The 12th day after someone's death has special significance for Hindus and is normally observed by prayers. But Wednesday's ceremony was especially poignant as the confirmed death toll from the Jan. 26 quake reached 17,000. That number could go as high as 30,000 before the counting is over, according to Haren Pandya, Gujarat state home minister.
U.N. disaster management officials said Tuesday they believed as many as 1 million people were left homeless by the 7.7 magnitude quake.
The prayer organizers, followers of the Gujarati holy man Swami Narayan, used newspaper ads to encourage residents to phone in the names of the dead so that they could be read at the daylong service.
Since many are not sure when their relatives died -- or have even managed to recover a body for cremation -- the priests decided to hold the service Wednesday for all the dead, said Brahmaviharidutt, a Hindu priest who uses only one name.
The prayers will end the traditional mourning period observed by the survivors and help people move on with recovery efforts, Brahmaviharidutt said. ``After the 12th day, the soul goes on to the next life,'' he explained.
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, an 18th century Hindu ascetic, 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, Indian government officials began to assess their response to the disaster and have begun planning reconstruction efforts.
``Let us admit it. Our system of government has had some weaknesses,'' Jagmohan, federal urban development minister said Tuesday. ``Practically all the cities in India today are in the grip of the land and building mafia.''
Jagmohan said construction companies and architects had committed ``serious lapses'' in safety and that state governments had failed to tighten building codes despite a study a year and a half ago that found many areas vulnerable.
Jagmohan discussed quake reconstruction Tuesday with officials in the worst-hit state of Gujarat, and said authorities would need to begin from scratch in rebuilding the towns of Bhuj, Anjar and Bhachau.
Protests from the homeless are common as aid workers struggle to coordinate relief goods pouring into the devastated region.
Yet Bharat Thakkar, whose uncle was crushed by falling buildings as he returned from prayers, said he found solace in Wednesday's ceremony and that it helped him come to terms with the death of the head of his extended family.
``I am confident that whatever has happened is for the best,'' said Thakkar.
Bharat Thakkar said that despite his family's loss, he was spending his days working in the kitchens run by the Swami Narayan group, helping feed the homeless. Thakkar's own home was damaged and he and his family were living in a tent outside their house.
``I feel it's good to help people and good for my own soul,'' he said.