where the writers are
Stefan Teplan in Kanyakumari

Kanya Kumari is a place you’ll find in every travel-book on India because in whole India there is no other place like that. Travel writers use to switch to a more poetic language once they set about putting down in words what makes the charms of that very Southern tip of the Indian mainland. Kirsten Ellis described it as a “spectacular, wind-blown location, with nothing but endless sky and sea on the horizon” and claims “its sunsets and sunrises are unique. On full moon nights, sunsets and moonrise occur simultaneously; hovering together like a tangerine and a golf-ball.” Studying the “Lonely Planet” – probably the world’s most popular travel guide – you will learn that Kanya Kumari is a must see as the “Land’s End” of the Indian subcontinent where “there is a merging of three oceans: the Bay Of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.”

There’s a lot more that could be said about, as it is also called, Cape Comorin – that it is one of the most popular Hindu pilgrimage destinations or that bathing in its waters is said to wash away sins. Since December 26th 2004, however, the history of Kanya Kumari is associated with another, totally unpoetic and profoundly sad event, too horrible and too unbelievable to describe: that was the day when Kanya Kumari has become one of India’s most tsunami affected areas, preceded only by Nagapattinam and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. So when I, travelling down south from Chennai, asked a passenger in the night-train what he could tell me about my destination Kanya Kumari he was far from telling me about the simultaneous sunset and moonrise, but only muttered “Oh my God, it is so terrible what happened there.”

824 people died here on India’s southernmost coastline and that meant suffering for thousands of other victims who managed to survive, but lost their mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers, friends next to all their properties. Most of the houses at the long beach stretching along the coast of Kanya Kumari were completely damaged by the first tsunami wave that, as one survivor tells me, was “as tall as a coconut-tree.” Fishermen lost their complete livelihood, boats, nets, engines and all their other equipment.

Not much of that destruction is visible as I walk along the shore, only a few houses that were not made total ruins by the tsunami remained, nearly two years after the disaster, with still big cracks in their walls. Most of the people have been relocated to safer places further away from the coast, yet close enough for the fishermen to go to the sea. At the beach I find a real armada of new fibre-boats with the inscription “KSSS-Caritas-CRS” painted on both sides. KSSS stands for “Kottar Social Service Society” (a diocesan Caritas) and is the social wing of the diocese of Kottar to which Kanya Kumari belongs. KSSS replaced all the boats and fishing equipment for the tsunami victims and built new houses for them. Right after the tsunami the victims first were accommodated in temporary shelters where they had to live in small rooms of corrugated iron and wait till their new permanent homes would be completed. One shelter site, the new village of Kottilpadu, had been finished in April 2006, the other one, Colachel, will be finished by December 2006 and it is a beautiful place amidst impressive scenery where the new house owners soon will be able to enjoy a marvellous view from their rooftop-terraces over the lake and the forest close by.

As I enter Kottilpadu, I marvel at the design of the place; many shelters built after the tsunami are merely a colony of row-houses with no centre, being designed like a chessboard with their crossroads at right angles with the main roads. Kottilpadu however, with its bends, its small gardens in front of each house and its central water-taps in every main road as a meeting point has more of a village-character.

Judith, with whom I have an appointment, is already waiting in front of her house. She and her husband lost their house at the shore, now she got a new home at Kottilpadu and, moreover, a job at KSSS where she deals with other tsunami victims as a social worker. She is also involved in a recently founded women’s group in Kottilpadu. They gathered in Judith’s house and are proud to tell me what they have achieved in only a couple of weeks.

Judith in front of her new house

Judith in front of her new house

“We actually started as a health committee”, tells me 30-year-old Salonza, “taking care of environmental and health issues in our village. We made sure there is separation of waste. Bio-waste will be used again as fertilizer. All the other waste that cannot be recycled is being taken away by a municipal van every week.” This is indeed something special in India where in many places people use to simply throw their waste at the roadsides, due to a lack of organized waste removal. The women of Kottilpadu were inspired to do more for clean and hygienic surroundings after an awareness training given by KSSS. And waste removal is not the only issue they take care of. They arrange for example the proper water distribution in the village; with the water coming from a big tank the villagers share they introduced a system of restricted use to which everyone hast to stick to. They arranged a rotation system for cleaning of toilets – flush toilets are also something new to most of the villagers – and they educate all the villagers in the importance of more hygiene to avoid diseases. Furthermore, they have a social system taking care of each other’s issues. Domestic violence e.g. was one of the first things they tackled.

“One woman in Kottilpadu”, says Salonza, “was being beaten by her husband. Her neighbour, a member of our group, immediately phoned the police who arrested him for some time. This man will never dare to do anything like that again.” Another woman, I am told, left her husband for three months after he became violent. “The men in Kottilpadu now learned they cannot just do what they want”, says SHG-member Rani. It was, she tells me, not like this before the tsunami. Back then women just were not aware of their rights and did not dare to stand up against any kind of injustice. It took the awareness training of KSSS and Caritas to make these people stronger.

Salonza (r.) and Judith of Kottilapdu's women's health-committee - Photography by Stefan Teplan

Salonza (r.) and Judith (middle) - two courageous Indian women

Before I leave the group to shift to another house where I have an appointment, Judit proudly shows me her new rooms and the garden where she recently planted some flowers. She and her husband lived in a bigger house before, nevertheless she is content with what she got, not expecting to get anything after all after the tsunami. “I am happy”, she says, “at least I have everything I need here. And you see we have a nice community, we all get along with each other very well and this means more to me than a bigger house.”

As I go to see Mary Jemila and her family, close by Judith’s house, I find Judith’s word confirmed. “We all live happily here”, says Mary Jemila, “there are no quarrels, there’s no gossip. Sometimes I wonder how this came about because it was not like that when we lived at the shore. There we lived more scattered, in separate houses not so close to each other. Now we all have the same houses, the same design, the same size, so there is no difference. It may seem strange, but I really believe this is a fact mattering very much. It makes us all equal; there is no difference now between rich or poor. We all lost everything we have and we are all on the same level now. And I think that having gone through such a terrible experience like tsunami really united us. Once you have experienced something like that there is no time and space for gossip and quarrelling; you care only about serious things.”


Mary Jemila (r), with her family

Mary Jemila (r), with her family

Mary Jemila is a very devout Christian. Her house is filled with pictures of Jesus and Virgin Mary and she is a member of a prayers' group. Real Christianity implies equality of all human beings and so she appreciates the kind of equality the tsunami victims in Kottilpadu share. I find another good example for this as I walk down to the beach in order to meet the fishermen who received new boats from Caritas and KSSS. 29-year-old Agarin has just come back from the sea and is mooring his boat at the shore. He had had a boat of his own before the tsunami. As Caritas and KSSS didn’t give away new boats to each victim separately but introduced the joint ownership system, with four people sharing one boat, he has to share it with his brother and two other fishermen. I ask him if shifting from single to joint ownership meant another kind of loss to him.

Agarin with his new boat

Agarin with his new boat

“No, frankly, no”, he tells me. “Due to this joint ownership there actually has been no change in my financial situation. Before the tsunami I hired three labourers working on my boat and I used to share the catch with them. This is the kind of ‘payment’ that is common in our area for coolies. And now? Now I do the same sharing of catch with my joint owners. And the feeling that I am no longer a single owner really does not bother me. My situation was so desperate after the tsunami, I had no income and relied on relief from the government. So now I am happy to have a new boat at all. I never expected this, I never heard of anything like an NGO and never, not in my wildest dreams, would I have expected donors to spend so much money to replace what we had lost. So, I must say, I am grateful, very grateful.”

Before dusk I have to take the train back to Chennai. At first I regret having to leave without getting the occasion to watch the famous sunset and moonrise. But then again: I had amazing encounters with amazing people. They experienced the most traumatic disaster in history and, two years later, started a completely new life again, being extremely happy with their lives. That is Kanya Kumari’s new wonder and – I can assure you, all you travel writers – a greater one than the most beautiful sunset you will ever be able to see there.