Not in Europe, nor in the Middle East; it is India where is located the most ancient Marian Sanctuary in the world. It is in the smalll town of Kuravilangad, state of Kerala, southern India, at some 200 km from its capital, Thiruvananthapuram. The official name of the sanctuary is «Major Archiepiscopal Marth Mariam Archdeacon Pilgrim Church Kuravilangad».
The people of this region, which was full of barren hills and small forests, was composed of important producers of spices. Some of the Jewish merchants who regularly came there to buy spices witnessed the torture, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and were among the people who converted to Christianism in Pentecost. After that, they returned from Israel to Kerala. It was through these Jewish Christians that the first small group of Christians was formed in Kuravilangad. Later, four Brahmin families (which constituted the highest caste among Indians) – Kalli (or Palli), Kalikave, Sankarapuri, and Pakalomattom -, converted to Christianism thanks to the apostle Thomas, migrated from Palayoor (one of the ancient Christian centers) to Kuravilangad to escape the intense religious persecution against Christians around the year 100 A.D.
The Water Spring: a Permanent Sign from Our Lady
According to the tradition, some Nazrani (an old term for Christians) children were herding the flock of their families. They were hungry and thirsty. Then the Virgin Mary appeared in the form of an old lady. She picked up some stones from the ground, which became bread, and gave them to the children; she dug a small well, a spring started to flow, and gave its water to the children drink. When the children reported this incident, the parents came rushing in. The old lady reappeared, showed them the spring, and requested that a church be built there in her honor.
The first church was built in 105 A.D. in the site suggested by Our Lady. It was a temple made of bamboo. Bishop Mar Youssef of Edessa in AD 345 commissioned the restoration of the church. The Kuravilangad temple was renovated during various periods. The foundation stone of the first stone temple was laid between June and November 1599. The present church was built during the reign of Chandikathanar, Vicar of Parambil (until 1663). The southern altar of the main church is believed to be part of the old church. The present main altar of the church was built in 1670, and the north altar of the church was built in 1680. A major portion of the main church, except the altar area, was rebuilt in the middle durin 1954-1960 under the leadership of Fr. Thomas Manakat. The church has an ancient bell with the engraving «Mother of God» in Syriac. Three majestic bells were brought from Germany in 1910 and are among the largest bells in Asia. Presently this church is under the Eparchy of Palai, part of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Jonah and the «Moonnu Nombu» Festival
There is a three-day long festival called «Moonnu Nombu» (literally meaning «three days of fasting»), celebrated at the Kuravilangad Valiya Palli every year around late January to early February. It follows a lunar calendar, and falls close to the full moon. The second day, Tuesday, is the most important day. On that day there is a Palli Prathaskhinam, which is a joyous and pious procession lasting about three hours, starting at about 11:30 am, with a kind of boat named Kappalottom, simulating a ship voyage in the sea, as the culminating event.
A forty feet wooden ship, beautifully built with prow, stern, masts and rigging, having on one side an effigy of Jonah being vomited by the fish as per the orders of the Lord, and on the deck wooden mariners in western costume, has been for centuries the centre of attraction in the midday procession. During the procession, the Kappal (ship) is carried by hundreds of people. The voyage starts in calm sea. When the sea gets rough, the prophet Jonah is thrown into the sea. With that, the sea calms, and soon the procession ends. The people of the neighboring village of Kadappoor have the honor to enact the Kappalottom. This village was founded by Kadappoor Ramban, one of the disciples of St. Thomas the Apostle.
This procession is a thanksgiving by the people of this village. Many centuries ago, one of the merchant ships of the Kadappoor people got into rough sea. They prayed and were saved from shipwreck. In gratitude, they made an offering to undertake this Kappalottom at the Kuravilangad Church every year. This offering continues to this day. The Kappalottom is about forty feet long, eight feet wide, and twelve feet tall, and is always well-kept.
Kuravilangad official website