Dhanushkodi: a ghost town that sleeps quietly
The vast barren land of white sand- attired Dhanushkodi with its uneasy calmness and lifelessness would prompt anyone to doubt whether it is the tip of the earth. The angry ocean had once eaten up this land leaving it a ghost town today with no dreams to foster.
While lying down at Rameswaram Passenger in the scorching heat of Madurai my mind was filled with thoughts about the grief-stricken Dhanushkodi, which has reduced to remnants of yesteryears. This is a place where legends, faith and tragedy are entwined. According to the ancient Indian epic poem Ramayana, Rama along with his army of Vanara, built a bridge, now known as Ram Setu, in order to cross over to Lanka to rescue Sita from the captivity of demon king Ravana. On his return after releasing Sita and killing Ravana, at the request of Vibheeshanan, Rama destroyed this bridge.
Sitting in the train to Rameswaram, I could see cracked paddy fields, palm trees whose heads held high in wind and shepherds moving about whistling and grazing cattle in hot sun. On both sides of the railway track lied endless salt fields. I wondered how the life of shepherds, who lead the way in this lifeless land, would be! Thousands of pilgrims from faraway places like Punjab, Odisha and Bihar head to the holy land through this graveyard seeking divine blessings. After crossing Pamban Bride, a marvel where road and rail routes run parallel for a long distance, comes Rameswaram.
Dhanushkodi is situated around 18 km away from Rameswaram. The word Dhanushkodi means the ‘tip of bow’. Ram Setu, where the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, known as Mahanadi and Ratnakara respectively in the ancient time, meet, is considered a holy place by the Hindus.
It was while negotiating with the driver of a Jeep that was going to Dhanushkodi when I met R.K. Singh, his wife Deepa Singh and their two and a half-year-old daughter Daksha. Auto-taxi drivers at Rameswaram greet pilgrims and tourists with a greedy eye. Autorickshaws, however, cannot go till Ram Setu. Only jeep and old-model van are able to ride through this marshland and reach Dhanushkodi. R.K. Singh asked if I could share the vehicle and I readily agreed.
We started our journey in an old Mahindra jeep. Singh, a high-ranking official at Kannur Cantonment, is originally from Bihar’s Gaya. Barring the few vehicles we met enroute, the road largely remained empty and we seemed to be the only travellers along the way. Soon, green patches started vanishing from both sides of the road and instead appeared salt fields in vast areas. For the remaining stretch, we could see deserts emerging on both sides as well.
It felt like a journey towards the tip of the earth via a lifeless route. At a distance, Rameswaram tower stayed as a mute spectator. Meanwhile, our driver Murukannan showed us the broken railway lines along the road, the sad remains of the tragedy that hit the place once. Many lives have been taken and dreams destroyed in a single day! The hard works of thousands of people were shattered in a few moments.
The 1964 disaster showed how trivial human beings were in front of the mighty nature. Surrounded by ocean on all sides, Rameswaram is connected to the mainland by Pamban Bridge. The nature’s fury began in December, 1964. The tornado that formed in the Bay of Bengal on December 17 devastated Ceylon. The meteorological department of Madras had warned about heavy rains and tidal currents. However, the disaster couldn’t have been prevented because the last journey of the passenger train from Pamban to Dhanushkodi had started by then. The train had left Rameswaram at 11.55 pm on December 22 when the roaring high tides engulfed Dhanushkodi. Strong wind and heavy rain that lashed Dhanushkodi wrecked the land completely.
Caught in the high tides, the train drowned and over 140 passengers died. Entire Dhanushkodi was wiped out. Floods engulfed the post office, school, church and the whole market. Nearly 2000 people were killed in this tragedy happened on December 22 and 23. However, the rest of the country came to know about this incident only on December 25 because of the absence of proper communication network.
It felt as if we were crossing the ocean, but was not sure whether it was ocean or swamp. The area engulfed by the ocean has now become a swamp. We could see the Indian Ocean lying gigantically at a distance. Our jeep growled through the sand. Vans carrying pilgrims were visible now. Dhanushkodi appeared at a distance. Buildings that looked ancient with no roof started appearing. On the way we saw remains of old railway station that was destroyed along with several other buildings in the tragedy. A little ahead lied the ruins of the church, school building and a few shops.
It is the deep silence that welcomes anyone to Dhanushkodi. We walked through the town that was swallowed by the floods wondering whether it was a holy land or a ghost town. After Tsunami struck the Indian coast in 2006, which again caused damages in this land, the government declared Dhanushkodi an unlivable place.
However, there are many fishermen families that still live here. To make up for the low income they get from their jobs, they also sell conch shells and coral beads to tourists and pilgrims. When pilgrims reach this holy land traversing through thousands of miles seeking divine blessing, the poor fisherwomen of this place await them with their conch shells to scrape a living. They take a dip in the holy water to purify themselves. On the horizon, Lanka stands as a mute spectator.
(Translated by Renitha Raveendran)