The flag hoisting on August 6 starts the nine day preparatory period before the Feast of Our Lady of Madhu on August 15. It is for the Feast of the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, a miraculous Marian statue in the jungle. The statue depicting Mother Mary holding the Infant Jesus is centuries old and believed to have healing powers.
All year long Mother Mary’s life is celebrated here. Yet, the grandest feast on August 15 coincides with the Feast of Mother Mary’s Assumption to heaven, or The Assumption. The church flagpole will be hoisted on August 6, a symbolic gesture announcing the beginning of the nine day preparatory period before the feast.
This includes novenas and prayer services that will echo on the grounds morning, noon and night. The festive High Mass officiated by the Archbishop of Colombo, along with seven other Bishops, is held in the outdoor pavilion. Worshippers will take part in the service with great reverence. After Mass the statue of Our Lady of Madhu is paraded around the church premises. The faithful will chant pleas and light candles, requesting her intervention for their intentions to God.
This month as in all years, devotees will throng the peaceful church grounds in the thousands. Camping is inherently part of the Madhu pilgrimage for many. In a tradition passed down the generations, some families from the fishing communities along the West coast travel here by boat. Arriving weeks in advance, they set up camp here in makeshift tents and prepare for the ten day festival: a practice reminiscent of the origins of the shrine.
The earliest accounts of the shrine go back to the reign of the Dutch on the coast. To escape their persecution, a few Catholic families fled an area called Manthai and arrived in Marathamadu with the statue. Another 700 Catholics fleeing Jaffna met them there and together they set up the shrine. From mud, to wood to now white and blue marble, the church has stood the test of time, through conflict and strife, due to the fervour of the faithful. Even during the war, pilgrims continued the journey to Madhu, which was then an arduous pilgrimage through the thick jungle.
Today the road to the shrine is a convenient one, cutting short travel from Colombo to five hours. For Catholics in Sri Lanka, the Madhu pilgrimage too is an important one. Even after the grand feast concludes, many will continue to travel to the grounds this month seeking the Holy Mother’s grace and to obtain blessings.