Faiths Unite amid Ruin in India

Article excerpt

Amid the tossed fishing boats, overturned railroad tracks, and piles of splintered thatching, this religiously diverse community on India's southeast shore has found new strength within itself after last week's tsunami.

It took the government three or four days to reach certain areas of Nagappatinam, the hardest-hit district on the Indian mainland where some 6,000 died, leaving the survivors to rally their own forces to begin the cleanup. With a religiously mixed population - half are Hindus, a third are Muslims, and the remainder are Christians - this has meant reaching out across faith barriers in a country that is often torn by religious strife.

One of the first places to provide shelter to displaced survivors was Neelayathatchi Amman Temple. Built 2,000 years ago, it is an important Hindu shrine, according to Sethurama Gurukkal, who has officiated at the temple for 20 years. A Brahmin priest, his old- school training would normally look askance at the ritual impurities and inconveniences of more than a thousand people eating, sleeping, and washing clothes within temple walls. On top of that, UNICEF has built toilet facilities in the temple's front yard.

Yet Mr. Gurukkal doesn't mind. "When these people are in distress, how can we speak of our inconveniences?" he says.

The people camping at the temple belong to fishing communities that make up the bottom of the caste hierarchy, or are not Hindu at all.

Periyanayam Arokiadas, one of the 40 or so Christians staying at the temple, was grateful for all that the temple management was doing. "They gave us clothes. They're giving us food." And she had no qualms about staying in a temple. "In our opinion, all gods are the same."

About 6 miles south of Nagapattinam, volunteers cleaned up Vailankanni, one of India's most important Roman Catholic shrines. One group clad in white dhotis and kurtas particularly impressed Arul Raj, who works for the church. He reckoned they were Hindus from their chants.

"But Hindus or Muslims or whoever they were, they did so much. They sang bhajans [Hindu hymns] as they picked up bodies and buried them. That was very uplifting."

According to A. Anthonysamy, who mans one of the two chapels, groups come in every day to help. "Everyone, right from the government to volunteers, has been helping a lot. There's no room for complaint. …