Flames of funeral pyres light path of quake

THERE were no twisted bridges, deep gashes in the road or any other tell-tale signs of a major earthquake. The countryside in eastern Maharashtra seemed green and tranquil; dappled fields of sunflowers and corn. The first indication of a disaster, in which more than 25,000 people are feared dead, was the grey smoke rising from countless funeral pyres.

The flames leapt high, for up to 30 corpses were being cremated in each bonfire. Then women began to appear beside the road. Their keening was a piercing, agonised wail, and they pounded their foreheads with their fists and wept.

The devastation covers a 60-mile radius, spreading from the epicentre of Thursday's earthquake, which struck at 3.56am on a day when many farmers had flocked to the villages and were sleeping off a celebration honouring Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, usually associated with wealth and good luck. In 13 villages in the Latur and Osmanabad districts of Maharashtra nearly every home has been destroyed, smashed into mounds of dirt and stone.

Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister, said the army had been placed on a war footing, and thousands of troops, armed with shovels and mechanical earthmovers, were being sent to the region.

But 24 hours after the tremor, only a few soldiers had begun trickling in to Khilari, a village where at least 6,000 people, more than half the population, may have perished. Instead, student volunteers searching for survivors were forced to claw away at the debris with their bare hands.

It was not until late yesterday, 36 hours after the quake, that the giant army convoys began converging on the disaster area. Khilari's headman, S D Padsalgi, an elderly man in shock, bit his lip to keep from crying and said: 'No survivors were found today. There are dead people under every rock. But we cannot find any living.'

Most of the victims lived in homes made of stone slapped together with mud and straw, and the quake brought it all down. A dog howled from a rooftop, and a horrible stench of death, human and animal, arose from the rubble.

One volunteer relief worker, barefoot and with no tools, tore at the stones and fallen beams like a madman trying to free a corpse. Then, as suddenly as he had begun his labour, he cursed and ran away, realising, perhaps that he alone could never do it.

People wandered through Khilari numbed by grief. There was an air of hopelessness, a sense that it would be a miracle for anyone to survive under this avalanche of mud and stone, and that it was a pointless nightmare even to search.

India has decided 'in principle' to accept all foreign offers of aid, a Foreign Ministry official said in New Delhi. Members of the large Asian community in Britain are sending donations through the Indian High Commission in London. In Washington yesterday, the Defense Department said the US military was preparing to send two cargo planes with tents, water containers and medical supplies.

Tremors shook eastern Maharashtra state yesterday. Fearing another earthquake, most of the surviving villagers salvaged what they could - a battered radio, a sewing machine, a Hindu idol - from their ruined homes and fled. Relief workers have set up clinics and kitchens for refugees.

One local official, Pradip Parti, had dragged the bodies of his aunt and two cousins from their ruined home. He placed them on a door, piled on stacks of wood, doused them with petrol and set them alight. 'How can we rebuild our homes? We are poor farmers. We have no money. And how do we know that the Bhu-Kum - the earthquake - will not strike again? No, we will never come back to this village. Never,' he said, gazing deep into the flames of the funeral pyre.

(Photograph omitted)