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Sri Lankan Monks Mark Tsunami

At a 300-year-old Buddhist temple near where the Asian tsunami swept up to 2,000 people aboard a train to their deaths, dozens of monks chanted blessings Friday at an all-night ceremony to help the wandering spirits of those killed three months ago.

As night fell on this southern coastal area devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami, women wearing white saris sat on mats and prayed with folded hands, some holding the holy Lotus flower and burning incense sticks. Monks chanted hymns continuously throughout the night for the spirits of the dead to be reborn.

Special prayers were planned this weekend for residents of Peraliya, a village close to the Janagangarama temple, which was annihilated when waves described by survivors as big as elephants smashed into Sri Lanka's coastline.

It was in Peraliya that the entire Queen of the Sea commuter train was washed away, reportedly killing 2,000 people in the single worst tragedy of the tsunami. Some were passengers while others were villagers who clambered atop the train, trying to get above the rising water. More than 850 bodies have been recovered.

"We may not have a home, but we will do anything to ensure that the spirits of our dead relatives get better life," said Chandra Gamage, a 58-year-old women whose small village nearby lost 38 people. She would not say if any of them were her relatives.

On Friday, she collected donations from other villagers and cooked meal of rice and bean curry and fed 12 monks to invoke their blessings. The monks were also served ice cream and fruit.

Sujatha de Silva, who lost a close friend in the disaster, was visiting another temple near the capital Colombo to offer gifts to the monks and take part in a prayer ceremony so that her friend is reborn to a better life.

"This is very important for us, the three-month period, when we try to invoke as many blessings as possible for those who were dear to us," De Silva said. "We don't know if they are reborn so we take no chance and take part in the ceremony to help the spirits to return to life."

The tsunami killed at least 31,225 people on Sri Lanka, the worst tragedy ever on this ancient tropical island of 19 million.

In Peraliya, three of the Queen of the Sea's battered, rust-colored coaches stand on parallel tracks as a memorial. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Sri Lankans who come to pray for the dead.

"We will pray and invoke blessings for those who died in the train," said Ghanaratana Thero, the 51-year-old top priest of the Janagangarama temple.

Buddhists believe that only those who have done good "karma" or deeds and want to renounce worldly things get salvation from rebirth.

"The three month period is very important for the dead and their relatives," said Palatuwe Jinaratna, 50, a monk for 35 years who has joined in many such ceremonies to help spirits be born again to a good life.

"We chant for all of them, including the spirits with bad deeds so that they are reborn. The merits, or blessings they get, decide how will be their next life," said Jinaratna.

Thousands of smaller ceremonies were being held across this predominantly Buddhist country over the weekend to mark the three months.

Sociologists believe the rituals serve a social purpose.

"The ceremonies make the families feel that there are so many others who care not only for them, but for also their dear ones who are dead," said Colombo-based sociologist, Siri Hettige.

"This has nothing to do with spirits."