Breaking barriers

Published : Jan 28, 2005 00:00 IST

The story of how religious institutions and leaders broke rules to provide relief to the tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu.

RELIGIOUS bigotry often hampers unity and causes tension among communities, but there have been occasions when certain sections of religious institutions rise above prejudices and unite for the service of humanity. This happened tellingly in Nagapattinam district in the aftermath of the tsunami, when churches, mosques and temples broke with tradition to help the hapless people.

Velankanni, located 10 km away from Nagapattinam, houses the magnificent 17th century shrine, the basilica of Our Lady of Health. Known as the "Lourdes of the East," Velankanni attracts not only Catholic pilgrims but also people of other religions from all over the world. On December 26, the numerous lodging houses in the town were overflowing with pilgrims, who had gathered for the special Christmas mass. The killer waves hit when the mass was being held in Malayalam. (The shrine holds mass in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and English on specified days.) Hundreds of pilgrims, including many children, were taking a dip in the "holy" sea and scores of children of the local communities were playing close to the sea. Shops lining the shore were crowded with pilgrims looking for mementoes. Most of these people had no chance against the giant waves.

In the first count, there were more than 800 bodies. Half of them could be pilgrims, said Very Rev. Fr. P. Xavier, rector of the parish. Bodies lay scattered in front of the church and in other areas as well. For the police, government officials and volunteers from non-governmental organisations, including some associated with the church, the immediate challenge was to remove the bodies and admit the injured to hospital. Messages for manpower went out to several places and among those who responded were the dargah at Nagore, 20 km away, which draws many Hindu pilgrims too, and the Hindu mutt at Kundrakudi, in Sivaganga district, more than 150 km away. A 100-member team of volunteers from Kundrakudi led by Ponnambala Adigal, the head of the mutt, and a 15-member team of Muslim youth from Nagore, also a tsunami-affected village, worked with local people and volunteers from many districts to bury the dead.

They also helped clear the debris to open up the roads for vehicles. Ponnambala Adigal, who stood tradition on its head by visiting the affected people, said he was only following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Kundrakudi (Deivasigamani Arunachala Desiga Paramacharya) Adigal, in rushing to help the suffering masses. He called the services of Kundrakudi Adigal during the Mandaikkadu communal riots in Kanyakumari district in the late 1970s, when Hindus boycotted Christian fishermen. The senior Adigal helped fishermen resume sale of fish, by himself taking out a fish and launching the sale. "The killer waves did not discriminate between man and man. May humans also close ranks to face the challenge," said Ponnambala Adigal, who also distributed food materials and clothes.

Rector Xavier said the church had provided for the stay of the victims belonging to all religions. Its canteen provided food to the affected people and relief materials were pouring in from different parts of the country and from abroad, he said.

The Parankippettai Islamic Ikkya Jamaat rushed to the help of people around the little town near Chidambaram, another popular pilgrim centre. Within minutes of the information reaching them the Jamaat Committee launched massive relief operations in places such as Chinnur, Indira Nagar, Pudupppettai, Pudukuppam and Velingarayanpettai. Youth of the community, numbering about 5,000, rescued many people and arranged for the hospitalisation of the injured. An ambulance gifted to the Jamaat by a Singapore-based devotee came in handy for the purpose. The volunteers saved about 400 people.

"Our boys joined the efforts of the district administration in rescuing people and recovering bodies," said O.A.W. Bawajan, secretary of the Jamaat. They also took up relief operations. "We now take care of about 15,000 displaced people of different religions," he said. They are being sheltered in four camps and are fed by the Jamaat using its own funds and donations from people attached to the Jaamat.

"We have provided for the stay of our non-Muslim brethren in our mosque," said Bawajan. "For us, human lives are more important than the sanctity of places of worship," he added.

In Nagore also, where hundreds of people died and a large number of families were displaced, the Saint Hazrath Saiyed Shahul Hameed Qadir Oli Dargah, which attracts pilgrims from all communities, did remarkable service, say the local people. The dargah provided shelter to about 4,000 people and its volunteers played a key role in retrieving bodies, arranging for burial or cremation, and providing assistance to the survivors. Relief materials were received from hundreds of regular visitors to the dargah from all over the country and distributed to the victims. About 250 bodies of fishermen and others, including 18 Hindus killed by the tsunami, were buried in the dargah compound, relaxing the religious rules, said a spokesperson of the dargah.

Temples in several places have also been serving as camps for the victims. At Thirumalai Rayan Pattinam in Karaikkal, the affected fishermen from Pattinacherry were accommodated in a Siva temple. A camp office of the Pondicherry government is functioning from there. One of the trustees was seen distributing kerosene stoves to the families sheltered in the temple.

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