Update: The article updates are provided at the bottom of this article. Also please see my travel report in November, 2012 here – Velankanni By Train.
Velankanni is a coastal village in Nagapattinam district, Tamil Nadu. Even though it is commonly known as Velankanni, the correct spelling is Vailankanni. Velankanni is very famous for its Marian church known as "Shrine Basilica of Lady of Health". Thousands of people from all around India visit this place and hence is known as "Mecca of Christians" and "Lourdes of the East". There are a number of churches and other buildings in the Basilica complex and on one side it is flanked by Bay of Bengal sea.
The annual church festival is from 29th August to 8th September. There is heavy rush during this period.
It is interesting to note that majority of Velankanni pilgrims are from Kerala, especially from districts like Kottayam, Idukki and Thrissur.
Brief History of Velankanni Basilica Church
The history of Velankanni goes back as far as 16th century. According to legends, Mother Mary appeared twice to milk boys at the village during this period. There are churches on both these places (inside Basilica complex). In the first appearance, Mother Mary asked for milk from a boy. Boy gave milk to mother and later boy found that the milk pot is still full. This place is known as "Our Lady’s Tank".
In the second appearance, Mother Mary cured a crippled boy. There is a small church at this place now.
The third miracle happened sometime during seventeenth century and probably it was this miracle which caused rapid expansion of Velankanni church. A Portuguese ship going from Macao in China to Colombo was caught in a violent storm. The sailors prayed to Mother Mary for protection. It is said that the ship landed in Velankanni and as an offering sailors built a church at the seaside. In subsequent visits, Portuguese continued to build and expand the church complex.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII granted Minor Basilica status to Velankanni church. The first bishop of Thanjavur, R.A. Sundaram was behind this decision. A new church extension modelled after the Lady of Lourdes was soon built.
Our trip to Velankanni Church – July 2008
It is an Indian tradition to offer something to God in return for the favour of the God. And over time Christians in India has also customized it for their belief. It turns out that my wife had offered something to Velankanni Mother and I had no option but to take our entire family on a Velankanni trip. It was a good experience and I made most of it by taking a camera along with me!
I stay in Trivandrum which is around 500KM from Velankanni. So going by car was ruled out (since I was the only driver). If you do plan to travel by car, ensure that you split the travel and stay somewhere like Thirunelveli or Madurai. I won’t recommend a direct drive.
So I had decided to take a train. But unfortunately there are no train service till Velankanni. There is a railway track being built till Velankanni and it is expected to be operational by March 2009. Direct train services from Kerala is going to substantially boost pilgrim traffic. The nearest major railway station is Tiruchirappalli known as Trichy (around 160KM from Velankanni). From Trivandrum there are two trains to Trichy (Important: please check available trains and current timings at http://www.irctc.co.in/),
As you can see the Ananthapuri express reaches at a very odd time (2AM). We decided to take the Guruvayoor train which reaches in the afternoon. So the plan was to reach Velankanni by evening and stay there for the night and visit the church the next day.
If you are traveling from Ernakulam, you have the following trains,
We reached Trichy at the scheduled time of 2PM.
Traveling from Trichy to Velankanni
There are three options to go to Velankanni from Trichy,
- You can take a direct taxi to Velankanni (expensive)
- Take a train to Tiruvarur railway station which is around 40KM from Velankanni and then take a taxi from there
- Take a direct bus from Trichy to Velankanni.
Tiruvarur option is good since the train is at 4:30PM. Direct bus is the cheapest option, but you should take the bus from the first bus stand itself. Also the bus experience at 2PM is guaranteed to be a frying pan experience!
We decided to take a direct taxi to Velankanni with the intention of retaining it for next two days and returning in it. Here we made a mistake. Instead of hiring a call taxi or a taxi from adjoining hotels in Trichy, we looked at the official taxi stand. All the ambassador taxis here are prehistoric and we soon realized that it is not for the faint hearted.
We had a small bargaining with the taxi guy who sported a big moustache. He looked ferocious but had a heart of a child! We ended up paying Rs. 3800 for two days stay at Velankanni and a total running distance of 330 Kilometres. He was decent and helpful, but at times very intrusive.
We started from Trichy at around 3:30PM. The city traffic was thick, but we soon found ourselves on the NH67 which connects Trichy and Tanjavur. This highway stretch is being widened to a word class 4 lane highway by Madhucon constructions. This is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2009. Unlike highway expansion in Kerala, work in Tamil Nadu is progressing at an amazing speed. Once completed I think there won’t be any highway crossings!
After a distance of about 15KMs, we started to hear a strange sound from the front left of the taxi. The taxi itself was a very old diesel ambassador with very low pick up(which will cause you to pull your hair out). I asked the driver whether there is any problem and he replied there is a known problem with some bush! After sometime the sound started increasing and I was increasingly getting concerned. Finally the taxi guy stopped at a roadside workshop and the workshop mechanic said it is a small problem and we can ignore the sound!!
The road from Trichy to Velankanni is full of bypass sections and you never enter any major town. That means finding a good hotel for food/rest is difficult. It is better to get into one of the towns like Tanjavur for rest/food. Another interesting aspect is the sheer number of railway crossings! Following are the major towns and the approximate distance from Trichy,
Trichy, Vallam(45km), Tanjavur(20km), Ammapettai(20km), Needamangalam(19km), Tiruvarur(20km), Nagapattinam(30km), Velankanni(12km). I recommend you take a break at Tanjavur or Tiruvarur.
Gradually the sound from the car became so loud that even people on the roadside started to notice it. Suddenly a guy shouted at us to stop the car. We got out and saw that the front left tyre had almost got detached and it was on the last bolt! The problem all along was the loose tyre bolts! The driver frantically fixed it and we never had any problem during the rest of our journey.
We could spot only one good restaurant on the highway named "The Royal Park" near Tiruvarur bypass. When you go to Velankanni it is on the right side and offers rooms and fairly good food (the AC section is a bit smelly). It is very near to the big bridge at Tiruvarur (Phone : 04366-251020).
On the way to Velankanni we saw a lot of universities (Sastra University for example), BHEL quarters near Trichy, Tsunami memorial on the Nagapattinam-Velankanni road and rows of houses built for Tsunami victims.
At Velankanni Pilgrim Centre
Finally we reached Velankanni at about 7:30PM. The road between Velankanni and Nagapattinam is under construction and you should be careful if you reach this stretch during night. I had booked rooms at Hotel Golden Sand and when I reached I was shocked to find that my reservation is not valid. It appears that I booked rooms at the wrong hotel with the same name but located in Nagapattinam. The perils of using online information!
We looked for rooms at other hotels and finally we got rooms at Hotel Velanganni which is a bit far from the main church. Room boy brought us dinner and we quickly went to sleep.
Next day we started early in the morning and attended the 9AM Malayalam mass at Velankanni church. After that we spent the full day roaming in and around Velankanni church. Trust me, it will take a full day for the Velankanni experience. See below (Places to see) for the must see places in Velankanni. A planned itinerary is recommended to cover all the areas in one day.
There are a number of restaurants at Velankanni, but don’t expect stellar customer service. We had breakfast at Arya bhavan where it was complete chaos. In the afternoon we had lunch at Hotel Seagate and it was good.
We stayed the night at Velankanni and the next morning we left for Trichy. The train to Trivandrum was at 1PM and we reached well in time. I recommend starting before 7AM from Velankanni since traffic at Trichy stretch can be high.
There is a well maintained AC waiting room at Trichy station. You can avail this for Rs. 10 per person for two hours. But they don’t allow you to have food in there.
Facilities at Velankanni
|Bus: Regular bus service is available from Trichy and Tanjavur to Velankanni. The local buses can take a while to reach Velankanni and it can be a frying pan experience if you visit Velankanni during summer time. If you are coming with your own bus, there is plenty of parking space inside the church premises.|
|Car/Taxi: Taxis are available from Trichy railway station. Ensure that you fix the rate and all terms before you hire a car. Look for an AC car as the slight increase in fare is worth it. You can check local phone directory for call taxi phone numbers. If you are coming in your own car, ensure that your hotel has enough parking space. Hotel Sea Gate and Golden Sand has plenty of parking space, while some others like Picnic do not. Construction is still in progress in the last stretch of road between Velankanni and Nagapattinam and very careful driving is recommended during night.|
|Trains: Nearest railway station is Nagapattinam. If you are coming via Trichy, the nearest station is Tiruvarur. There is train at 4:30 PM from Trichy to Tiruvarur. Velankanni railway station is under construction and will become operational by April 2009 (If everything goes well) 🙂|
|Air: The nearest airport is Trichy. The nearest international airport is at Chennai.|
|Bank/ATM: There is an SBI ATM which is located prominently in front of the Church complex on the main road. Other ATMS are operated by Union Bank and South Indian Bank.|
|Telephone/Internet: You can find plenty of STD/ISD facilities at Velankanni and almost all mobile operators have service here. Many hotels also provide Internet services inside premises. Sorry, no WiFi here 🙂 The STD code for Velankanni is 04365. The church phone number is 04365-263530.|
Accommodation at Velankanni – Rooms & Hotels
There are about a dozen hotel in and around Velankanni. Velankanni church also offers dormitory and room accommodation. But during peak season, you will not get any accommodation unless you book well in advance. The daily rent of hotel rooms vary between Rs. 300 to Rs. 1600. The rent is dependent on its proximity to church and also whether it has AC and power backup. Velankanni is very hot and humid and it is better to book an AC room. Also check in advance whether hotel has power backup. Power cuts are common during summer.
Following are some of the popular hotels in and around Velankanni church. Please note that the phone numbers given may change. Too bad that none of these hotels provide online booking of rooms. If somebody starts a new hotel with an option to book online, I am sure they will get customers throughout the year!
This is the hotel where we had stayed. This hotel is a bit far from the church (500metres!) and offers decent facilities. There is no restaurant here, but the room boy will buy food for you. The hotel owner is very friendly and praised us for our excellent behaviour! 🙂
The rent for a non AC room is Rs. 500 and it is pretty decent. They also had power backup and cable tv. Interestingly the rear entrance to the church (via Lady’s Tank) is just opposite to this hotel. There is parking space for 4-5 cars in the front.
Hotel Golden Sand – Velankanni (Phone: 04365-263426)
This is the nearest hotel to Velankanni church. This place offers a wide range of hotel rooms costing as much as Rs. 1500. There is also a large parking lot. The front rooms probably gives an excellent view of the Velankanni Basilica.
But there is a lot of rush at this hotel and it shows in the customer service. There was board saying AC won’t work during power cuts (I guess there is no power backup). Also the guys at the counter behaved very rudely when I went to check for rooms.
Also beware – there is another hotel in Nagapattinam with the same name (10+ Kilometres from Velankanni).
Hotel Sea Gate (Phone: 04365-263910)
Hotel Sea Gate is located on the main Velankanni road. It is a fairly big hotel with plenty of parking space. The restaurant here is good. There is also an ice cream shop in front of the Hotel. You need to book rooms well advance I guess. A double bed AC room will cost you around Rs.2000.
Hotel Picnic (Phone: 04365-263510)
This is another medium range hotel on the main road. This is close to church, but there is hardly any parking space. The AC rooms will cost you around Rs. 1000.
Hotel MGM Bethesda Inn (Phone: 04365-263900)
Hotel MGM is a good hotel available around Velankanni. It is also quite far from the Church. There is plenty of parking space and is recommended place if you have plenty of money! But forget about walking to Church. Ask the reception to arrange for auto-rickshaws which will cost you Rs. 50 to Rs. 70 depending on the personality of the driver. Food here is ok, but is very expensive and choices are very limited.
This seems to be the best hotel available in Velankanni and is pretty near to the church. They seem to have a lot of rooms including church facing rooms. The only downside is the cost :-). In 2012, the room rents ranged from Rs. 2500 to Rs. 5000 per day.
Places to see in and around Velankanni
There are many places to visit in Velankanni and I recommend you plan a full day for sightseeing and church visit. Also please note that photography/video is prohibited inside church and other pilgrim centres.
Velankanni site map
I have prepared the Velankanni site map using Google satellite map. All places of major interest are marked in this.
Following is my recommended itinerary for a full day visit of Velankanni church and places around it. I also recommend that you buy a good cowboy hat (available for Rs. 40 in the beach side shops) as the sun here will fry your head!
We started from Hotel Velankanni at around 7AM. First we decided to visit the upcoming Velankanni Railway station. It is about 500 meters from the Velankanni main road and once operational it will be very easy to get to Velankanni. The road to the station is narrow and be ready to face some curious faces! You can see a church (St. Joseph’s) on the way. We then headed to a restaurant on the main road.
There are many hotels on the main road but all will be very crowded in the morning. Try to get out of the restaurant as soon as possible since I found it a suffocating experience. After breakfast we went to Naduthittu Church which is on the main road itself. This church is outside the main Basilica complex. According to the legend this where virgin Mary appeared to a crippled boy and healed his legs. The first chapel at the seashore was built after this apparition. This is a place for prayer and there is a beautiful depiction of the apparition inside this.
We then went straight to Velankanni Basilica to attend 9AM Malayalam Mass. This was followed by an English Mass. The main Basilica is a architectural beauty and there are two independent churches (one above). In the above church people give Saree as offering and it is put on a statue of Mother Mary. This saree is later given to poor women during their marriage. The old original church is behind basilica towards the seaside. This place is always crowded with pilgrims.
Museum of Offerings
Behind the Basilica you will find Museum of offerings where a sample display of items people offer to Virgin Mary is displayed. You can read through people’s experience expressed in various letters written to church. There is also a small bookstall inside this. You can buy a detailed guide to Velankanni and also a book on Velankanni from here. Other souvenir items such as key chains and "Jesus Loves You" stickers can be bought from here. There is a "blessed oil counter" and few handicraft shops run by Tsunami affected women on the ground floor.
The Shrine depot is located on the right side of museum of offerings. You can buy a lot of stuff including handicrafts and other religious materials. There is an information counter and a security office on the same building.
Sea side Shops
There is a narrow road behind basilica which takes you the Velankanni beach. After the Shrine depot visit we went to the beach. On both sides of the road there are numerous shops ranging from instant photo studios to shops selling pirated DVDs (Don’t even think of buying a DVD as most of them are handy cam copies and is of very low quality). It is an interesting experience and reminds me that all of us love to shop! Check out some of the photos below to get a feeling of what it is like!
Velankanni beach was hit during the Tsunami and all shops were destroyed. Now there is no trace of Tsunami except for the "Live Tsunami Videos" sold in the new shops! The sea here is rough and deep and swimming here is obviously risky. But you can see hundreds of people swimming in the sea at any time. The sea side is filled with pilgrims in the evening.
Fountain of Revelation
On the right side of Basilica you will Fountain of Revelation. The fountain here doesn’t seem to be working. Vannaru River meets the Bay of Bengal just on the other side of this fountain. There is also a counselling centre for people with personal problems.
Chapel of Adoration
Adjacent to Fountain of Revelation is the Church of Adoration. This is a place where you can spend some time in silent prayer. When we went to Velankanni, there was an exhibition on "history of salvation" in the nearby building.
Holy path is a sand road which connects Basilica church to Lady’s Tank church. It is also the Way of the Cross. It is around 500 meters or so I guess. You can see devotees crawling on their knees from Basilica to Lady’s Tank Church as an offering. It is a painful way to pray and at the end of it there won’t be any skin left on your knee.
Lady’s Tank Church
At the end of the holy path you will find Lady’s Tank and Lady’s Tank Church. This is where Mother Mary first appeared to a milk boy in 16th century. You can buy holy water from this place. On the left of the church you will see "cloth cradles" hanging from tree branches. Couples tie these "cradles" as an offering to mother Mary asking the gift of a child in return. Many childless couples swear that they got a child after tying the "cradle offering" here – Never underestimate the power of faith.
For many Christians, Velankanni gives spiritual inspiration and hope in life. But even if you are not deeply religious(like me – no, I am not an atheist either) Velankanni provides an amazing glimpse of diversity of people and culture in India.
Share your experiences at Velankanni church in the comments below.
Updates (November 2012)
- Direct train service is available to both Velankanni and nearby town Nagapattinam. Please see Velankanni by Train for more details.
- I couldn’t find "Hotel Velanganni"! It seems to have been demolished for constructing something else.
- A new church named "Morning Star Church" is being constructed on the western side of Basilica. Once constructed it will have a sitting capacity of 15,000!
- Hotels Picnic & Seagate seems to be under a single group ownership. Please the official site for more details.
- Official Velankanni Church Website now provides a detailed location map!
- Current Mass Timings at Velankanni Basilica is given below,
Velankanni Basilica Mass Timings
|6:00am||Mass in Tamil|
|7:00am||Mass in Tamil|
|8:00am||Mass in Telugu|
|9:00am||Mass in Malayalam|
|10:00am||Mass in English|
|11:00am||Mass in Hindi|
|12:00pm||Mass in Tamil|
|6:00pm||Rosary, Litany and Mass in Tamil|
|7:00am||Mass in Tamil at Our Lady’s Tank|
|5:45pm||Car Procession, Benediction and Mass in Tamil|
|7:30am||Mass in Tamil|
|5:00pm||Mass in Tamil for parishioners|
|6:00pm||Rosary, Novena, Benediction and Mass in Tamil|
November 8, 2008 | Posted in Travel Reviews 31 Comments » | By Jayson Joseph