Tsunamika Comes of Age

Birthed after the 2004 tsunami for post-trauma empowerment of coastal womenfolk, the fabric doll swam deep waters. Today, she is a symbol of ocean protection and ecology

Tsunamika as an 18-year-old doll-woman has come of age. She wears colourful ghaghra frocks made from fabric waste, a choker of layered gold rings and has dark locks. Her motherland is Puducherry; she was conceived at Upasana Design Studio, Auroville, by designer and spiritualist Uma Prajapati, known for sustainable clothing. But Tsunamika is really a daughter of the ocean.

She was brought to life to extend hope and purpose to women in this coastal region of Tamil Nadu after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. A hand-made creative product, she became an attention-diverting activity for the battered survivors of the tsunami. She is purposefully female in form, as Prajapati tells this writer, a resurrection quite literally for women struggling to come to terms with all they endured and lost in the natural calamity.


Illustrations of Tsunamika

Tsunamika was brought to life to extend hope and purpose to women in this coastal region of Tamil Nadu.

Since then, Tsunamika, described as a change warrior, a gift-doll that you cannot buy but must pledge to or donate for, has been made more than six million times. Adopted in more than 80 countries through UNESCO, she speaks to communities across cultures for sustaining humanity, dignity, ocean ecology and protecting marine life.

In 2021, Tsunamika became part of initiatives the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Picking up the narrative of clean and healthy oceans which is gaining momentum in the world, attracting scientists, ecologists, fashion brands and sustainability activists, Tsunamika began to deep dive into the ocean protection story. Last year at the Ocean Festival in partnership Puducherry Tourism with participation from artists, students and workers from different parts of the globe, Tsunamika was the host, standing tall as an ocean goddess.

No wonder then, that this January, when the first G-20 meeting took place in Puducherry, the doll, in different sizes and visual interpretations, from a life sized three-dimensional creation to a paper poster—was everywhere.


But this is not the only stack of reasons why she is the hero of this story to underscore International Women’s Day 2023.

So let’s trace steps back to her mum, Uma Prajapati, at Upasana in Auroville to discover what is in her family closet.

Upasana is 25 Years Old

It is early January and the Auroville restaurant Tanto at Auromonde which serves delicious baked fish with roast vegetables is dappled with bright winter sunlight. The green of the forest behind where Prajapati sits across the table creates an environmentally apt backdrop for this conversation. Prajapati has no use for makeup or “hair” (dos). Her wavy hair, is messily attractive in its low-on-salt tones. When she first emerges from her studio at Upasana, which has wooden benches, chairs, cookies and water bottles out in the garden for visitors or passers-by, she seems to epitomise the “sustainable clothing” champion her work stands for. We then sit on what she calls her “Taj Mahal bench” for a giggling, indulgent photo that has Instagram potential. The other photos are with the life-sized Tsunamika, wearing a pink skirt and a prancing smile.


Uma Prajapati poses with Tsunamika.

Prajapati’s hug is trusting and warm, her eyes curious. She wears heavy silver anklets; they make a statement without noise under her cropped churidar worn with a cream kurta. “I am ready to retire; spiritually, I feel accomplished when it comes to clothing,” she says laughingly, in response to a comment about how keen the entire fashion and retail industry has become on sustainability. Some are on a high horse, others greenwash it and yet others search the authentic and substantial. In some ways, sustainable fashion which Prajapati began to stitch, design and argue for, long years before the bandwagon began offering free rides, is today fashion’s most prized style.

An Auroville resident for the last 27 years, Prajapati’s Upasana (‘worship’ in English), marks its 25th anniversary this year. A graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Delhi, Prajapati, born in Bodh Gaya in the historical region of Magadh, came to Auroville for a textiles project and proverbially never went back.

“Creating conscious clothing has been a spiritual journey. An offering to the “Mother” (the Auroville philosophy reveres the Mother metaphor in spirit and reality), a disciple communicating to the master. Why else would a person like me land up here,” she adds. It takes a few moments to intuit that Prajapati is not just another intelligent woman with unusual life choices but a person who has walked long and persistently in the thick, dark forest of meaning-making.


A model poses in an ensemble by Upasana.
“Creating conscious clothing has been a spiritual journey,” Uma Prajapati.

Upasana sells clothes that are easy to wear and fold. They communicate relaxation; the textiles breathe with meditative ease; the fabrics sourced from local weaving clusters are dyed naturally and the shapes drape but don’t dress you. Black Ikat speaks to its vermillion red border on a kaftan-esque dress without screaming. The white and black of Upasana’s textiles—tunics, dresses, kurta-sets, or cholis and tops are not binaries.

Similarly, without any recourse to ambiguous alleys of “yes and no”, “ifs and buts” Prajapati talks about womanhood, independence, self-realisation and design. A child marriage that she left behind before it gathered moss, the fact that her parents had six daughters and a son. “They had one son and wanted another, and six girls were born, gosh, can you believe it!” she remarks. No effort to hide her own disbelief.


‘Tsunamika’: A Gift of Love, Not for Sale

“Of the women, by the women,” responds Prajapati talking of the early months of 2005 after the tsunami of December 2004, precisely 18 years before this conversation. “I wanted to find village women in the coastal region something to do with their hands, but also as a means of livelihood. It was a post-trauma intervention, but with a purpose. The idea was never to sell Tsunamika the doll made from chindi (fabric waste) as a toy, a plaything, a brooch, pin or memento. But to make it a symbol,” she says.

A pledge or a donation to the tsunami survivors’ rehabilitation begets the doll as a gift. For its makers, it is also about solace. Tsunamika-maker and village nurse Vijaylakshmi, 43, says she has three sisters and the doll is her fourth. “Making Tsunamika helped us fight our tensions,” says Vijaylakshmi in Tamil translated by K Amudha from Upasana. The Upasana team taught the village women to stitch the doll. “It was a step-by-step training process,” says Amudha, adding that the project began in six villages in the coastal region, with two leaders in each. “Six hundred women were mobilised in the first phase,” she explains.


Vijaylakshmi, 43, says she has three sisters and the doll is her fourth. “Making Tsunamika helped us fight our tensions.”

Since then, more than six million dolls and counting, have been made, not with the initial urgency or frequency but consistently. Till date, not even one has been sold.

“Can we start trading hope? There are things money can do, and things money can’t. I want that boundary to be clear. I wanted her to be more than a product,” says Prajapati. Ever since, Tsunamika, in the words of her “mother” has been bringing in more than money. As a gift given to people surviving displacement and distress anywhere in the world, Tsunamika opened a network of gift economy through global volunteers.

Tsunamika’s “Save Ocean Campaign”, launched in 2019 became another way to catalyse the doll’s symbolic worth.

Even as Prajapati tosses the idea of centre-staging spirituality as the next big conversation in clothing—“spirituality is the next, new market”—what she argues for is a value system. A doll or a piece of cloth with a deeper meaning. It is this promise that Tsunamika brings—even in a children’s picture book that tell her story as a girl who once sat at the bottom of the ocean floor, who had never seen the sun, moon or stars. Till a starfish, a conch and then a sage tell her that in 21 days she will see the sun.


Uma Prajapati (left) and Tsunamika during the Ocean Festival in Puducherry, 2022.

The rest is history. The ocean floor shakes madly and Tsunamika swims up on giant waves, discovering that the same waves had plundered many lives. She then becomes their saviour, daughter, friend and child.

The reason why Tsunamika matters today is because it is one of the most enduring sustainability narratives created by a woman, for women, about a girl. Tsunamika may be a change warrior but the global-local battlefield of sustainability she fights for deserves to be saved from a war. So that an eco-feminist collaboration could bring hope for land, ocean and all of us…