“Some time during the sixteenth century, Our Lady with her infant son appeared to a Hindu boy carrying milk to a customer’s home. While he rested under a banyan tree under a tank, Our Lady appeared to him and asked for milk for her son and the boy gave her some. On reaching the customer’s home, the boy apologised for his lateness and the reduced amount of milk by relating the incident that occurred on his way.

“On inspection, the man found the milk pot to be full and realised that something miraculous had happened. The man, also a Hindu, wanting to see the place where the apparition occurred, accompanied the boy. When they reached the tank, Our Lady appeared once again. On learning that it was Our Lady who appeared to the boy, the residents of the local Catholic community became ecstatic. The tank where the apparition took place is called ‘Matha Kulam’ or ‘Our Lady’s tank’.”

This is the origin of the legend of the Vailankanni Church according to the website maintained by its management. It’s a fabulous structure, a few miles from Nagapattinam on the Tanjore coast. The structure, also called the “Lourdes of the East”, came up after the Lady apparently saved Portuguese sailors from a violent sea storm, about five hundred years ago.

Now known as the basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, the church attracts about two million pilgrims each year. The church itself is an imposing white building. Over the years, the Portuguese brought porcelain plates and other relics to the shrine. In 1771, Vailankanni acquired the status of a parish and in 1962, the church building was raised to the status of a basilica by Pope John Paul XXIII. The main idol was a gift from the Portuguese. It is a statue of Mary holding her infant son and standing on a globe.

But beyond that, the church has spawned a wholly indigenous cult.

On the ten days of the annual festival, held between August and September, it sees all the local forms of worship, as Mass is conducted in at least eight languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, Hindi, Marathi and English. People from all religions and castes crowd the church now known for its miraculous powers of healing.

Velli, from Kerala, offered her hair at the shrine after her father was cured of an immune disorder. She is a Hindu and sees the Vailankanni Virgin as a Shakti figure, an Amman goddess. Another group of pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh stayed in Vailankanni for a week, praying for the health of their families. They were practising Hindus, but an annual visit to the church was now part of their cycle of life.

In the legend of this Mary, she reveals herself through gushing milk and blood. According to historian Susan Bayly, who briefly mentions this church in Saints, Goddesses and Kings, “This is a familiar motif in Tamil stalapurana (temple history).”

She also observes that the oral versions of the Vailankanni legend connect the Virgin even more explicitly with the surrounding Hindu sacred landscape.

“Officials who conduct pilgrims around the site declare that the basilica was built on the site of an existing Amman temple. According to one published foundation account, the Virgin established herself at Vailankanni after triumphing in a bloody battle against the reigning Tamil goddess.”

To my mind, history only bears out what I observed at Vailankanni. This was the most dynamic cult worship in a church that I have ever witnessed in India. Here, there is a constant stream of worshippers prostrating before the Virgin, lying flat on their stomachs, moving inch by inch towards the statue. They are making offerings, chanting their own prayers, asking for spirits to be exorcised, seeking miraculous cures, lighting incense sticks and candles.

In every sense, this was a church that was expanding its power, authority and popularity by accommodating every local custom and belief system. It was circumscribing nothing. Worshippers could see the Virgin as they chose to. They could worship as they chose to.

Excerpted with permission from In Good Faith: A Journey In Search Of An Unknown India, Saba Naqvi, Rupa Raintree.