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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK
Tsunami sufferers question faith

By Nick Bryant
BBC South Asia correspondent

For the pilgrims descending upon Vailankanni, this Easter weekend is both a celebration of Christ's resurrection and a remembrance of the victims who died when last this seafront community came together to mark a Christian festival.

Worshippers in Vailankanni
Where there was once a throng, now there is a trickle

The Vailankanni shrine was in one of the regions of southern India worst hit by the tsunami of 26 December.

About 600 of the tsunami's victims were pilgrims who had journeyed to the "Lourdes of the East", a one-time hamlet on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, where, according to local legend, Mary and baby Jesus once appeared before local Hindu children.

Throughout Holy Week, the main coastal road heading towards the 17th Century shrine has been lined with a colourful trickle of pilgrims - many wearing saffron saris and loincloths.

Most have been travelling for days on foot because they are too poor to afford bus or rail tickets.

Some have even crawled the final stretch - an expression of thankfulness to God.

Mary the protector

Yet this year the throngs are absent. Many thousands are too afraid to travel to this tsunami-affected area, scared off by frenzied rumours that another disaster is about to beset the shores.

I begged for the life of my son... all I got was his dead body - God cheated me

Perhaps others have cause to question their faith.

After all, Mary - Arogyamatha or Our Lady of Health, as she is known locally - has for centuries been venerated by Christians, Hindus and Muslims alike for protecting fishermen from the sometimes deadly seas.

In a relief camp less just over a kilometre from the basilica, we found Malar serving tea.

She lost 10 relatives when the tsunami hit, including her only son, nine-year-old Manimaran.

Before the tsunami, she used to run a tea stall in front of the church and attended Mass each night to thank God for her takings.

Now she has vowed never to set foot in it again.

"When the tsunami hit I ran to the church and begged for the life of my son," she said, crying.

"All I got was his dead body. God cheated me."

Trade losses

Other survivors have reacted quite differently and have come to experience a much deeper sense of spirituality.

Worshippers in Vailankanni
Some have experienced a deeper sense of spirituality

In the church courtyard it is hard to miss "One Leg Thomas" as he calls himself, dispensing blessings to penitent pilgrims.

Once a trader in the seafront flea-market, his souvenir shack was destroyed, and with it his livelihood.

So now he offers to take on people's worries and burdens - a symbolic act involving prayer and the laying-on of hands - for which he expects a donation of between two and five rupees (US 5-11 cents; UK 2-6p).

Local church leaders admit there has been a 30% reduction in the number of pilgrims since 26 December.

Local traders complain the problem is much worse, claiming 50% of visitors have stayed away.

Either way, for the local economy, the absence of pilgrims is hitting hard.

In bazaars normally crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, there are virtually no customers.

So the shelves remained packed with gaudy shrine paraphernalia, from portraits of Christ with a halo of flashing green, yellow and blue fairy lights, to depictions of the Last Supper illuminated with almost psychedelic colours.

Making peace

Xavier cannot believe it. Normally at this time of year, customers have to queue for up to 10 minutes even to get the chance to visit his cramped shop, packed with everything from Jesus Christ fridge magnets to statuettes of the Virgin Mary more than a metre high.

The shrine was one of the few buildings to escape devastation

This week he has hardly sold a thing.

"After the tsunami people are afraid to come to the church," he sighs.

"So the crowds have reduced drastically. I'm suffering huge losses."

Over the road, a hall normally full of pilgrims waiting to have their heads completely shaved - a ritual of thanksgiving, both for Hindus and Christians - is virtually empty.

Outside a sign reads: "Attention to Pilgrims: your cut hair will not be given back."

At this time of year the team of barbers would expect to shave the scalps of 10,000 men, women and children. The now-vacant benches would be packed.

This Easter in Vailankanni there is a strange mix of feelings: from emotional distress to economic pain; from unconditional love towards God to abject contempt.

Many are struggling still to find peace in themselves. Many are struggling still to make peace with their God.

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