It was around noon on the 28th August 2016, that the Pallavaram based Velankanni Walkers, which included Errol and I, entered the church of Our Lady of Good Health. The group of 90 followed the redoubtable flag bearer Gregory West as we marched into the church two by two singing, “Vazhga Vazhga, Vazhga Mariye; Vazhga Vazhga, Vazhga Mariye.” As we reached the alter it was time for silent contemplation and prayers for our families and friends and thanks giving for the good fortune that has been showered on us this far. As we filed out of the church the members of the group hugged and kissed each other. It was a time to be grateful, joyful and triumphant after ten arduous days of walking the distance of approx 350 kms from Chennai to Velankanni.
We started the walk from St. Xavier’s church in Pallavaram after a special Mass for the walkers and the recitation of the Rosary at the Grotto of Mother Mary. This is a walk of faith and consequently on several of the ten days journey the walk would start with the assembly of the group and the Rosary would be recited and hymns song as the group set off for the walk well before dawn at around 3,00am. Shrill whistles by the coordinators would get us up by 2.30 am and everybody would spring up to get ready. As the column of pilgrims trudged along the road saying prayers and singing hymns I often thought of them as the Crusaders on the move.
ll through the journey particularly as we crossed Pondicherry when the number of pilgrims on the road increased manifold, several people greeted us on the way with water, biscuits and tea/coffee. Just outside Pondicherry, a kindly soul served us exquisite cardamum tea. He told us he does this every year and generally serves 300 cups of tea. At Chitambur enroute from Maduranthakum, a family offered us lunch. They perform this service every year and started 15 years ago when there was no good restaurant nearby. Pilgrims generally pass this area on either side of noon on the 21st August when the sun beats down on them relentlessly. The family started with just 20 to 25 lunch way back then but now serve up to 1500 lunches all cooked at home and served by extended members of the family.
On a detour from Chunambedu to Koonimedu across the defunct prawn cultivation farms we stopped along the road to have a bath at a pumping station that was pumping water into the nearby fields. The owner of the pump house and fields invited us into his house for a hot cup of coffee made from fresh cow’s milk. At Cuddalore the group stopped for lunch as they traditionally do at the home of the local MLA, a Brahmin Sampath Kumar, who allows the group to sprawl out on the floors of the rooms of his house to beat the scorching heat. His family members serve chilled lime juice and later in the afternoon lunch of kitchidi and curd bath sponsored by Ananda Bhawan. In a display of multi cultural support for the pilgrims, a Muslim, Rahim Khan invited us into the compound of his house as we were walking between Erukkur and Srikazhi. He spread out a polythene mat for us to rest a while and served cool and tasty water.
The heat and humidity took its toll as one of the members of our group collapsed with heat stroke on the way to Marakanam. We saw at least one little child also suffer a heat stroke that caused panic among his parents and a desperate dash for help on a motorcycle passing by. Four years ago our group suffered a fatal accident as a bus driver lost control of his vehicle and ran into the group. One of our friends died on the spot and two others suffered critical injuries. Even on this walk a motorcyclist hit a pilgrim necessitating medical attention to the unfortunate man. The heat and humidity makes most walkers start the day at 2.30 am or so and walk during the cooler times of the day. Our toughest day was day eight ( 26th August) when we had to walk 48 kilometres from Chidambaram to Thirukkadiur. It was necessary to walk through most of the day. Most of the walkers struggled on this day and reached the night halt late at night. Many tend to sleep or just relax at a shady spot along the road to take frequent respites from the blazing heat of the day.
Walking such long distances invariably brings the risk of blisters and every one suffers to a lesser or greater extent. Those of us who took early action at the onset of blisters to apply band aids and bandages got away with it relatively lightly. The others had to content with a painful walk as they stumbled and limped along the way. It was amazing to see people of all ages and some with serious disabilities make the walk. In our group, we had an 83 year old man, Mr. Varghese who walked on unmindful of an implanted pace maker. He trudged along alone most of the time and successfully completed the walk. Our prayer leader, Rex Jacob is 75 years old and this was his 43 straight walk to Velankanni. He now flies down from Melbourne to Chennai along with a group of the faithful to join in the walk each year.
We could see amputees moving along on wheel chairs or hand driven vehicles and parents carrying their children or pushing them in prams. It was an enormous show of faith. Many groups had build floats in honour of Mother Mary and several pulled them along the way with ropes. The driving force was prayer and a plea to Mother Mary to protect them and lead them to her shrine.
Food along the walk was reasonable for our group thanks to sponsors. Most of the time we eat kitchidi or curd rice and idlies but on some occasions we were treated to chicken biryani. On the first day we had to sleep on the road side at a spot between Tambaram and Chenglepet We just spread out on the pavement with lorries and heavy vehicular traffic screeching by. It was the mosquitoes that were the biggest problem though. On other days we spent the night sprawled on the floor of halls at churches and schools and on the odd occasions at a modest lodge. There wasn’t much creature comfort on this pilgrimage and it was never going to be so. Comparatively our group was a lot better off than other pilgrims.
he walk as I said earlier was interspersed with religious events. Special Masses were conducted at St. Joseph’s church, Chenglepet, St. Joseph’s school hall at Nugambal, at the Villianur church, a convent at Bahur besides the Mass at Velankanni. There are several activities that are heartwarming to witness and now a part of the regular programme of our group from year to year. At Villianur, which was not on the path to Velankanni but on a detour taken by the group, we spent time with the school children some of whom are supported by the group and also provided them a sumptuous dinner. At Behur the breakfast was provided for us by the Principal and staff of the catholic school. Further down on the journey at B. Mutlur a group of us stopped by a small juice bar along the road to have a cool drink of nannari sharbat.
We witnessed the flag hoisting signifying the commencement of the celebrations of Novena Masses leading on to the birthday of Mother Mary on 8th September. Velankanni is a sea of humanity on the 29thAugust and is best avoided. There was far too much of pushing and tugging and hours of jam packed waiting for my liking.
Luckily Errol and I spent an extra day at Velankanni when the crowds had subsided and we could spend quality time at the church, submit our Mass intentions and pick up the candles holy water, pictures of Mother Mary and the little things that our family and friends had asked us to pick up. Later that evening we took a bus to Nagapittanam and caught the night train to Chennai. That brought to a close a fabulous spiritual experience.