To a casual visitor, the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in this north-western corner of Sri Lanka resembles a refugee camp. As indeed it once was, and in many ways still is.
On feast days, particularly August 15, hardly a square meter of Madhu’s teeming tent city remains unoccupied as rich and poor gather to pray, give thanks for small mercies, and walk on their knees up the central isle of the 130-year-old church.
Some pray for a miracle. Others seek fellowship and reconciliation after the trauma of the recent civil war. Meanwhile, a few look for a sign that now is the time to get off their knees and stand up for themselves.
But for all of them – the tens of thousands who make their annual pilgrimages from all corners of this island paradise famed for tea, karma, and Buddhist monks – it is a welcome refuge from a material world often filled with bad news.
Most have driven through the night to arrive at the roadside shrine 50 kilometres south-east of Mannar, with its imposing gateway to the final 12 kilometres of specially built B378 road that cuts arrow-straight through the jungle.
Faith in the Almighty
Covered pick-ups and vans full of shelters, beds, baggage, cooking pots, children, grandparents, and an unquestioning faith in the Almighty trundle slowly through the darkness.
Some will be late after breaking down or being forced off the road by buses and trucks racing south on a wing, a prayer, and an impossibly tight schedule. Others will never make it, having been wiped out by such drivers overtaking at speed on blind bends while texting, or falling asleep at the wheel.
For those who travel in hope and arrive in one piece, it is customary for the driver to rest while the women pitch camp around him, prepare a meal, sort out boundary disputes, and note important locations—toilets, water points, hospital, shops, police station, courthouse…
Police station? Courthouse? Indeed, and while signs warn pilgrims to beware thieves and pickpockets, a battalion of police and magistrates reinforce the message that rascals will face more than the wrath of God if they are caught stealing at this Catholic holy of holies.
For some, Madhu is a weekend retreat, while for others it can be a once-in-a-lifetime, month-long affirmation of faith. For weekenders in a hurry, time spent creating a home-from-home means time not spent in prayer and devotion. No contest.
But for the 30-day contingent with time to spare, a little homebuilding goes a long way. Patios, garden fences, spare rooms for visitors, places to do the laundry, even devotional ‘quiet zones’ for those who don’t quite feel up to joining the early-morning crush at the church.
Others opt for an upscale ‘less is more’ approach to minimalist shared spaces, albeit with mod cons such as gas cooking stoves, electric lights hooked up to car batteries, and Kindle e-readers for when a little light scripture is just the ticket after a late supper.
But it’s the morning marketing that bring out the best of communal togetherness as neighbour jostles with neighbour while discussing the relative merits of fresh fruit or dried fish for breakfast.
Butchers, bakers, and candle makers vie for trade, and if that water melon looks a bit small to be paying twice what you’d pay at home, well, everything’s got to be trucked in, hasn’t it, and if now is not the time for a bit of Christian charity, when is?
Whatever else Madhu vouchsafes—togetherness, reawakening, a sense of common purpose—central to the experience is a deeply rooted belief that when all else fails, God will provide.