Mariyamman-Mariyamman Catholic Practices and Image of Virgin in Velankanni (Tamil Nadu)

Mariyamman-Mariyamman Catholic Practices and Image of Virgin in Velankanni (Tamil Nadu)

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Item Code: IDK703
Author: Brigitte Sebastia
Publisher: French Institute Pondicherry
Edition: 2002
Pages: 73
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.6" X 6.6"

Indian clergy and pilgrims alike refer to the Velankanni Shrine as the "Lourdes of the East" This reputation is not derived from the miraculous power of any of the numerous statues of the Virgin Mary of Lourdes brought to India in the nineteenth century by fathers of the "Missions Etrangeres de Paris" or French Jesuits, but rests on the authenticity of the Virgin Mary's apparitions in India, on the recognition of the therapeutic power of the Virgin called Arokkiya Mata (Mother of Good Health), as well as on the heavy attendance of pilgrims. However, this comparison seems unwarranted insofar as the atmosphere and the practices at the Velankanni Shrine differ from those characterizing Lourdes. Were it not for the immense white basilica which rises prominently above the small thatch-roofed huts, the displays of statues and colour prints of the Madonna and the saints, the accumulation of candles of various shapes, colours and sizes, or the blaring of religious celebrations from the numerous loudspeakers which line the approaches to the shrine, might well cause one to imagine this to be one of the centres of Hindu pilgrimage in the region.

The existence in this region of a Catholic shrine, having national and federative dimensions, visited as it is by Catholics from throughout India as well as Tamilians from all castes and all religions, is surprising when one considers the minor presence of this faith. Of course, some twenty kilometers from Velankanni there is the town of Karaikal where the diffident French presence left its legacy, a Jesuit cathedral and a small shrine to Saint Antony of Padua, but this is an exception. As for the small town of Nagappattinam located ten kilometers from Velankanni, it is difficult to imagine that, beginning in the sixteenth century, it was once an important Portuguese commercial and missionary centre, to such an extent have the vestiges of this past disappeared.

Although history offers little towards the understanding of the emergence and renown of Velankanni, one can turn to the particularisms which lend the shrine its originality and contribute to its reputation. This text therefore examines these particularisms, especially those defined by the Catholic religion which present pan-Indian cultural or denominational specificities.

Are these particularisms the consequence of the "hinduisation" of Indian Catholicism? Of an "indianisation" of the form of worship? Of the convergence of complex phenomena involved in the encounter between Catholic practices and Indian culture? Rather than immediately offering an analysis of these phenomena,, I shall present here the elements of an ethnographic survey which will make it possible to compare the practices and conceptions in the Catholicism of Velankanni with those such as are found in Hinduism and in Indian culture.

I shall approach the complexity and plurality of the processes of contact and transformation of Catholicism in Velankanni through two main themes, namely, the caste system and representations of the Virgin Mary according to community, an approach which will be developed in three sections.

The first section will examine the social, political and economic organization of the village, through which the structure of the caste communities of Christians will be analysed with reference to the social and spatial organization of the Hindu quarters.

The second section, which consists of a combination of the two themes, will consider the Virgin Mary at the Shrine Basilica. The organization of the shrine and above all of the patronal festival conditioned by the local caste system will enable us to describe the roles assumed by the Virgin among the dominant caste of pattanavar fishermen, and to observe the manner in which their precedence is exercised and perceived by those who do not share it. While the basilica possesses a local dimension because the pattanavar look upon the Virgin located there as their caste deity, Velankanni has two other Marian shrines, the Chapel of the Apparition and the Chapel of Viyakula Mata, which are specifically visited by pilgrims.

The roles of the Virgin established in each of these places will be analysed in the third section. It will be seen that at the Chapel of the Apparition the Virgin is invested with powers for dispensing familial well-being such as are inherent in village deities, of which Mariyamman is the most widespread, while in the chapel where she bears the name Viyakula Mata, her function is to re-establish desperate situations attributable to a ceyvinai, sorcery, or to pey picacu, "evil spirits".

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Each year, hundred of thousands of pilgrims belonging to all the caste and all the creeds converge towards the village of Velankanni to take part of the festival of its patron organized from the 31st August to the 8th September. This important mobilization is in keeping with the fame of the thaumaturgical power of the Virgin, known as Arokkiya Mata, "Our Lady of Good Health". Nevertheless, this is not the sole explanation and other factors will emerge during this study.

Social and economical relations between different communities of caste and religion established in the village, composition and organization of the festival, representations of the Virgin according to the villagers or to the pilgrims are the points will be explore. They will allow on the part, to enlighten about the complexity of the phenomena of "indigenization" of the Catholicism in India and the plurality of its expressions, and on the other part, to do emerged the federal qualities of the Virgin and of the shrine that justify their position of predominance.

Chaque annee, des centaines de milliers de pelerins de toutes confessions et de toutes castes convergent vers le village de Velankanni pour assister a sa fete patronale qui se deroule entre du 31 aout au 8 septembre. Cette forte mobilization est consequente a la renommee des qualities thaumaturges de la Vierge, connue sous le vocable d'Arokkiya Mata. Notre Dame de la Bonne 'Sante. Cependant, ce n'est pas la seule explication et d'autres facteurs vont apparaitre au cours de la recherché.

Les relations socials et economiques entre les diverses communautes de caste et de religion resident dans le village, la composition et l'organisation de la fate patronale, les representations de la Vierge en function des gens du village ou des pelerins sont les domains qui seront explorer. Ils vont permettre d'une part, de montrer la complexite du phenomene d indigenization du catholicime en Inde et la pluralite de ses expressions, et d'autre part, de faire emerger les qualities federatrices de la Vierge et du sanctuaire qui justifient leur positioned precellence.

Brigitte Sebastia has studied Social Anthropology at Centre of Anthropology of Toulouse (E.H.E.S.S.-CNRS-Universities of Toulouse-le-Mirail and Paul Sabatier) up to 2001. One of her interests is the study of the phenomena of "indigenization" of Christianity in India. She is now affiliated to the French Institute of Pondicherry as a research scholar where she is studying the shrine of St. Antony of Padua at Puliyampatti situated in Tuticorin district that is frequented by persons suffering of mentally disorders.


1Social Morphology of Velankanni: Caste And Religion, Historical Context15
1.1. The Hindu and Christian Quarters: Between Tradition and Re-composition16
1.2. The Pattanavar Fishermen: Their Role in the Christianisation of the Village18
2The Virgin of The Pattanavar25
2.1 The Virgin of the Shrine Basilica: The Kulateyvam of the Pattanavar26
2.1.1 – The Intercessor-catechist and Votive Transactions27
2.1.2 – The Dresser-catechist29
2.2. The Festival of the Virgin: Organization and Precedence of the Pattanavar32
2.2.1 – The Koti Vila34
2.2.2 – The Terottam Vitti37
3The Virgins of The Pilgrims: A Space, A Virgin, A Votive Set43
3.1 The Virgin Mary of the Chapel of the Apparition: The Kiramateyvam of the Pilgrims44
3.1.1 The Yattiri of Velankanni44
3.1.2 Mariyamman-Mariyamman: Similarities and Differences46
3.2 Viyakula Mata: The Exorcist Virgin54
Map of the Velankanni Territory14

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