January 21- February 12, 2005
By Indradyumna Swami
The day after returning to Colombo from our trip to Matara we quickly busied ourselves for the relief work ahead. We used funds donated from overseas to purchase the basics required for cooking: tons of rice, dhal, and vegetables, as well as spices, five huge new pots and various cooking utensils. Ten devotees loaded everything on a government lorry, piled in a van and returned to southern Sri lanka, ready to begin serving daily prasadam to five thousand displaced persons.
The same day I took three devotees in another van to the east coast of Sri lanka, scouting for opportunities to distribute prasadam there. The thirteen-hour drive would take us through a hilly area and across a 100km plain to the ocean.
Much of Sri Lanka’s east coast is controlled by the Tamil Tigers. The rebel force had fought the Sinhalese government for thirty years before agreeing to a ceasefire three years ago. The ceasefire had held, but the government had recently warned that it could not guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers going into rebel-controlled areas.
“If you go to distribute prasadam and have kirtan they won’t bother you,” said Mahakarta dasa, the Colombo temple president. “In fact, they’ll welcome you. Most of the tsunami world aid given to Sri lanka is being distributed in the southern region, controlled by the government.”
The horrors that I had witnessed in the southern coast seemed far away as we drove through the picturesque interior jungle. The winding road took us through some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. The well-maintained road serviced the many tourists who flocked to Sri Lanka before and just after the war. An astonishing variety of colorful birds soared through the humid air, their beautiful colors clashing splendidly with the deep green jungle foliage. A tropical climate and diversity of habitats endow Sri lanka with an abundance of bird life. “There are more than four hundred different species,” said our driver.
We passed nearby Kandy, the second biggest city on the island and the Sinhalese cultural and spiritual headquarters. In the center of the city is a beautiful lake, and on its northern shores sits Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth. This temple enshrines an original tooth of lord Buddha, reputed to have been snatched from his funeral pyre in 543 BC and smuggled into Sri lanka in the hair of a princess some nine hundred years later.
Driving further, we saw hills carpeted with the glowing green of large tea plantations. Two hours into our journey we passed a sign advertising an elephant orphanage.
“An elephant orphanage?” I asked in surprise.
“There are many wild elephants on the island,” our driver in- formed us. “Because of the war, many baby elephants were orphaned. So, the government started an orphanage. It’s open to the public.”
“Let’s go see it!” one devotee suggested.
“That’s not what we’re here for,” I said. “We’re not tourists. We’re on a mission to help the victims of the tsunami; don’t forget that.”
Everyone in the van became silent.
After several hours I spoke up. “how do we know when we’re in Tamil Tiger territory?” I asked the driver.
“you’ll know,” he said with a laugh.
Hours later, as twilight was settling in and just as I had drifted off to sleep, I was rudely shaken awake by the jerking motion of our car bouncing up and down on the road.
“What’s going on?” I asked the driver.
“We’re now in Tamil Tiger territory,” he grinned.
Sticking my head outside the widow, I saw potholes in the road every few meters. The asphalt was cracking everywhere and there were few road signs giving proper directions.
“It’s a different world from here on,” our driver said. “Some parts of the area are patrolled by government forces . . . and others by Tamil Tigers.”
Sure enough, within minutes we came to a government army checkpoint barricaded in barbed wire. Soldiers came over to our van and shined their flashlights in. Not knowing exactly what to do, I simply smiled. To my surprise they all smiled back.
“They know you’re here for relief work,” said the driver. “Few tourists come this way anymore.”
“I can understand why,” I replied.
The soldiers let us pass. As we bounced along the road, I strained my eyes to see the jungle outside. Suddenly, our driver slammed the brakes to avoid hitting a huge form laboring on the road before us.
“hare Krsna! It’s an elephant!” one devotee exclaimed. Speeding up again, our driver calmly drove around the beast.
Sometime later we descended out of the hill country and onto the plains that stretched towards the sea.
“how many more hours to go?” I asked. It seemed like we’d been driving for days.
“Five,” he answered.
“Five! Okay, then pull over; I have to answer nature’s call.” As the driver pulled over, I stepped out and started walking towards a field. Just as I stepped on the grass a devotee screamed out, “Maharaja! Stop! It’s a minefield!”
Immediately I stopped and carefully backtracked, only then noticing several red signs nearby painted with skulls and crossbones, reading, “Danger! landmines!”
“Come back,” said the driver. “We’ll find someplace else.”
As we drove on, he explained that many areas in the region were mined during the war by both government and Tamil Tiger forces. “hundreds of thousands of land mines and tons of explosives are buried in this part of the country,” he said. “Be careful where you walk. Stick to the main roads. And watch out for snakes too. Sri lanka has five venomous types.”
Reaching beneath his seat, he pulled out a vial containing some dirt. “you’ll be protected if you carry this,” he offered.
“What is it?” I asked curiously.
“It’s from the town of Madhu, up north,” he replied. “That’s where the statue of Our lady of Madhu is located. She protects us from snakebites, just as earth taken from around her shrine protects us. Would you like some?”
“No, that’s okay,” I declined, waving my hand. “I’ll just stay on the beaten path.”
Darkness fell as we drove on through the plains. I noticed there wasn’t a single person on the streets in the small villages through which we passed.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Most of the fighting during the war took place at night,” the driver replied, “so these people are accustomed to going inside just after nightfall.”
“But there’s a ceasefire in effect now,” I said.
“Ceasefire doesn’t mean the war is over,” he said. “There are still skirmishes from time to time. recently a top Tamil Tiger politician was assassinated nearby.”
Again, silence prevailed inside the van, and I dozed off. I awoke in a village and saw a building with a sign that read, “Tamil Tiger Regional Headquarters.”
Surprised, I turned to the driver who in a serious voice said, “They’re in control here.”
Just after midnight we arrived at our final destination: a small village near Batticaloa on the far-eastern shore of Sri Lanka.
After being in the stuffy van all day, I wanted some fresh air. I was about to ask the driver if he could take me the short distance to the beach so I could take a walk. Then I remembered that it would be a terrible scene of devastation, like most other places along the coast.
We soon met a local Hindu priest with whom we had a prearranged meeting. he took us to a wedding hall across from a Ganesh temple where we were to rest that night. Inside there was a small light shining, and I was surprised to see many men sleeping on the floor.
“They’re fisherman who lost their homes and families in the tsunami,” the priest said.
As I set up my mosquito net huge clashes of thunder pounded outside. Soon rain started pouring down. I quickly fell asleep, exhausted by the day’s long journey.
I woke up late. The fishermen were already up and cooking their breakfast in a corner of the hall. When everyone was up, we bathed at the well outside. After chanting most of our rounds, we went with the local priest, our translator, to check the camps for displaced persons.
As we approached the first camp, I asked the priest if the people were getting enough food.
“Food is not the problem here,” he told us. “Although the government has done little to help us, our people from the interior, unaffected by the tsunami, have been giving sufficient rice and dhal. The Indian government has also sent several shiploads of the same. “The real problem here is that most of the victims of the tsunami are suffering from trauma. People are still in shock. At least twice a week rumors circulate that another tsunami is coming, and people panic. They grab their children and belongings and run out of the camps screaming.
“Are you trained in dealing with trauma?” he asked me.
“No,” I replied, “but we have a special medicine for such things.”
“A special medicine?” “yes, wait and see.”
As we walked into the first camp, I noticed a distinct difference from those on the south coast. Some seven hundred people milled about. Things appeared much less orderly. There were no Red Cross representatives or army personnel. People seemed disoriented. A number had bandaged injuries. One woman’s face was just beginning to heal from a bad burn. Sadness seemed to hover over the camp like a dark monsoon cloud.
Walking straight into the middle of the camp, I asked for a chair and sat down. The people, curious, started to gather around us. The devotees sat around me, and taking our mrdanga in my hands I started to chant hare Krsna. Within moments the whole camp was listening carefully. As the tempo built up, I indicated that the people should clap along, which they began to do enthusiastically. After ten minutes I stopped. Turning to the priest I said, “They’re clapping, but they’re not chanting.”
He leaned over and whispered, “They don’t know Krsna here. But they know Ramachandra. After all, this is Lanka, where Ravana lived.”
Smiling, I began kirtan again, singing “raghupati raghava raja ram, Patita Pavana Sita ram.” Immediately the people responded by smiling and chanting along. As the kirtan got faster some people started dancing. After twenty minutes I brought the kirtan to a close. The atmosphere was like Vaikuntha.
Astonished, the priest said, “They all look so happy!”
Turning to him with a smile, I said, “It’s the medicine of the holy names.”
After the crowd settled down, I began telling stories from the Ramayana. It was obvious by the way they nodded their heads that they knew the pastimes, but they drank the nectar of ramaatha as if it was their first taste. After forty-five minutes I called all the children forward and asked a few simple questions: Who is Lord Rama’s wife? What color is Lord Rama? Who is his most faithful servant? When a child answered correctly, I would give him or her a little card with a picture of Radha and Krsna and a calendar on the back. From the enthusiasm of the children, it seemed that those colorful cards were as good as gold.
Then I taught them the Hare Krsna mantra, and the blissful atmosphere expanded as they chanted along.
As we got up to leave, many of the women came rushing for- ward to put their babies in my arms. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I just chanted Hare Krsna in each infant’s ear. There were many babies and it took quite some time.
As we walked toward the gate, the entire camp followed us. They appeared very grateful: everyone waved and some even cried as we got into our van to go to the next camp. It was more evidence for me that kirtan and hari-katha are the panacea for all problems in Kali-yuga.
aho ahobhir na kaler viduyate
sudha su dhara madhuram pade pade
dine dine candana candra sitalaà
yaso yasoda tanayasya giyate
One who daily sings the glories of Yashoda’s son, Krsna, which are cooling as sandalwood and camphor, is not troubled by the days of Kali-yuga. For him every step is a torrential flood of the sweetest nectar.
[Srila Rupa goswami—Padyavali, Text 41]
As we drove to the next camp, I got a call from Tara das, who was directing the prasadam distribution in the Matara district to the south.
“It’s going well, Maharaja,” Tara said. “yesterday we distributed four thousand plates. It’s just the beginning. Many people in the camp enjoy helping us gather wood for cooking, and they also help us cutting up vegetables. The major has arranged trucks for us to go out and distribute prasadam to several camps in the area each day.
“More devotees will be arriving from Russia soon,” he continued, “and we’ll begin distributing prasadam in other parts of the country as well.”
As we continued driving to the next camp the priest turned to me and said, “The most traumatized are the people still on the beach. Although their homes were destroyed, some won’t leave. Do you think you could visit there before we go any farther? They really need help.”
“Okay,” I said. “let’s go.”
Within a few minutes we were at the beach. As we got out of the car I felt as if my eyes were tricking me. everything was devastated as far as one could see. It seemed even more extensive than the southern part of the country. The tsunami had flattened practically every house. Cars, bicycles, chairs, sofas, toys, and clothes–a seemingly unlimited assortment of paraphernalia–were strewn everywhere. And there was the awful stench of death. I covered my mouth with a cloth.
“Mostly dead animals,” the priest said, “but we are still finding human bodies. They’re under the rubble of the houses and also wash up periodically on the shore.”
On my drive along the southern coast I had seen the destruction only from a distance. Now I was walking through it. We had to step carefully through the decimated area, over shards of broken glass, chunks of concrete, and jagged pieces of wood and wire–and bones, already bleached white by the tropical sun. Nearby I saw volunteers from a humanitarian organization spraying everything in sight with disinfectant.
“By god’s grace there has been no epidemic yet,” said the priest.
Walking through one neighborhood completely destroyed by the tsunami, we came across two distraught men sitting in the rubble of what used to be a house.
As we approached, one of them looked up and sobbing uncontrollably, said, “I was on top of the house, and I saw my mother swept away before my eyes.”
“I lost both my children,” said the other man, standing. “They were torn from my arms as I sat right here.”
Grabbing my kurta, he screamed, “Why has god allowed this?
I am not a bad man!”
For the moment there was nothing to say; no words could offer reason to one in such distress. I simply put my arm around him. After two minutes, as our group turned to go, I said to him softly, “hare Krsna.” Nodding his head, he looked to the sky, silently accepting his destiny and the will of providence.
A few minutes later we approached a severely damaged temple that was completely deserted. “Where is the priest?” I inquired.
“He died in the tsunami,” said our priest. “hardly anyone survived in this area. We burned his body and spread the ashes over there near the sea.”
Just then I saw a young man wandering aimlessly through the rubble nearby. I asked the priest to call him over.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him. “School started a few days ago.”
“I’m looking for the bodies of my mother, father, three brothers, and four sisters,” he said with a dazed expression. “The terrible ocean took them away.”
I sat him down and put my hand on his shoulder.
“The body is temporary,” I said, “but the soul is eternal and never dies.”
Those few words calmed him, so I continued. “Your mother, father, brothers, and sisters are elsewhere now. you won’t see them again in this life.”
I asked where he was living.
“With my auntie,” he replied.
“Don’t come back here,” I said. “your mother would have wanted you in school now. Am I right?”
“Yes,” he agreed, and as he turned to go, he said, “Thank you.”
Just as he left, a distressed woman came running up to me and grabbed my arm. She was speaking in Tamil, so I couldn’t understand her.
“She said she lost her husband and eight-year-old daughter in the tsunami,” the priest said. “And her three-year-old boy is in the hospital. She has no money to feed him. She’s asking if you can give her some.”
I reached into my pocket, and taking out two thousand rupees put it in her hand. Still crying, she went to sit in the ruins of her home.
We spent several hours among the devastation near the beach, talking to people and trying to comfort them as much as we could. Sometimes I would offer transcendental knowledge, but more often it was a simple embrace that gave a person the solace they needed.
On the way back to our van we stopped at the local school, which was not much more than a steel frame left standing after the tsunami. going inside, I watched as the teachers gave thirty or forty kids a lesson in mathematics.
When the children noticed me, they all ran up close, staring. I spent several minutes shaking their hands, asking them their names and pulling on the girls’ pigtails. One boy was wearing a hat, and I took it off and put it on my own head, making all the kids laugh. Suddenly I saw the reason he was wearing the hat: he had a horrible skin infection on his head. As I took the hat off, I thought, “I’ll prob- ably pay a high price for that trick.”
I taught the children to chant hare Krsna and after a short kirtan we departed.
As we left, the teacher said, “Thank you. They’ll never forget your visit.”
Walking back to our van, I said to the priest, “There’s years of work to be done, just in this one village.”
“Can you stay a little longer?” he asked.
“I’m afraid I have to move on,” I replied, “but I’ll be sending a group of devotees here in a few days to distribute prasadam and chant with the people. And I’ll spread the word. Perhaps there are devotees overseas who can spare a little time and come here as well.”
Stopping, the priest took both my hands and said, “Tell them we would be most appreciative. even if they came for just a few days.”
We visited several more camps and the next day started the long drive back to Colombo.
As we neared our base in Colombo late that afternoon, our driver reminded me of a promise I had made to visit an orphanage just outside the city, run by the local ISKCON temple. Seeing that I was tired and so a little hesitant, he said, “They’re wonderful little devotees.”
“Devotees?” I asked.
“yes. It’s more than just an orphanage. Shall we go?” “All right,” I agreed.
When we arrived at the orphanage, I met Nandarani dasi, Mahakarta’s wife, who started the project seven years ago.
“We have seventy-nine children at the moment,” she said, “most of them orphans from the war. But recently the government has asked us to take seventy-five more children orphaned by the tsunami. We’ve just begun construction on a new dormitory for that purpose.”
As she took me on a tour of the property, I was amazed at the clean and well-organized facility.
“We also run a school for the children,” she said with a smile. “It must be difficult raising orphans who’ve experienced the horrors of war,” I suggested.
“Many saw their parents killed,” she said soberly. “It was a technique used by soldiers on both sides. But through the years, these children have come to terms with all they saw in the war.”
“how is that?”
“Through Krsna consciousness,” she replied. “Come, I’ll show you.”
She took me to the temple room, where all the children were anxiously waiting to meet me. When I walked in, they all paid obeisances and then eagerly gathered around me.
“They want to hear stories about Krsna,” she said, “and then have kirtan. It’s their life and soul.”
I immediately began telling them Krsna conscious stories, and after an hour I picked up a drum and started kirtan. Once again, I witnessed the all-merciful nature of the holy names as the children danced wildly with abandon, their big smiles radiating with youthful enthusiasm. I took the kirtan outside, and we chanted and danced all over the property. They were beside themselves with happiness. After an hour and a half, I was exhausted and brought the kirtan party back into the temple room. But they wanted more, so I kept going, praying for the strength to fulfill their taste for the holy names. When we finally finished, I sat on the floor with all the children around me, blissful smiles still decorating their innocent faces.
“Am I in a war-torn country, recently ravaged by a tsunami–or am I in vaikuntha, the spiritual world?” I wondered to myself in amazement. Looking again at the blissful children, I knew: “For the moment, I’m in vaikuntha.”
As our group continued back to Colombo, I said to the devotees in the van, “This is something new in our movement: a Krsna conscious orphanage!”
That night I began making the final touches on the infrastructure I had set up for our relief work on the island. I would be leaving in a few days, but devotees who had come with me from overseas would continue the work for at least another two months.
Before taking rest, I remembered my promise to the priest on the east coast. I wrote emails to several godbrothers, asking if they could spare some time to come and help the villagers deal with the tragedy of the tsunami.
I got an instant reply.
“I don’t know how much help I could be,” one godbrother wrote. “I don’t have money, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t have experience in counseling.”
I wrote back, “Just come with the holy names. They’re what’s needed most here now.”
May Krsna’s holy name, which is a reservoir of all transcendental happiness, the destruction of Kali-yuga’s sins, the most purifying of all purifying things, the saintly person’s food as he traverses the path to the spiritual world, the pleasure-garden where the voices of the greatest saints, philosophers, and poets play, the life of the righteous, and the seed of the tree of religion, bring transcendental auspiciousness to you all.”
[Srila rupa goswami, Padayavali—Text 19]