The tsunami monument at Peraliya

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It’s difficult to spend more than a few days in Sri Lanka before you start to spot memorials to, notice lingering traces of or hear local people talk about the Boxing Day tsunami that slammed into the island’s eastern and southern coasts in 2004, claimed over 30,000 lives and forced over 1,500,000 Sri Lankans from their homes.

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The statistics of the carnage wreaked by the tsunami in Sri Lanka are so tragically overwhelming that they hide a more particular fact – that because of the tsunami, the country also experienced the world’s worst rail disaster.

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I will let Wikipedia relate the details: “The 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami rail disaster is the largest single rail disaster in world history by death toll…  Train #50 was a regular train operating between the cities of Colombo and Matara…  On Sunday, 26 December 2004, during the Buddhist full moon holiday and the Christmas holiday weekend, it left Colombo’s Fort Station shortly after 6.50 AM with over 1,500 paid passengers and an unknown number of unpaid passengers with travel passes (called Seasons) and government travel passes…

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At 9.30 AM, in the village of Peraliya, near Telwatta, the beach saw the first of the gigantic waves thrown up by the earthquake.  The train came to a halt as water surged around it.  Hundreds of locals, believing the train to be secure on the rails, climbed on top of the cars to avoid being swept away.  Others stood behind the train, hoping it would shield them from the force of the water…

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Ten minutes later, a huge wave picked the train up and smashed it against the trees and houses which lined the track, crushing those seeking shelter behind it.  The eight carriages were so packed with people that the doors could not be opened while they filled with water, drowning almost everyone inside as the water washed over the wreckage several more times.  The passengers on top of the train were thrown clear of the uprooted carriages, and most drowned or were crushed by debris…

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“…the Sri Lankan authorities had no idea where the train was for several hours, until it was spotted by an army helicopter around 4.00 PM.  The local emergency services were destroyed, and it was a long time before help arrived…  Some families descended on the area determined to find their relatives themselves.  According to the Sri Lankan authorities, only about 150 people on the train survived.  The estimated death toll was at least 1,700 people, and probably over 2,000, although only approximately 900 bodies were recovered, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives.  The town of Peraliya was also destroyed, losing hundreds of citizens and all but ten buildings to the waves.  More than 200 of the bodies retrieved were not identified or claimed, and were buried three days later in a Buddhist ceremony near the torn railway line.”

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Today, when you enter Peraliya, travelling north on the coastal road from the popular seaside town of Hikkaduwa, you’ll see a monument to the victims of the disaster called Tsunami Honganji Viharaya on the road’s right-hand, inland side.  It consists of an 18.5-metre-high Buddha statue rising from a little islet in a rectangular pond, constructed on the spot where the devastation occurred a decade-and-a-half ago.  Although the statue was built with donations from Japan, it’s actually a reproduction of the one of Bhamian statues in Afghanistan that were dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban in a bigoted and pig-ignorant display of cultural vandalism in 2001.

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An arched footbridge – you remove your shoes before you cross – takes you over the pond to the islet and statue.  Two stone lions guard the islet-end of the bridge, an altar-table in front of the statue is supported by three small black statues of elephants with upraised trunks, and plaques below the pedestal on which the Buddha stands carry messages from various religious and political dignitaries. People tell me the figure itself, clad in a gown whose folds descend from its shoulder to ankles in a distinctive pattern of tight, parallel grooves, is the same height that the tsunami was at its highest.

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At the entrance to the lane that takes you from the road to the footbridge is a yellow-walled building with the words TEMPLE OFFICE painted on its side.  Inside, you’ll find a gallery of photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.  Some of them record such carnage that they’re extremely hard to look at.  Among the less graphic photographs, one shows the local rail-tracks after they’d been twisted into steel squiggles by the force of the water, while another shows a makeshift sign relaying the latest information from the National Disaster Management Centre.

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A little further along, on the road’s left-hand side next to the sea, there’s a non-religious memorial to the victims: a plaque, a column, and a scene carved onto a wall of grey and rust-orange stone that represents the destruction immediately after the tsunami had struck the train and village.  Its details include piles of bodies, masonry and smashed palm trees, sections of wrenched-up and misshapen rail track, and upended train carriages, some with corpses hanging out of their windows.  It’s startlingly candid in what it shows.  Indeed, it will surprise some Westerners accustomed to such memorials in their own cultures being discretely abstract – not displaying any features of the disasters they commemorate, which might upset traumatised survivors and grieving relatives of the dead.

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Behind the memorial is a strip of coastline consisting of nothing but grass, sand, rocks and palm trees, with an idyllic-looking and deserted beach stretching off to the north.  I asked the tuk-tuk driver who’d brought us if there’d been village-houses here and he said there had: up until 2004, obviously.

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Unsurprisingly, our visit to Peraliya put us in was a sombre mood.  Our sombreness turned to annoyance, however, when we were tuk-tuking back from the second memorial and we passed the Bhamian Buddha statue again.  Traipsing along the road in front of it were two Western female tourists clad in tiny, skimpy spaghetti-hoop tops and cut-off jeans that stopped immediately below their crotches.  In other words, they were baring about 70% of their flesh whilst wandering by a monument erected in honour of some 1700-2000 people who’d died in awful circumstances.  Oh, for God’s sake, I thought.  Show some bloody respect.

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There are two poignant footnotes to the 2004 tragedy at Peraliya.  The locomotive that’d been pulling the carriages, and two of the carriages themselves, were eventually retrieved from the disaster scene, rebuilt and repaired and now, every year on December 26th, they return to Peraliya to take part in a religious ceremony held in remembrance of those who lost their lives.  Secondly, one of the small number of survivors was a train guard called W. Karunatilaka.  His sense of duty was such that following the disaster he continued working on the Colombo-to-Galle train service.  And indeed, according to my research, he was still serving on that coastal route as late as 2015 and 2016.

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