| A woman mourns as her relatives are buried in Cuddalore, near Chennai. (Reuters)
Nagapattinam, Dec. 27: As the bodies piled up in village after village and the stench of mass burials hung in the rain-soaked air, people of this worst-hit Tamil Nadu district struggled to come to terms with the 'death numbers'.
If the toll for the entire state crossed the 3,000 mark this evening, the official figure for the district alone is 1,700 ' mainly women and children who could not escape the wrath of the tsunami. But residents say the toll is higher.
Nagore, the pilgrim centre famous for its 447-year-old Shahul Hameed Dargah, could eventually 'throw up 2,000 deaths', much more than the official figure for Nagapattinam, said qazi N.H.S. Khalifa.
His words could prove prophetic. More than 2,500 fishermen are still missing from the district, situated at the tail-end of the Cauvery river and about 350 km from state capital Chennai.
Pouring rains have hampered relief operations despite chief minister Jayalalithaa's second visit in two days. 'There is no aid from the government so far,' said Jaffer Ali, a former jamaat committee chief at the pilgrim centre.
But volunteers from a cluster of 11 mosques were digging for bodies late into the evening as the waves had left behind a thick coat of silt up to a distance of two kilometres from the shoreline. 'Hundreds of bodies are feared buried under the debris and the thick silt,' Khalifa said.
'It may take at least a week for all the bodies to be recovered and properly accounted for,' added M. Haroon Ismail, a schoolteacher and member of the Nagapattinam District Congress Committee's minorities' cell.
The sprawling dargah has been converted into a huge relief camp. Khalifa, who was supervising distribution of food among some 5,000 people, said apart from women who were selling fish when the tsunami struck, a large number of children were trapped indoors. 'We brought out 920 bodies,' he added. They have all been buried in mass graves inside the dargah.
'Entire coastal villages have been wiped out. The tsunami has changed the coastline here,' Khalifa said.
Most of the victims are from two localities ' Pattinacherry and Silladi Nagar ' and were either from fishing villages or small-time Muslim traders.
S.S. Adam Labbai, managing trustee of the Muthupet dargah, said the 500 houses he had built to house poor Muslims in Silladi Nagar were washed away. 'On Saturday, I had come to see them and give them a little money. The next morning I found everyone dead,' he said.
Heart-wrenching tales came from some of the survivors, now sheltered in the dargah. Bhanu Saleem's husband had tried to save their two children by carrying them on his shoulders. He lost both the kids to the swirling waves, but he survived.
In Velankanni, 10 km from here, Sunday morning prayers were going on at the famous church, Our Lady of the Health Shrine Basilica. Around 9.30, the waves struck and the compound wall collapsed. Unofficial reports said the toll was 2,000, though official figures put the number of dead at the church site at 350.
Witnesses said the casualties were high because of the presence of pilgrims and tourists. A large contingent had come from Kerala.
The witness said the worshippers tried to rush outside, but were blocked 'by floating vehicles, including mini buses and vans' that had carried them to the church for the special Mass this year.
In the nearby former Dutch settlement of Tranquebar, the story was not very different. Local residents said bodies still lay under the debris and silt.
All along the coastal stretch, huge pits have been gouged out of the ground. Each pit measures 15 feet by 20 feet and can take up to 100 bodies. In many places, there were not even relatives to mourn their dead. 'Tipper lorries' lifted the bodies to dump them inside the pits.
After Nagapattinam, Kanyakumari is the worst hit. Over 525 bodies have been recovered. However, all the 500 tourists stranded at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial yesterday were evacuated by the Indian Coast Guard.
In Cuddalore district, the toll climbed past 400 today.
Union home minister Shivraj Patil made an aerial survey of the affected districts after a meeting with the chief minister in Chennai.