Tsunami carried bronze Buddha 1,000 kilometres across the ocean

By Jan McGirk, The Independent, 17 April 2005

A little bronze-eyed idol to the west of Kathmandu is causing quite a stir.

Tamil Nadu, India -- It's a Buddhist sage, and in mid-December the 5in figure was, like so many in rural Burma, placed in a little decorated kiosk, strapped to a crude bamboo raft and released on to the Irrawaddy river to drift to propitious sites and cast away evil. Down the delta it floated and then, a week or so later, the Boxing Day tsunami struck.

Eight days on, 1,000 kilometres away, fishermen in Tamil Nadu spotted the raft floating offshore, its foil decorations glinting in the sunlight. Nine men set off in a boat to investigate and brought back a crude bamboo raft, lashed together with plastic clothesline and studded with silver-foil flowers. Its only passenger was a tiny crosslegged metal figure sitting on a plate inside a wooden hut. Three vases, a candle, some coins and a maroon monk's robe with the word "Burma" stitched on the tag were stashed alongside it.

None of the villagers in Meyyurkuppam, a small Tamil fishing hamlet in southern India, could identify the foreign statue, but two Western aid workers suggested that it looked like a Buddha. Actually, it was a chubby Jalagupta figurine, held holy by Burmese Buddhists. Everything on board the raft was intact, and its arrival coincided with another extraordinary event in Meyyurkuppam - everyone in the village had survived the tsunami. Hence their insistence on pampering what local Hindus have called "Buddha-Swami" under their biggest banyan tree. Believers credit this floating statue with protecting all 980 inhabitants of Meyyurkuppam. The first post-tsunami cult was thereby created.

One New Age priest reportedly claimed that its power against evil kept a controversial nuclear reactor from leaking radiation along their coastline, sparing tsunami survivors a slow death from cancer. At least 30 technical personnel living close to the Kalpakkam reactor perished in the tsunami, yet the facility stayed intact. More than 16,000 Indians died or are still missing after the huge waves reshaped the Bay of Bengal. No lives were lost in Meyyurkuppam.

"It is a miracle," said Kuppurswamy, the village headman. "We keep a glass of water and a flower in front of the deity every day. We will worship him like we worship our own gods. Our village has accepted it as its own." Last week, as Buddhist images and relics in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and southern China were ritually cleansed during the three-day Theravada New Year celebrations, the tiny Buddhist sage of Meyyurkuppam received ablutions, along with ceremonial offerings of rice sweetmeats. Fairy lights were strung around the new icon. "He will be kept here," said N Padavattan, a local boatman. "We are very happy with the arrival of this god."

"This is part of a wondrous cycle," said Phra Vivek, a Bangkok monk. "Buddhism arrived in the river deltas of South-east Asia in the third century when the Indian emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to the Golden Land. Now the ocean has carried Buddhism back to its source."

K Gurumurthy, from the Indo-Myanmar chamber of commerce, was sent by the Burmese embassy in New Delhi in February to examine the metal figurine, which was at first rumoured to be a valuable bronze dating from the 17th century. He told reporters it had little intrinsic value, but was a commonplace modern statuette, floated in their scores downstream during the rainy season in the Irrawaddy delta. But never has one travelled so far across the sea, and in India and Burma this little statue is considered auspicious.

The villagers have now agreed to move their Buddha-Swami to a pagoda on high ground, because post-tsunami regulations prohibit any construction within 500 metres of the shoreline. Once the state government donates land for a new temple, the building, funded by the Burmese generals, will get under way. Meanwhile, the fishermen's families offer daily prayers to the new Buddha-Swami.