PANAJI, India (AFP) - Thousands of Catholic pilgrims descended on the Indian coastal state of Goa on Saturday to witness the once-a-decade exposition of the relics of a 16th century Spanish missionary.
Devotees from around the world formed a queue of more than 1km long to venerate the relics of St Francis Xavier, which are on display until January 4 in the former Portuguese colony.
After a celebratory mass led by Indian archbishops, the relics were taken in a procession from the Basilica of Bom Jesus in the historic city of Old Goa, where they are permanently housed, to the nearby Se Cathedral.
Thousands had lined up to kiss the relics even before the procession began, amid tight security.
"I felt peace and happiness," said 25-year-old Russian tourist Maria Stoikava.
The main feast day of St Francis Xavier is on December 3, when visitor numbers are expected to peak, and masses have been arranged in various European and Indian languages.
"With Spain being the birth place of St Francis Xavier, a special mass in Spanish is also scheduled on December 3," said Father Alfred Vaz, convenor of the exposition.
Organisers say they expect more than five million visitors over the month, mostly from European and South Asian countries.
"In the days to come you will see many pilgrims travelling here for the exposition," said Francis Antao, an Indian pilgrim from the southern state of Kerala.
Father Vaz said arrangements had been made to ensure that the pilgrims did not feel rushed.
"After kissing the relics, they can be there for few minutes before proceeding further. We have decided to make sure that the pilgrims are given abundant opportunity to see the relics," he said.
One of the first Jesuit missionaries, Francis Xavier worked extensively in Asia, especially within the Portuguese empire of the time, and was canonised in 1622.