to basilica status.
The structure itself has undergone major restoration work.
Over the years, several traditions linked to the Virgin of Gunadala evolved. The best known is the offering of hair, a practice steeped in Andhra Pradesh's Hindu tradition in which pilgrims bring hair to the temple.
During the three-day Marian celebrations theology students as well as others offer a chunk of their hair in symbolic renunciation of their beauty. Other pilgrims make offerings of flowers and coconuts.
Over the three-day period, an average 800,000 faithful make the journey to the shrine.
There are close to 240,000 Catholics in the diocese of Vijayawada out of a population of 4.5 million people.