Amma queries villagers before they board, “Is everyone in your family with you?” Some don’t know. Some grieve over family members taken by the wave—children, husbands, parents—walls collapsed, trees fell. Some have left frail grandparents behind. After getting directions to hut or home, ashram monks go in search of the old and the sick, and then guide them to the boat jetty where family members wait for them.
Filling the dead space of what-do-we-do now, many of us, Indian and Western devotees, gather to chant devotional hymns to harmonium accompaniment for a couple of hours. A white-bearded Frenchman who doesn’t speak English, joins Eko and me. Singing wanes when at around nine the evening meal of watery rice with a dollop of curry is served. Later we find out that the ashram has prepared meals for thousands of survivors in our camps and for over 15,000 at various government camps that were not prepared for the disaster. In Amma’s relief camps in Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal, 670,500 meals were served beginning on December 27. For four months the ashram would feed over 15,000 tsunami survivors in Kerala, three meals a day.
In the night I am awakened by a village woman wailing.
The 2004 Asian tsunami took the lives of over 250,000 people in India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and other parts. On the small peninsula on the Arabian Sea in India where Amma’s ashram stands and where Amma was raised, over 150 people died. Brick homes were flattened, walls crumbled, palm frond huts washed away, loris and auto rickshaws tumbled into palm trees, fishing boats splintered.
The morning after the killer wave struck, Amma consoled local refugees at the engineering school (see opening photo), held them in her arms, herself shedding tears; a few villagers lay in her lap for a long time while she stroked their backs and wiped their eyes. Throughout that next day Western and Indian ashram residents sat with villagers and comforted them. Along with scores of others, I chopped vegetables and sorted donated clothing. Several Westerners volunteered in the make-shift hospital a few blocks away; there, Eko administered Reiki and gentle massage to the injured and ill.
Meanwhile relief organizations all over the world were flooded with callers wanting to volunteer in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka—however too many well-known organizations, including governments, were unprepared for immediate action. As fast as they were able, such religious groups as the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Committee on Relief, and Scientology Volunteer Ministers, responded, without strings attached, with funding and volunteer work in various affected countries.
In many coastal towns stuck by the tsunami in Sri Lanka, people sought refuge in Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and churches. Local religious leaders were often the first to offer food and shelter. Survivors streamed into the temples, distraught and traumatized by the tragedy that came on an ordinary, clear blue day.
Often foreign medical aid and volunteer help from churches and private groups, began arriving as late as two weeks after the disaster. Some organizations sent out volunteers from abroad on December 26 itself. Many foreign volunteers roamed affected areas unable to locate in-place operations, or the ones they found were often ill-equipped to take on helpers. Nevertheless, thousands of local and foreign individuals who were determined to help relieve the suffering, found ways. A mass of humanity—giving their lives to meet disaster needs, with on-the-spot training, or with only instinct and common sense to guide them.
ABOARD A BUS FROM NEW ORLEANS — The 40-odd people boarding the black, red and white bus that the city provided late Saturday afternoon embarked on a journey of pure faith. They did not know how long they would be away or whether they would have anything to come home to. It would be many hours before they even learned where they were going….They had no way of knowing that when they finally reached their refuge, roughly 350 miles away, it would be ill-prepared for their arrival.
“Bodies everywhere" quote, and some of the details about the ashram’s tsunami relief efforts, are from the photo documentary, Amma and the Tsunami: Pray & Serve (Mata Amritanandamayi Center, San Ramon, California, 2007)
Sri Lanka information is from http://www.helptsunamisurvivors.org/
Photos: courtesy of http://www.amritapuri.org/