A trip to Velankanni, a catholic holy shrine in the coastal town of Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu was long due for me. I have strong faith in Velankanni and all my wishes regarding the good health of my near and dear ones have come true after making wishes there. Making wishes and later giving offerings and obeisance to God in lieu of the favors received seemed very inappropriate to me. I used to look down upon people bribing God to get good marks in exams and some others who asked for wishes to get H1B visa. It was only when I felt the pinch that I realized that it’s all okay between you and your God and it is nobody else’s business to pass judgment on one’s faith.
I had made a wish to grant me a healthy and normal baby to Velankanni (Mother Mary) and when that wish came true in the form of my son, I decided to take him and my family along to Velankanni to pay obeisance and to get my son’s hair tonsured for the first time.
After celebrating my son’s first birthday, we all traveled to Velankanni and it was the richest traveling experience I have ever had.
My dad is an ex-Air Force officer, so I have traveled the length and breadth of the country, and traveling always excites me. After coming back home from each journey, I realize that India is truly a very rich country in terms of culture and heritage, and I feel so proud to belong to this wonderful country.
A LITTLE INFO ABOUT VELANKANNI:
Velankanni is fondly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’ because like Lourdes in France, millions of pilgrims visit the Shrine throughout the year, praying to Our Lady for various needs and thanking her for the favors received through her intercession.
Tradition recounts that Mother Mary appeared with the Infant Jesus in this small hamlet at the end of the 16th or in the early 17th century. Ever since, Vailankanni is the most important destination and almost the synthesis of all Marian Sanctuaries for the pilgrims of the world. The crowds of pilgrims come here regardless of creeds and languages.
Our Lady of Vailankanni devotions down through the centuries have proved the Shrine to be of divine origin and has assumed international character. Mary, the focus of unity at Vailankanni, is a clear proof of international, multicultural, and religious harmony.
Velankanni, a hamlet on the sandy shores of the Bay of Bengal, is located 350 kilometers south of Chennai (Madras) and 12kilometers south of Nagappatinam. Nagapattinam, a town on the coast of Bay of Bengal, was referred by early writers and the Portuguese as “the city of Coramandel’ (Imperial Gazetteer of India, XIX, 3). Vellayar river, a minor branch of the river Cauvery, runs on the south of the village and flows into the sea.
Readers may be startled to learn that Vailankanni was once a port and there is evidence to prove this. Historical notes reveal that people in this area traded with Rome and Greece, the ancient commercial centers of the western world. In the course of time, Nagapattinam expanded and this tiny commercial center (Velankanni) gradually lost its importance. The canal that had been dug once for navigation between Nagapattinam and Vedaranyam still lies to the west of Velankanni.
Maps showing Velankanni.
TRAVELING TRIVIA, FROM HYDERABAD TO VELANKANNI:
There are no direct trains or flights to Velankanni. The easiest route to go to Velankanni from Hyderabad is to go via Chennai and from Chennai it is a 12-hour journey by train to Nagapattinam District, from there it is around 15 KM to the shrine, where the shrine is located by the Bay of Bengal.
The distance between Hyderabad and Chennai is approximately 700 km and the distance between Chennai to Velankanni is around 272 KM.
BY AIR, there are regular flights from Hyderabad to Chennai. There is no airport in Velankanni. The nearest airport to Velankanni is at Tiruchirappali at a distance of about 165 kms. It is well connected to Chennai airport by regular flights.
BY TRAIN, there are no direct trains from Hyd to Velankanni. One has to travel to Chennai first and from there, direct trains to Nagapattinam/Nagore are available. The traveling time from Chennai to Nagapattinam is around 10 hours by train. There is a new railway track being laid so that trains can reach Velankanni, but it is not operational right now. From Nagapattinam, it is around 12 km to Velankanni.
BY BUS, from Hyderabad to Chennai, there are many inter-state buses available. The approximate travel time is around 12 to 14 hours. From Chennai again, there are numerous buses that run on hourly basis to Velankanni shrine. It is a 7-hour journey from there to Velankanni.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE TRAVELING TO VELANKANNI FROM HYDERABAD:
Since I was traveling with a one-year old baby and by train, I had to take a rest break in Chennai because if done otherwise, it would tire my son out. I booked my tickets from Hyderabad to Chennai and decided to stay at a hotel in Chennai for a brief break and catch the train to Nagapattinam, which was late in the night. This would give us all enough time to relax. The train that we were supposed to catch from Chennai was late in the night at around 11:30 PM and we would be going via Tanjavur, Tirchurapalli, etc.
Our train from Hyderabad to Chennai was at 4 PM in the evening and we reached Chennai the next morning at 7 AM. It was a short train journey and an uneventful one. Upon reaching Chennai, there were many helpful porters who were willing to transport our luggage for obnoxious amounts. My dad, in his usual inimitable style, took hold of one porter’s collar, and made him carry our luggage for a fraction of the price he was quoting.
We decided to stay at a budget three-star hotel since we would not be staying the night and would be out sightseeing most of the day. After checking into Hotel Sun Park near the railway station, we took bath, had breakfast, and got out to see the sights and smell of Chennai city.
I had gone to Chennai for the first time and it seemed like a very colorful city and a city buzzing with activity. We set out for shopping first. There’s this street called Pondy Bazaar, which is surrounded by all the major shopping giants. There’s nothing that cannot be found and bought in Pondy Bazaar. Everything from cloth showrooms to Gold showrooms are located either in this market or in the vicinity.
First, my mom wanted to look at sarees and we went to Pothy’s. There is a lot of variety available in Pothy’s and my mom picked up two sarees from there. Then, we landed at Sarvana Stores, which is a 5-storeyed shopping complex. Sarvana Stores is a very crowded place that is always filled up to the brim with people and this is a case on weekdays and non-holiday days too. I bought a lot of things from there, handbags, wallets, toys, and other things which I don’t remember now…eh.
After what seemed like hours in the Sarvana Stores, my dad literally had to drag me out of the stores because it was getting late for the lunch. We chose to have our lunch in the city instead of going back to the hotel. We went to Anjappar, which is a famous family eatery, specializing in Chettinaad cuisine. I ordered prawn fried rice and a variety of other fish and non-vegetarian items and I ate like there was no tomorrow, embarrassing my parents and even my son.
After having eaten such a heavy lunch, it was difficult for me to move, so I chose to go back to the hotel to take rest. In the evening, we set out for Marina Beach and again, Marina Beach is a very crowded beach with a mix of locals and tourists having lots of fun.
After spending the evening at Marina Beach, we came back to our hotel and packed for the night’s journey. It was 11:30 PM and time to catch our next train after getting fresh and having dinner at the hotel.
Since, we couldn’t get AC tickets this time; we got first class coups, which were like super comfortable. Other than three of us adults and one baby, there was only one old uncle who was very happy to know that we were tourists. He gave us a lot of info on sight seeing in Pondicherry. The one thing that struck me was that there were no RPF personnel in the train. Usually, all trains nowadays have RPF personnel accompanying.
We traveled through Villuparam, Tanjavur, and reached Nagapattinam station at 8 AM the next day. I could tell that we had reached Nagapattinam even before reaching the station because there were these “matchbox-type houses” made for people who lost out their houses and everything else in the tsunami of 2004.
Matchbox houses for people who lost their everything in 2004’s tsunami.
We were supposed to stay at one of my family friend’s home in the port town of Karaikal, which is in the union territory of Pondicherry, around 25 km far from Velankanni. Despite our request to allow us to stay at a hotel near Velankanni, my father’s colleague took us to his home. Upon entering the Union Territory of Pondicherry, the highway was lined with these numerous beverage shops and people from Tamil Nadu were traveling across the border to buy liquor at a subsidized rate from Pondicherry.
Karaikal is a sleepy town with lots of ponds, canals, rivers, and sea with a now-active port. Interestingly, Karaikal was under the French rule until 1954 and still has traces of French culture there. Karaikal now is part of Pondicherry Union Territory, but is surrounded by Tamil Nadu on three sides and on the east by Bay of Bengal. Karaikal area was also affected in the 2004 tsunami and lots of villagers and fishermen went missing from there. People here have a laidback yet a blissful life. The afternoons are too hot here, but the evenings and nights are breezy with the cool and fresh winds that arise out of the sea. Our hosts were really hospitable people who took good care of us and cooked us yummy food and guided us through the city and area. Their house was only 2 km away from the Karaikal beach and in the evenings, standing on their terrace, we could feel the sea winds gushing past us.
Kairakal on map.
The day we reached Karaikal, our hosts took us to the Karaikal beach and port, which has recently begun operations. We could spot so many fishing boats that were fearlessly swaying in the sea. The Karaikal beach is a beautiful, serene, and isolated beach with not many people frequenting it. Though there was a light house nearby, there were no coast guards there. There is a memorial dedicated to tsunami victims at the beach.
Tsunami memorial at Karaikal Beach.
After spending a lot of time talking and playing in the water, we returned late in the night and the next day, we woke up early to travel to Velankanni.
The next day, we left home early because there was a Malayalam mass which we had to attend at 9 AM. We packed all necessary things and traveled to Velankanni via taxi, our hosts (Hindus) are regulars to this shrine and visit Velankanni every month, so they happily accompanied us.
We reached Velankanni shrine in time for our Malayalam mass and attended it. Our hosts also took part in the mass. When we came out after attending the mass, we noticed that there was not the usual blaring of devotional music and the continuous annoying announcements through the loudspeaker that is so synonymous with such popular pilgrim centers.
Aarohan and grandmom at the sanctum sanctorum.
Taking photos and videos of the altar is prohibited, but I took photos anyway.
Taking pictures or videos are not allowed inside the church, specifically of the altar, but I, not the one to follow rules, clicked pictures, and there was this old Tamilian guy, who came running to me, and scolded me, and showed me the board which said, “Photos and Videos not allowed”, which was written in Hindi, English, Malayalam, and Tamil. Feeling not at all guilty, I told him, “sir, padipu kadayadu,” which means, “I am an illiterate, don’t know how to read.” He was taken aback and surprised, and I couldn’t guess whether it was because I was claiming to be an illiterate or because I had called him “sir.”
Next, we took token for the tonsuring ceremony of my son. My son sat through tonsuring procedure without much fuss and the barber, the parents of small kiddos who were getting tonsured, as well as me were equally surprised at his cool and non-fussy behavior.
After his tonsuring, we were supposed to bathe him in the sea. The route to the beach from the church is lined on both sides with small shops selling everything from sweets to memorabilia and souvenirs of the shrine. We picked up a few things and also we bought this silver cradle to donate to the church as an offering and thanksgiving.
Shops lined from the shrine to the beach.
There were a lot of people and babies taking bath on the beach and we dipped Aarohan in and out of the seawater.
After this, we went back to the church with certain offerings and a silver cradle and from there we walked a long pathway to reach the “old church” with a banyan tree in its front yard where it is believed that Mother Mary appeared to a small milk boy. There, we spent some time praying until we realized that we all were hungry and I was mighty interested in checking out the yummy sea food and the crabs I had seen at the beach. We went into a nice restaurant with sea food as its main specialty and the food was so delicious.
After having our lunch, we returned to our host’s place in Karaikal and planned a trip in the evening to the famed Karaikal Shani Devta temple popularly called as “Thirunallar Saneeswar Temple.” Actually, the fact is, Nagapattinam, Pondicherry and especially Karaikal together is an important hub of all religions. Very close to Nagapattinam, there is a Muslim pilgrimage of importance called Nagore-e-sheriff. People from all faiths come to Nagore to visit this pilgrim center too. So, spread over a 100-km radius, there is a Christian shrine of huge importance, a Muslim pilgrim center, and beautiful temples spread all across the area.
Coming to the shani temple, coincidentally, the prime minister of Norway was visiting the shani temple on the same day and the security was very tight. I and my family of course didn’t mind the Z+ security. The prime minister of Norway was telling the pujari, “Please tell shani to bless me and my country.”
Though there is an equally popular shani temple in Maharashtra, the difference here in Thirunallur temple is due to the unique idol of Lord Shani where he is standing in a “blessing position.” This is very rare and devotees who believe they are badly affected by Shani visit the shrine to get shani’s blessings. The main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, but the Shani Shrine has become more popular than the main deity primarily due to belief of devotees that by praying to shani, all their miseries will get resolved.
It is the belief here that King Nala (of Nala and Damayanthi) was cured of his leprosy and sufferings after praying at this shrine and taking bath at the canal that is close to the shrine.
Shani devta temple at Thirunallur.
After coming back home from Thirunallur temple, our hosts told us that there were around 180 ancient temples in their area and since we were leaving the next day for Hyderabad, we wanted to see as many temples as we could. We chose to go the Sri Nithyakalyanaperumal temple, where the main deity is Lord Vishnu.
In the evening, we set out to visit this temple which is situated in the main town of Karaikal. This temple is situated near another famous, Karaikal Ammaiyar temple. Sri Nithyakalyanaperumal temple is famous temple of Lord Vishnu where the idol of Vishnu has been carved in a single stone and is seen in the lying posture, which is known as “Ananthasayanam.” This temple is very crowded during Rama Navami and Vaikunta Ekadesi.
Also, the navagraha temples (there are temples dedicated to all the 9 planets) are spread across in a very small area (around 150 to 200 km) and for someone who believes in stars and horoscopes, it is such a great opportunity to visit all navagraha temples in a day or two.
Navagraha Temples map
We did a little bit of shopping for souvenirs and returned home and packed our bags for our journey next day back to Hyderabad. I was a little bit disappointed as I wanted to stay for a few more days to see all the temples with such richness and beauty, but since there were no tickets available, we couldn’t postpone our journey.
The next day, we took train from Nagapattinam to Chennai, and then in the evening from Chennai to Hyderabad.
After reaching Hyderabad, though there was this immense satisfaction of having thanked and prayed wholeheartedly at Velankanni, still, there was a feeling of not having seen all, I wanted to go there again to soak in more of the richness of Nagapattinam and Karaikal. I hope to go there soon and this time, I hope to see more of the place. Also, I want to visit Velankanni again because there is always some reason or the other that strengthens my faith in Velankanni and there is so much to thank God for with each passing day.
Image Source: All maps are taken from Google Images.
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