Lourdes of the East, 10 years after the tsunami

We stay in Vailankanni, Nagapattinam destrict, a pilgrim town at the east coast in Tamil Nadu. It lies on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, 350 km south of Chennai. Vailankatti is a very known pilgrim place that can be traced back to the 16th century and its founding is attributed to three miracles: the apparition of Mary and Jesus to a slumbering shepherd boy, the curing of a lame buttermilk vendor, and the survival of Portuguese sailors assaulted by a violent sea storm. A significant Roman Catholic shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health attracts hundred thousands of pilgrims each year – welcome to the “Lourdes of the East”.

IMG_1934.JPG 10 years ago the town was among the worst hit by the tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. “The shrine’s compound, nearby villages, hundreds of shops, homes and pilgrims were washed away into the sea. About 600 pilgrims fell victim to the tsunami.Rescue teams extricated more than 300 bodies from the sand and rocks in the vicinity and large number of unidentified bodies were buried in mass graves…” (Source: Wikipedia)

How does life look today?

At a first a glance it seems nothing ever happened. In the town the churches are bigger than ever and along the street that takes to the beach the business booms. Hair remover for the pilgrims are working at small booth units besides those who sell wigs of finest quality of hair. It is loud: different types of songs reach us from all sites. It might be at least 20 music booths along the roads. Religious items, food and toys. Even on the beach … Difficult to imagine what happened here. However, the tsunami reached also the church and took away everybody and everything that was not fixed…

On the fish market

In the early morning we saw the fishermen and headloaders at the fish market. Impressive, colorful scenario us, full of life. The men on the fisher boats proudly present their biggest fish. The women sitting and chatting in front of the ships, smiling, waiting, with their fish baskets beside to carry them then on their heads and reselling them elsewhere. It is a crush. Just the imagination what has happened at this place a decade ago is horrible. 

When we visit the small fishermen villages around I fully realize  that we are at a special place: Huge billboards promoting restructuring activities are visible. Government and foundations like the KKS from Germany in collaboration with private organization funds have helped a lot, beyond building a huge number of houses. For those who had lost everything. They still support till today with a huge bundle of activities. 

Here, in the middle of this village many new stone houses have been constructed. All done in a similar way. But during the years some families started to individualize them. Some enlarged the houses or painted them in vivid colors and put nice gates, doors, terraces there. 

But that’s not the case everywhere.  Some of the houses seem even to be abandoned. People tend to migrate nowadays with the hope to earn more money in the cities or other locations. Life is not easy here. A round huge building, very massive, is the place of refuge when the cyclones come – from time to time … 

In front of the beach a large wall has been constructed, several hundreds meter long. There is a large beach now, no houses anymore close to the seaside. All constructions have to be built at a distance of 500 m at least. Some single pieces of walls and a few apparently eradicated trees with visible roots that have regained the ground are testimonials of an old destroyed village here.

SPSC, the Strahlemann Peace Child Support Centre

Later that day we turn back to a home for children , our place of reference for the visit here in Vailankanni. The home is led by SPSC, the Strahlemann Peace Child Support Centre. The Peace home has been set up for children who lost their parents and/or homes, directly after the catastrophe. After ten years most of them have grown up in the institute itself and some of them are ready now to participate in vocational trainings to prepare for jobs. The home is developing further: a hostel aside the institution is planned where they can stay and feel at home while continuing their studies. In the past years the home for Tsunami children has opens its doors also for other drop out children. Children that couldn’t have continued with their studies otherwise. Aside the boarding school concept children from very poor families get now support on a regular basis, regular teaching lessons and psychical support. They can regain missing exams to finish their 12th standard exams which also in the modern India today is the basis for conducting a better life. In the villages themselves younger children can attend in the late afternoon playing schools – until their parents come back from work. Playing, singing, getting support for school problems and having fun together instead of staying alone in the streets where at six o’clock it is getting dark. On 17th November is the official children day. But as the children here knew that we would have arrived one week later only to visit them they have postponed their celebrations. So, this afternoon is our all children day here at SPSC. The boys and girls of all ages have dressed nicely and prepared dances.The overall excitement is contagious. Some children are awarded for a sports competition that has taken place a few days ago, outside in the huge home’s garden. We get the honor to forward them small prizes and to congratulate. The children are very excited. In small groups the young people have prepared a 2 hours program, a little bit loud, a little bit chaotic, but all organized by themselves: more traditional dances, acrobatics and Bollywood like super dances. It is a lot of fun. For all of us. At the end they all dance together and they invite us to join them. How could we resist to dance with them – towards a brighter future?

Related Content

Video SPSC – on the tsunami and the work of SPSC – by Paul Beskar 

Im Herzen Indiens – Freiwillige berichten

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