The dry eye of the figureless god
by John Sparrow
a massive earthquake hit the Indian province of Maharastra in
September 1993 the effect was devastating. The Federation with
the Indian Red Cross implemented an extensive reconstruction
programme. Today, the people of Maharastra see the fruits of
this joint effort.
The villagers of Killari knew something was up. The well
providing water to the eye of the figureless god in the three-centuries’-old
Nilkantheshwar Temple had run dry about two months earlier
— during the height of the monsoon. They thought that
maybe it was a drought in the making, like back in 1972, when
the well also ran dry and three years of failed rains followed.
The idea of an earthquake did not enter their minds —
why, there had never been an earthquake in their district.
But even though the water in the temple had run dry, the keeper
of Nilkantheshwar visited there daily, brought fresh flowers
to the eye of the figureless god and worshipped. Maybe the
water would come back.
Shortly after 3.30 in the morning of September 30, 1993,
the cows became restless in their sheds and the dogs started
to bark. The people in the villages around Killari, where
Osmanabad and Latur districts meet, had been celebrating the
end of the Ganesh Chethuthee, a religious festival, well into
the night. Most were fast asleep.
Then, without warning, the earth shook violently for some
40 seconds. Houses made of rocks, plastered together with
soil and water, crashed down on the unsuspecting inhabitants,
burying them alive. Less than three minutes later another
equally powerful quake struck.
The earthquake was the largest ever to hit this part of India,
measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale. It killed over 7,500 people
— nearly 15 per cent of the population in the 120 sq.
km. area around the epicentre — and more than 15,000
people were injured. Seventeen villages were totally destroyed
and some 145,000 homes damaged — all in less than minute.
“I have never seen such sympathy and compassion between
Indians as during that time,” says Dr R.K. Nitturkark,
medical superintendent of the new Red Cross-funded referral
hospital in Nilanga, Latur district, as he describes the first
frantic hours and days of the disaster back in 1993.
The earthquake victims were brought in “by all possible
means,” Dr Nitturkark says, and just as fast the people
of Nilanga came rushing to the hospital to offer help. Three
professors and 50 students from the local technical college
arrived with every available hostel cot and soon neighbours
were bringing in food by the truckloads. Within 24 hours a
group of 15 Hindus from Bhiwandi, near Mumbai (Bombay), almost
700 km. to the west, arrived with food and equipment and started
cooking for the patients and staff. “They cooked with
skill and affection for 15 days and nights,” says Dr
Nitturkark, “and their food was better than any five-star
The Nilanga hospital was also damaged by the earthquake,
although it was still standing. The in-patients were terrified
and refused to stay indoors any longer, adding to the confusion
and overcrowding already in the hospital compound. One can
still see up to one-inch cracks in the walls of the old hospital,
now connected to the new 30-bed referral hospital built with
money donated mainly by the British and Netherlands Red Cross
But that night their trouble had only just begun. As the
sun set, enormous thunder and lightning split the heavens
and brought on the heaviest rains Dr Nitturkark can remember.
The injured had to be moved into the cracked hallways of the
hospital and every shed that still stood in the compound.
“We were not sure that we would ever see the light of
day again!” he says. “First the earthquake, cutting
off our electricity and water, and then the rains. But there
was no time to be afraid, only time to work.”
A massive undertaking
The reconstruction that was to follow the earthquake required
huge resources. The Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) and Indian
authorities invited the International Federation to assist
and in October 1993 it issued an appeal for a total of Sfr
6.2 million, all of which was covered within a relatively
short period. To date more than a quarter of National Societies
have made donations to the Maharastra project.
In all, the Federation/IRCS agreed to take on a total of
44 projects in the affected area, making them the second largest
contributor towards the rehabilitation programme, surpassed
only by the government of Maharastra. The projects include
three hospitals, five primary health care centres, 26 sub-centres
and housing for the necessary staff, a total of 135 staff
quarters, two rehabilitation units, trauma units and psychiatric
units and six schools for some 4,000 pupils.
With a grant from the German Red Cross, the Federation also
built a new water-supply system for Killari and eight other
villages. After various delays, the project gained momentum
The Maharastra Earthquake Reconstruction Project is one of
the largest projects of its kind in which the Federation has
become involved. It is also one of the most comprehensive
and significant reconstruction pro-grammes ever undertaken
in India, one of the most disaster-prone countries in the
world. Some 27,000 new homes have been, or are being, built.
More than one hundred schools with one thousand classrooms
for about 40,000 pupils have been, or are being, constructed.
The total cost of the reconstruction project is estimated
at 2 billion rupees (Sfr 83.3 million) while the total cost
of the Federation’s projects has now reached nearly
Sfr 7 million (165 million rupees). The calamity brought about
some positive change. For the IRCS the Maharastra earthquake
marked a distinct increase in Disaster Preparedness Planning
and related activities. It has also strengthened the local
branches in the affected area — and, last but not least,
given the people of earthquake-stricken Latur and Osmanabad
districts new hope for a better life, a hope made possible
with the generous help of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
and other donors throughout the world.
in the eye
Passing through old Killari village, the epicentre of the
1993 earthquake, evokes the eerie feeling of a ghost town.
Over 400 of Killari’s 15,000 inhabitants lost their
lives. Scores of people were injured. A few walls remain standing,
but mostly old Killari is piles of rocks, gradually disappearing
in the undergrowth.
In Nilkantheshwar Temple, a holy man sits with three of his
followers, two of them women, and a group of men from the
village. The temple, badly damaged in the earthquake, is surrounded
by the ruins of their former homes. Three workers are sitting
on rickety scaffolds on top of the temple, repairing the elaborately
decorated dome. The holy man is serene and silent but his
alert gaze follows the visitors’ every move. Looking
into his eyes you sense that none of this worries him in the
least. The water in the eye of the figureless god in the temple’s
centre has reached its natural level again.
Omar Valdimarsson is a freelance journalist based in Reykjavik,
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