26 December 2004, a date never to be forgotten, is an event that shaped the economy and lives of Nagapattinam district citizens. Nagapattinam is derived from Nagar, referring to people from Sri Lanka who settled here in ancient history, and pattinam referring to town.
Nagapattinam had a population of approximately one hundred thousand, and coastal fisherman were going about their business searching ocean depths from their tiny boats far from shore in the hope dwindling fish stocks would favor them this day as they sought food for families and a possible few rupees to buy needed supplies. They’d deposited precious rice, and garlands at the shrine of the village god before leaving shore as a precaution in the hope fortune would smile on them this day.
The women of the village were engaged in busy activities of the day, washing, weaving, mending and cooking for their burgeoning families. There never seemed to be enough time for all these activities and the care of children in their charge. They bore it all with stoic resolve looking forward to the time they’d reincarnate into a higher state of life in the next cycle if they patiently bore with present circumstances, and satisfied their gods with gifts and homage.
The sun god had risen on a perfect day. They were fortunate to live in the country south where they’d not experience extremes of hot days and cold nights to the north and these women had no conception of the Himalaya far pavilions to the extreme north where snow and ice would be the lot of villagers there.
Chandra glanced up from the grinding stone where she was preparing spices for an evening meal when her husband returned from fishing. The Indian Ocean cast lethargic waves onto the beach. Chandra loved her home among this cluster of palms. Two of her girls were returning from their morning collection of buffalo dung which they slapped into little round cakes and placed in neat rows to dry in the sun. They’d become fuel for outdoor cooking fires within a week. Some of the dung watered down would be freshly applied to outside walls of their mud hut. This would harden to provide a sealant to mud walls and frequently this would be applied to the floor for the same purpose. Chandra nodded in approval at her girl’s quickness and skill.
She rose from work briefly to check on her young boys down at the beach. They were repairing old nets and putting a village concoction on boats to seal leaks and make those canoe like vessels ready for another term of service on the ocean. One of the boys was catching coconuts thrown from top of a far palm by a thin tall boy straddling the palm expertly as he shook each nut loose and let it drop.
Village activities were in progress much further inland too as life went on with its customary routine.
All were unaware of events transpiring one thousand nine hundred nautical miles east of Nagapattinam.
The region where the earthquake occurred – and particularly the Andaman Sea – is a very active seismic area. From 1900 to 1980, a total of 348 earthquakes were recorded. This one was a big one second only in history to a tsunami that had obliterated part of the Chile coastline and killed thousands some time before.
The first wave fifteen meters high impacted Indonesia, then headed on a long journey hitting Andaman and Nicobar Islands on a relentless journey toward Sri Lanka, South India, and then Africa.
Fishermen far from shore suddenly found themselves grounded as the sea retreated. Sea life writhed out of its environment around them. The terrified fishermen screamed in terror as they saw in the distance a huge wall of water heading steadily toward them. The wave had only taken two hours and forty-five minutes to reach their coastline.
Chandra jumped to her feet as she heard screams from the beach. The boys were running from their nets and eldest boy deftly slid from the coconut palm to join the family unit. There was no hill to flee to as the wave estimated to now be ten meters tall steadily advanced.
Chandra shook the boys. “Quick, back up the palm trees!”
The boys looked at the distant wave and ran for the palms as quickly as their shaking legs could get them there. Three of them made it up the palms, just as the wave struck, but they were wrenched tree and all from the sand and sent on a terrifying journey inland, sometimes above water, sometimes plunging beneath. Each sickening impact took out a house or tree. The wave finally came to rest twelve kilometres inland from the coast. The eldest boy bloodied but alive found himself in an unknown inland village as the first wave receded. There were to be several lesser waves before the sea was finally calm again.
Chandra and her daughters hugged each other as the wave hit their hut and wrenched them apart. She could remember in slow motion being buried beneath the sea and tossed around. She thought it time another life cycle would begin and she’d be free of this world. Free of its endless toil, free of hunger.
Then as she felt her lungs about to burst she was suddenly flung high above the wave and crashed onto a bamboo roof pole torn loose from its mud hut. She gasped in air and clung to the pole. Intense pain racked her body as the shock of impact took hold. Half swooning she clung to the pole as it went on its journey inland. Bruised and bleeding she lay in the mud as the first wave receded with dead animals and villagers for company. Occasionally she’d hear the cry of someone in pain but it all seemed to be a dream from which she’d eventually wake up.
Then she heard the sound of voices. Unharmed villagers at this the waves final destination were searching accumulated wreckage for signs of life. Chandra’s steel like grasp of the bamboo pole relaxed and she painfully sat up to survey her surroundings. Villagers rushed to her aid and helped her stand. They put her on a village cot and she immediately lapsed into unconsciousness. She slept for sixteen hours and woke to a cluster of village women gathered around her. She felt pain in many parts of her body and did a physical inventory before speaking. The villagers had patched her as best they knew how with their village remedies.
Chandra inquired as to what village this was but was unable to understand where that village would be or for that matter how she’d be able to return to her own home. This frightened her. She had no husband now she reasoned as he’d been out at sea and surely would not have survived. She was all alone and would have to fend for herself. If her children had survived they’d be here with her. She shook as she thought of the consequences of being a street beggar in a village she didn’t know and among a people she was not a part of.
But as reports of the extent of the tragedy reached this village, 6064 died in the district of Nagapattinam as a result of that Tsunami, people rallied to help those who’d survived. Chandra was absorbed into one of the families of that village and slowly learned the ways of inland village dwellers. She later became second wife to the village headman.
Chandra never lost hope that someday she’d find her children alive and well cared for, but that hope was never fulfilled.
The eldest boy eventually recovered and found his way back to the devastated village of his youth only to find it deserted and destroyed. Like so many of those displaced by the tsunami he eventually gravitated to the capital city of Madras, now Chennai, and there found occupation as a railway coolie for the rest of his life.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2016 All rights reserved”
 Dr George Pararas-Carayannis. http://www.drgeorgepc.com/Tsunami2004Indonesia.html
Image belongs to Nagapattinam.tn.nic.in