Last Palm Sunday, James Chevalloor began his annual 120-mile pilgrimage on foot with his friends under a blazing sun to the Malayattoor shrine in India’s southwestern Kerala state, where St. Thomas the Apostle is said to have prayed.
Though Malayattoor attracts pilgrims throughout the year, several million climb the 1,900-foot hill to the shrine during Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. Over a million arrived on Good Friday alone, causing a traffic jam that extended to the national highway 12 miles away.
The Apostle Thomas, who reached the Kerala coast in A.D. 52, is said to have gone up the mountain to pray frequently and the Catholic shrine on top of the mountain is said to have a “footprint” of the doubting apostle.
“I started the pilgrimage for adventure with a Hindu friend in 1990 on a motorbike. Though we had an accident on the way, we had a miraculous escape,” Chevalloor, a businessman from Coimbatore in southern Tamil Nadu, told ENInews.
The year after, Chevalloor decided to walk the route in four or five days. Like many people, he attributes a healing miracle to the shrine. “After my Hindu friend refused to join the pilgrimage, he turned mad. When all the treatments failed, his family persuaded him to join me in the pilgrimage four years later and he was healed completely,” said Chevalloor.
As the number of the pilgrims goes up during Holy Week, the local Jacobite Christian community opens temporary resting facilities and prepares roadside meals.
“Malayattoor is an inspiration for all of us,” said Annie Varkey Kallelikuzhy as she served kanji (liquid rice) along with lentil and pickle. Children on holidays were enthusiastically inviting the pilgrims to enjoy the free meals and rest at the Jacobite chapel.
Each pilgrim, clad in saffron clothes, carries a small cross on his shoulders while larger groups have a huge cross that is carried by those in front. Pilgrims recite prayers and devotional songs as they walk.
Once they reach Malayattoor, the pilgrims on foot merge with thousands who arrive in tourist buses and private vehicles. From there, they begin prayers of the “way of the cross” and chants to St. Thomas as they climb a steep rocky path.
Father Xavier Thelakkat, rector of the shrine, told ENInews that historical documents mention a Malayattoor hill pilgrimage as early as the 7th century. “Many miracles have been reported at this unique shrine,” Thelakkat said.