NAGAPATTINAM, INDIA — Amid the tossed fishing boats, overturned railroad tracks, and piles of splintered thatching, this religiously diverse community on India's southeast shore has found new strength within itself after last week's tsunami.
It took the government three or four days to reach certain areas of Nagappatinam, the hardest-hit district on the Indian mainland where some 6,000 died, leaving the survivors to rally their own forces to begin the cleanup. With a religiously mixed population - half are Hindus, a third are Muslims, and the remainder are Christians - this has meant reaching out across faith barriers in a country that is often torn by religious strife.
One of the first places to provide shelter to displaced survivors was Neelayathatchi Amman Temple. Built 2,000 years ago, it is an important Hindu shrine, according to Sethurama Gurukkal, who has officiated at the temple for 20 years. A Brahmin priest, his old-school training would normally look askance at the ritual impurities and inconveniences of more than a thousand people eating, sleeping, and washing clothes within temple walls. On top of that, UNICEF has built toilet facilities in the temple's front yard.
Yet Mr. Gurukkal doesn't mind. "When these people are in distress, how can we speak of our inconveniences?" he says.
The people camping at the temple belong to fishing communities that make up the bottom of the caste hierarchy, or are not Hindu at all.
Periyanayam Arokiadas, one of the 40 or so Christians staying at the temple, was grateful for all that the temple management was doing. "They gave us clothes. They're giving us food." And she had no qualms about staying in a temple. "In our opinion, all gods are the same."
About 6 miles south of Nagapattinam, volunteers cleaned up Vailankanni, one of India's most important Roman Catholic shrines. One group clad in white dhotis and kurtas particularly impressed Arul Raj, who works for the church. He reckoned they were Hindus from their chants.
"But Hindus or Muslims or whoever they were, they did so much. They sang bhajans [Hindu hymns] as they picked up bodies and buried them. That was very uplifting."
According to A. Anthonysamy, who mans one of the two chapels, groups come in every day to help. "Everyone, right from the government to volunteers, has been helping a lot. There's no room for complaint. Whatever we lost in the tsunami, we have gained from the number of people coming forward."
Such harmony hasn't always been the norm in Nagapattinam. There has long been discontent among the minority Christians and Muslims who feel at times like second-class citizens. When religious clashes erupt in other parts of India there are fears of violent repercussions in Nagapattinam because of the town's demographics - though violent clashes have rarely taken place here.
According to M. Krishnakumar, with the nongovernmental organization Avvai Village Welfare Society, Muslim-Hindu tensions simmer for a few days during religious festivals when processions are common, but generally cool off later. Christian conversion efforts have also been a source of tension. The state has been trying to pass a bill to outlaw proselytizing.
But for now, old religious tensions have been swept away.
As donations pour in, the Catholic church has undertaken to feed those made destitute by the tsunami. R. Sekaran and M. Papa, both Hindus who work for a convenience store along the walkway between the chapel and basilica, are sustained by the food the church hands out because the store has yet to open its shutters. The store was looted during the crisis when the two of them had fled in panic.
Among the hardest hit were fishermen, mostly Hindus, living in 300 huts along the coast in Nagore. Muslims belonging to the Nagore Dargah, a shrine located less than three miles north of Nagapattinam, picked up all the bodies they could find - about 320 - and buried them in their own graveyard.
Survivors from the fishing community have been housed in the mosque. They're spread out everywhere except in the three holy shrines at the heart of the mosque. From the funds it receives, the Nagore Dargah has undertaken to not only feed and shelter them, but also to build them new houses, according to A. S. A. Kader, head of the Nagore Muslim Jamad Group.
"We've suffered, but the fishermen are worse off than us," said A. Abdul Aziz, a local politician. "We're united in our efforts. Such a friendship has been forged between us [Muslims] and the fishing community that we'll even give each other our daughters in marriage. In Nagore, there will never be religious contentions again."