Journey of the sacred statue
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
By Pornima Ravishan
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
Since that time Annamma has not revisited the Madhu Church but
recommended the pilgrimage as something that everyone should
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.”
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
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)