Bijli Prasad, aged 42 years, was standing on a slope at Hut Bay in the island of Little Andaman steadily consuming the breakfast laid before him, when the ground shifted below his sturdy feet with a violent to and fro movement. His immense weight and high centre of gravity made him stumble forward.  He fell heavily on his skull and died, perhaps the first victim of the earthquake in the islands.  What made him trip was the iron chain that bound his foot to a tree trunk, intended to restrict erratic actions that may stem from sexual frustration.


Four days later, his corpse was discovered by Police and Fire Brigade personnel, who undertook the Herculean task to somehow cremate his decomposed body.

His mahout had abandoned him, and probably the island as well, for he was nowhere to be found.

On the twenty-sixth of December 2004, at 0627 hours all hell broke loose. Nature turned over on its side in restless sleep delivering death, destruction and misery at our doorstep.

Sunday, the day after Christmas. The only fortunate concession was the timing.  At our Eastern location, the sun was high in the sky and the populace was awake, attending to their ablutions, fishing, playing football, preparing meals, or getting the family dressed for church.  Children were absent from the several school buildings that were to be wiped off the face of the earth.  It was not the pitch dark of night, when deep sleep would have deprived the people of even the scanty warning they did get.  It was too early for crowds at the jetties.

Scarcely had the prolonged rumbling of the massive earthquake died away that the first mind-boggling phenomenon occurred. Beach-dwellers gaped open-mouthed as the sea seemed to suck in its breath, stretching the expanse of sandy beach from ten to as much as two hundred metres in the blink of an eye.

Boats tethered to the jetty hung vertically suspended on their ropes. Offshore fishing nets lay open to the sky.  The retreat was so sudden that even the fish were caught flat-footed, jumping for survival on the sand.

A gut reaction from the onlookers, especially the young, was to run forward with gleeful cries in attempts to grab armfuls of this manna.  Those who resisted the urge recount that what could be seen of the water surface in the distance seemed to be agitated and ‘on the boil’.

And then, far away, almost on the horizon, but not on the horizon, since it was now higher than the horizon and therefore the horizon, a darkish rim started building up and moving in, hardly a ripple at first but gathering height and volume as it surged closer.

When the first wave rolled over and crashed into itself near the shore, it was no more than three metres high.  Large, but seen before during the monsoons. The second wave reached five metres, the next seven, and the fourth was a gigantic wall of water all of ten metres high.

People scattered and ran, weaving and stumbling in the sand. The young, the old and the infirm had no chance at all.  Their numbers were soon to be swelled by the injured who were slammed into the rocks on the ground, hit by falling trees, or pulverized by an oncoming miasma of uprooted coconut trees that were borne forward like individual battering rams.

In the surging salt-water hell, some men deserted their families, condemned, if they survived, to live out their guilt forever. Mothers wrenched their hands out of the grips of their infants, to be blamed forever by their husbands.  It was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.  The body ran on auto-pilot and adrenaline, the brain overwhelmed, stupefied by the galloping turn of events.

At places, escape was cruelly cut off by cliffs, walls, barbed wire and buildings, against which the victims were repeatedly battered with each fresh surge.

A number of survivors related that, as they ran, the ground in front of them seemed to crack open and spew water.  This testimony cannot be dismissed out of hand. A plausible explanation is that the islands, being porous in nature, were penetrated at fragile stretches by the force of the Tsunami.

Individual runners, who reached furthest inland in their breathless sprint for life, were overtaken by waist-high water at an easy pace.  Feeling the worst was over, they stopped and turned to look for surviving friends and relatives, only to be swept off their feet seawards as the next surge sucked in the water ahead of them with a mighty force. As they floundered near the shoreline, the next unforgiving cascade of foaming water reared over them like a giant stallion.

Victims were carried helplessly into the jungles, striking trees head-on, to be exhibited like macabre trophies hanging thirty feet high from the limbs of trees when the waters finally abated.  Many were mopped up and swept irretrievably away to sea.  The giant rollers effortlessly uprooted massive trees, carrying away those who believed they had clambered to relative safety high up in the branches.

In narrow, flat islands such as Trinkat, the Tsunami picked up buildings, boats, people and dogs, pigs and cats sweeping them clear across the land into the sea on the other side. Those still living were unable to ever swim back against the force of the succeeding surges.

In the middle of this bedlam, an old gentleman did not react.  People shouted themselves hoarse from a distance, but he remained oblivious to their warnings.  On his knees, he continued his namaaz till a huge wave smothered him and his prayer rug.

In hindsight we could generalize that those who tried to save themselves had some chance, but those who tried to save their possessions perished.

At Kamorta, an island sheltered geographically from the Tsunami by the neighbouring islands, but still afflicted by steadily rising waters, the only casualty was a man who twice entered his dwelling to successfully retrieve his belongings. Ignoring shouted warnings and advice, he barged in a third time only to find himself imprisoned by the increased weight of the rising water against his door.  Onlookers watched helplessly as water seeped in to the house carrying him roof-wards to his death.

Two schoolgirls at Car Nicobar, having reached safety, ran back to collect their educational certificates and were never seen again.

A Sikh settler escorted his family onto higher ground at Campbell Bay, and then retraced his footsteps to his death.  Some say he was going to retrieve a recent payment he had received, and some say it was the gold he had collected for his daughter’s dowry.

At a Relief Camp, a Nicobari woman sobbed helplessly as she remembered her two-year old daughter toddling off towards the waves in pursuit of a floating toy.

At Car Nicobar, we heard of a priest who, as the tremors ceased, summoned his flock to the beach to give thanks to God for having spared them in the face of the gigantic earthquake.  At the same time, aged Nicobari men and women were shouting warnings of a repeat of the Tsunami of 1883 that had long been a part of folklore.

Men and women rushed seawards to look for their loved ones and perished, while those who they were looking for had somehow made it to higher ground and were, in turn, searching for them.

From the air, the seashore at Car Nicobar, Hut Bay, Katchal, Chowra, Terassa all evidenced the stark ruthlessness of the onslaught. Electric poles, corrugated roofs, planks and blocks and bricks lay scattered like Lego pieces.

Each Island had a brown fringe of salt-strangled foliage around its verdant green.  The points of ingress, the direction and the ferocity of the water were vividly mapped out by thousands of prone trees, their foliage pointing uniformly in one direction-inland.  At Kamorta, a five-metre border of up-rooted trees splashed against the shore, rising and falling with the waves. At places, standing coconut fronds swayed two hundred metres inside the sea, marking submerged islets or shallow land annexed forever by Neptune.

Skeletons of displaced trees were piled haphazardly all over the landscape.  In withdrawing, the Tsunami left pools of salt water stranded in the shallow areas that later strangled even the surviving coconut trees, creating foetid pools of decomposing matter where the deadly cerebral-malaria mosquito, capable of breeding in saline water, multiplied.  As we walked amidst the devastation, seaweed strewn in the canopies of trees indicated the astonishing high water mark the waves had reached.

Bricks, doorframes, TVs, chairs, refrigerators and plastic littered the ground. Certain articles emanated distinct ‘vibes’.  A tiny blue rubber sandal, a banner proclaiming ‘Merry Xmas to You’ glass beads, a battered idol of Ganesh, a tattered school book with the name ‘Xavier’ painstakingly emblazoned on the flap, a Muslim prayer cap, the neck of a guitar, broken strings radiating in all directions.

A gas cylinder rested in the crook of a tree thirty feet above the ground. A sheet of corrugated tin that had been part of someone’s roof was embedded nine inches deep into a tree trunk as if pushed in with a sledgehammer.

At Kakana coral reefs, as big as buses had been ripped out of the sea and thrown inland a hundred metres, complete with multi-coloured coral formations, their pale tips still evincing life.

Four fuel tanks of 25,000-litre capacity that had stood together on the shore near the jetty at Car Nicobar had rolled a kilometer inland and lay a hundred metres apart.  Sturdy oil tankers and heavy construction machinery had been tumbled for kilometres into circular battered shapes at Hut Bay. Motorcycles, buses, cars, jeeps and auto-rickshaws had been twisted into impossible configurations. Snatches of nauseating smell indicated the presence of human and animal corpses.

No one would clean up this mess.

This Hiroshima.

Because no one intended living anywhere this close to the sea again.

If someone had to tidy up, where would they start?  And what would they do with what they had picked up?

Poseidon had not checkmated our puny civilization. He had cleared the board with one swipe of his ruthless hand.

Shamsher Bahadur Singh Deol

The then Inspector General of Police, A & N Islands