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 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 over reaching 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 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 center 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 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 posses 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 honorable 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.



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