Madhu Church at Mannar : Ancient Pattini Devalaya of Madhu (මඩු පල්ලිය)

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Madhu is a mystic jungle shrine dedicated to Mother Mary lying in a remote area in Mannar. The church is one of the few churches which is visited by Buddhists as well as Hindus from all over the country.

The history of Madhu is interesting. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in 1505 and missionaries started pouring into the country to convert the Buddhists and Hindus into Catholicism by various means. Many in the coastal region converted to this new religion for favours from the new masters.

Many Tamils from the North too fell into the hands of the catholic missionaries. In 1640 the Dutch took control of the coastal regions and started spreading their form of Christianity in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1670, the Dutch took Mannar under their control and some  20 Catholic Tamil families from Mantai fled inwards with a statue of Mary from the coastal town and settled down in an area called Marutha Madu which was then a small village on the Royal Ramessaram-Kandy route and a custom house for the Kandyan King.  Later a group of about 700 Tamil Catholics fleeing from Jaffna also joined this group.

During this period, Madhu was a Devale dedicated to Goddess Pattini which probably has been existing since the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Goddess Pattini is worshipped by Sinhalese and Tamils irrespective of the religions in Sri Lanka.

At some point in time, a church was built on the ground of Pattini Devale and the devale disappeared without a trace. With the invasion of the English and the subsequent defeat of the Dutch from the coastal areas, the Catholic prosecution stopped and the annual possession of Madhu was started in 1870. In 1876 foundation stone of the current church was laid down.

One of the reasons for all faiths to visit Madhu is the belief in the miraculous healing powers of the statue from snake bites.

The Madhu festival, originally held on 2nd July now has 10 festivals during the year. The most popular and the largest is the festival held on 15th August which draws the largest crowd especially since this falls on school holidays.

Also See

Map of Madhu Church at Mannar

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Travel Directions to Madhu Church at Mannar

Route from Colombo to Madhu Church at Mannar
Through : Negambo – Puttam – Thantirimale
Distance :290 km
Travel time : 6  hours
Driving directions : see on google map

History of Madhu – the place name and the shrine

by D.G.A. Perera
The island

Madhu is a variation of Madu a common place name, particularly in the Dry Zone jungles. The place-name-end ‘madu’ is explained as a “waterhole, tank, pond, (or) stream” (Ceylon Gazetteer published by the United States Board on Geographic Names p. iii). It will be noticed that all four items to which the term ‘madu’ applies, are associated with water. This is because ‘madu’ (modern S. maediya and T. Mandukam E. frog) are animals that breed in pools of water.

Water is as important to the wayfarer in the forests of this country. The jungle paths traced by the elephant, the wild boar, buffalo or bear crisscross each other so often that the traveller finds it extremely difficult to choose the one that leads to a place where he can have a drink of water. This is where the ‘maduvo‘ or frogs become his guardian angels. Frogs are gregarious in the water and they set up such a din by their croaking that the thirsty pedestrian easily led to the source of water by the ear, and saved from dying of thirst. Thus, the word madu has become synonymous with water. Hence, Payimadu (Payimadoo) is a pond with ‘payi’ or “potable’ water. Tamil Marutha Madu is the same as Sinhala Kumbuk Maduva (Terminalia arjuna Pond).

Locating the Madhu Church even in the one-mile to-an-inch maps (Murunkan Sheet) of the Survey Department is not an easy task. The 1939 reprint of the survey map of 1899, as well as the 1956 revision, marks the church of the ‘Statue of St. Mary’ close to the “Madhu Road” Railway Station at the turn off from the Mantai-Anuradhapura main road, to “Madhu Camp’ (Maruthamadu) six miles somewhat to the north. However, no sign of a church is marked at the “Madhu Camp’ where the famous shrine is said to be located. The new metric scale maps (Madhu Road and Palampiddi Sheets revised in 2002) do not show any church either at Madhu Road Railway Station or at Maruthamadu (S. Kumbuk Maduwa).

The Bishop of Jaffna supplied the following information to E. B. Denham, the Superintendent of Census Operations in 1911:

“Tradition says that the original home of the statue at Madhu was Mantai, once an important town with a large Catholic church built by the Portuguese, who had, during their rule converted the whole of Mannar island and Mantote to the Faith. When the Dutch took possession of Mantai and converted it to their meeting house (in 1670), some Catholics emigrated into the Kandyan territory.” (Note the reference to “1670” and “Kandyan territory.”)

“They numbered, says the tradition, twenty families, and settled themselves in Marutha-Madu, which was then a small village on the Royal Ramessaram-Kandy route and a custom house for the Kandyan King.”

This shows where the section “History of the Shrine”, in the article “The Madhu Shrine” by Mr G. B. Aelred Fernando (The Island was modified. The installation of the statue at a newly built church did not take place during the Portuguese Period but during the Dutch Period (1670). That new church was not in the Kingdom of Kotte (for it was defunct by then,) but in “Kandyan territory” as stated by the Bishop of Jaffna. Therefore, there is some truth in the alleged BBC statement that persecution of Roman Catholics by the Protestant Dutch ‘resulted in the Madhu Shrine.’

As the Survey Dept. maps referred to above show that the new church for the Statue of St. Mary had been built, not at Madhu, but at the “Madige” or Customs House of the Kandyan King (on the trunk road between Mantai and Anuradhapura) near the present “Madhu Road” Railway Station (near the 23rd mile post). The place called Puliyadi Irakkam (S. Siyambalape Raekma or Raekawala), an ancient guard house and checkpoint (near the 24th mile post) shows that the Kandyan King’s Madige was here, and not on the minor road passing through Marutha Madu as well as this place. The main trade centre of the Muslims was at Mannar where the Bangasala (Vankalai) warehouses were situated. Rameswaram, on foreign soil, is irrelevant in this context.

According to the Bishop’s report mentioned above, an annual festival “to be celebrated on the 2 d of July” was established at Marutha Madhu in 1870. In 1878, the comer stone for the present substantial building for the Madhu Church was laid. Even in 1891, the Madhu Church was still being built (J. P. Lewis, A Manual of the Vanni Districts p.51

According to Denham “Mr. Levers, says in his “Manual of the North Central Province,” states that “St. Mary’s Church at Madu is considered by the Buddhist and a great many of the Tamil pilgrims, who resort there, as the Temple of Pattiniamma (‘Amman Kovil’). This seasonal influx of large numbers of other religionists on pilgrimage to Marutha Madhu would have favoured the idea of shifting the Catholic Church to its present location. That is how the Madige Church became the Madhu Church, by moving its annual festival to a long established, but “pagan”, pilgrimage site.

“The great feature of the pilgrimage has been the feeding of all the pilgrims in front of the church on the last day of the festival known as the pitche choru. After the food had been blessed by the Bishop of Jaffna, who presides at the festival, the vast crowd clap their hands, rise to their feet, and in a few hours they are practically empty.” The Census Report states that Marutha Madhu was sacred to the Muslims also because they believed that it was the burial place of two of their martyrs.

The Madhu Church is a desolate place during the off-season. Thus, the ‘Madige Church of the Statue of St. Mary’ continued to be the sanctum where the Holy icon was placed in safekeeping. It was taken to the Marutha Madhu Church only during the short festive season. This practice seems to have continued up to the closing years of the 20th century.

According to the evidence of the Bishop of Jaffna himself, there would have been no Madhu Church today, if not for the benevolence and tolerance of the to one of their very important customs houses. There it had the protection of its armed guards and of the sentries placed at Siyambalape Raekawala (Puliyadi Irakkam), against the danger posed by the Dutch Protestants of Mannar.

The present custodians of the Church have demonstrated that the sanctity of the Holy Statue is independent of its location at Madhu. They have also made it a political tool by taking it to a place somewhere behind the enemy lines. Like the Holy Mountain Sri Pada, Madhu is a place of popular pilgrimage to all religious groups, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. It is the duty of the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that Madhu continues to remain a place of common worship for all Sri Lankans.

Attempt to make Madhu Church a “National Basilica” on False Pretexts
(Originally the Pattini Devale of Sinhala Buddhists)

by Amarasena Gamage

A Roman Catholic Minister in the present UNF Government recently declared on television that the Madhu (or Madu) Church was more than six hundred years old and that he was going to recommend to the Vatican that the Church should be sanctified as a National Basilica of the Roman Catholic Church. The Sunday Lankadipa of August 4th 2002, page 13, carries the headline “Minister Jayalath requests that Madu Church be made a Basilica.” It is stated that he has sent copies of his request to the following: His Holiness the Pope at the Vatican, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe, the Bishop of Colombo Rt. Hon. Oswald Gomis, the Papal Emissary and other ambassadors to Sri Lanka, as well as to all members of the Council of Bishops.

Catholic Antiquity of Madhu is a Myth This claim that the site has been in use as a Catholic shrine for over six hundred years is his only justification for recommending to the Pope that Madhu Church be sanctified as a “National Basilica”. But this is an overreaching claim. The facts of the matter are quite different as the following extracts from ‘The Manual the North Central Province’ by the British civil servant R.W. Ievers and also from ‘A Short History of Madhu Church’ supplied by the Bishop of Jaffna to Mr E.B. Denham the author of the Census Report of 1911. (p. 77), clearly demonstrate.

In his “Brief notice of the origin and history of the Sanctuary of Madhu” the Bishop of Jaffna had tried his best to conceal the fact that the place was actually the ancient Pattini Devale. But Denham could not be fooled so easily and did not agree to this manipulation. So, he included the more accurate information that Madu was really a Pattini Devale as had been recorded by Ievers, twelve years earlier.

Catholic Shrine only since 1870 According to the version supplied by the Bishop of Jaffna to E. B. Denham, it was after 1670, when Dutch Protestants drove out the Portuguese from Mannar, that a few Catholic Tamil families fled and settled down at Marutha Madu. These refugees camped near the Kandyan King’s customs house or madige (for the trade between Rameswaram and Kandy) located at Marutha Madu. So, even if we reckon from the year 1670, for the first Catholic refugee camp there, (this is not established as a historical fact), the presence of Roman Catholics at Madhu does not extend beyond 332 years. (We shall soon see that the Madhu Festival is not even 150 years old.). Later, some Roman Catholics of Jaffna had settled down there, prompting the Bishop of Jaffna to take an interest in the place in 1870. The place is marked in the one inch to a mile survey maps as Madhu Camp.

The annual Madhu Festival on July 2nd initiated by the Bishop of Jaffna dates back only to 1870. Even at that time, there was no Madhu Church. The foundation stone of the Madhu Church was laid down only in 1876 CE. So, even if we take 1870 as the date of official sanctification, the history of Madhu as a site of Roman Catholic pilgrimage does not date back to more than one hundred and thirty two (132) years. Compare that with Dr. Jayalath Jayawardana’s exaggerated claim of “more than 600 years.” He conveniently forgets that the first Roman Catholics came to this island with the Portuguese less than 500 years ago!

Sacred to Buddhists for 1850 years

Traditionally Madu has been the site of a Pattini Devale sacred to Buddhists and Hindus, from the time of King Gaja Bahu I (114-136 CE) who introduced the Pattini cult to ancient Lanka at a prudent distance from the capital Anuradhapura, which was the centre of orthodox Theravada Buddhism. So, the Pattini Devale has been there for 1,850 years, at least.

Later on, the Hindus called it the Amman Kovil. The nearby tank is still called Kovil Kulam (tank of the devale) after the Tamil name of the site. It is still sacred to Buddhists and Hindus even though the Catholics have usurped the site.

Pilgrims go there because of their belief in the special healing powers ascribed to Pattini Amma. Pattini Amma’s blessing is also sought by childless women. By building a church there starting in 1876, the Catholic bishop of Jaffna conveniently appropriated the popular age-old belief in the healing powers of Pattini Amma for the edification of the Virgin Mary of the Christian faith.

However, the truth is that Buddhist, Hindu and Mohammedan pilgrims held this place sacred long before the arrival of the Portuguese on this island in 1506 CE. The Roman Catholics only began to join these pilgrims more recently. Denham says: “It is essentially a forest pilgrimage…the earth of Madu is considered to possess special medical properties, hence the sanctity, resulting in the reputation that `Madhu Medicine’ effects cures in cases of snake bite” (Denham : page 76f). That age-old belief has nothing to do with Roman Catholic Christianity.

Idolatry and Vandalism by Portuguese Catholics Reverend James Cordiner has given the explanation why we do not see the old, original buildings like the old Pattini Devale of the Sinhalese people at Madhu:

“It is well known that every trace of religious fabrics of the Ceylonese was obliterated with enthusiastic ardour by the idolators from Europe” [i.e. the Roman Catholic Portuguese].” (A Description of Ceylon Vol. I (p. 188)

Madhu uninhabited even in 1911 Despite what the Bishop of Jaffna had written to Denham, there are at least three reasons why Madhu cannot be regarded as a Roman Catholic fane earlier than 1870.

(1). Madhu is not even mentioned by Cordiner who toured the Mannar district in 1804 but he left a vivid description of nearby places like Arippu and Condatchy.

(2) In 1834, Madhu was not known to Simon Casie Chitty Modeliar who compiled Ceylon Gazetteer. Had he known, he certainly would have mentioned it, because he has left a record of even minor places nearby such as: “Mardodde, a solitary rest house and post station situated in the centre of a large forest” (page159). The possibility should be considered that by “Mardodde” he really meant “Madhu”.

(3) Even by 1911 there were no permanent residents at Madhu. On the Census day of March 10th 1911, the only people present at Madhu were 320 pilgrims: 230 of them being Sinhalese from Colombo City and the Chilaw District.

Not exclusive to Catholics

Even today, Madhu is not a holy site for exclusive Catholic use. It is equally sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Mohammedans and non-Catholic Christians. So why the cheating and distortions to justify this as a National Basilica of the Roman Catholic Church? And why now?

In his Manual of the North Central Province (page111), R. W. Ievers recorded the following :

“At the present day, the offerings are generally taken to St. Mary’s Church at Madu, which is considered by the Buddhist and a great many of the Tamil pilgrims, who resort there, as the Temple of Pattini Amma (Amman Kovil).”

Hence, the most honourable thing that the Catholic Church should do now, is to tender an apology for misappropriating a place sacred to other religions and return the site to its original incumbents, the Sinhala Buddhists and move their Church somewhere else.