Fears of disease, mass cremations of bodies in Tamils Nadu
by Nirmala Carvalho
"Pilgrims visiting the Marian shrine at Valinkani also died," says Bishop Ambrose. A man who lost his wife and two sons is still looking for the body of this three-year old daughter.

Nagapattnam (AsiaNews) – The giant killer waves that swept the coast of southern India have now receded leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.

In Tamil Nadu, the worst affected Indian state, the death toll has passed 7,000 mark and keeps on climbing.

Bodies are floating in the sea. Others are being washed ashore, whilst many have begun to rot under the debris of fallen buildings and houses. The fetid smell of decomposing human flesh saturates the ruins.

Nagapattnam, a small fishing town on Tamil Nadu's coast, is the hardest hit area. Here the tragedy is even more shattering since half of the dead are children, too little to resist the ocean's fury.

Nagapattnam morgues are overflowing with the bodies of dead children, many lying unclaimed, most probably because their parents, too, have perished under the waves of destruction.

Other unclaimed bodies are strewn along the 140 km of coastline.

Fears of disease have pushed local authorities to start cremating the unclaimed ones en masse.

And to make matters worse, heavy rains are hampering rescue and relief operations.

Volunteers and rescue workers are forced to dig through the mud in search for other bodies.

The entire village is but a scene of devastation and annihilation.

The death toll in Thanjavur, a town in Nagapattnam district which also bore the brunt of the tsunami, is rising rapidly as well.

But Tamil Nadu's most famous land mark, the Basilica of 'Our Lady of Valinkani' located in Thanjavur, a national shrine also known as the 'Lourdes of the East', is safe.

Bishop Devadass Ambrose, the local Bishop, is devastated by the number of dead in Thanjavur, many of whom were Christians.

"I am heartbroken," he said. "So many have perished in an instant. The death toll is very high as many pilgrims came to the shrine for Christmas Mass. More than 500 bodies have been recovered so far, and many more pilgrims are still missing".

"This year," Bishop Ambrose said, "Christmas was on a Saturday. So, many devotees took advantage of the long week-end to make a pilgrimage to 'Our Lady of Valinkani'. Unfortunately, for many of them, this was their final journey. Our town has turned into a mass graveyard. Many pilgrims are still missing and relief workers are now looking for bodies under debris."

The Bishop further said: "Near the shrine, the local fishing community has been nearly wiped out. Their fishing boats and nets are mere planks of wood and twine now.

 "The Church authorities are working very closely with the army and the local administration in the relief operations.

"People have been camping in our parish schools and convents since the disaster. The priests of the parish have opened temporary medical camps providing medical aid to the people".

A distraught pilgrim from Bangalore who survived the ordeal said: "Every year I have been coming to Valinkani shrine for Christmas. [My family and I] were just strolling on the beach in the morning when the waves engulfed us."

Weeping, he added: "My wife and two sons have died, but I cannot return home to bury them since my three-year-old daughter is still missing. I have looked for her in the morgue but cannot find her."