09/01/2007, 00.00
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Millions of pilgrims on foot towards the Lourdes of the East

Each year, over 5 million faithful visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Vailankanni. Over 3 million of these undertake the journey between August 29th and September 8th to celebrate the Blessed Virgin, despite the searing heat and distance.

Chennai (AsiaNews/Ucan) – As the end of August approached, groups of Marian devotees dressed in saffron dotted highways leaving Chennai. They walked a slow but steady pace in the sultry weather. While many walked barefoot, some carried flags and a few pulled small cars decorated with images of the Blessed Mother.


Every year thousands of pilgrims from around Tamil Nadu state walk to Vailankanni (virgin of Velai), India's most popular Marian shrine. The festival begins at the shrine on Aug. 29 with a flag hoisting, and ends on Sept. 8 with a car procession. Church officials say nearly 3 million people visit the shrine during the festival season..


Vailankanni, also known as the Lourdes of the East, is India's most popular Marian shrine, situated some 310 kilometres south of Chennai. Thanjavur diocese manages the shrine. The Blessed Mother is said to have appeared to a disabled Hindu boy at the site in the 16th century and healed him. Around 5 million people visit the Catholic shrine from all over India every year. More than half the pilgrims are from other religions.


Selvam Victor, 43, led a group of 12 from Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital, 2,100 kilometres south of New Delhi. "We take this journey of faith to express our love and devotion to the Blessed Mother.  This journey is difficult and tiring, but the number of pilgrims walking every year has only increased”.


As preparation for the pilgrimage, Victor, an electrician, turned vegetarian and did not shave or cut his hair. He wore saffron, the colour denoting renunciation, and attended daily Mass.


After walking for three hours, Victor's group reached Tamara, on Chennai's outskirts, where they rested in a temporary shelter put up by local Catholics. After resting and filling up water bottles, the group resumed the walk, praying the rosary in Tamil. The group would stop at many more places during their 11-day walk.


Maria Susai, 28, a member of Victor's group, started to feel pain when his feet swelled the first day. The carpenter, who was making his first walking trip to the shrine, was not deterred. "I know this is difficult, but I will finish the trip with the blessing of Our Lady of Vailankanni”.


Soon, another group joined Victor's. "As the journey progresses, the number of groups joining together will increase, along with the sense of mutual admiration, love and solidarity," Victor observed.  The youngest member in the new group was sixth-grader Arockia Mary, whose name means Our Lady of Health in Tamil. Her mother, Celine Josephine, told UCA News: "I was childless for six years. My child was born with the blessing of the Blessed Mother, so we have named her after the Blessed Mother”. 


The woman, now making her third trip, said walking to the shrine is both penance and an expression of love. "During the journey, we reflect on our lives, our blessings and our sufferings”. Her daughter was accompanying her for the first time. "I will finish the journey and get blessed by Mother Mary”.


Pilgrims stay at various parishes and make arrangements for food before they start their journey. "Parishes are the best place to stay, as they are safe," said Franklin Vinod, another group leader. To avoid the harsh weather during the day, some pilgrims walk during the early morning and rest during the hotter hours.


Maria Selvam, 55, another member of Victor's group, said cell phones help pilgrims keep in touch with family members at home. This has made everyone feel safer and more secure.


After reaching Vailankanni, pilgrims visit the shrine, tonsure heads, take a bath in the nearby sea and change to street dress to mark the pilgrimage's end. But until they reach the shrine, the gentle recitation of the rosary will be heard on the highways of Tamil Nadu.


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