Reflections on the 2004 Tsunami

by Karuna Poole, ARNP, MN

As we approach the end of 2009, I am realizing that it is soon to be the fifth anniversary of the Southeast Asia tsunami. At the time the tsunami hit India, I was staying at Amma’s (Mata Amritanandamayi) ashram which is located in a fishing village in southwest India.

Normally I visit India each Christmas season. That year, however, I had decided to go to India in August instead. As the time drew closer, though, I had a sense that I was “supposed” to go in November/December rather than in August. Many years before, I had heard a minister say that the voice of God is most often the first quiet voice we hear inside. He pointed out that what usually follows God’s instruction is another voice, one which offers a flood of discounting messages.

While I still frequently get caught up in the distracting voices, this time I had the wisdom to honor the quiet one. As the trip drew nearer, I looked forward to discovering why I was being guided to make the change.

The 2004 trip started off just like any other, but it wasn’t to remain that way. Around 6:45 a.m. on December 26 there was a small earthquake. Although I didn’t feel it, when I emailed friends in Seattle, I mentioned the earthquake, adding that I hoped it had not caused problems elsewhere in the world. After finishing my email, I went upstairs to the temple roof to participate in a bhajan (devotional song) practice.

Our group was totally immersed in the singing and did not hear the commotion beginning below. At one point, someone stopped by and said the seas were rising. Another said that water had reached the edge of the ashram grounds. We were SO unconscious—it didn’t occur to us that this was a significant event— we just continued singing!

Minutes later screaming began. That certainly caught our attention and we rushed to the balcony to peer below. Water three to four feet high was pouring into the ashram with a force was so strong it was knocking down cement walls.

As I stood on the temple roof, I could see much of what was unfolding. Brahmacharis (male monks) were helping ashram residents, visitors and villagers reach safety. I later learned that the water had destroyed most of the homes, temples and other buildings in the village. Many children had been pulled out of their mothers’ arms and been washed away by the rush of seawater.

There were around 20,000 people in the ashram that day, many coming to attend a special program. Amma directed rescue efforts from the moment the crisis began. First, she told everyone go upstairs to higher ground.

For the next few hours those of us on the roof prayed and chanted the Sanskrit names of God which helped everyone remain calm even in the midst of chaos. Amma continued with the evacuation. She directed that the village residents be taken in canoes and boats across the backwaters to the mainland. Once the villagers had reached safety, Amma directed those visitors who had come to the ashram for the day be taken to the mainland. Last, those living at the ashram were evacuated.

Once on the mainland the refugees were taken to nearby schools which the government had turned into relief camps, and to Amma’s Engineering and Computer Colleges. Her Ayurvedic College was turned into a hospital. Amma instantaneously took responsibility for feeding three meals a day to the 10,000 people in the government relief camps as well as feeding those being housed at the colleges.

I stayed in the Engineering College along with ashram residents, visitors and villagers. I witnessed so much grief. Parents had lost their children. Children had lost their parents. As many of the refugees were fishermen, families had lost the boats that provided their livelihood. Clusters of villagers sat together in shock, often staring out into space.

After reaching safety, I started wandering around the Engineering College to see if I could find my daughter, Chaitanya, who lives at the ashram. I eventually found someone who said she had been caught by the wave and had been up to her neck in water. They said that when they had last seen her, she had been shaking from cold.

Needless to say I was a bit frantic to see her for myself. Hours later, Chaitanya walked up to me. She was covered with sludge from the top of her head to her toes, but was obviously perfectly fine. It turned out she had been taking a shower when the tsunami hit. By the time she had dressed and made it down the stairs everyone in her building was gone. She had climbed over a gate and swam to the temple to reach higher ground. She had spent the rest of the day joining in the efforts to move valuables to safety and get the remaining food across the backwaters to Amma’s Colleges and relief camps.

When I went to bed that night I felt so grateful. I had a straw mat, a dry floor to sleep on, safe shelter, food, a community of devotees, and I knew my daughter was safe. What more could I ask for? I marveled that in a situation like this I could feel so much peace.

During the next days, Amma’s relief work began in earnest. Not only did she feed everyone in all of the camps, she gave clothes to the villagers and sent her monastics out to console the grief stricken and help with the clean up effort. She sent others to help with the mass cremation. She herself went to all of the relief camps to be with the villagers who had lost so much. For the next two years Amma led a massive relief effort, building houses and providing counseling, vocational training and food in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

I had wondered why I felt guided to come to India in December rather than August. There is no question in my mind that I was at the ashram to experience and be a witness to all that happened during and after the tsunami so that I could share it with others. In addition, the experience was a good reminder of how important it is to listen to that first quiet voice. I thank God for guiding all of our paths and pray that we each grow in our ability to listen!

This article was published in "The New Spirit Journal" December 2009.