A Pilgrimage to Madhu: A personal look at Sri Lanka's holiest shrine
On January 14, Pope Francis will go to Madhu.
Madhu is Sri Lanka’s holiest Catholic shrine, home to Our Lady of Madhu, a statue of the Virgin Mary that was brought for safekeeping from the Dutch in the 17th century. Madhu is sacred to both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics still trying to reconcile after more than two decades of civil war. And Madhu is also where Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims come to pay their respects to Mary. At Madhu, Pope Francis will specially bless war victims and his presence in the Tamil north marks an important moment in Sri Lankan history.
Of course, Madhu is a place suitable for such grand public gestures and ceremonies. But it is also a place for pilgrimages of the more private and personal kind.
It was a little over a year ago when George told me that we both needed to go to Madhu. I was directing a study abroad program in the city of Kandy, in the central part of Sri Lanka. George was working as my research assistant, helping me explore the depth and diversity of Sri Lankan Catholic life. George was Tamil and the last time he had been to Madhu was as a refugee during the war. For a time, Madhu was a safe, neutral place. But it too was eventually drawn into the conflict. It was at Madhu that refugees were shelled in what came to be called “The Madhu Church massacre.” And it was near Madhu that a claymore mine exploded under a bus, killing six adults and eleven school children. Every year, Sri Lankans would look closely at Our Lady of Madhu’s crown when the statue was brought out on procession for the Feast of the Assumption. Sri Lankans say that every time the crown fell off Mary’s head, the fighting resumed.
A blue and white arch on the A14 highway marks the beginning of the Madhu Church Road. The road winds about ten kilometers through the jungle and the surrounding side roads still have signs warning of landmines and IEDs. The entire sanctuary is quite large but has a subdued, temperate feel. For pilgrims, there are long concrete houses with roofs of corrugated tin. Signs in English, Tamil and Sinhala make clear that alcoholic beverages are prohibited, along with dancing and “merry-making of any kind.” Surrounding Madhu Church are stations of the cross—burnished bronze statues of Jesus and Mary along the road to Golgotha. Above the entrance to the church, there is a large banner with “Ave Maria” written in Roman script, and then in its Tamil and Sinhalese transliterations. When George and I arrived by car, we assiduously made our preparations, buying medals and devotional pictures, which we had blessed by a priest who sprinkled them with holy water from a gold plated aspergillum.
Life in Sri Lanka
George was born in Sillalai, on the Jaffna Peninsula, at the extreme northern tip of Sri Lanka. Tamils call Sillalai “The Rome of the East”—Sri Lanka’s other “Rome” is Negombo, in the Sinhalese south, where the Portuguese came in the 17th century. George’s family belonged to the agricultural Vellalar caste—the lower Khairava caste of fishermen could enter their church but not serve as acolytes or readers. When Khairavas came to their home, George’s family would give them water in a hollowed out coconut shell.
High caste though they were, George’s family was not—and would not be—protected from life’s seeming indeterminate harshness. When George was very young, he could not walk. And so, after he reached his third birthday, his family brought him to Chatty, on the nearby island of Kayts. There, at the shrine to Our Lady of Good Voyage, George’s parents buried his legs in the sand. And it was at Chatty that George took his first steps.
When George was born in 1991, the Jaffna peninsula had been the epicenter of the war for nearly a decade. The Sri Lankan conflict began in earnest when The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked a military convoy in 1983—an act that unleashed reprisal pogroms, which killed thousands of Tamils throughout Sri Lanka during what came to be called “Black July.” The Tigers, as they were popularly called, sought an independent Tamil state, “Eelam,” and controlled large parts of the north and east of the island, establishing their own administrative apparatus, which included a supreme court. The Jaffna Peninsula itself changed hands between the government and the Tigers several times: electricity was sporadic or non-existent, petrol was scarce, and many families were reduced to a diet of dried fish and rice. But there was definitely enthusiasm and support for the Tigers among many Tamils during the civil war’s initial stages. The Tigers were officially secular but Hindus and Catholics both joined. The Tiger’s chief spokesman himself was a Catholic priest, S. J. Emmanuel, who served as Jaffna’s diocesan vicar and was a leading theologian and seminary teacher.
George’s immediate family wanted no part of the war but the same was not true of his extended set of relatives. George’s uncle was executed by an Indian army officer for giving food to the rebels; George’s cousin died when his LTTE superiors ordered him to bite down on a cyanide capsule to avoid capture by the Sri Lankan Navy. George’s family fled the Jaffna Peninsula in 1994, and Madhu was the first place they went.
A Catholic Minority
Madhu lies southwest of the Jaffna peninsula, in the diocese of Mannar. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Rayyapu Joseph, has called for the UN to investigate Sri Lanka for war crimes and human rights violations committed during the final military campaign that wiped out the LTTE in 2009. Two years before, Bishop Joseph, along with two other Catholic bishops, proposed a Christmas cease-fire so that refugees could be evacuated. But the other eleven Catholic bishops did not support the effort, and bitterness and division remain under the surface of the Catholic hierarchy’s normally collegial image.
While Catholics constitute approximately six percent of Sri Lanka population, they were privileged under colonial rule and constituted more than half of the army at the time of independence from Great Britain in 1948. Catholic colonels even planned a coup in 1962 when they feared their hegemony would be threatened by the promotion of more Buddhists to the officer corps. Today many Sri Lankan Catholics still feel burdened from decades of ethnic unrest. Catholics also feel besieged by resurgent Buddhist nationalists, on the one hand, and a growing number of Protestant evangelical sects, on the other. Amid this, Catholicism in Sri Lanka has clung onto its identity tenaciously and still has a distinctly pre-Vatican II feel. Priests wear white cassocks with black fascias and throughout Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches signs remind women to “wear the veil.”
When George and I entered Madhu Church, we saw pilgrims on their knees walking down the central aisle toward Our Lady of Madhu. The statue is displayed at the center of a large teak altar with a stylized “M” emblazoned on the front. Our Lady of Madhu wore a golden crown; rosaries of silver, gold and pearl adorned her blue cape. Pilgrims brought flowers—roses, chrysanthemums, lotuses. Flowers are offered at Buddhist shrines as well—as signs of impermanence of all things, since even the most beautiful flower eventually withers and fades. But for Our Lady of Madhu, the flowers were adornments, expressions of love—not to mention a mild form of bribery since it is after placing flowers at her feet that pilgrims ask Mother Mary for a particular favor. This is a custom repeated in many Catholic homes in Sri Lanka. Every day, George’s father would also retrieve a flower from the garden to place before a statue of the Virgin in their home.
Facing Our Lady of Madhu, George prayed for his sister Annetra Sharmili. George’s family returned to Sillalai and found their home destroyed. They rebuilt. Then in 2004, the day of her father’s birthday, Annetra left for her uncle’s home, only a short walk away. When she didn’t return, her parents went looking for her. Some days later, they received a letter from Annetra—clearly written in her own hand—saying that she had joined the LTTE. Some Tamil women did join the Tigers not only to aid the Tamil cause but also to rebel against conventions and customs that confined them to the roles of mother and wife. But some women were conscripted—especially toward the end of the war. George’s family was convinced that Annetra had been coerced. And so, George’s mother went to LTTE bases throughout the north of the island, trying to find her daughter. She finally was able to meet with Annetra, who was brought to see her under armed escort. As she left this last meeting with her daughter, George’s mother threw dirt at the gate surrounding the LTTE base and screamed, “If you treat Tamils like this, you will never have your Eelam.” Annetra Sharmili’s fate remains unknown—along with those of tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who were unaccounted for at the war’s end.
Inside Madhu Church a deep rectangular pit has been cut into the floor. The pit is regularly filled with sandy soil from outside and pilgrims eagerly shovel it into plastic and burlap bags. This is Madhu soil, made sacred not only by Our Lady of Madhu, but by the past presence of Blessed Joseph Vaz, an Oratorian priest from Goa, who evangelized Sri Lanka in the 17th century and will be canonized by Pope Francis at a ceremony in Colombo. Madhu soil is often mixed with concrete to make the foundations for Catholic homes. It is also reputed to have medicinal properties, especially against snake-bites. In fact, many Sri Lankans swear that there are no snakes in the precincts of Madhu shrine. Snakes did appear once—when Our Lady of Madhu was spirited out of the area for safety during the war. It is said that when Our Lady of Madhu returned, the snakes vanished once again.
As the war continued, George gained admission to the prestigious Jaffna College, which had been established by Methodist missionaries from Boston in 1820. But it was clear that George had to leave the war zone. He had survived a claymore mine that exploded near him where he was waiting for a bus; he also was detained by an anti-LTTE Tamil group and interrogated. His family decided to sell their jewelry, and George was able to travel to Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka and a place holy to the island’s Buddhist majority. George was taken in by a priest who encouraged him to take the national seminary examinations, which he passed. He then entered a Benedictine religious order as a novice.
One morning during his novitiate, George was riding in a van from Kandy to Colombo for the first mass of a fellow Benedictine. The group of seminarians and priests had left early in the morning and George fell asleep in the far backseat. He woke up when his head slammed into the seat in front of him. The van had hit an auto rickshaw straight on—killing three, the driver, and a mother and daughter. A priest sitting in the front seat also died. The aftermath was captured on TV cameras and the bodies spread out at the mortuary were telecast for all to see and the footage posted on YouTube. Sri Lankans are used to seeing death up close. George was hospitalized for a time after the accident—he walks with a slight limp and has scarring on his neck and face.
Fed by Pilgrims
After we emerged from Madhu Church, George and I were fed by pilgrims. This is a Sri Lankan custom, and all pilgrims carry sandwiches or extra rice and curry to share with others. As we explored the rest of Madhu sanctuary together, George wondered aloud about discerning his vocation and also about the pressures on his family, who needed his support as their only son. George had left the Benedictines a year earlier and I met him soon afterwards—he was referred to me by a priest because he spoke fluent English and Sinhala as well as his native Tamil. George wondered out loud about God’s plan for him, and when his time of waiting would end. Sri Lankan Catholics are comfortable talking about God in terms of agency and power: God is an active participant and mover in human events, although in ways that are sometimes hidden and subtle. Mary and the saints are not just role models; they are intercessors and helpmates. George said that as he was praying before Our Lady of Madhu, he felt as though the statue was alive, and that Mary’s eyes were searching for where there was pain, where there was need. After praying for his sister, George told me that he addressed his own needs and raised his eyes turned to our Lady of Madhu, saying: “Let your son take me to where I need to go.”
That place turned out to be the Society of Jesus. After George and I finished our work together, he was able to get a job in a luxury hotel and earn money for his family. He still dreamed of being a priest—he had ever since he was a child and pretended to say masses and hear confessions from Annetra and her friends. I had suggested the Jesuits and contacted some of my colleagues at the College of the Holy Cross for advice and counsel. George has now spent several months in the Jesuit pre-novitiate and tells me that he has become a rather avid reader of James Martin’s books. Looking back on his previous priestly studies, he now thinks that he was doing it mostly for “show,” for the opportunity to wear a habit and carve out a distinctive identity for himself after the war. This time, he told me, the journey needs to be slower, because becoming a Jesuit is about patience—fourteen years of it—and letting God take care of the details.
When I spoke with him by phone as I was writing this article, I asked George about what he thought about the upcoming visit of Pope Francis. He told me that initially he was concerned. The pope will arrive in the immediate aftermath of the election. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is running for a third time in office and is opposed by Maithripala Sirisena, his former health minister. While suddenly switching allegiances right before an election is not unusual in Sri Lanka, George fears that the aftermath of this election will be especially difficult and contested, with the potential for recounts and, of course, violence. Pope Francis risks being caught in the ensuing battle for legitimacy between the rival candidates. But George also thinks that something good can come out of Pope Francis’s visit—a new sense of possibility and, perhaps, hope.
And so it is with hope that George will go to Madhu on January 14—this time to see the pope.
View additional images from the shrine at Madhu.