Prayers for quake victims as death toll hits 17,000

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The Independent Online

At an altar fashioned from shipping crates, Hindu priests prayed yesterday for the victims of India's worst earthquake in 50 years, chanting Sanskrit verses and name after name into the dusty air.

At an altar fashioned from shipping crates, Hindu priests prayed yesterday for the victims of India's worst earthquake in 50 years, chanting Sanskrit verses and name after name into the dusty air.

The 12th day after a death has special significance for Hindus and is normally observed by prayers. "After the 12th day, the soul goes on to the next life," said Brahmaviharidutt, a Hindu priest. The prayers will end the traditional mourning period and help survivors move on, he said.

The organisers of the prayer service, followers of Swami Narayan, a Gujarati holy man, used newspaper adverts to encourage residents of western Gujarat to phone in the names of the dead so they could be read at the prayer service.

But many survivors have been unable to recover the bodies of their relatives for cremation, let alone to determine when they died, so the priests held their service yesterday for everyone killed by the 7.9-magnitude quake.

A painting of Vishnu, the Hindu god known as the preserver, and photographs of Pragat Brahmaswaprrop, believed to be the direct spiritual descendant of Swami Narayan, sat on the improvised altar surrounded by marigold petals. A dozen priests in saffron robes chanted into a microphone in Bhuj's main square.

As the mourning period drew to a close, officials began to assess their response to the disaster. "Let us admit it. Our system of government has had some weaknesses," said Jagmohan, the federal Urban Development Minister. "Practically all the cities in India today are in the grip of the land and building mafia."

The confirmed death toll from the 26 January quake has reached 17,000 but could yet go as high as 30,000 before the counting is over, said Haren Pandya, Gujarat's Home Minister. The UN says as many as a million people are now homeless.

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