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Buddha statues unscathed by tsunami, some see divine
By Christopher Torchia
AP/Eranga Jayawardena

Galle, Sri Lanka - Legs folded, smiling serenely, several Buddha statues of cement and plaster sit unscathed amid collapsed brick walls and other tsunami debris. To many residents, the survival of the 10-foot-high figures is a divine sign.

"The people are not living according to religious virtues," said Sumana, a Buddhist monk in an orange robe who sheltered from the sun under a black umbrella. "Nature has given them some punishment because they are not following the path of the Lord Buddha. The people have to learn their lesson."

He said unseen powers protected a nearby statue of Buddha, which sat near a bridge at the edge of this southern Sri Lankan town's bus terminal, where massive tidal waves swallowed up bystanders and shoppers, and swept cars and buses into buildings.

The window panes of the glass case surrounding the statue shattered, but the foundation held firm in the torrent of water that killed thousands in the area, and nearly 30,000 throughout Sri Lanka.

The island nation is about 70 percent Buddhist, and there are large concentrations of Christians, Hindus and Muslims as well.

Tolerance and interaction among the faiths is high, and some people in Galle occasionally pray to other faiths, despite the ethnic strife in northern Sri Lanka between the Tamil minority, which is predominantly Hindu, and the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

Seated on pedestals, the Buddha statues in Galle have soft, broad features. Their hands lie in their lap in a traditional pose required for meditation. Their eyes are heavy-lidded and their lips are pursed in faintly discernible smiles. Their robes are orange; one has a painted backdrop of mountains.

In other places, religious icons weren't spared when the earthquake-spawned tsunamis hit the coasts of more than a dozen countries last Sunday.

In southern India, a 100-year old Hindu temple in Kerala state vanished into the sea and a temple in another part of the state collapsed, killing dozens of devotees who had come to perform prayers.

The Maw Tin Zun pagoda on Myanmar's coast suffered minor damage, though the ancient city of Bagan was not affected, hoteliers there said.

In downtown Galle on Saturday, few people entertained the idea that the Buddha statues survived the enormous power of the waves because they were solidly built. A statue of a politician from Galle who briefly became prime minister, and a statue of a soldier symbolizing government troops who died in the civil war with Tamil rebels, also survived.

"The Lord Buddha is a blessed person, so the statues were protected," said U.M. Husain, a Muslim municipal worker who survived the floods by climbing onto a table, and then clinging to a grill in a wall when the table floated away.

Buddhist beliefs oppose killing of any animal, and some believers said the Indonesian earthquake that triggered the devastating waves occurred one day after Christmas, a time when many animals were slaughtered for feasts. They also said that massive floods in Sri Lanka last year happened during feasting at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

The waves flattened the walls around one Buddhist temple near the beach, and furniture and other property inside were damaged or swept away. Yet small Buddha statues set into a wall behind glass cases survived. Residents said another statue was protected by a crumpled bus that drifted next to it and absorbed the brunt of the waves' pressure.

A block inland, worshippers filed into a Hindu temple of moss-covered walls and statues of gods in animal forms. The aroma of incense was pungent, and smoke wafted through the dark interior. Curled up, a mangy dog slept in a corner.

Nimala Ubeysiri, a Buddhist who visits the high-walled Hindu temple complex once a week, said its survival in the tsunami was also a sign of divine protection.

"The message for us is that all the people in the country have to be united, forgetting about their differences," she said. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]

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