The shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is one of the biggest and most hallowed Christian shrines in Sri Lanka. It was built 400 years ago and is a centre of pilgrimage for Christians and people of all religions from all over the island. The biggest annual Feast day is held around the 15th of August, the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The shrine houses the statue of Our Lady of Madhu which has acquired a reputation for miracles over the years.
Due to the escalation of violence during the civil war in Sri Lanka the priests of Madhu removed the statue to safety. During the war thousands of refugees took shelter in the area around the shrine as it was regarded as a “demilitarized zone”.
The last time the festival was held under the Sri Lankan government and in safety was in 1983. For 27 years the festival was frequented by only a small number of people as pilgrims had to gain access and cross the border into the LTTE controlled area in order to attend.
This year about 500,000 people of all religions; Christians, Buddhists, Hindu’s and Muslims attended the festival; a colossal number of people. For many it was an opportunity to bring their family and children to a festival that for numerous people holds very sweet memories.
Because the war ended so recently the government only had two and a half months time in which to get the church and surrounding area ready for the festival. The amenities and facilities were very basic but no one seemed to mind as rich and poor mingled together, happy that they could once again visit this sacred place in peace.
Most people arrived on Thursday night or early on Friday morning setting up camped in the area surrounding the shrine. The grounds were packed with tents and heaving with people. There were designated areas for bathing; one for men and an enclosed quarter for the women. The men’s section was lined with concrete tanks. Hundreds of men and boys stood around the tanks with buckets waiting for them to fill up. When they were full the guard on duty blew a whistle and simultaneously the men all began to fill their buckets and slosh water over themselves. There was an atmosphere of festivity and fun in the ritual and it was hilarious to watch. In the enclosed women’s section the procedure was the same, however somewhat less boisterous and rowdy.
Local people had set up food and drink stalls which were spread out throughout the area to ensure the huge number of people had plenty to eat and drink during the festival.
There was a mass on Friday night at 6pm and another bigger one on Saturday morning which began at 5.30am. The evening mass was quiet beautiful; the shrine was lit up and wreaths of flowers decorated the altar. It was pitch black outside with only the lights from the shrine illuminating the faces of the worshipers Thousands of people stood outside on the grass to hear the service which was sung in both Tamil and Sinhalese. It lasted for two and a half hours after which there was a perahera or procession of nuns and priests around and through the congregation.
I am not religious at all but I had the strangest sensation as I listened to the service; it was so peaceful and the singing was so beautiful and moving, it was an awe inspiring experience.
After three hours of sleep in the monastery we were staying in, we were up for the Saturday morning mass which was equally lovely. As the first rays of sun lit up the shrine the enormous crowd were welcomed by the presiding bishops. The congregation was made up of almost 500,000 people. Our privileged media position in front of the shrine provided us with an amazing view of both the church and the immense multitude. At the end of the Eucharist service the statue of Our Lady of Madhu was taken in a procession around the congregation. For a lot of people this was a very emotional moment and many tears were shed.
In the sea of brown faces I was the sole white woman present. I only saw one other white guy who was also with the media. I felt conspicuous everywhere I went, everyone was looking at me. I thought I was used to it from living in Colombo but this was even more intense. My face almost hurt from smiling at so many people, who were merely curious to see a white person at the festival.
The group of 17 print and broadcast journalist – all male – that I traveled really looked after me, particularly in the big crowds. They ensured that I was surrounded on all sides as we made our way through the enormous throngs of people; my own personal body guards!
Like on the last media trip I went on, the Sri Lankan journalists really appreciated me taking part in the excursions and were quite chuffed with my enthusiastic involvement with everything.