Devotion to Our Lady of Good Health of Velankanni can be traced back to the mid-16th century, and is attributed to three separate miracles at the sites surrounding the Basilica:
These accounts are oral lore with no written record or attested sources to support them.
Initially, only a simple and modest chapel was built by the Portuguese sailors who washed ashore safely. More than 500 years later, the nine-day festival and celebration is still observed and draws nearly 5 million pilgrims each year.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni is also known as “the Lourdes of the East” because it is one of the most frequented pilgrimage centres in India.
There are no historical documents about the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Velankanni.
Oral tradition is the source for the two apparitions of the Blessed Mother of Velankanni in the 16th century, and the saving of the Portuguese sailors from a tempest in the Bay of Bengal in the later 17th century. This well/pool is situated where the first apparition had occurred.
The first Marian apparition is said to have occurred in May 1570, when a local shepherd boy was delivering milk to a nearby house. Along the way he met a beautiful woman holding a child, who asked for some milk for the little one.
After giving her the milk, he continued on his way, and upon making the delivery discovered that the jug was now completely full of fresh, cool milk.
A small shrine was built near the site where the boy encountered the woman, a location that came to be called Matha Kulam, which means Our Lady’s Pool.
The second Marian apparition is said to have happened in 1597, not far from Matha Kulam.
A beautiful woman with a young boy in her arms appeared to a young crippled boy selling buttermilk. The little boy asked for some buttermilk, and after he drank it, the woman asked the boy selling buttermilk to visit a gentleman in the next town and ask him to build a chapel in her honor at that location. The boy set out quickly and realized that he was no longer lame.
A small thatched chapel was quickly built in honor of Our Lady of Health, called in Tamil “Arokia Matha”.
The third incident occurred when a Portuguese ship sailing from Macao to Sri Lanka was caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal. They invoked the help of the Blessed Virgin under her title “Star of the Sea“. The storm subsided and the 150 men on board were saved.
It was 8 September, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. In thanksgiving, the sailors rebuilt the Shrine to Our Lady of Good Health, and continued to enhance it whenever their voyages brought them to the area.
The shrine that started as a thatched chapel in the mid-sixteenth century became a parish church in 1771 when Catholics in India were under persecution from the Dutch. Later in 1962 it was granted a Special status of a Minor Basilica by Pope John XXIII.
The shrine of Vailankanni was elevated to the status of ‘Minor Basilica’ and merged with the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome on 3 November 1962 by Pope John XXIII.
For Goan and Konkani people, she is called “Shantadurga” (most compassionate one). This especially includes use of Kotimaram, which has been described as an extended influence of Hinduism on Catholicism, thus making the Basilica a meeting point of two of the major religions of the world
The usual time for pilgrimage is during the annual festival between 29 August to 6 September and Christmas. Some pilgrims, instead of using a mode of transport, perform “walking pilgrimages” to it.
They attend mass, novenas, flag-hoisting and carry a Palkhi of Mary in a procession. A major event is the procession, where only women are allowed to pull the first car and a statue of Mary is in the last and most decorated one.
People of other religions also take part. The pilgrims sometimes shave their heads as an offering and perform ear-piercing ceremonies, both being Hindu traditions.
Another ritual considered sacred is dipping oneself in the pond. There is a holy flag which is lowered to signal the end of the festival.
Due to the number of pilgrim visits during festival season, the Indian Railways introduced special train services to the town of Velankanni.
Layout of the Basilica complex: 1. Basilica, 2. Nadu Thittu shrine, site of second apparition, 3. Adoration & Reconciliation chapel, 4. Our Lady’s Pond, site of first apparition, 5. Stations of the cross, 6. Stations of the Rosary, 7. Stations of the Sacraments
The Basilica is built in the Gothic style of architecture. The southern side was extended in 1928 and the northern in 1933.
The Shrine Basilica contains three chapels, as well as Our Lady’s Tank, Church Museum, Priests’ Residence, Offering Center, Stations of the Cross, Stations of the Rosary, Shrine Mega Mahal and Vailankanni Beach. The building is painted in white, except for the roof that is made of red tiles.
In 1928, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (managed by the Jesuits) was demolished and the statues were brought to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Health; in 1933 the Shrine was expanded with two new wings, to the right and to the left of the ‘Main Altar’, meeting the nave at right angles
A spacious vestry was provided immediately behind the altar. Thus the entire sacred edifice began to assume the shape of a Latin Cross. Right over the center of the ancient main altar was the miraculous image of Our Lady of Good Health.
In 1956, a new welcome arch was blessed and opened by Bishop Sundaram. The illuminated arch stood to show the way to eager pilgrims who sought the protection of Mary.
In January 1961, a new central altar, executed in white marble, replaced the former one made of cement concrete. In 1974-75, an extension of the basilica was built behind the existing central altar to accommodate the multilingual pilgrims.
The extension included a two-storied church with 93 feet (28 m) high dome and 82 feet (25 m) high gothic spirals. It was designed to resemble the Basilica in Lourdes, France