Helping to celebrate Pongal

16 January 2005 — Tamil Nadu

“When bad times come, it’s very common to hear women crying, but not men. Here, the men are crying like anything. They can’t even speak. I’ve never seen anything like it.” According to one of Amma’s senior brahmacharis helping with the Ashram’s relief work in Tamil Nadu, this is the situation in many of the seaside villages of Chennai and Cuddalore. In Cuddalore, the ocean intruded more than two kilometres, destroyed the ripening nut harvest and rendered the land useless for farming for the next five years.

The 14th of January was Pongal. It’s a time for worshipping God in the form of the sun and for paying thanks for the harvest. This year, obviously the devotion of Cuddalore’s farmer’s was tested. But Amma’s brahmacharis and devotees were there for them. The day before the festival in the seaside villages of Pudukuppam, Cupudupettai and Kannikoil, they provided families with the essential Pongal provisions, namely ingredients for the traditional dishes (cereal, rice, jaggery, sugar, etc.), as well as utensils, clothes and blankets.

Amma’s brahmacharis spent Pongal itself in Chennai, singing bhajans, giving satsang and lighting the puja lamps in the villager’s houses. They also performed moksha deepam [prayer for the peace of the dead] in various places around South Chennai (Srinivasapuram, Kovalam, Foreshore Estate and Karukattukuppam), North Chennai (Kasimedu and Royapuram) and in Kanyakumari. Swami Ramakrishnananda performed the same puja in Nagapattinam and in Pondicherry. They were accompanied by busloads of devotees. And everywhere they went, they spent a lot of time with the villagers, talking to them and listening to their stories.

“Some stories you can’t believe,” says one of the brahmacharis. “One lady lost her two children. It was too much for her—a few days later, she committed suicide. I met her older brother. You cannot console someone like that. Words have no value. Only listening has a value.”


Tsunami relief in Chennai

16 January 2005

The Ashram has adopted three villages in Chennai.

They are Kovalam (2000 families), Pudunemelli (62 families) and Daeveneri (190 families).

The Ashram is feeding some 7,500 people around Chennai a day

The Ashram has set up a relief camp in Thiruvanniyur, about 60 km from Amma’s ashram in Chennai.

The Ashram continues to distribute clothes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, soaps, biscuits, five kgs of rice, truckloads of biscuits and toothepaste.

Moksha Deepam, peace pujas for the dead, were conducted in four places by Swami Ramakrishnananda and brahmacharis Vinayamrita and Ajamrita: Kasimedu, Kovalam, Karikatakuppam and Srinivasapuram.

Yes, Amma. I understand

16 January 2005,Amritapuri

The family consisted of a grandfather, grandmother, father, mother and young boy of about three. As the family approached Amma for darshan, the boy told his family, “I want to ask Amma a question, but you cannot laugh.” They all promised.

Soon the entire family was in Amma’s arms. As Amma looked at each of them with love in Her eyes, the boy leaned forward. “Amma, who are you?” he asked.

Amma did not miss a beat. She pointed at the little boy’s heart and said, “Who is breathing here? That is Amma.”

The boy looked a little confused, so Amma asked, “Understand?”

The boy then took a deep breath in and let it out. His expression was that of one deep in thought. Again he took a deep breath and let it out. He then nodded his head, “Yes, Amma. I understand.”


From Bhuj to Amritapuri

15 January 2005 — Amritapuri

In 2001 when the earthquake devastated Bhuj, Amma responded much the same way she is now. She immediately sent doctors, ambulances, brahmacharis and devotees to help. A year later, the Ashram had entirely reconstructed three whole villages—a total of 1,200 houses, plus hospitals, community halls, temples and mosques.

Gujarat people

Amma was there for Them…Now They are Here for Amma

So, when the sarpanch [village chief] of Mokhana heard that “Mataji’s” village had been hit by the tsunami, he and nine other villagers boarded the Gandhidham-Nagarcoil Express and came to help.

“When things were bad for us, Mataji came and built villages,” said Lakshmanbhai, the Mokhana sarpanch. “Now things are bad for Mataji’s village, so it is our dharma to help. Amma is Sri Krishna to us. She will do everything.”

Patel, a member of the team said compared to their own losses at home, the Kerala village was more fortunate. “If we could win back our lost hopes, surely these people will also do so and we all are here to help them.”

Before departing for Amritapuri, Lakshmanbhai and the sarpanches of the other two villages rebuilt by the Ashram (Dagara and Modsar) also went door-to-door collecting goods for use in Amma’s relief work. In the end, the families of their villages gave 20 tonnes of grains, blankets and clothing. Unfortunately, the cost of renting a lorry to bring those goods to the Ashram was more than they had. But the sarpanches decided to donate it to the local Collector in Amma’s name for use in tsunami relief.

Amma adopted three villages of Mohana, Modser and Dakara of Bhuj in the wake of the quake and constructed about 2000 homes in these villages for the displaced.


People move into the temporary shelters

15 January 2005 — Srayikkad, Alappad Panchayat, Kollam District, Kerala

A storeroom, medical clinic, police-aid post and information office are now functioning at the Ashram’s temporary shelters in Srayikkad.

The Ashram has provided the children living there with footballs and other toys.

200 families have moved in to the shelters thus far, and more are coming.

One of the five halls was to be used for vocational training, but as the pressing need is shelter, it has been decided to let families stay there instead.

Ashram is constructing a new sixth hall to accommodate even more people.

Throughout India, Amma’s help is flowing

13 January 2005 — Srayikkad, Alappad Panchayat, Kollam District, Kerala

“Amma is a beacon light of compassion. Mata Amritanandamayi Math is a source of love. And the 100 crores Amma has given is the greatest help for the government. Not only in Kerala, but throughout India, Amma’s help is flowing. This is a holy deed.” Thus spoke Shri. K.M. Mani, the Honorable Minister of Revenue of Kerala, today when he cut the ribbon to the temporary shelters constructed by the Ashram in Srayikkad today.

The shelters are now housing 250 families until their houses can be rebuilt by the Ashram. The shelters comprise a total of five buildings located on five acres of land owned by the Math. Toilets, bathrooms and a kitchen for the individual use of the families are provided. And water and electricity are available 24 hours a day.

Swami Amritaswarupananda gave the welcoming speech.


Ashram gives 10 million rupees to tsunami victims

12 January 2005 — Amritapuri

As part of Amma’s pledge to provide 100 crores in tsunami-relief aid to Southern India, the Ashram began dispersing financial aid to the residents of Alappad Panchayat today.

Six of the 13 wards of Alappad were called to the Ashram this morning—each family receiving Rs. 1,000. This money is given with the intention to buy cooking vessels lost in tsunami. Swami Amritaswarupananda distributed the allotment to the first recipient.

As per the Ashram’s massive tsunami relief efforts, it will be distributing a total of 1.5 crores (Rs. 15,000,000) in this fashion which will help ten thousand families.

Psychological counselling to tsunami victims

12 January 2005 — Amritapuri

Ashram doctors have been making regular rounds of tsunami relief camps since the day after the disaster. Their immediate assessment was that the villager’s greatest problems were psychological—chiefly, anxiety and depression.

Anxiety and depression can be symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a debilitating condition that can follow any terrifying event. Often people with PTSD suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, a general feeling of fear, agitation and emotional numbness. They also tend to avoid stimuli that remind them of their traumatic experience. PTSD can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, chronic anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, guilt, panic attacks, and, in general, it can make functioning properly in society difficult.

In order provide free assistance to tsunami victims suffering from PTSD—as well as other psychological, physical, social and financial problems—AIMS, the Ashram’s super-specialty hospital in Cochin, has formed a team comprising psychiatrists, medical doctors and social workers to undertake what is being called the Amrita Tsunami Rehab Project.

Since the project began on 6 January, the team has been making regular rounds of the relief camps in area surrounding the Ashram and speaking with the tsunami victims.

“The first phase is simply helping them to drive out their inner sorrows,” says Dr. Siju, an AIMS psychiatrist participating in the project. “It’s important to get them to pour out their grief.”

According to Dr. Siju, most people emotionally transcend the bulk of their losses within the first six months. During this period of acute grief, it is impossible to make any diagnoses. However, through the next half a year, the doctors and social workers will be speaking with the villagers, helping them to open up and shed their pain, as well as finding out all the other areas in which they are having problems.

Assessment is the second phase. After six months, who are the people still locked in their despair? Who is still startled by loud noises, suffering from recurrent nightmares, etc? Once the people are assessed, a plan of treatment can be laid out—both pharmacological and non-pharmacological.

As for villagers who had been diagnosed with psychological problems prior to the tsunami, the team will immediately help them in continuing their treatment.

Psychological maladies are not the only problems with which the Amrita Tsunami Rehab Project is helping the villagers. Its focus is wide-ranging, and the team will be assisting with all types of problems—psychological, physical, social and financial.

“When anyone is under a great amount of stress, its easier for them to contract diseases,” says Dr. Jagatlal, a biochemist participating in the project. “So we will be there to monitor and treat that. We will also help the villagers to communicate with government officials regarding any problems they may be having—helping people adjust to the lack of privacy they are experiencing in the shelters. Another big problem in the villages is alcohol abuse, so we will be helping them with that as well.”

With a tragedy of this magnitude, there are so many areas that typically fall through the cracks. For example, in the past week the team has spoken with four couples that have lost all their children and are now in a most unusual situation: after having their last child, the wives had all undergone reproductive sterilization surgeries. The team is going to assist these women in having their procedures reversed at AIMS so that they once again can have children.

According to the doctors, each segment of society is suffering from problems specific to itself.

Many elderly are now feeling neglected, as their children are paying less attention to them, focusing primarily on their own children. Some old people have lost their caretakers altogether. And those who are prone to hypertension are having problems due to general stress. It also is common for them to suffer from obsessive worrying.

“More than anyone, it seems to be the mothers who are suffering the most,” says Dr. Siju. “Being fishermen, the men are strong and used to dealing with the sea, but the mothers are very much shaken.”

Although some children are showing signs of emotional problems, for the most part they are faring the best, say the doctors. “Being in the relief camps has actually been good for them,” says Dr. Siju. “They are playing all the time, so they are very happy. The camps have really helped them.”

With the opening of the Ashram’s temporary shelters on 13 January, many of the villagers are finally moving back to the Alappad peninsula. Dr. Siju says that this actually will be very beneficial for them psychologically, as it will help them desensitise to being near the ocean.

This most important aspect of the Amrita Tsunami Rehab Project is that it is amrita undying. The doctors and social workers are not going anywhere any time soon. They will take their time and handle each situation with the time and attention it needs. They will be here every day, helping the villagers get through this difficult time.


Ashram doctor works with Tsunami kids

10 January 2005 — Amritapuri

Dr. Asha from Stanford University, USA, a pediatrician currently helping to develop the cancer and pediatrics centres at AIMS Hospital, writes of her experiences helping children traumatised by the tsunami.

“Amma, sometimes I am having bad dreams” came the voice of a l0-year-old who had witnessed several of his relatives drown in the turbulent flood. Amma immediately took him onto her lap and held him close to her heart. She then called me to her side. “This son is having nightmares and is unable to sleep. Take all of these children and play with them. Let them get the comfort they need and let them express their sorrow.” Amma then said to the little boy, “This aunty is a doctor for children and would like to play with you all. Go with her.”

Within a few moments, Amma had set up the framework for the intensive psychotherapy these children would need to reintegrate into their daily lives after their intense trauma.

For a week after the tsunami hit, I was stationed as the allopathic doctor at one of the Ashram’s relief camps. As I treated hundreds for various physical maladies, I wished I had time to spend with the children, because they were essentially left alone to play while their parents were being treated. So I was so thankful when Amma gave me the opportunity.

On the first day, we blew balloons and drew funny faces, laughing at each other’s drawings. Then we made a competition between the boys and girls, singing the children’s favourite songs while dancing and clapping hands at increasing speed. That was an opportunity for us all to bond and for the children to become comfortable with us. Shortly after that, I opened the topic of dreams. I told the children that sometimes I have bad dreams and asked them if they do also. Several of the children immediately began expressing their deepest fears, describing what they had been going through when they slept.

When children suddenly lose someone they know well, it leads to deep-seated feeling of instability, which is reflected in their dreams. All of the children knew a few of the boys and girls who had drowned, and some are having dreams of these friends coming back to haunt them. Others lost uncles and aunts. Many are having nightmares of waves rushing into their homes and taking away their loved ones, or of bodies floating in the backwaters.

The village around the ashram is a very integrated community—so one person’s uncle is often another person’s cousin. The emotional ties are very strong. The children were clearly suffering as much trauma from another’s loss as from any in their own families. When I shared with them some of my own fears, they were able to relate, and this helped them to begin to let go of their own.

After the play therapy started, we brought the children in groups for darshan. Amma embraced each of them and told them to not be afraid. One of the smallest children—just four years old—told me later that she remembers her darshan every night before going to sleep and that she feels it has made her bad dreams go away.

The next day, we engaged all the children in painting murals. Though there were many bright colours and beautiful drawings, one common theme could be seen. Many of the kids were drawing schools, churches, homes, animals, and relatives—the very things they had lost so recently. By the end, several of them began to write messages to Amma, thanking her for being there with them.

With the cooperation of the local government, teams of psychologists and psychiatrists from AIMS have now started going to the villages to work with the children and adults there who are suffering from mental trauma. This is a long-term study that will go on for at least the next six months.

Temporary shelters are ready

10th January 2005

The temporary shelters built by the Ashram are now finished and have running water and electricity provided through an Ashram generator. These shelters are 2 kilometers away from the Ashram, on the land owned by the ashram.

The shelters have 15 toilets and 15 bathrooms.

With the help of devotee-volunteers and brahmacharis who worked around the clock, the shelters were completed within four days

The Ashram is waiting on government approval to allow the people staying at the mainland relief camps to shift to the shelters.

Ashram lends five acres of land to the government so that they too can build temporary shelters for those rendered homeless.