On one of their voyages up the Coromandel Coast the Portuguese were blown ashore in a storm, at a fishing village 12 km south of Nagapattinam. They declared that the Virgin Mary had saved them and in thanksgiving took over the local Velankanni Amman Temple. This village has now become the famous Christian pilgrimage centre of Velankanni. The original Devi temple was enclosed within the first Portuguese church, known as the Mada Koil, that is situated at a distance from the present Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. The stone image of the Devi was on public display until some years ago, but has since been removed and an image of the Virgin Mary put in its place. – Ishwar Sharan
Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is a Christian pilgrimage site—that is what most of us have been led to believe. We may however be surprised to learn about its Śaiva origins.
“Kaṇṇi” in Tamil means “she who has beautiful eyes”. In the agam poems of the Sangam corpus belonging to the kuriñjithiṇai, we find the name of an ancient lady poet bearing the name Kāma-kaṇṇi.
In the history of the Śaiva tradition in Tamil Nadu, there is one thing that draws our attention—in the śivālayas that were constructed after the lifetime of the Samaya-kuravas, the tradition of using unique Tamil names to refer to the Śiva and Śakti deities in Śaiva temples, which was established by the Dēvāram-trinity, is faithfully followed. When we read the Dēvāram poems, we come across several such names of Ambikā.
Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is etymologically derived from the old name Vēlana-kaṇṇi—a name by which Ambikā is known in the Dēvāram:
mālai mathiyoḍu nīraravampuṉai vārchaṭaiyāṉ
vēlanakaṇṇi yum virumpummiḍam… – Srī Jñāna Sambandhar
Being known for possessing eyes (kaṇ) shaped like fish (cēl), she is known as Cēlaṉa-kaṇṇi; similarly owing to her eyes appearing like a spear-head (vēl › spear) eyes, she is also known as Vēlaṉa-kaṇṇi. Feminine epithets such as cēlaṉa-kaṇṇi and vēlaṉa-kaṇṇi are based on uvamai (similes).
About 10 kilometres south of the site of the Veḷāṅkaṇṇi basilica, we find another town named Karuṅkaṇṇi (“she who is black-eyed”).
Karuntaṭaṅkaṇṇi is also one of the epithets of Ambā. Vēliṉērtaru-kaṇṇi is also one of the epithets by which she is praised in the Dēvāram.
Iru-malar-kaṇṇi is another beautiful epithet of Himavān’s daughter. The undying fame of Maduraiyaambati (Madurai) is due to the power of Aṅgayaṟkaṇṇi (Meenakshi). At the temple of Tirukkaṟkuḍi, she is known as Maiyār-kaṇṇi, or Maimēvu-kaṇṇi (añjanākṣī).
At Kōḍiyakkarai in the Kuzhagar-ālayam, Ambā is known as Maiyār-taṭaṅ-kaṇṇi. Chēramān Perumāḷ Nāyanār and Sundaramūrti Swāmi have arrived and worshipped together at this sthalam. Aruṇagirināthar has also composed hymns on this shrine. This site is also pointed out in the late Śri Kalki R. Krishnamurthy’s famous novel Ponniyiṉ Selvaṉ. This is also a śiva-sthala located near the shore. Vāḷnutaṟ-kaṇṇi is another name—when Īśa was deep in tapas, and her oblique glance disturbed him, the result was the appearance of Muruga. One can come across her other similar names such as Kāvyaṅ-kaṇṇi, Nīḷneḍuṅ-kaṇṇi, Vēlneḍuṅ-kaṇṇi, Varineḍuṅ-kaṇṇi, Vāḷār-kaṇṇi, etc.
Māṉeḍuṅ-kaṇṇi is another name—it means “she who has wide eyes like a deer (deer › maan in Tamil):
māṉeṭuṅkaṇṇi maṇikkatavu aṭaippa
iṟaiyavaṉ itaṟkuk kāraṇam ētu eṉa
maṟikaṭal tuyilum māyavaṉ uraippāṉ…
Kāḻipiḷḷai describes the fish-like eyes of Ambikā thus:
nīlanaṉ māmiṭaṟṟa ṉiṟaivaṉ ciṉattaṉ neṭumā vuritta nikaril
cēlaṉakaṇṇi vaṇṇa morukū ṟurukkoḷ tikazhtēvaṉ mēvupatitāṉ…
Thus have the saints submerged in the “science of beauty” described the mother’s beautiful and karuṇā-laden eyes using many epithets.
All these names are most certainly influenced by the Dēvāram. It was considered the duty of the king to inscribe at least one or two patikas (poems of the Tirumurai) on the paliṅku (marble) boards in every śivālaya—it was to demonstrate that the patika of the Devāram had an inseparable association with that town.
Even Māṇikkavāchakar has praised the beautiful eyes of Ambikā:
māvaṭu vakiraṉṉakaṇṇi paṅkāniṉ malaraṭik kēkūviṭuvāy – Thiruvāchakam
All along the eastern coast of Tamilnadu, the Śaiva tradition had prospered. Jñānasambandhar describes the māsi-magha festival thus:
maṭalārnta teṅkiṉ mayilaiyār mācik
kaṭalāṭṭuk kaṇṭāṉ kapālīc caramamarntāṉ…
In all the shore temples, for the māsi-magha tīrthavāri, it is an ancient custom to take the deity’s utsava murtis (idols) to the seashore for a ritual immersion into the waters, and this tradition still prevails today.
Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is also one among several seashore temples like Ādipurīśvara at Tiruvoṟṟiyūr, Kapālīśvara at Mylāpūr, Marundīśvara Temple at Tiruvānmiyūr, Vēdapurīśvara Temple in Pondicherry, Kāyārohaṇeśvara Temple in Nāgapaṭṭanam, Kuzhagar Temple in Kōḍiyakkarai, Vēdavananātha Temple in Vēdāraṇyam, Darbhāraṇyeśvara Temple in Kāraikkāl, Māsilāmaṇinātha Temple in Puhār, which are situated along the southern coast.
In Mylāpūr we have Vālīśvara, Mallīśvara, Veḷḷīśvara, Kāraṇīśvara, Tīrthapālīśvara, Virūpākṣīśvara sthalas—apart from the Kapālīśvara Temple. Across Chennai, most areas are filled with śivālayas, which are too numerous to cover here.
Tiruvadikai Vīraṭṭānam (one of śiva’saṣṭa-vīrasthānas where he is worshipped as Tripurāntaka)—is associated with the history of Tirunāvukkarasar and one of the sthalas that the samaya-kuravas have composed hymns on. Here the main deity is called Vīraṭṭānēsvara (Vīrasthānēśvara) and his consort is named Periyanāyaki (Bṛhannāyakī).
Tiruchōpuram (also called Tyāgavalli)—is a shore temple near Kaḍalūr on which Jñāna-sambandhar has composed hymns. The main deity is Chōpuranātha (also called Maṅgalapurīśvara), his consort is Vēlneḍuṅkaṇṇi.
Tiruchāykkāḍu (also called Chāyāvanam)—again this is a seashore temple located at the mouth of the Kāvēri river, built by Chola king Kōcheṅkaṇāṉ, worshipped by Iyaṟpagai Nāyanār and is also the site of his mukti.
Tirunāvukkarasar, Kāḻipiḷḷai and Aiyaḍikaḷ Kāḍavarkōṉ have composed hymns on this shrine. The main deity is Chāyāvanēśvara.
nitta lunniya mañceytu nīrmalar tūvic
citta moṉṟaval lārkkaru ḷuñcivaṉ kōyil
matta yāṉaiyiṉ kōṭumvaṇ pīliyum vārit
tattunīrp poṉṉi cākara mēvucāyk kāṭē – Jñānasambandhar
Tiruvalampuram is one more important seashore temple. The main deity is Valampuranāthar and his divine consort is called Vaḍuvakirkaṇṇi.
The 9th century hymn itself makes it amply clear that it is a temple located near the sea shore.
Currently the temple comes under the area called Melapperumpallam. Situated near Puhār (Poompuhar)
The Silappadhikāram says that there were temples of the Unborn One (Śiva) and the six-faced god (Saṇmukha Kārttikeya) in Puhār:
In today’s Puhār, we find a temple for Śiva (known as Pallavaneśvara, with his consort known as Saundarya-nāyaki).
There is a small town called Paravai about 2 kms west of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. Sundaramūrti Swāmi’s wife Paravai Nācciyār was born there. In Tamil, ocean is called paravai. Upamanyu Bhakti Vilāsam refers to this lady as Sāgarikā. Since the ocean has retreated, the temple here is not situated close to the shore now like it once used to be.
Nāgūr has a shore-temple of Śiva as Nāganātha (Lord of Nāgas) with goddess Nāgavalli. The town gets its name from the name of this deity. Associated with Kāmika-āgama, this is a very ancient temple. The Nagore Dargah (grave site of a Sufi dervish known locally as Nagūr-āṇḍavar i.e. the god of Nagūr) was established much later during the Maratha rule. The true nāgūr-āṇḍavar (god of Nāgūr) was the consort of goddess Nāgavalli—Śri Nāganātha.
In the Nāgapattanam region, one of the 63 Nāyanmārs called Adipatta Nāyanār who was born in a kula (family) of fishermen in a village called Nuzhaippāḍi by the seashore—where there exists a temple.
Before Lord Muruga (Skanda) went to war against the asuras, he is said to have got the blessings of the three-eyed lord (Śiva) at Tirucchendūr.
Rāmeśvaram has the world-famous pilgrimage site where Lord Rāma sought the help of Śiva on his way to Laṅkā.
Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is just one more such shore temple like all these.
Archaeologists have found large number of daiva-śilās and pañcaloha idols buried in this location. In the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi town, there is another śivālaya called Rajatagirīśvara. Whether this is an ancient temple or a recently rebuilt one is yet to be established. If its origin is found, it is possible to unearth other bits of the place’s history.
A few centuries back, when the Portuguese, Danish, and French invaded these shore sites, they destroyed several Hindu temples. They also established Christian churches there. The demolition of the Kapālīśwara temple at Chennai and the Vedapurīśwara temple at Pondicherry are good examples of the level of Christian tolerance.
The Goa shores also had several temples which were destroyed by the Portuguese. In 1567 Portuguese missionaries destroyed about 350 temples in Goa. In those times, Hindus were even forbidden to grow the tulasi (holy basil) plant.
Cultural appropriation by missionaries
Wearing kāvi (saffron) robes, building churches that resemble temple architecture, placing koḍi marams (dhvaja sthamba › flag poles) in front of churches, deliberately using Sanskrit words like vedāgamam, suviseṣam, agni, abhiṣekam, sarvāṅgadahanabali, flag hoisting, doing ratha yātras and other rituals are being appropriated and used specifically to lure Hindus into their religion, and this has been happening over centuries. One of the aspects of this deception involves clothing idols of Mother Mary in sarees according to the Tamil style and using the name of the local Hindu deity Vēlana-kaṇṇi to refer to Mary as Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. This is the truth.
Mother Umā is known as Periyanāyaki (Skt. Bṛhannāyakī). In the famous Thanjāvūr temple, Śiva is known by the name Bṛhadīśvara and his consort is called Bṛhannāyakī—and this is known to all. This name has been stolen without shame and used by missionaries as the name of Mary, as Periyanāyaki Mātā.
Truth hurts. Christians have no reason to get annoyed. After insulting Hindu deities calling them devils, demons, etc.—and on the other hand appropriating their names and symbols and using them in Christianity to refer to Jesus and Mary—this is in no way proper. Christians in Tamilnadu who have a conscience should reflect on these things.
Today Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi has been promoted and established as an extremely popular Christian pilgrimage site. But the questions to probe how it came to be a Christian site remain.
Is there any Biblical proof to show that Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is a Christian name?
Else who named it Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi? Were they Portuguese sailors, or the Papal authority in the Vatican? Or is it the missionaries who came later?
Is worshipping Mary as an independent deity (opposed in Trinitarian Christianity) acceptable to Biblical and Christian theology?
If this is a common Christian shrine, why don’t all sects of Christians come and worship here?
What is the relation between ārogya and the name Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi? (Arogya Matha—Lady of Health)
What is the relation between Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi and Lourdes of the East conceptually? Is there any tradition of flag hoisting and ratha yātras at other Lourdes shrines? Will European devotees of the Lady of Lourdes shave their heads?
It has been accepted by Christians themselves that there is no basis for the apparitions of Mother Mary that are claimed to have occurred in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. That being the case, how did this church become “Lourdes of the East”?
Why is Mary, the Lady of the Lourdes, not commonly worshipped in other places as the Lady of Good Health?
Why did this site where many miracles are said to have occurred not gain the status of basilica until 1962? The miracles are claimed to be hundreds of years old, yet why did it not gain basilica status during British rule?
They say this holy site was believed to have mahimā right from the start. Yet from Warren Hastings until Mountbatten, among the forty or so governor generals who ruled India, there is no record of any of them having visited the Lady of Health at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. What is the reason for this contradiction?
Even those native Christian scholars such as Henry Albert Krishna Piḷḷai, who wrote Rakṣaṇya Yātrikam (a Tamil retelling of the Pilgrim’s Progress), Māyūram Vedanāyakam Piḷḷai, etc., who lived just a century ago do not appear to have mentioned anything about the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi apparitions, or shaved their heads in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi.
Even in the Christian Songs book of Devaneya Pāvāṇar who passed away in 1981, there are no songs about Arogya Mātā (Lady of Health). Is there anything more to say?
Although large numbers of Indian Christians congregate and worship at the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi Church, no pope has visited or prayed to Arogya Mātā. What is the reason?
Without the approval of the Holy See, how did this become a basilica?
Does Biblical authority support ostentatious rituals in worshipping Mary, as well as large celebrations such as what we see in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi?
Only when someone looks for answers with substantive proofs for all these questions, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi’s true history will be known.
› Tamil to English translation support by Sri Ram Sury.
- On 3 November 1962 the shrine of Velankanni was elevated to the status of a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII. Three churches in India, Basilica of Bom Jesus, St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica, and Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health have the status of “minor baslica” because they attract a large number of pilgrims and a lot of money. All three churches are built on the ruins of Hindu temples destroyed by the Portuguese.
About Basilica Churches
A lot of noise is made in the mainstream Indian media about Christian churches designated as basilicas. These reports are prompted by bishops and clergy who want to give the impression that the term describes some special spiritual status of their respective churches.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There are more than a thousand basilica churches in the world and only four are designated major basilicas. All four are in Rome and reserved for the pope.
The term ‘basilica’ is Latin (derived from Greek basilikè stoá) and was used by the Romans to identify a large public building or city hall. These buildings had an architecture which included a large auditorium, a style which was later taken over by Christians when they gained political power in the Roman Empire and needed big showy churches.
So a basilica church is one built in a grand architectural style, almost always being the cathedral church of the bishop (cathedra being Latin for ‘seat’ of the bishop). Many of the old churches of Europe are built in the basilica style.
Later the term came to signify an important pilgrimage church or one with certain ritual privileges. For example San Thome Cathedral Basilica is a minor basilica and the only special privilege it affords the Madras-Mylapore bishop is that he has his own altar on which to say Mass and doesn’t have to share an altar with the parish priest. This gives him ecclesiastical status. San Thome Cathedral Basilica is also an important pilgrimage centre for Christians because of the St. Thomas fable the Portuguese created and which the Church authorities continue to promote in India and abroad—abroad being more important as that is where the money is!
India has three minor basilicas. The most important and oldest is the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, which contains the remains of the Spanish missionary pirate ‘St.’ Francis Xavier.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health at Velankanni is designated a minor basilica only because it has become through religious propaganda a famous pilgrimage center for Christians (and Hindus). It generates huge profits for the Catholic Church. There is no other reason for this designation whatever the so-called secular newspaper columnists and TV commentators may say.