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In temples, peace amid horror

In the Buddhist temple, with the monks chanting prayers and the wind singing in the palm leaves, she sometimes forgets what happened.

For long minutes, she stops thinking about the giant wave that caught her father on his way to buy groceries. She doesn't remember the way she froze when she saw the black water rising. She stops seeing the faces of men and women washing out to sea, waving and screaming for help that never came.

"We're in sorrow, so the temple is the best place for us to be a little bit happy," says P.K. Thilaka, a 40-year-old house maid, seated on the floor of the temple where she has lived with her mother and sisters since last Sunday's tsunami. "The family photos are at the house, and when we see them, we will cry. So it's better to be here and forget."

Since the water rose suddenly one bright, balmy morning, flattening houses and claiming lives along Sri Lanka's palm-fringed coast, thousands have sought refuge in Buddhist temples and churches on high ground.

During daylight, people return to their properties to survey the damage and pick through the ruins. But they are afraid to sleep in the houses the water invaded, even if those houses are still standing.

About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist; the rest are Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Many believe in miracles and the power of holy places.

In Galle, a scenic port city at the southern tip of the island, more than half the population of 93,000 lost someone or something to the tsunami. But everyone knows about the stone Buddha statues along Havelock Place, which survived almost untouched while the water tore down brick walls and uprooted concrete electric poles all around them.

"I'm a Catholic, but I believe it's a miracle," said Krishantha Dissanayake, 30, a hotel desk clerk. "I didn't believe in Lord Buddha, but now I believe."

On Saturday morning, men on bicycles and women with children in their arms stopped to gaze at the statues. The larger one, a 15-foot Buddha seated in an orange robe, stared calmly back at them. Nearby, the water had dented steel doors and torn through metal grilles. Piles of sodden bank statements and deposit slips lined the street in front of the National Savings Bank. The Buddha observed it all from beneath arched eyebrows, its pink stone lips folded in a tranquil smile.

It is this tranquility, along with divine protection and three meals a day, that Thilaka and others seek in the temples. But every day brings rumors of another wave, and memories of the last one are as vivid as waking dreams.

The Sri Gnanobhasa Yogasramaya temple, where Thilaka stays, escaped the rising water, but the sea is visible from the outdoor porch where she sleeps on a straw mat. At night, hundreds crowd the smooth stone floors, clutching their children and resting their heads on bags of donated clothes.

The temple is a complex of terraces connected by sandy paths that are swept several times a day. There is a black granite bench beneath a stand of palm trees, a circle of white marble Buddha statues, a large, outdoor kitchen where women cook rice, curried vegetables and boiled lentils. The monks _ quiet, graceful men in wine-colored robes _ walk barefoot on the sand.

"Buddha has said very clearly that nothing is permanent," the monks tell the bereaved. "Whoever is born brings his death along with him."

Ramyalatha Pereira, 22, has a hard time accepting those teachings, even though she embraces Buddhism. A large-limbed, sad-eyed woman in a bright green dress, she rocks back and forth during prayers, hugging her body. For nearly a week, she has been living in the temple with her sister, her brother-in-law and her husband. She cries every day thinking about her mother, who died when the wave overtook her as she walked near the ramparts of Galle's old Dutch fort.

"What we can't understand is that she was so healthy, and then in the evening we saw her body," Pereira said through tears. "It was unbelievable."

The temple's high priest, the Venerable Maligawila Assaji Thero, is 33 with deep bronze skin, a shaved head and a steady gaze. On Sunday morning, he went to the harbor to bless a boat. He stopped at a seaside temple along the way, and when the wave rolled in, he climbed onto a domed shrine, pulled off his long, maroon robe and used it to tie himself to the spire at the top. Then he chanted a prayer: "We should not do any wrong to anyone. If we don't do any wrong, we will have peace."

Buddhists believe in karma, the idea that acts committed in previous lives are punished or rewarded in this one, and some Sri Lankans say the tsunami was a punishment for human sin. They speak of political corruption and the long, bitter feud between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists who control a portion of the country. Some blame fishermen for killing fish, counter to Buddha's teachings. Others say the drug dealers who frequent coastal resorts in search of Western customers have made the whole country an object of divine wrath.

"Good Buddhists are living," said Rasanga Dinesh, who spent Friday night, the night of his 20th birthday, on the floor of a temple in the tiny hamlet of Godegama a few miles from the ruins of his house near the beach. "I think Lord Buddha is the best for the world _ no other."

Why, then, did the wave carry away Dinesh's mother? Why did it destroy his house? His eyes cloud as he thinks about it.

"I don't know," he says finally. "I can't see the heart of it. I don't know why."

Centuries ago, according to Sri Lanka's history books, another giant wave devastated the island. The king wanted to placate the god of the sea, so he decided to sacrifice his daughter. He put her on a ship and launched it, but instead of floating out into the open water, it hugged the coast and landed on the eastern side of the country. There, another king found the princess and married her.

Everyone agrees that human sacrifice is not the answer this time. The Buddhist monks and the high priests say life contains all kinds of experiences; that human beings harvest what they sow; that natural events _ a shudder in the earth, a swelling in the water _ are only natural.

But for survivors like P.K. Thilaka, a slight, soft-voiced woman who was home on holiday from her housekeeping job in Lebanon when the wave killed her father, the answer is not so clear.

On Saturday evening, she sat on the steps of the temple, her hands folded in prayer, her face contorted with pain. She was trying not to think about her father, but she thought about him anyway. She thought about how he would get up early every morning and boil milk for her to drink.

"Now," she said, "there is no milk."