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Divins remèdes

Ines G. Županov
Caterina Guenzi

Stratégies de guérison

Salus Infirmorum. The “Culture of Healing” at a Marian Pilgrimage Centre in Tamil Nadu

La « culture de la guérison » dans un centre de pèlerinage marial au Tamilnad

Matthias Frenz


Dans le christianisme, le domaine de la guérison a été associé depuis des siècles à Marie, la mère du Christ. D’un point de vue phénoménologique, cette faculté de guérison forme un lien entre la figure féminine la plus éminente dans le christianisme et des personnages féminins appartenant à d’autres traditions religieuses. Quand les Européens ont introduit le christianisme en Inde, au début du xvie siècle, la vénération pour Marie a gagné une large expansion au-delà de la communauté catholique.
L’article étudie en profondeur la « culture de la guérison » dans le plus important sanctuaire marial en inde, celui de Notre-Dame de la Santé à Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. Dans ce contexte, le terme « culture de la guérison » signifie la mise en place d’un discours spécifique qui émerge comme un résultat de l’interaction entre différents groupes et individus qui partagent l’intérêt commun de l’imploration à Marie pour l’obtention de faveurs reliées à la bonne santé. Cette contribution montre que la « culture de la guérison » est organisée selon certains axes. Les traits principaux du discours sont exposés sur la base de remerciements de dévots publiés dans le média officiel du sanctuaire. On cherche à comprendre quels sont les mécanismes qui régulent le discours sur la guérison dans le but de contenir sa nature rampante et comment ces limitations ne cessent d’être remises en question.

Texte intégral

1Century-old traditions associate Mary, the mother of Christ, with the cultural domain of illness and healing. “The Litany of Loreto”, in which Mary is hailed as salus infirmorum (“health of the sick”), is merely one prominent example of this link. Although the Litaniae Lauretanae in its current form was first approved by the Catholic Church in 1587, its pattern and content follow hymns composed far earlier (De Santi 1913: 287). Since the council of Ephesos in 431 AD conferred the title Theotokos to Mary, stressing her maternal role, she has become a leading patroness and role model for women, especially in relation to childbearing. Up until now fertility has been highly significant in the domain of healing and well-being associated with the Virgin Mary. Phenomenologically, the figure of Mary is linked to the fertility goddesses found in many of the religious traditions around the globe. Marian grottos and crypts, springs providing health-giving water under Marian patronage are all related to universal notions of healing and fertility. Over the centuries the theological propagation of Mary’s elevated status as the mother of God, on the one hand, and the equally strong emphasis on her human character, on the other hand, created the image of a powerful but compassionate maternal figure. The somewhat scant details given in the Bible about the mother of Christ further stimulated the development of a vivid mythology (compare Schreiner 1996).

2From a dogmatic standpoint, the Virgin, although endowed with special graces, merely mediates between the human and the divine spheres; she does not act in her own right but intercedes with Christ on behalf of human beings who seek her assistance. Throughout history, however, the most widespread and socially influential perspective on Mary is certainly not the theological one, but the perception of her as a mighty and at the same time compassionate figure, almost as potent as God and her son, albeit closer to the human world and hence the preferred object of approach. Sancta Maria was and still is attributed a strong agency, particularly in Marian sanctuaries.

Marian Devotion in India

3Shortly after the Portuguese expedition led by Vasco da Gama had reached the western coast of India in 1498, European missionaries began spreading Roman Catholicism there. Within a few decades the most influential religious orders of the time had established their mission on the subcontinent. Each group carried out their work according to their own peculiar teachings and practices; the tension between the competing congregations already prevalent in Europe was exported to India. Fierce struggles erupted on occasion, as in the case of the dispute over the “Malabar Rites” or the controversy on the ecclesiastical rights of the Portuguese king. Since diverse missionary groups shaped different regional traditions, Indian Catholicism developed various facets.

4What has been said for the missionary endeavour in general, is equally valid in the context of devotion to the Virgin Mary and the connection to the field of healing and well-being (for the history of Marian devotion in India see Frenz 2004). Regional variations of legends and cult practices of Marian devotion found in Europe were introduced in India by the missionaries. The most prominent Marian shrine in India today, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, was shaped by Portuguese Franciscan missionaries. Ārōkkiyamātā, as the Virgin of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is now referred to, goes back to the Portuguese Nossa Senhora da Saúde ( “Our Lady of Health”), a representation of Mary originally venerated in Lisbon (Do Vale Carvalheira 1988: 237-239).

5Especially around festival times, devotees from all religious backgrounds flock to the Marian sanctuaries that have surfaced on Indian soil. It is not surpising that the figure of Mary not only appeals to Christians and Muslims but equally attracts Hindus. The phenomenological link between Mary and the Hindu goddesses, who are often associated with illness and healing, serves as a bridge between the religious systems. Their sharing in the domain of life-giving, motherly protection and powerful intervention permits the inclusion of Mary in the Hindu universe. Although she is re-interpreted in Hindu terms, a clear distinction between Hindu goddesses and the mother of Christ is always maintained. To Indian Muslims on the other hand, Marian sanctuaries appeal because of the scriptural affinity between Christianity and Islam; they are also familiar with the concept of shrines with healing powers. Burial sites of Muslim saints, so called dargāhs, are approached for various ailments and hence resemble the function of Marian shrines.

6Whether ancient or contemporary, large or small, remote or accessible, centres of Marian devotion are heterogeneous spaces where adherents of various religious convictions and practices meet and interact. Requests are brought before the mother of christ, vows are pronounced, sacrifices are made. Everything seems within reach with the power of the Virgin Mary, e.g., children, money, peace of mind, a cure for physical ailments, and relief from family troubles. At first sight, people seem to approach Mary with whatever desire possible. Closer inspection, however, reveals a certain pattern along which the field is organized and its characteristic form constituted.

7For the following investigation into the peculiarities of Marian devotion and healing in India, the arena under scrutiny is understood as a discursive field in which the interaction of the individuals and groups involved results in the formation of a discourse. The discourse formation, which is constantly re-negotiated depending on the distribution of power that changes over time, is referred to as the “culture of healing”. The aim of the present contribution is to outline a particular discourse formation concerning healing and well-being at India’s most famous Marian sanctuary. It will be asked which issues are projected most and which are marginalized or even silenced. Besides describing the “culture of healing”, I intend to analyse how the discourse is regulated and how the rules thus set are again challenged.

Nossa Senhora da Saúde—our Lady of Health—Ārōkkiyamātā

  • 1 For a detailed account, see Frenz (2004: 82-122).

8The “culture of healing” in the context of Indian Marian devotion is studied exemplarily at the shrine of our lady of health in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, the most popular Catholic shrine in India. Although there are quite a number of Marian shrines across the country, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi in the state of Tamil Nadu is the most famous and the most frequented. A short sketch of the history of the sanctuary will suffice as background to the following analysis.1 In the early 17th century, the first Catholic chapel dedicated to nossa senhora da saúde was erected in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, then an unimpressive fishing village on the Coromandel coast. The chapel was looked after by Portuguese franciscan patres from the nearby port of nākāppaṭṭiṉam, which was occupied by the Portuguese. When the dutch took nākāppaṭṭiṉam in 1658, the Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi church grew in significance, becoming the regional centre for the franciscan order for some time. German protestant missionaries who visited the place in 1730 were the first to mention that the church had become known as a Marian pilgrimage site.

9According to three myths of origin sanctioned by the local authorities of the Catholic church, the founding of the shrine goes back to Marian apparitions near Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. In the first legend the Virgin appears to a shepherd boy carrying milk, and asks him for some to quench her little son’s thirst. When the boy had given away part of the milk, the pot remained as full as before. The second myth speaks of Mary appearing to a lame boy who sold butter milk. Once again she asks for a refreshing drink for her son and cures the boy of his handicap, thus enabling him to convey her message to a Catholic gentleman: a church is to be built at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. In the third story the Virgin rescues Portuguese sailors from a rough sea in which they had almost drowned, bringing them safely to the shore of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. The motives contained in the myths of origin point to three key themes associated with the sanctuary: our lady of health at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is known for bestowing prosperity, for her healing powers and for her protective strength.

10Early sources emphasized that the Catholic shrine in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi attracted people of various religious affiliations. Due to a systematic development of the place and the propagation of its powers, the shrine gained a strong reputation as a miraculous healing site in the second half of the 20th century. Considered by Indian Catholics as a Virgin of Indian origin, Ārōkkiyamātā—as our lady of health is known in tamil—even became a national icon for them (frenz 2007). Throughout the year, large numbers of Hindus, Christians and, to a lesser degree, Muslims undertake the journey to the shrine. Amongst those who approach Mary are pilgrims hoping to gain relief from suffering during their visit. Other pilgrims visit the shrine after overcoming their problems to thank the Virgin for her assistance.

Tackling The Discourse

11Statements on healing associated with the Virgin of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, that as a whole constitute the discourse, take many forms and are expressed through diverse communication channels. The scattered and volatile nature of the discourse prevents its exhaustive coverage; at the same time it requires the definition of a window through which it can be accessed. In the present contribution the “culture of healing” is approached through the analysis of thanksgiving notes composed by devotees who received favours from Ārōkkiyamātā. The following investigation is based on a selection of these notes included in official publications of the sanctuary. Due to the difficult access to relevant material, the analysis rests on a random sample of shrine publications. Despite this limitation, the investigation provides a valuable first glimpse at the cultural domain of healing in an extraordinary place, where adherents of different religious traditions mingle and interact.

  • 2 Vol. 45 no 6 (February 1998), vol. 45 no 7 (March 1998), vol. 45 no 9/10 (May/June 1998), vol. 46 n(...)

12Shrine guide books constitute one group of sources. Revised every few years and currently available in the twentieth edition, each edition contains a large section of thanksgiving notes, as well as theological reflections on Mary, the foundation myths of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, the history of the shrine, and practical information for pilgrims. Three editions were consulted: santos (1933), Gabriel et al. (1995) and The History of the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Health Vailankanni (2005). The second group of sources is the monthly journal Vailankanni calling. The approximately thirty pages per issue contain a mixture of theological articles, churchhistory, jokes, riddles, advertisements, thanksgiving notes and petitions. Contributors are both laymen and clerics. Material from eight issues of the journal was used for this contribution.2 The internet as a third channel of public representation has gradually gained in significance. The private website <> has been displaying the shrine of Ārōkkiyamātā on the internet for some years. The local diocese did not explicitly support this site until recently. Since January 2007, however, a link from the diocesan website qualifies it as the official website of the Ārōkkiyamātā shrine at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. The static site contains basic information about the shrine, its location, history and liturgical life; it also includes accounts of miracles. All three groups of sources are available in English and Tamiḻ. For the following analysis, only English sources were taken into account. The aim is to access a discourse that is not confined to the region where Tamiḻ is spoken. For a shrine like Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, which draws visitors from all over India and abroad, the regional language has limited scope, whereas the lingua franca English is understood throughout India and beyond.

13In order to structure the heterogeneous content of the sources, I established a database containing information published in the thanksgiving notes and entered the issues in a standardized frame. Where possible each data set contains information on the author and date of entry, the reason why Mary was approached, the solution achieved and the relevant circumstances. Problem categories were formed on this basis and individual cases attributed to the relevant categories. A total of 359 entries derived from thanksgiving notes to the Virgin Mary at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi were compiled; they cover the period from 1898 to 2005. With the classification of the officially published records of miraculous favours received from Ārōkkiyamātā, an effort was made to identify basic structures, common features and emerging trends in the discursive field that prevailed at the most renowned Catholic shrine in India.

What the Sources Reveal

14The shrine publications contain a wide range of thanksgivings; various problems are reported and solutions suggested. Initial contours of the discursive field on healing emerge when the entries in the database are categorized according to the difficulties referred to. The spectrum of worrying issues that motivated the authors to turn to the Virgin for help can be classified in nine categories, viz., accident, education, employment, handicap, illness, partnership, property, the psyche and reproduction. Two further categories cover accounts of unspecified problems and other, isolated issues. The distribution of the entries over these categories reveals a strong bias of physical illness; almost half of the 359 entries fall into this category. In 10 % of the database entries Mary is implored for protection from accidents, while almost the same number of entries mention reproduction problems; remaining categories are less represented (see fig. 1).

  • 3 Compare Stirrat 1992 and the contribution of Sébastia, this volume.

15The prominence given to physical ailments cured in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi reflects the characteristic most frequently ascribed to Ārōkkiyamātā: her healing powers. Despite the diversity of problems that appear in shrine publications, our lady of health is strongly represented as the last resort in averting bodily harm, be it illness or accident. Ārōkkiyamātā’s powers are not, however, confined to the domain of healing. She also appears as a powerful force in issues related to family, career, property and the psyche. The quantitative representation in the latter domains does not clearly indicate a focus on physical, mental or social integrity. Mental problems are least represented in the accounts, which is remarkable considering Christian sanctuaries have always been popular places for expelling evil spirits that torture the souls of devotees.3

16Since the sources contain thanksgiving notes composed over a period of more than a hundred years, a possible shift in emphasis over time should be traceable. Unfortunately, since less than half of the published accounts contain a date, only a cautious interpretation can be given. Quantitative analysis shows that the strong emphasis on health issues subsides with the course of time. Although illness still remains the largest domain, there is a trend towards a gradual diminishing of the difference between the number of entries in the illness category and those in other categories between 1899 and 2005. The increased number of thanksgiving accounts dealing with everyday problems of well-being in relation to those with life-threatening diseases is probably due to the improvement of medical services in India.

Fig. 1: Problems reported according to categories

17Grouping entries extracted from the sources along the lines of the nine categories is merely one approach. Looking at the data from a slightly different angle reveals that 265 of the 359 entries (i.e. 74 %) focus on the human body. From this perspective the threat to life from accident, illness or bodily malfunctions are subsumed in one group that cuts across the above-mentioned categories and includes accident, reproduction, handicap, illness, and the psyche. The concrete problems summarized under this umbrella are in turn diverse. Fever is the most common illness mentioned, viz., in 10 % of the accounts. Childlessness, eye problems and stomach ailments take third place (after unspecified diseases with 9 %) and are each mentioned in 5 % of the database entries. The list continues with skin problems, paralytic attacks and lung disorders (in 4 to 5 % of all accounts). Seventh position is shared by delivery complications, leg trouble and life-threatening traffic accidents (all in less than 4 % of the records). Although the list extends to thirty-nine further physical malfunctions, less than ten cases fall into each of the remaining categories.

18The heavy representation of the subject of physical integrity marks Ārōkkiyamātā as a powerful advocate of physical remedy and protection. Other issues are projected as marginally relevant. At the same time, the huge diversity of concrete ailments indicates that within the framework of physical integrity there is no evidence of one major problem. Physical integrity is sought after and achieved both positively and negatively. If danger is imminent, it is averted. The cause of the trouble could be an accident or an operation recommended by a physician. If illness has already struck, health is restored.

19The emphasis on physical integrity goes along with a somewhat stereotyped contrast between western medicine and assistance from the Virgin Mary. Of the 265 entries dealing with physical wholeness, 92 (i.e. 35 %) express dissatisfaction with “modern” medical services. These accounts mention that the authors turned to Ārōkkiyamātā as a last resort when doctors following the “English” medical system had failed. Even the earliest printed accounts from 1898 and 1899 indicate dissatisfaction with physicians of this kind. As the following example illustrates, occasionally the practitioners themselves are reported to have advised their patients to seek the assistance of our lady of health when they felt the respective complications had surpassed their own abilities:

All of a sudden on 17-2-1969 my womb got bulged. Within two days it expanded so much that any one is likely to presume that I was conceived. My father and myself approached Dr. Selvi […]. I took the x-ray as advised by Dr. Selvi and went to her hospital to hand over the picture. At that moment Dr. A.A. Mani and the lady Doctor A.M.M. Rani who were present there asked me to take a vow that I and my husband will visit “our lady of Goog Health” Vailankanni, on my healing and offer her a silver bowel as a token of love and gratitude. When my father and myself agreed to fulfil the vow as suggested by the doctors, the Lady doctor began applying the Holy oil of Our Lady on my womb, revealing the fact that the oil was brought forth from the Shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni when she had paid a visit. After this she also gave some medical treatment. Within three days the bulge disappeared. [Kulandhaiammal, T.P. Muniakavundan, Salem-7] [Gabriel et al. 1995: 111-112]

20Although such cases are rare, they highlight the contrast between limited scientific medical aid and the supreme power of the Virgin. Doctors may not actively point to Mary but rendering medical personnel powerless has the same effect. Beyond the mere criticism of “modern” medicine, the portrayal of doctors as incapable hints at a deeper rift between science and religion, a fundamentally different understanding of health and integrity.

21Two thirds of the thanksgiving notes contain information from which the sex of the authors can be deduced. 41 % of these entries were written by women and only 26 % by men. Examining the above-mentioned categories under the gender aspect reveals an unequal distribution between male and female authors. Figure 2 shows that with the exception of “accident” and “employment”, female authors outnumber males in all categories. A second glance discloses a different gender bias for different categories. Contrary to intuitive expectation, the category “reproduction” takes only third place in the list of categories dominated by female authors. Partner issues occupy the first rank, followed by mental problems. Female authors constitute the majority even in the categories “property” and “handicap”. “Accident” is the only category where male authors dominate.

Fig. 2: Problem categories. and gender

22The authors of the published thanksgiving notes are not necessarily identical with the subject of the reported favour granted by Ārōkkiyamātā. In a number of cases the authors of the accounts approached the Virgin on behalf of someone else. Figure 3 illustrates the ten most frequent relationships between author and subject of the respective favour mentioned in the thanksgiving note. Author and subject are identical in 45 % of entries. After a considerable gap, the author expresses his/her gratitude to Mary on behalf of a son (14 % of entries), followed by entries on behalf of a daughter (8 % of entries). Less than 5 % of entries mention other groups. As already seen for the different categories in the database, female authors dominate all relation groups equally, with the obvious exception of the group “wife”. The difference between female and male representation is smallest in the groups “sister”, “daughter” and “self”. In other words, men in comparison to women are more concerned about the well-being of their sisters, daughters and themselves than they are about other groups.

23One of the main attractions in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi for devotees is the museum of offerings to Ārōkkiyamātā, where the shrine administration displays gifts of great symbolic and monetary value. The showcases are filled with engraved gold and silver offerings that speak of the devotees’ gratitude for the relief obtained through the Virgin. Several hundis are provided in the churches and chapels for donations of all kinds, i.e., money and precious items, which constitute the financial backbone of the shrine economy. It could therefore be assumed that published records also support the flow of donations to the shrine by relating to vows and gifts offered by the authors. An examination of the printed thanksgiving notes reveals, however, that the texts rarely mention taking a vow to achieve a specific goal. 70 % of the accounts make no reference to a vow. A promise to visit the shrine in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi if the Virgin Mary granted the requested favour is made in 13 % of the published notes. 7 % contain an unspecified vow pledged before receiving the blessings of the Virgin. Only in 4 % of the accounts do devotees assure Ārōkkiyamātā they will offer her icons related to their problems as soon as the obstacles are removed. Almost the same number of entries mention a vow to publicly proclaim the fame of “Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi Mata” when their expectations are met. A peculiar promise is recorded in several accounts of devotees who did not belong to the Catholic Church originally. Hindus and Protestants make a vow to the Virgin in these accounts to accept the “true faith” if she came to their aid. All statements of this kind bear a date prior to 1930, leading to the conclusion that unlike missionary practice in earlier times (compare the contribution of I. G. Županov, this volume), conversion to Catholicism as an expression of gratitude to Our Lady of Health is no longer encouraged in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi.

Fig. 3: Relation between author and subject of accounts

24From roughly a quarter of the published thanksgiving notes we learn the length of timeit took for the respective devotee to obtain the aspired solution. The information given in most of these accounts facilitates the differentiation between the time of the distress occurrence until the request to the Virgin Mary, on the one hand, and the time between the approach to Mary and the solution of the problem, on the other. Figure 4 visualizes differences in the representation of the two periods. For the period between the emergence of the problem and the request to Mary we find a relatively equal distribution across the intervals examined. The accounts do not suggest a preferred point of time to approach Mary. Regarding the time between the devotees turning to the Virgin and finally achieving their goal, however, the chart indicates a pattern that holds out the prospect of quick relief from an ailment, once Ārōkkiyamātā’s mercy has been implored.

25In more than 95 % of the published accounts the original problem why the Virgin was approached was solved to the satisfaction of the author. The remaining entries describe partial or delayed improvement or relate to a veritable crisis in the process. Although few in number, the latter accounts are particularly interesting because they exhibit a peculiar understanding of Mary: she is depicted as ambiguous. In these narratives the author typically receives favours from the Virgin after taking a vow but subsequently fails to fulfil it. When the person experiences severe problems again, (s) he perceives the trouble as a lesson sent by Mary. The Virgin is considered to claim unmistakable allegiance and actively pressure the devotee to keep the given promise. A quotation taken from the 1933 edition of the guide book to the shrine shows that incurring the Virgin’s anger is seen as a matter of life and death:

I had no male child for a long time. I prayed to our lady of Velankanni to bless me with a male child, promising her that I will give him her own name and visit the shrine at Velankanni after the third year of the child’s birth. My humble prayer was heard and I got a child three years ago. According to my promise I had to go to Velankanni this year. But owing to financial difficulty I postponed it to next year. Immediately my child got double pneumonia. Three eminent medical men were consulted and all unanimously pronounced that there was no hope of recovery. I was sorry for postponing my journey and had a final request to our lady to pardon me for not fulfilling my vow and cure my little boy. He was at once cured miraculously. And we have all come here […] to offer our thanks […]. [ArokiaMary ammal, Rangon] [Santos 1933: 82]

Fig. 4: Time periods reported

26Thanksgiving notes of this kind are rare textual examples of the widely perceived ambiguity of the Marian character. Pilgrims I spoke to in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi and other sites of Marian devotion in India, Catholics and adherents of other religions alike, echoed this perception. These oral accounts and their written representations published in the shrine books disclose an influential perspective on the Virgin Mary, which is valid for a considerable number, if not all, Marian devotees in India: seeking Mary’s help is understood as a reciprocal act of commodity exchange. The devotee who approaches the Virgin Mary for assistance enters into a relationship with her that binds both to a particular code of conduct. Secondly, although the Church usually projects the mother of Christ in an exclusively positive light, her character is perceived as ambiguous. If neglected or inappropriately treated by a devotee, her wrath is powerful and possibly life threatening. She is characterized as a supreme figure who not only removes obstacles, but is also capable of inflicting severe trouble and harsh punishment on those who fail to adhere to the prescribed code of conduct. When the Virgin sends disease, as in the example quoted above, the benign motherly figure turns her power against the devotee. Only when remorsefully beseeched might she be appeased and again show her caring side. This understanding of Mary contains features that parallel the basic characterization of Hindu goddesses renowned for their power to give and take disease. It should be stressed, however, that the distinction between Mary and Hindu goddesses is maintained at all times. As I learned from numerous discussions, even among Hindus, Mary is seen primarily as a benign figure, despite her potential ambiguity. The perception is that Mary only becomes demanding and threatening in the extreme situation when a devotee violates the common code of conduct. This distinguishes her fundamentally from the village goddesses, who are said to be highly ambiguous and capricious. In the thanksgiving notes published in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, the characterization of the Virgin Mary as an ambiguous figure is marginalized. The few occurrences do not correspond to the popularity of this view; although widespread in oral tradition, this perspective is not openly supported by the Indian Catholic clergy.

27As the British author of the imperial Gazetteer reports, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi was known even in 1908 as “the Lourdes of India” (Hemmingway 1908: 250). Regardless of who coined the phrase, the comparison to one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in the Catholic world is an ambitious claim. The local church authorities who use this label in their publications from the 1930s onwards have declared the universal significance and global appeal of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi ever since. On bestowing the honorary title of basilica minor to the Ārōkkiyamātā shrine in 1962, even pope john XXIII praised Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi as the “Lapurdum orientale” (Frenz 2004: 179). An examination of the thanksgiving notes shows that the confident projection of the shrine administrators is at least partly reflected in the range of places given by the authors as their residence. Since 80 % of the entries contain geographical information about the authors, a fairly comprehensive picture can be drawn (see fig. 5). The data reveals, on the one hand, a clear south Indian bias. The largest group represented in the publications comes from the area comprising the current state of Tamil Nadu and the union Territory Pondicherry. Added to the territory of the other three south Indian federal states of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, pilgrims from southern India form the majority of visitors with a total of 60 %. On the other hand, more than a quarter of the authors of the accounts under scrutiny come from places further afield in India; an additional 10 % refers to places beyond the subcontinent. A closer look at the geographical distribution of the devotees who hailed from Tamil Nadu indicates that almost 90 % of this group live in the northern part of the state, i.e., north of an imaginary line dividing southern India in an east-west direction via point Calimere (Kōṭikkarai). The geographical differences regarding the attractiveness of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi reflect the cultural divide between the Coromandel and the pearl fishery coast. A large part of the pearl fishery coastal population had turned to Christianity in the early 16th century. In the course of time, the dominant caste wove Catholicism into their social system and established large churches representing their claim to supremacy (see Bayly 1989: chap. 9). On the Coromandel coast, Catholic Christianity was not adopted by entire groups of society. Neither did Catholicism become a marker of collective caste identity. The churches and shrines built on the Coromandel coast thus remained focal points for smaller societal entities, viz., families and private individuals.

Fig. 5: Geographical origin of authors

28Foreign visitors to Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi are constantly represented in the sanctuary publications. Throughout the century, however, the places of origin changed. Trade connections between the Coromandel coast and South-East Asia during the colonial period are reflected in the thanksgiving notes: pilgrims from Burma and Indo-China—presumably Tamils—report of their positive experiences with Ārōkkiyamātā. With the independence of the south Asian nations, this connection was severed. Instead countries on the Persian Gulf and immigration countries such as Britain and the USA appear in the accounts more frequently.

29Information with regard to the religious affiliation of the authors of thanksgiving notes is meagre. The author’s denomination is mentioned explicitly in only twenty-four of the 359 entries, eleven of which are composed by Hindus and thirteen by Protestants. Interestingly, all but three of these accounts were written before 1920. Contrary to later, it seems that the Catholic Church in the early 20th century attributed a certain significance to the exposure of religious affiliation in the publications. This observation again hints at the fact that up to the beginning of the 20th century the Church openly supported proselytism and publicized the fruits of these endeavours in the booklets issued at the Marian sanctuary. In later years the shrine administration displayed more reluctance to actively encourage conversion, while the accounts of Hindus and Protestants who joined Catholicism as a result of the assistance they received from the Virgin Mary were retained as voices from the past. The majority of thanksgiving accounts only allow for an indirect deduction of religious affiliation via names, so that an exact differentiation is not always possible. It is striking, however, that not one single entry in the entire data collection infers a Muslim author, either explicitly or implicitly. Despite the fact that Muslims are proved by the sources to have been constant visitors to the shrine of Ārōkkiyamātā, they are not represented in the official publications.

The Organization of the Discourse

30The discourse that revolves around healing and well-being associated with the Virgin of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi exhibits a particular set of standard views and practices I have called the “culture of healing”. Nevertheless, the investigation should not end with the description of this domain. Beyond being a representation of the local, “culture of healing”, statements such as those expressed in the shrine publications also have a strong normative function.

31In Michel Foucault’s terms, the mechanisms effective in this case can be examined more precisely as procedures that regulate and control discourse. Foucault develops a detailed analytical framework to study such procedures. His reflections are based on the assumption that in all societies the production of discourse is controlled and regulated by subtle mechanisms, which aim at containing its threatening and unpredictable potential:

[J] e suppose que dans toute société la production du discours est à la fois contrôlée, sélectionée, organisée et redistribuée par un certain nombre de procédures qui ont pour rôle d’en conjurer les pouvoirs et les dangers, d’en esquiver la lourde, la redoutable matérialité. [Foucault 1971 : 10-11]

32Foucault distinguishes four types of “procedures” by which the discourse is organized and hence controlled. Under the term “procédures d’exclusion” (Foucault 1971 : 11) he subsumes ban and taboo, the exclusion of particular domains and the emergence of a dichotomy between true and false. The second type labelled “raréfaction du discours” (Foucault 1971 : 28) comprises the principles of classification, structure and distribution exercised within the discourse, which minimize its unpredictable and chaotic character. Similar to the containment of the statements that constitute the discourse, the individuals from whom the discourse emanates are subject to mechanisms that restrict their access to it; here Foucault speaks of “raréfaction des sujets parlants” (Foucault 1971 : 39). As a fourth type Foucault identifies currents (e.g., in philosophical thinking) that principally deny its specific reality. By either attributing the production of meaning to the subject or postulating a primordial inherence of meaning in all objects or, thirdly, by simply exchanging meaning in a universally mediated understanding of it, the space between thought and speech in which the creative and potentially dangerous discourse evolves is negated—to put it in Foucault’s terms it is the “dénégation de la réalité spécifique du discours en général” (Foucault 1971 : 48).

33With Foucault’s reflections on the procedures applied to regiment discourse in mind, we again turn to the situation in southern India. Assuming that Foucault’s hypothesis is universally valid, the discourse on healing in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi can be understood as regulated and structured. Seen from this angle, the local “culture of healing” is characterized not only by the totality of the statements on healing as such but also the manner in which they are arranged and channelled. By exercising control over the representation of statements, the agents involved shape the current cultureandatthesametimedefinetheframeforfutureactionandexpectation. The prevailing discourse provides a pattern for potential healing, giving orientation to all who approach the shrine. It is important to note that the production, regulation and reception of the discourse go hand in hand. No clear distinction can be made between individuals or groups who simply produce statements and those who struggle to shape the rampant discourse according to their plans. Although the distribution of power certainly favours church authorities as the more immediate influence in exercising control over the discourse, the agency is shared by all participants—pilgrims, merchants, beggars and watchmen alike.

34With this theoretical background, we will take a second look at the thanksgiving notes. The analysis of the published accounts exemplifies the mechanisms of effective discourse regulation. Following Foucault, we first turn to the procedures of exclusion. It is evident from the actual range of troubles represented in the thanksgiving notes that only particular ailments are “admitted” for publication. A line is drawn between problems that are accepted in the discourse and those to be excluded and thus side lined or silenced. Cures for physical disease are mentioned frequently, whereas the desire for a peaceful death does not appear. The support of “western” medicine is often sought; magicians, sorcerers and Hindu gods are referred to in two Hindu accounts only. Mary is approached on the subject of partners belonging to the other sex, whereas same sex partners are unmentionable. Although in other contexts mental disease is dealt with at Catholic shrines, insanity has no place in the published accounts and exorcist practices are not reported.

35The total absence of thanksgiving notes clearly identifiable as written by Muslims is another form of discourse restriction represented in the shrine publications. The frequent visits of Muslim devotees to Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi is not reflected in one single entry. Whether Muslims themselves are hesitant to contribute to the publications, whether they have little access to English print media, or whether their notes do not fit into the framework set by the dominant voices in the discourse—such phenomena correspond to the procedures described by Foucault, whereby potential participants in the discourse are obstructed or even denied access.

36The thanksgiving accounts that appear in the shrine publications and by this token have been recognized as a legitimate part of the discourse on healing are not merely random compilations but follow a certain pattern. Although they vary in length and detail, the notes conform to a particular structure, which according to Foucault serves to regulate and delimit the otherwise rampant and potentially dangerous discourse. A typical account found in the shrine books contains information about the troublesome issue and the relief sent by Ārōkkiyamātā. Most stories have a similar sequential structure: after a detailed description of the problem, the futile efforts undertaken to solve it before approaching Mary are related. Once the Virgin has been confided in—sometimes associated with a concrete vow—the turning point has been reached. The problem is solved and the devotee fulfills his/her duty and thanks the benefactor. Some statements contain other elements, e.g., details of the author, how (s) he came to know about Ārōkkiyamātā or whether a crisis occurred in the process, but the basic structure is stable and the discursive space clearly limited. This arrangement obviously discourages elaboration on the local mythology of Ārōkkiyamātā. At the same time, the forum is exclusively designed for thanksgiving notes to the locally venerated representation of Mary, i.e. Ārōkkiyamātā; other saints or even the trinity are rarely mentioned. The relatively detailed presentation of the accounts indicates that they are aimed at the public who visit the shrine, a strong hint at the prescriptive nature of the published material. A conspicuously condensed form of thanksgiving note printed in recent issues of the journal Vailankanni calling demonstrates that the uniform pattern followed up to now may be divided into two different patterns in the future depending on the media of publication. In contrast to the detailed accounts in the guide books, the newly emerging journal versions have very little informative and prescriptive value for other pilgrims. Phrases such as “Frankie, Goa : Thanks for the blessings” or “r. Radha, Dhanuvachapuram: Thanks for the graces” (Vailankanni Calling, December 2005: 32) only satisfy the author’s urge to have his/her gratitude publicly documented; they are not eligible to serve as a model for the behaviour of others.

37In addition to the curtailing effect of a structure imposed on the discourse, the “raréfaction du discours” is also boosted by repetition of statements. While emphasizing and transforming certain aspects, repetition steers the discourse in a certain direction. A number of thanksgiving notes published in earlier versions of one guide book are resumed in later editions of the same book, and also appear on the internet platform of the shrine. Of the three guide book editions examined, a little over 10 % of the entries appear in more than one edition. The strongest continuity is evident in Santos’s book from 1933 and the seventeenth edition of the guide published by Gabriel et al. in 1995. In the twentieth edition of the booklet (2005), only two accounts of earlier times are cited, which can again be interpreted as a recent tendency of the editorial board to cautiously dissociate the discourse from guidelines established in the past. Due to the comparatively radical revision of the latest issue of the guide, only one account appears in all three books. In 1901, a Śaiva woman reported the miraculous healing of her paralysed granddaughter. The woman and her granddaughter stayed for a year at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi with no sign of improvement in the latter’s health. Only after the child had been baptized did the healing take place and the grandmother subsequently become a Catholic. Since reiteration signals a particular emphasis, the question is why this statement was chosen three times whilst others were printed in only two editions or once at the most. Presumably the note is perceived as highly impressive proof of faith in the Virgin. A Hindu woman who remained in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi for a whole year without losing trust in the healing powers of Ārōkkiyamātā is projected as a strong model for devotees. However, the thanksgiving note is not reiterated verbatim. The reprint is presented as a freely recounted version of the story, in which the text has been altered considerably. However, the core components and structure of the account are retained. From an analytical point of view, the technique of reiterating healing accounts can be understood as a method of commenting on particular statements and thus as an effort to readjust and transform the discourse accordingly. An examination of the stable and variable elements in rephrased thanksgiving notes allows for the distinction between core issues and exchangeable parts.

38In order to illustrate the arguments brought for wardin the preceding paragraphs, I will quote another series of accounts that appear in two guide books and on the official website of the shrine basilica of our lady of health Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. The first version of the thanksgiving note was published by santos (1933: 71):

Some 49 years ago when I was a young fellow, I was dangerously ill and condemned therefore by the physician to an assured death. Then my mother, putting all her confidence in our lady of Vailankanni, undertook a long journey and brought me to the illustrious shrine. Thanks to the blessed Virgin Mary of Vailankanni I recovered there miraculously my health. Being very thankful to the good “arokia mada”, iused since that time to goover to Vailankanni every year during the feast. But I ceased to do it when I became an ecclesiastical student. Now after a lapse of 40 years I get an opportunity of going in pilgrimage to the feast of Vailankanni. [4 - 9 - 1916. Fr. Antoine, asst. Vicar, karikal]

39The account that appeared in santos‘s book is retold in the seventeenth edition of the guide book on Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi (Gabriel et al. 1995: 65):

About 49 years ago when I was a young boy I had fallen seriously ill. When the expert doctors then, could do little to improve my health. At that time my mother had taken “our lady of health” into confidence and brought me to the shrine of Vailankanni, bothering least about the long distance that she had to cover. With the great help of our lady I was then miraculously healed. As I owed much to our lady from then on I paid a visit to her shrine once in every year, till I became an ecclesiastical student. But my holy visit couldn’t be continued after joining the seminary. Now after 40 years I have an opportunity to come over here, on which I feel immensely happy. [rev. Fr. Amandhuvan, karaikal] [f. Antoine, asst. Vicar, karaikal]

40On the website <> three miracles are reported, among them the latest version of the account quoted above:

About 49 years ago, when I was a little boy, I was very seriously ill. Even the wellknown doctors gave up hope. At this juncture, my mother who had great faith in our lady of Vailankanni, brought me to the shrine even though it was a long journey. By the grace of our lady of Vailankanni I was cured of my ailment miraculously. Every year I visited the shrine without fail until I joined the seminary. Now after 40 years, I am so happy and grateful to our lady for giving me a chance to return to the shrine to thank her once again.

41The thanksgiving note retold twice and originally composed by a Catholic priest who had been healed in his childhood is a good example of the mechanisms involved in regulating the discourse. Remarkably, although not a single phrase was borrow edliterally, the structure of the account has not changed, the basic constituents of the story and their sequence are stable. Through the resumption of the account its core components are identifiable, leaving little room for their variation. The emphasis thus given to the core components of the story indicatest heir significance for the definition of the shrine’s “identity”, which is generated collectively in the discourse. The reiteration of statements, however, not only entails a restriction of the latter, but also opens up space for variation and commentaries. Within the given framework, stories become embellished and their transformation resembles the process texts undergo when they are passed on orally. Elements in the accounts that seem peripheral are altered or even dropped in the process. Hence the name of the authors who contributed thanksgiving notes to the shrine publications are often changed and occasionally lost in the resumed text. Similarly the date indicating when an account was written is often omitted. The disregard for the individual behind a thanksgiving account and its time frame expresses a disregard for the historicity of the statement and its dependence on individual human beings. As Foucault remarked, the discourse is not only curtailed by certain mechanisms, but its specific reality is sometimes denied completely. When—as in the given example from Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi—statements belonging to the discourse on healing become devoid of their historic specificity, their character changes. Accounts devoid of individual and historical allusions refer to an anonymous and ahistorical religious truth beyond any worldly discourse. In the shrine publications they are presented as exchangeable examples of an endless chain of miracles and favours bestowed by the motherly Virgin on her devotees. Since discourse is essentially a dynamic formation of statements, a historically variable polyphony of voices within a power dependent framework, healing accounts that have lost their connection to the specific event of their production generate the impression that the “culture of healing” in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi does not depend on a discursive formation emerging as a result of the social interaction of the agents involved. Thus—speaking with Foucault—the specific reality of the discourse is denied.

42The shrine publications are merely one arena among many others in which the discourse on healing is represented, negotiated and framed. Dynamics and limitations in other domains such as rituals, commerce or pilgrimage, all of which involve people of different origins and affiliations, equally contribute to the formation of a specific “culture of healing” in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi. A limited variety of standardized silver offerings, such as miniature hearts, cradles or property items are sold by the staff of the shrine and by private traders. This is a further mechanism that frames the expectations of pilgrims who seek the assistance of Ārōkkiyamātā. Rituals conducted by the Catholic clergy equally follow a fixed pattern and have strictly controlled access. Explicit bans pronounced by the church authorities (e.g., on exorcism) or strong advice (e.g., against bathing in the sea) add to procedures that restrict the discourse.

43Despite the various governing mechanisms, it would be inappropriate to assume that the discourse concerned with healing is completely curtailed, its developments pre-determined and the “dangerous” creativity lost. The efforts to regulate the discourse remain incomplete, and individuals and groups retain their agency to a greater or lesser degree. Not everyone conforms to the patterns set within the discourse. As a consequence the dynamic is retained and the patterns are subject to constant negotiation (see Frenz 2004: 26-28). This process affects the “culture of healing” no less than the mechanisms applied to contain the discourse. Creative potential is found particularly on the margins of the discourse, in peripheral fields that are not the focus of general attention. A vivid example for the introduction of new elements to the discourse on healing in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi are the votive offerings of Hindu origin (e.g., a little krṣṇa figure) dropped into the donation box at the shrine. Along with other silver plates in the box, they are recycled and resold by church staff with the result that Hindu symbols are offered at a Catholic stall and thus included in the range of officially sanctioned accessories to worship. Groups of pilgrims retain their agency, too, when they create their own variety of worship on the long walk to Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, bringing with them homemade mobile altars. Pilgrims of different religious affiliation take home their impression of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, build private shrines and develop a peculiar practice of worship. As a result of their experiences with Mary, devotees formulate myths that spread orally in the vicinity of the shrine and across the country. The group with the greatest creative potential among the residents of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi are the merchants. Not all of the items sold to the devotees for the veneration of Mary (e.g., pūjā plates with coconut, flowers and candles) conform to the common standards of Catholic worship. Finally, the potential of the media should not be underestimated. With regard to Marian devotion in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, Internet opportunities in particular have hardly been explored, either by those with an interest in a regulated discourse or those in pursuit of other goals.

(PHOTOGR. MATTHIAS FRENZ) Offerings to the Virgin Mary expressing the wish for a child, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, may 1998.

Votive offerings sold at church stalls in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, items collected at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi in 1998 by M. Frenz, november 2007.

Summarizing The “Culture Of Healing”

44The investigation of the health-related discourse that reflects and defines experiences and aspirations with regard to our lady of health at the Marian sanctuary of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi revealed a complex construct I have called the “culture of healing”. On the basis of thanksgiving accounts published by the shrine administration, dominant features were highlighted and regulating mechanisms pointed out. Summing up the findings, a rough sketch of the “culture of healing” at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi can now be drawn.

45According to the documents examined, Mary appears as a supreme figure capable of granting a profusion of favours. Devotees approach Ārōkkiyamātā at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi first and foremost to attain or retain a state of integrity and place enormous trust in the motherly care of the Virgin, which encompasses physical, social and emotional aspects. As projected in the thanksgiving notes, physical integrity is the domain for which Ārōkkiyamātā is approached most frequently. Within this field, disease transpires to be the most critical issue, although accidents, handicaps and problems with childbearing are also brought before the Virgin. Concern about reproduction partly falls into a second domain, that of social integrity. When a woman asks Mary to bestow her with a son, it is not merely a question of health; the request reflects the desire for a status that is recognized within the family and in society. Likewise, property issues, education difficulties and employment come under the domain of social integrity. Distress involving partners links the second with the third domain, emotional integrity, under which mental problems are also subsumed. We learn from published accounts that the Virgin is quick to confer on her followers the physical, social or emotional integrity for which they beseeched her. It is mostly women who implore Mary either for their own benefit or on behalf of close relatives. The picture presented in the shrine publications is one of a diverse clientele of Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi with a strong base in adjacent areas, especially along the Coromandel coast and its hinterland. In addition the sanctuary attracts a considerable number of people from all over India and from abroad. According to the sources analysed, pilgrims who seek the Virgin’shelp enter into a reciprocal relationship with Ārōkkiyamātā, where both sides are bound by a specific code of conduct. If this code is violated, the Virgin is likely to show her ugly side and turn against the recalcitrant devotee. The connection between sickness and sin, occasionally introduced to the discourse by theologians (while preaching, for instance, or in religious stage plays), is not reflected in the thanksgiving notes. Suffering is never branded as a consequence of immorality. Inappropriate behaviour and suffering are only linked when a devotee fails to keep a promise given to Mary. The specific “culture of healing” is formed by excluding particular issues, by arranging the statements in a special order, and by restricting access of certain voices to the discourse. It is permanently challenged by voices that do not conform to the subtle rules that govern the discourse. The thus emerging and constantly changing discourse formation gives the Marian sanctuary in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi its peculiar character.



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Frenz, M. (2008), “The Virgin and her ‘relations’: reflections on processions at a Catholic shrine in Southern India”, in K. A. Jacobsen, ed., South Asian Religions on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora. New York/London, Routledge, pp. 92-103.

Gabriel, S. L. et al. (1995), The History of the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Health Vailankanni (The Lourdes of the East). (17th revised edition, s.l.)

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1 For a detailed account, see Frenz (2004: 82-122).

2 Vol. 45 no 6 (February 1998), vol. 45 no 7 (March 1998), vol. 45 no 9/10 (May/June 1998), vol. 46 no 1 (September 1998), vol. 47 no 12 (August 2000), vol. 48 no 1 (September 2000), vol. 3 [new series] no 11 (November 2005), vol. 3 [n.s.] no 12 (December 2005).

3 Compare Stirrat 1992 and the contribution of Sébastia, this volume.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Problems reported according to categories
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Légende Fig. 2: Problem categories. and gender
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Légende Fig. 3: Relation between author and subject of accounts
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Légende Fig. 4: Time periods reported
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Légende Fig. 5: Geographical origin of authors
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Légende (PHOTOGR. MATTHIAS FRENZ) Offerings to the Virgin Mary expressing the wish for a child, Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, may 1998.
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Légende Votive offerings sold at church stalls in Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi, items collected at Vēḷāṅkaṇṇi in 1998 by M. Frenz, november 2007.
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Doctor from the University of Heidelberg in the field of religious studies. Trained as an indologist and anthropologist, he has conducted extensive fieldwork at various Christian shrines and pilgrimage centres in India. His main interest is the religious interaction between Christians and Hindus in Southern India.

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