19 December 2006, Amritapuri
Long before the towers of Amritapuri were constructed, in fact, as long as one can remember, ferrys have been taking villagers back and forth across the backwaters separating the Alappad island from the Mainland. The small wooden boats, capable of holding about a score of people, have been operated by a number of village men – some of whom have been doing so for many years. Holding a 15-foot tall bamboo pole, the oarsmen steer the boats lazily across the backwaters, taking about three to four minutes from shore to shore.
Stephen (61) and Bhargavan (73) have been working the backwaters for many years. Both have been grateful for the livelihood that the visitors to Amritapuri have provided them. “It is because of Amma and the fares paid by visitors to the Ashram that I have been able to feed my family,” Stephen noted. He was also a recipient of one of the homes built by the Ashram before the Tsunami as a part of the Amrita Kuteeram program. “One of my family members is also receiving a pension from the Ashram.” With a twinkle in his eyes, Stephen also recalled the few times when he ferried Amma across the backwaters.
The tsunami has changed everyone’s life. With Amrita Setu towering above their small boats, it most certainly will dramatically affect their livelihoods. Even so, all the oarsmen agree that the bridge is necessary. ‘Amma has built this bridge to save the villagers,’ noted Stephen, who along with Bhargavan, was there when the tsunami struck. Bhargavan still has nightmares – he had just taken a group of people across the backwaters and was tying his boat up when the waters rushed in. The two of them immediately became part of the rescue team – spending hours ferrying the villagers from the island across to the mainland to safety. Stephen noted that he must have made at least 27 trips. “It was during this time that I saw Amma’s amazing ability to help in such a calamity.”
Sanu Lal (aka Podimon) has been the operator of the Ashram motor boat for the past 8 years. During the tsunami, he also helped with the relief efforts. In the days and months afterwards, he worked around the clock- helping to bring workers, supplies, and food from the mainland to the various points along the backwaters where homes were being built. At times, he even slept on the boat. “I believe that it was my punya (merit) that gave me this opportunity to help serve others. But now with the bridge, it will be easy for the students to get back and forth from school.”
Tomorrow, Amma will give each a financial compensation package which will help the oarsmen establish a new means of livelihood. With the gift, Stephen, Bhargavan, and the others hope to realize their dream of offering visitors and tourists tours of the backwaters. Even so, there may still be people who elect to choose the ferries just to get from one side to the other simply for the experience. Rising high above the backwaters, the Amrita Setu bridge is bringing new hopes to both the oarsmen and the people of Alappad.