Journey of the sacred statue          

The Madhu Shrine has been a place of worship for people from all faiths and walks of life in Sri Lanka for over 400 years. Although the war that has been raging in the north for three decades stopped the flow of devotees to the shrine in the late ’80s and ’90s, it nevertheless remained in the hearts and minds of the faithful over the years – that much was obvious when thousands gathered at the Madhu Shrine in 2002. Now the Madhu Shrine is in the news again, especially given its recent displacement when it was moved to the St. Xavier’s Church in Thevanpitty, sparking controversy. It is the fervent hope of many that the statue will soon be relocated and that the people of this country will once again be able to visit the sacred shrine for relief and respite. Here, The Nation traces the journey of the sacred statue and the history of the sacred shrine

By Pornima Ravishan Wijemanne
For almost four centuries, the sacred Our Lady of Madhu statue has played a big role in the lives of many Sri Lankans, who flock around it seeking solace and respite.

The sacred statue, which miraculously survived the Dutch persecution and the Civil War, has now emerged as a decisive factor in the northern theatre of war.

The Nation spoke to Mannar Bishop Rev. Rayappu Joseph and uncovered the journey of the sacred statue over the last four centuries.

Rev. Joseph revealed that the statue was first brought to a church in Mantai, Mannar in 1583 by Jesuit fathers, at a time when approximately 43,000 Catholics were living under 26 churches.

“In 1670 the Dutch persecution began and the statue was carried away and hidden in a jungle for safety. Later it was installed in a shed built near the Customs office on the Rameswaram royal route to Kandy, in a hamlet, safe under the Kandy king’s rule. This hamlet was called the Marudhamadhu,” he said.

According to Bishop Joseph, the Mantai Catholics took the statue to Madhu and established Catholicism in the area, after which Catholics from Chilaw, Negombo and all other areas of the country started the custom of visiting the Madhu Church. “People from Negombo used to come by sea in boats and complete the rest of the journey in bullock carts to Madhu,” he said.

The small shrine was later expanded under the initiation of Bishop Bonjean in 1872. In 1921, following a request made by Bishop Brault, first through the Apostolic Delegate Van Rossam, Prefect of the SC of Propaganda and later by personally handing over the request to Pope Pius XI, who sanctioned the coronation of the statue.

The Church was consecrated in 1944 during World War II in an event reportedly attended by some 30,000 people.
The church celebrates festivals each month centred on the Marian feasts. However, the Bishop pointed out that the festivals to celebrate the ‘Visitation of Our Lady’ on July 2 and the ‘Assumption of Our Lady’ on August 15 were the major celebrations.
He asserted that ever since the war erupted, people were unable to attend the festivities or visit the statue – except for a brief period during the ceasefire.

At present the statue has been removed from the Madhu Church by the Bishop and has joined the ranks of the internally displaced by the war. It was removed on April 3 from Madhu and taken to St. Xavier’s Church in Thevanpitty.

Speaking about bringing the statue back to Madhu, the Bishop said, “We requested the government forces and the LTTE to create a no-conflict zone with zero military presence for us to move the statue to its original location. It is only then that people will be able to carry on properly with their meditations.”

He asserted that the Church had very strict disciplinary codes. “We do not allow the consumption of alcohol, nor do we allow children to play in the worshipping area. People must be allowed to fulfil their spiritual needs freely. They cannot do this while they are constantly reminded of the war by the presence of any military personnel,” he added.


                                      Mysterious, miraculous Madhu                                     

By Dilrukshi Thomas
The history of the Madhu Church is shrouded in mystery. Centuries old, the church has always acted as a source of hope and inspiration for those who visit each year. While some come to benefit from its renowned healing powers, for others it’s an annual ritual.

The Madhu festival provides an occasion for people from all walks of life, communities, races and ages to spend a few days away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is a time spent without the comforts of home, in makeshift tents, cooking food on hastily assembled hearths, sharing common toilets and bathing areas, joined together by faith.

Journey of devotion

For Suren Bastion and Annamma Abraham, Madhu hold a very special meaning. It has been a part of their lives for many years and they still have fond memories of the place and the magical time they spent there every year with friends and family.
“We used to make the trip to Madhu every year during the school holidays,” said Suren. “The first time I went there I was around seven years old. Although I knew that it was a holy place, I was more excited at the prospect of meeting my extended family,” he reflected.

But for Annamma, going to the Church was a spiritual experience. “My late husband and I, after getting married in 1958, used to make the yearly pilgrimage to the Madhu Church,” she said. “We took it as a great privilege to be able to attend the festival and even took our two eldest daughters.”

Suren also fondly remembers days and nights of complete harmony among those camped in the sacred grounds of the Church. “It was a very peaceful atmosphere,” he said, “we all felt like we knew each other and more often than not we used to share what ever we had with the people around us.”

There has also been a great feeling of kinship and camaraderie among all those present at Madhu and even the children had made friends fast. “Friends were easily made there; we were always playing but also knew that we were at a place of worship and so were mindful.”

Annamma, much like Suren, remembered the feeling of fellowship among all the people there. “I remember once when my second daughter Shyamali, who was a toddler back then, crawled off on her own into another person’s tent,” she remembered. “After much hysterical searching, we found her with those other people safe and sound.”
Since that time Annamma has not revisited the Madhu Church but recommended the pilgrimage as something that everyone should experience.

Fond memories

Suren also remembers it as a time for family reunions. It was at Madhu that he was able to meet many of his relatives who lived across the island and as a child, meeting them was more important to him than any other thing.
“We used to have relatives from all over the country coming on the pilgrimage and it was a real delight to see them all after many years,” he smiled.

He related an interesting anecdote when one of his ‘female’ cousins ‘infiltrated’ a Boy Scout tent. “My cousin had crawled into a Boy Scout tent and when we asked around, they told us she was with them, which was a huge relief to everybody.”

Revisiting Madhu

After the age of 13, however, Suren wasn’t able to attend the festival at Madhu for nearly 20 years. According to him, the ongoing war in the north was one of the biggest reasons for this but he added that this was not the only reason.

“Of course I was a bit hesitant to go there when there was a war going on,” he said. “But that wasn’t the only reason because many people made that journey despite the war. I think the main reason was that I was too busy with work and too used to the comforts of Colombo. I was too lazy to leave behind the comforts of the city and spend several days in a makeshift shelter,” he said.

But three years ago he decided to set out on the journey once more with his wife Jackie and their two sons. “About three years ago, some relatives of ours came from abroad so the whole family decided to make the trip to the Church,” Suren said.
“I also took that as an opportunity to share with my kids the experience of going to this scared and holy place,” he added.

After that last trip Suren has not been to Madhu again because of the war, but he wishes that he could go back some time soon. “Hopefully in the future I will be able to make the journey once again with my family so that I can experience the holy calm and peace once again.”


Legendary healing powers

The Madhu Shrine and the statue of Our Lady of Madhu are renowned for their miraculous powers. There are stories that speak of Mother Mary curing snakebite victims and extending protection from elephant ravages. Many people bring back earth from the sacred soil as a token of blessing.

Annamma Abraham who has been to the shrine many a time recalled how strongly people believed in Madhu miracles back then. “I can remember how my parents used to tell me about the miracles of the shrine. They told us about how people were never attacked by any wild animals and we fervently believed in them and were never afraid when we were in the camps,” she added. The healing power of the statue is also legendary. It is not only believed to cure snake bites and other minor ailments – there are also many tales of miraculous healing.

According to Angela Samarasinghe another devotee who visited the shrine in the 1940s as a little girl, “My mother once told me that a blind young boy was brought in front of the statue and the parents prayed and asked Our Lady of Madhu to heal their only male child. After three days of praying, the boy’s eyesight had been restored.” (LP)