More than 100,000 Sri Lankan Roman Catholics flock to the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in the troubled north to celebrate the 10-day feast of the Assumption. (Words and pictures: Charles Haviland)
The church sits on a site where there has been a shrine to the Virgin Mary for hundreds of years. Catholics, both Tamil and Sinhalese, and members of other faiths revere it.
Soldiers are among the faithful and the guests. War memories are raw here. Only 16 months ago the army regained this land from the Tamil Tiger rebels, and the church compound was shelled.
Madhu is supposed to be a demilitarised zone, but 10 years ago some 40 civilians were killed by artillery fire as they sought sanctuary here.
Ambrose Bartholameus (left) last visited 30 years ago as a teenager. Now this land is in government hands again, she and other Sinhalese pilgrims are back in large numbers. "There are different races and different religions here,” she says.
Many believe the ancient image of the Virgin here heals the sick. During last year’s fighting, priests for the first time moved it from the church into the deep forests for safekeeping.
There are fewer Tamil pilgrims here than usual. Many of those present have close family or friends in the government-run camps nearby and do not know when they will be allowed out.
With such huge crowds visiting, and building their own makeshift shelters, a thriving hive of commerce has sprung up here at Madhu.
But above all it is a place of prayer and reflection. Many Sri Lankans believe peace and ethnic unity will start in places like this.
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