ISKCON Devotees in Christchurch, New Zealand are still in shock after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck on February 22nd, destroying their temple building and shattering the Deities of Nitai-Gaurachandra beyond repair. Incredibly, no one was seriously injured.
The disaster comes on the heels of a 7.1 magnitude quake in the same city on September 4th last year, which caused flooding and structural damage to the temple, but left the Deities safe. Three thousand continual aftershocks since then, including a powerful one the day after Christmas, weakened structures further and left Christchurch residents tense.
Tuesday’s earthquake, although smaller in magnitude, caused far more damage than September’s one, as it hit significantly closer to the main population center of Christchurch, and was at a more shallow depth. Seventy-five people are now dead and 300 missing, with officials saying that the death toll will almost surely climb further. The spire of the city’s stone cathedral toppled into a central square, multistory buildings collapsed, sidewalks and roads cracked, and people were buried in rubble, some crushed to death.
“At first, it seemed just like any other day,” says Sevananda Dasa, a priest at the Christchurch ISKCON temple. “I was up on the altar, offering the chamara whisk to the Deities. There were four other devotees in the temple room, singing kirtan. One devotee was upstairs, and another was in the kitchen cleaning the pots, as they had just cooked the noon offering.”
Then, at about 12:53pm, there was a slight tremor. This wasn’t cause for major concern in itself, since devotees had been used to aftershocks since September.
But two seconds later, the tremors became extremely intense, shaking the three-foot marble Deities back and forth violently.
Without thinking, Sevananda dropped his bell and chamara, ran forward, and seized Lord Nityananda and Lord Chaitanya around the waist, one in each arm, trying to keep them steady. But the tremors were so strong that all three were shaken forward nearly a foot.
Then, suddenly, Sri Sri Nitai-Gaurachandra were hurled right off the altar, taking Sevananda, who was still holding them protectively, with them.
“I fell onto the marble floor with Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda,” he says. “A moment later, the wooden altar was flying over my head, and crashing onto the floor. Everything was still shaking. Then it stopped.”
There is strong emotion in Sevananda’s voice. “Still lying there, dazed, I looked around, and to my right was just the torso and head of Lord Chaitanya, and to my left the torso and head of Lord Nityananda. It’s so distressing it’s hard to even say it, but they had completely shattered, and there was an arm lying here, a foot there, a hand there. In the background, I could hear a devotee wailing, just crying out, ‘No!’ She had been chanting right next to the altar, and had seen it all happen. It was the most devastating experience ever.”
Sevananda sustained a big gash on his arm, bruising on his shoulders, and scrapes on his legs and arms from sharp pieces of marble or metal. With a hospital two-minutes walk from the temple, he has received treatment, and although he’s still feeling sore, he’s doing well.
Incredibly, no other devotees have received any injuries. “One devotee who had been working in town was rushing down the street to get back home, and saw dead bodies just lying on the street,” Sevananda says. “So it’s amazing that no devotees were hurt at all, considering the many deaths and serious injuries to others.”
The two-storey temple, located in the city, however, is beyond repair. Already weakened from last September’s earthquake, whole walls have collapsed, windows and glass doors have blown out, staircases have been destroyed, and large cracks have appeared throughout the structure. There are piles of rubble everywhere, the conservatory is flattened in a mess of shattered glass, and a chimney on the side of the temple was dislodged and crashed into the house next door, embedding itself in its roof.
According to Auckland temple president Kalasamvara Dasa, both the Christchurch "temple house" -- used for accommodation -- and another house next door have been rattled "off their foundations" and are likely to have to be razed to the ground due to unsafety.
Devotees’ houses nearby have also sustained severe structural damage, chimneys have fallen through roofs, and possessions—bookcases, cooking utensils and appliances, computers—are scattered everywhere.
Sevananda says that devotees whose houses have not been damaged have extended a hand to those who were affected, inviting them to sleep in their lounges or on their living room floors.
Landlines are overloaded and don’t work properly, and power has been cut off in parts of the city, leaving cell phones the only means to contact devotees in Christchurch.
Meanwhile, the government is providing help in every way they can.
“It’s unbelievable,” Sevananada told ISKCON News the day after the quake. “It’s like something out of a movie. There’s airforce planes flying overhead, army trucks rolling down the road, bulldozers and diggers everywhere. The army is distributing water, and organizing shelter and food in an very organized way.”
While devotees were in complete shock on the day of the earthquake, the mood is more one of practicality now.
“You just do what you gotta do,” says Sevananda. “We’ve got to get practical now. We’ve got to find water, food, some gas for cooking. Devotees are wondering when the electricity is going to come on, what they’ll do at night time, things like that.”
At this point, no one is looking to the future yet—there are more immediate concerns. And although the temple is covered with insurance, with so many earthquakes in recent times insurance companies are reluctant to pay up, and it could be years before the temple is rebuilt.
“It’s not something we’re thinking about right now—there are still tremors going on,” Sevananda says. “All of last night and this morning, there were aftershocks. I didn’t sleep at all. Because during every aftershock, the heartbeat rises, and you just tense up. You don’t know if this is going to be another big one. We’ve had three so far—we don’t know if it’s finished now, or if there are more coming.”
Devotees in other parts of the country are extending their invitations to provide shelter for the Christchurch devotees, and are doing their best to arrange flights for them out of the stricken city, but it isn’t easy.
“I’m trying to look for a flight out of this place, but they’re all sold out for the next few days,” Sevananda says. “Prices even to other cities in New Zealand are astronomical. Everyone who doesn’t have a major reason to stay here is just getting out of this city anyway they can. Anywhere is better than being in Christchurch right now.”
The best thing devotees around the world can do now for their Christchurch brothers and sisters, Sevananda feels, is offer their well-wishes, thoughts and prayers for their safety and well-being.
“The earthquake made me realize how truly insignificant we are,” he says. “Just a little shake for a few seconds, and look how much damage it causes. We’re at the whims of greater powers than us. And it’s at times like these that we must remember, mare Krishna rakhe ke, rakhe Krishna mare ke: if Krishna wants to kill us, no one can save us, but if Krishna wants to save us, no one can kill us.”
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