Sunday, January 02, 2005

Venpurasam and Mahabalipuram

Yesterday we hit the road to Venpurasam, a village struck hard by the tsunami. No one had died here either, but four days later, on hearing there was another tsunami alert, an old man had a fatal heart attack. The first thing you notice is how far the boats are from the shore. Like this, there are scattered objects...objects that don't belong where they currently rest...objects that hint at how furious the ocean was on the 26th of December. A solid granite statue, which would need a crane to lift, lay on its side 15 feet away. The water levels can be seen on the side of the temple. Three feet high. The temple is 7-8 feet above sea level.

The fishermen are scared. One says animatedly in Tamil, "We're all very afraid. We know that when waters are choppy, we shouldn't go in. But this thing came when the waters were calm! How can we trust it? We won't go in for another three months."

Government officials came by and told the villagers not to enter the waters until further notice. I wondered why. Could it have been because of the village's proximity to the damaged nuclear facility at Kolpakkam? The same alert was not issued in other places. At Mahabalipuram there was only a two-day warning. In any case, the fishermen were torn between staying safe, and venturing into the sea again. Village after village, people say the same thing. They need nets, but can't trust the sea. They want nets. Nothing else.

The doctors we brought along say everyone's in good health, but they're running out of pediatric medicines.

Before we left, I asked if they saw it coming. "Yes," said the old man who was frightened of the sea. "But first we did not know, because the sea went back by a kilometer. It stayed there for five minutes, and then it came rushing towards us. We saw six temples. Then we were pushed by the water, and we had to hold on to trees." I asked him about the six temples. He said they were underwater, and it was the first time the village had seen them. The sighting was confirmed at Mahabalipuram. The six temples were discovered by an expedition two years ago, and are from the Pallava dynasty.

On arriving at Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram (Translation: great wrestler), it took a while to realise that we were standing in a tsunami-hit village. It was pristine. Clean. Beautiful. But like at the other villages, it was the out of place objects that made your eyes widen. But the reason the village had been relatively untouched was because the restaurants that lined the beach took the brunt of the waves. The owner of the Sea Rock Hotel -which you will find in Lonely Planet guides - came up to us and asked if we were aiding restaurants as we did with homes. He didn't have insurance. His hotel was hit hard. A tourist was sucked out of her Sea Rock hotel room and into the sea. Another man lost his nephew, and with great strength, composure, dignity, told us his village had been ignored by the government. He said there were no hospitals nearby. They had to travel to Chennai. We'll probably visit there again, with some of the supplies they need.

Walking around, you couldn't help but feel that they were trying to return to a state of normalcy. What was it like....was it a beautiful day like this, with a soft breeze, the murmer, the chatter of little girls....was it like this when the waves came? How ever did that 20-foot long fiberglass boat crash with unerring accuracy right through the front of the Laxman temple? How did that massive concrete block get here, and, oh, that's where it came from?! How did the waves reach heights of 22 feet as they roared between two restaurant buildings and into the town? How did it feel setting your eyes on six temples you had only heard about, how did it feel seeing a relic from the past, a place of worship, and then then watching in horror as the black waves advanced at you with a roar at an ungodly speed?