December 26, 2004, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, Mata Amritanandamayi ashram,* Kerala, India. A lone pole-driven canoe, carrying a European couple on a pleasure ride, glides along the river-like backwaters, not far from the ocean. Jungle birds whistle in the coconut palm forest; crows scold and swoop. On the opposite bank my friend Eiko and I wait in the hot sun for the small motor ferry to shuttle us across the backwaters to the main buildings of the ashram, where I’ve been living for the past month. The pleasure canoe drifts alongside the jetty and moors; the man helps the woman step out. As the couple strolls away, white birds flush out of the coconut palms.
Seconds later, gray water surges through gullies, shoots into the backwaters, capsizing the pleasure canoe and dumping debris in its wake. A village fisherman runs to the bank, waving his arms, shouting. Many Sunday visitors, who’d also been waiting for the motor ferry, run away. I’m transfixed. Where is all that water coming from and why?
Then it dawns on me. “Was that a tsunami?” I ask an Indian man in his Sunday best.
Slowly walking away, head down, he says, “Yes.”
“We better get to high ground,” I say to Eiko, who looks as dumbfounded as I feel. “I think another wave is coming.” We rush down the path to the ashram’s four-story computer school, which is on our side of the backwaters, and come upon a group of students sauntering along. “We must move quickly!” I say, imagining a giant wave.
Meanwhile, on the peninsula across the backwaters, minutes from the main ashram complex, the Arabian Sea waters have receded to about forty feet beyond the average tidal mark. Visitors, ashram residents, and villagers delight in the strange phenomena, the exposed expanse of beach. A messenger yells at them: “Quick. Get away. Run to the ashram.” The ashram’s PA system blares an announcement in eighteen languages for everyone to climb to the upper stories and for visitors to move cars parked by the ocean. Ten thousand guests had gathered for a special Sunday program that day, and another 4,000 Indian and Western ashram residents had been engaged in their daily routines.
Eiko and I climb the stairs to the roof of the computer school and wait, watching for what becomes known as “the killer wave.”
Sounds, like gun shots. The flood of ocean water explodes through brick walls surrounding the ashram, surging through the grounds, smashing into fishnet rigs that line the banks of the backwater river, and spilling into the play field below the computer school. Men shouting. Women screaming. Power lines down. Thatched hut homes, and some brick homes, torn from the ground in a heartbeat.
From the balcony outside the main ashram temple, our guru Amma calls out evacuation instructions to a few monks and joins them in the waist-deep water. Amma, Indian humanitarian and spiritual leader, orders a rope to be tied around the temple railing and stretched to the boat jetty fifty yards away. The ocean water slowly recedes. People emerge from upper stories. Scores of ashram residents guide people along the rope, through the mud, to the boat jetty, which will be used to evacuate the area. Men carry the old and infirm in chairs. On the opposite shore, where we are, several boatmen stir into action-they jump into canoes and pole them across the backwaters to the main ashram jetty so that they can ferry the survivors across. Fifteen thousand people must be evacuated. Of these, 10,000 Sunday visitors will return to their homes in various towns and cities.
Amma queries villagers before they board, “Is everyone in your family with you?” Amidst all the death and destruction, she discovers that some of the old and frail have been left behind. She directs ashram monks to go in search of them and guide them to the boat jetty, where family members will wait for them.
After I help an elderly Indian ashram resident off the first evacuation ferry, she pleads with me to stay with her. “I’m going back,” I say. When I try to board the ferry to the main ashram, the young monk in charge, riding the bow as if over a stormy sea, says, “No.” He is frowning, forehead beading with sweat. “Amma wants everyone to go to the engineering school.”
Reluctantly Eiko and I join the parade of the disheveled as we wander in the hot sun toward the engineering university Amma is building, ten minutes down a dirt road. We stumble over the rubble outside the huge university construction site, past the foul odor of the workers’ dirt-hole outhouses. Inside, in the courtyard of the only completely finished building, grief-stricken villagers are huddled in groups. A monk pours water for them from a pitcher.
On the way up the stairs of the five-story building, Eiko picks up a dusty piece of corrugated cardboard-her bed for the night. I’m still convinced we will return to the ashram when everything settles down. After a while, an in-charge Western fellow, face white, eyes hollow, calls out several times, “No one . . . I repeat . . . no one is allowed to return to the ashram for any reason. Come to the third floor now and get your passports.” After the scrambling for passports settles, helpers serve the lunch that had been floating in pots in the ocean water in the ashram kitchen and then transported to us by canoe.
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, an ashram resident who doesn’t speak English, joins Eiko and me. Our singing wanes when we get wind of supper. The Frenchman raises his eyebrows, rubs his stomach, and follows Eiko and me downstairs to the line to pick up stainless steel plates filled with traditional watery rice and a dollop of curry. I wonder how in God’s heaven anyone has managed to cook. Later we find out that Amma’s ashram prepared meals for thousands in our refugee camps and for thousands at various government camps that were not prepared for the disaster. For four months the ashram would feed three meals a day to over 15,000 tsunami survivors in Kerala. And as many in Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal.
Men deliver grass mats for us to sleep on. Scores of the one-night Western visitors fight over them, piranha-like. The Frenchman, Eiko, and I watch aghast. After most have gone to bed, a mat-bearing friend of mine appears and hands us four. I give one to a Swedish woman, standing slack-shouldered. The Frenchman, grinning wide, adopts Eiko’s abandoned cardboard, tears it and gives me half, rubbing his skinny back side and pointing to mine.
Since the engineering school classrooms are sardine-full, Eiko and I lay our mats on the cement floor in a balcony alcove. In one of the large bathrooms, one for women and one for men on each of the five floors, I spot the Swedish woman brushing her teeth. I hold my forefinger up and make as if to scrub my teeth. She dabs toothpaste onto my fingertip. “Thanks,” I say to her. Once bedded down I am grateful for the scarf end of my sari for cover against the damp chill, my purse as pillow, and the corrugated cardboard under my grass mat.
In the night I am awakened by a village woman wailing.
The next day our camp thins out as the Western tourists and quite a few Western devotees leave, going to hotels or continuing on their travels. I don’t feel I have the option to leave; this is my home for now and my place of refuge. I make myself useful by joining the fifty or so Indians in the make-shift kitchen, where we cut mountains of vegetables for the cooks. Cooking pots, placed over open fires, are larger than bathtubs. Eiko volunteers to help the ill and the wounded.
For my personal care, I shower daily, using my dirty sari to dry myself, and then I put it back on; it’s all I’ve got. It’s hot and humid, too. On day three I discover I can use bar soap to wash the clothing on my back piece-meal, first the sari, then the slip, then the blouse, keeping myself covered with a borrowed towel while clothes dry quickly in the hot sun. In the mornings at five, a few of us gather for chanting every day.
Amma, meanwhile, has been orchestrating and spearheading tsunami relief all over Indiaâ€”medical aid, food, clothing, temporary shelters, and consolation. On the evening of the second day, in the worst-hit village on the peninsula, monks from Amma’s ashram and villagers, including members of rival political groups, collect and stack wood for funeral pyres. They prepare and lay the dead into wooden coffins. Several women, searching for their drowned babies, rush to a coffin where an infant, wrapped in white, has beach sand stuck on partially closed eyes. At sundown, monks, following Hindu tradition, preside over the mass cremation for forty-two dead and sit vigil with the bereaved throughout the night as the pyres blaze and embers burn to ash.
New Year’s Eve. We return to the main ashram in late afternoon. I’m sickened to see so much filth and debris littering the groundsâ€”clothing, thongs, pieces of metal, tattered palm frond walls, wood, plastic bags. The killer wave had washed through the sewage pond, spreading it all over the grounds, and the sand is now black with stink. I climb the ramp to my flat that I share with three others and am relieved to change into fresh clothes.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. Wasn’t monsoon season over months ago? A half hour before midnight the temple bell rings, summoning us for the New Year. I rush down the ramp from my sixth floor flat, over the sand, through the iron gateways, and toward the ashram’s auditorium. Coconut palm fronds lash against each other in the wind. More thunder. Huge drops splash on my forehead. I make a run for it along the dimly lit grounds. Scattered groups dressed in white also rush along.
Water pounds the auditorium’s fiberglass roof and pelts palms, sounding like grain crashing through a silo. Thunder strikes again and again, in ear-shattering claps. The downpour blinds vision. A friend nudges up against me, eyes round. “It’s going to flood again. I know it.” I shrug. I hope not. As soon as the storm began, I felt the rain had been sent by the heavens to clean the grounds of sludge and to remove salt from the ocean’s flood. Yet rain water is rising by inches, threatening to spill over into the auditorium.
At about five to midnight, Amma leads us in a chant, Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhanvantuâ€””May all of the beings in all the worlds be happy and peaceful.” For fifteen minutes we repeat the peace prayer. Tears stream from some people’s eyes as our chanting echoes across the land. My eyes are dry. I’m still numb from the experience. Waves pound in the distance. The downpour slows. Then stops. Wind calms. Water drips from the palm fronds.
After days and nights of clean-up, on the sixteenth and last day of the daily funeral rites after the tsunami, we visit the mass cremation site, the forty-two palm frond lean-tos that cover ashes on the beach. Amma presides over the ceremony. Holding clay oil lamps in our palms, hundreds of us Westerners and Indians circumambulate the funeral site, praying for the living and the dead all over the world. Then, ankle-deep in water, we place lighted lamps onto lapping waves and watch the tide carry them away. One fisherman tells Amma he has become frightened of the ocean; touching him on the shoulder, she helps him gather courage, and she inspires him to wade out chest-deep, where he offers his lamp to the sea.
Finally I return to the U.S., still shaken by the experience. I don’t want to see anyone or go out. I search online to find out what the tsunami looked like in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. I become obsessed with learning about the nature of tsunamis: In deep ocean waters these colossal waves, hardly visible from above, travel at the speed of a jet airliner, about 400 to 600 miles per hour. My God! As a tsunami approaches land, the swell condenses like an accordion bellows, rises up considerably, and slows to 25 or 40 miles per hour, depending on the slope of the terrain. I grew up by the sea; a 25 mile-an-hour wave is unheard of. At six feet high, a wave traveling that fast would smash through brick walls as if match sticks. And it had.
I open to a picture from a beach resort in Thailand, a snapshot of a thirty-foot breaker that reportedly sounded like a steam engine as it roared across the sand flats laid bare when the tide was sucked out. Bathing suit-clad tourists run away, except for one woman who sprints towards the wave. Her husband and four children are out there. One lone woman confronting a colossal waveâ€”more concerned about her family than her life. And by some miracle they survived.
Over the next days, I return to that picture. I print it, and I stare at it. I can’t explain my emotional response, but the image seems to epitomize for me the heroic and transformational experiences of all who lived through the tsunamiâ€”or any calamity.
While holed up in my apartment, I wonder if I’ll be able to return to my former life and find meaning in it. I become aware of a grief that has no words or stories or images, just a profound feeling of loss and suffering. And a sense of having been changed so that my life will never again be the same.
I become compelled to share my experience. If I can hear my own words, and watch the faces of those listening, and know their questions, perhaps I will somehow come to find personal meaning in the vast, incomprehensible experience of the natural disaster I witnessed. I begin to speak at various venues, at the library, on the radio, in people’s homesâ€”and on my way back to my apartment from these gatherings, I weep.
But over time the act of sharing purges my soul in some mysterious way. It is like the channel of a vein or an artery that allows the unknown contents of the inner depths to flow to the surface. It opens me to feelings, to awe, and finally to insight into the temporal nature of the world.
* Amma, or Mata Amritanandamayi, in addition to serving as spiritual leader for millions in India and countries around the world, spearheads a vast charitable network from her headquarters at the main ashram in Kerala, India. Her organization donated twenty million US dollars towards tsunami relief in India; this included temporary shelters for thousands, three meals a day for many months, and then job training, rebuilding of homes and fishing boats—and all the while, the rekindling of human spirit.
National Endowment for the Arts grants. Author of The Path of the Mother (Ballantine 2000) and Offer Me a Flower (Bharati Impressions 1999), she conducts on-line
classes and is a medieval astrologer. After spending most of her adult life in ashrams in the US and India, she now lives and works in Maine.