Friday, January 28, 2005
Trip to tsunami-hit areas
I am back from my tour of Alappad panchayat of Kollam district in Kerala on the west coast and Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu on the east coast. It was hectic, informative, educative and at times even haunting. I returned on Jan 26.
Alappad panchayat was one of the worst hit by the tsunami on Dec 26. It is on a thin stretch of island that is some 17 km long and just less than a kilometre wide. It is on this island that the Mata Amritanandamayi ashram is located.
The deadly waves struck at 12.26 pm and within a few minutes it left a trail of death and destruction. The sea flowed over the island into the backwater. 147 people are either missing or confirmed dead. Even on the day I was there (on Jan 22) a body was found.
The Brahmacharis and Brahmacharinis of the mutt led by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) rescued hundreds of villagers by moving them across the backwaters in boats to the mainland. Most of them were housed in the Amrita institutions there.
The mutt drew from its vast resource of institutions like medical, nursing, and management; and also legion of devotees to provide succour to the affected people. Mutt was the only institution distributing food and water every day to the people and also providing medical assistance. Government machinery took a long time to be activated. On Jan 22, at some temporary shelter the mutt stopped supplying food as the government was ready with it.
I was quite privileged and blessed to be allowed to interview Amma. I reached Alappad around 5 pm on Jan 22. After a wash went for Darshan of Amma. We thought the interview may happen only after 9 pm or so. But as we were sitting there near the podium where Amma was giving darshan, word came that she would meet me immediately.
What every one thought would be for not more than say 30 minutes or so, the conversation went for two hours. She spoke of the premonition she had. The darshan for more than 10,000 people on that day was given on the first floor and not on the ground floor as on Sundays. She also spoke of the long-term relief and rehabilitation plans of the mutt.
After dinner at 9 pm, we went to Azheekkal village, some two km to the north, where the mutt had just begun construction of a temporary shelter. The work had begun at 3 pm the previous day (Jan 21). But when I went there around 11 pm it was almost 60 percent done.
These shelters are for relocating families who had been shifted to relief camps in the mainland. Nine temporary shelters are already up in the neighbouring village of Srayikkal where some 200 families are staying pending reconstruction of their houses by the mutt.
Around midnight we returned and saw a video film of the entire disaster. It was shot by the communication division of the mutt. It was unedited raw footage. The entire disaster is on tape: the waves strike, the panic, people struggling to higher levels of saftety, the destruction, the immediate relief, cremation, etc....
The video footage is perhaps a very unique document detailing so vividly a tragic landmark in our history. I wanted to get a copy of it. But couldn't since it was incomplete and unedited. If you are visiting the mutt, they will show it, within their premises.
On Jan 23, Sunday, I saw the relief camps up. One of the first steps that the mutt did was to hand over to the government 5 acres out of the 10 acres of land it (the mutt) owns, so that the government can put up its shelters. But, so tragically, the temporary shelters of the government are yet to come up. Only the supporting poles are there. No roof.
Around 6 pm we left Amritapuri for Nagapattinam. Around 2 am (Jan 23, Monday) we reached Madurai. We checked into a hotel. In the morning we went to the historic temple. What a temple!
After breakfast we resumed our journey. Around 2 pm we reached Thanjavur where we had lunch. Around 5 pm we reached Nagapattinam.
Nagapattinam is another place that has suffered lot of damage. Mutt devotees reached the place three days after the waves struck. The place was haunted, they say. The government machinery had broken down. No wonder there was lawlessness. Anyway how much of discipline is there during normal times?
The collector, Radhakrishnan (a really dynamic young guy), told me that during the initial days there were too many benefactors (known and unknown) who landed up without knowing whom to help. The number has come down. Now only big players, who really mean good, are there. They are working out long-term rehabilitation plans with the government.
The government machinery is quite impressed with the credentials of Amritanandamayi Mutt's activities. The collector is on record on this. After the Kumbakonam fire tragedy, the mutt had done charitable work there. Radhakrishnan was the collector there then.
I have been covering the mutt's activities for some time now. What I understand is that for them, spirituality is not the overriding thing, but social work: covering basic needs like housing, health care and education. The spiritual factor is more for disciplining ourselves, an anchor for our lives that is often swayed violently by temporal influences.