Just off the south eastern tip of Tamil Nadu’s coastline, Rameswaram with its famous Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple is one of the holiest cities for Hindus, second only to Varanasi.There is a traditional saying among the Hindus that a Pilgrimage to Kashi is not considered complete without a pilgrimage to Rameswaram.
Situated in the Gulf of Mannar, at the very tip of the Indian peninsula. Pamban Island, or the Rameshwaram Island,it is connected to mainland by the century old Pamban Bridge.
Rameswaram is the closest point to reach Sri Lanka and geological evidence suggests that the Rama Sethu was a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka.There are beliefs that the bridge here was built by Lord Rama and his army to cross over to Lanka, during the war with the demon king Ravana.
The history of Rameswaram is centred around the island being a transit point to reach Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and the presence of holy Ramanathaswamy Temple. The British took over the island in 1795 and made it part of the Madras Presidency. Apart from being a major centre for pilgrimage, Rameswaram has picturesque spots which are major tourist attractions.
The town is often in news for activities of Sri Lankan Navy to check alleged cross border fishing by the Indian fishermen, the much awaited Sethusamudram Project, the Kachchatheevu island dispute and the influx of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. In recent days, it was in the news for one of its most ilustrious son, Abdul Kalam , the renowned scientist, India’s eleventh President, philanthroper, thinker and writer, who was born and brought up in this island town of Rameswaram.
Kalam was born here
Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was born on 15 October 1931 to a Tamil Muslim family. His father Jainulabudeen was a boat owner, and his mother Ashiamma, was a housewife. His father owned a ferry boat that took Hindu pilgrims back and forth between Rameswaram and the now-extinct Dhanushkodi. Coming from a poor family background he started working at an early age to supplement his family’s income. After school hours , he used to distribute local newspapers to supplement his father’s meagre income.
An average student during his school days, according to a few surviving teachers, he had got average grades but was an attentive and hardworking student who had a strong inclination to learn and exceel in his studies. He specially loved to study mathematics. His Math teacher was his early day ideal. After completing his final school years at the Ramanathapuram Schwartz School, he went to attend ‘Saint Joseph’s College’, Tiruchirappalli(Trichy), affiliated with the University of Madras, from where he graduated in Physics in the year 1954.
He got a scholarship and moved to Madras in 1955 to study Aeronautical Engineering in Madras Institute of Technology. While he was working on a senior class project,reportedly the Dean was dissatisfied with his lack of progress and threatened to end his scholarship unless the project was finished within the next three days. Kalam met the deadline, impressing the Dean. That was the beginning of his …reaching higher!
He had great desire to be a pilot, but missed the goal of becoming a fighter pilot, as he was the ninth qualifier, and only eight positions were available in the IAF.
Kalam wrote in his autobiography : Living on the island of Rameswaram while I was growing up, the sea was an important part of our lives. Its tides, the lapping of the waves, the sound of trains passing on the Pamban bridge, the birds that always circled the town and the salt in the air are sights and sounds that will always remain linked with my memories of childhood.
Apart from its sheer presence around us, the sea was also a source of livelihood for our neighbours and us. Almost every household had some connection with the sea, whether as fishermen or as boat owners. My father, too, operated a ferry that took people back and forth between the islands of Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, which is about 22 kilometres away. I still remember the time when he got the idea for this, and how we built that boat”.
During the local annual Shri Sita Rama Kalyanam ceremony, Kalam’s family used to arrange boats with a special platform for carrying idols of the Lord Rama from the temple to the marriage site, situated in the middle of the pond called Rama Tirtha, which was near their house. Events from the Ramayana and from the life of the Prophet were the bedtime stories his mother and grandmother used to tell the children of the family.
Kalam’s Science teacher Sivasubramania Iyer, though an orthodox Brahmin with a very conservative wife, was a rebel soul. He had always surpassed social barriers so that people from varying backgrounds could come together easily. Kalam rememnbered: He used to spend hours with me and would say, “Kalam, I want you to develop so that you are on par with the highly educated people of the big cities.”
So ultimately young Kalam asked his father for permission to leave Rameswaram and study at the District headquarters in Ramanathapuram. Though not a much educated person, his father told Kalam: “Abdul! I know you have to go away to grow. Does the seagull not fly across the sun, alone and without a nest? You must forego your longing for the land of your memories to move into the dwelling place of your greater desires; our love will not bind you nor will our needs hold you.”
He took Kalam and his three brothers to the mosque and recited the prayer Al Fatiha from the Holy Quran.
As he put Kalam on the train at Rameswaram station, he said, “This island may be housing your body but not your soul. Your soul dwells in the house of tomorrow which none of us at Rameswaram can visit, not even in our dreams. May God bless you, my child!”
Rameswaram And Beyond
His brothers Samsuddin and Jallaluddin travelled with Kalam to Ramanathapuram to get him admitted at Schwartz High School, and to arrange for his boarding there. The town of Ramanathapuram was a thriving town of 50,000 people, “but the coherence and harmony of Rameswaram was absent“.
Despite the young boy’s homesickness, Kalam adjusted to the new environment, because he knew that his father had great hopes on him.
“My father visualised me as a collector in the making and I thought it my duty to realise my father’s dream, although I desperately missed the familiarity, security and comforts of Rameswaram”.
Kalam lamented: “Ironically, that destiny did not lead me back to Rameswaram, but rather, swept me farther away from the home of my childhood”.
As A Student
Among those waiting for Kalam’s return to Rameswaram was his Schwartz classmate. 82 year old, V. Stephen Jeyaseelan, who last met the “short boy from Rameswaram” on a hot afternoon in March 2000 at a school reunion — their first meeting since they left school in 1950s.
Kalam, who became almost a teacher to millions, had always held his own teachers in the highest regard. “We spent half an hour talking about school days. While many revel in becoming popular, my classmate, who became the President, was content talking about the time he was just another student,” said Jeyaseelan.
Kalam won inter-school competitions on essay writing and debates, remembered Jeyaseelan. “But life was tough for students like Kalam, who came from a poor background. I remember my father telling me about how some teachers and the head clerk had volunteered to pay his tuition fee of Rs 1.50 because he ran short of money,” Jeyaseelan said.
Jeyaseelan recalled that when other children would play football, Kalam would sit with a book under a tree, next to a small water tank. “I was reminded of that when Kalam’s name started appearing in the newspapers in the early 1970s,” he said, referring to the time when Kalam started to make his mark as the ‘missile man’.
Shillong : Too Cold!
A P J Abdul Kalam had called up his family from Shillong a day before his death to enquire about the health of his 95-year-old brother, Mohd. Muthu Meera Lebbai Maraicker. Kalam’s grand nephew Saleem said that Kalam had called the family members on July 26th evening and enquired about the health of his brother and others. He had also stated that it was very cold in Shillong. Kalam, who had inspired countless young people through his talks and motivational writings , collapsed minutes after taking the stage at 6.35pm to deliver a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Shillong.
Suffers a heart attack
The topic of his lecture was “Liveable Planet Earth” and the audience was 130 bright second-year students.
IIM director Amitabha De had said that Kalam, had barely begun his lecture when he fell. The medical officer on campus tried his best to revive him but failed. Kalam was then taken to the hospital 2km away. He was rushed to Bethany Hospital, where he breathed his last at 7.45pm.
In his usual fashion, skipping an air trip that would have taken him from Guwahati to Umroi airport near Shillong in just 30 mintues, Kalam had travelled by a car for two long hours on the hilly road.
Srijan Pal Singh, a close aid, who accompnied him to Shillong, wrote in his facebook page: “We were in a convoy of 6-7 cars. Dr Kalam and I were in the second car. Ahead us was an open gypsy with three soldiers in it. Two of them were sitting on either side and one lean guy was standing atop, holding his gun. After one hour into the road journey, Dr Kalam said, ‘Why is he standing? He will get tired.”
While there, the former President just got off his car and called the Police Commando who in the Pilot Vehicle. Constable S.A. Lapang was initially scared but the former President thanked him for staying so alert throughout the hilly terrain. Kalam said to him, “thank you buddy. Are you tired? Would you like something to eat? I am sorry you had to stand so long because of me.” The guard was overwhelmed and said, “Sir, aapke liye to chhey ghante bhi khade rahenge (Sir, I can stand for six hours for you).”
“A rare gesture from a VIP”, a Meghalaya Police officer remarked.
Throughout the journey from Trichy to Rameswaram , the roadside hamlets and suburbs were dotted with banners, wall writings and posters paying homage to the the region’s most famous person Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, the 11th President of India and the proverbial ‘Missile Man’.
In Rameswaram town, almost every public place and building walls had writings or slogans in remembrance to Kalam. Its still a typical seaside town. Tourism and fishery are the major source of income for Rameswaram residents.
Being an island city, fishing is the traditional occupation of the people. Rameswaram is one of the major fishing centers of Tamil Nadu. Fishing, collection of seashells, exporting sea foods, tourism, restaurants, Hotels, Prohitham(Profession of holistic Hindu rituals), sea shell artefacts, pearl, conchs , shops…these are the main occupations of the Rameswaram people.
Conchs(Shankh) are a major merchandise from Rameshwaram. Almosy every temple in India gets its Sankh from Raneshwaram, and surprisingly the business is dominated by the local Muslim population. Even at Kalam’s ancestral house, Kalam’s family runs a shop selling seashell aretefacts and conchs.
Among Kalam’s siblings, Muthumeeran Lebbai Maraikkayar, the eldest, still lives in the ancestral home while his other brothers and sister have passed away.
Kalam’s visits used to be rare in his later years. He was able to find time to hop in only when there was any public event in the vicinity. But recently his visits had become more frequent. Last February, he inaugurated the centenary celebrations of Pamban rail bridge. This year, he visited Rameswaram twice because his elder brother was not keeping well.
Incidentally, during Kalam’s long stay in President’s house in Delhi, his family visited only once.
Mourning In Rameswaram
Knowing about his death from Television and Radio, the crowd had started growing outside ‘House of Kalam’, the late former President’s ancestral home where his 99-year-old elder brother Mohammad Muthu Meera Lebbai Maraicker still lives. Some lit candles at the entrance of the house, others garlanded President Kalam’s photograph at the street corners.
A young volunteer group, known as ‘Kalam’s Green Brigade’, swang into action to control the swelling crowd, before his body arrived in the town and the security personnel followed.
People were arranging free buses to bring mourners from the adjoining towns and suburbs. Municipal workers were already sweeping the approaching road to the venue. The young people from the adjoining town Parmakudi had been toiling away since afternoon , under the guidance of R. Kumarasen, the local tent contractor, to put the tent where the mortal remains would be kept.
Kalam’s brother weeping, hearing the news
Kalam’s mortal remains had yet to arrive from Delhi , but a long queue was already waiting in the scorching sun, outside the venue. And it was growing every minute. Policemen arrived in large numbers after it was decided that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar and Rahul Gandhi from the Congress side would be arriving to pay their last homage.
Crowd outside Mohideen Aandavar mosque in Rameswaram
O.B. Vans from all national and local media houses started arriving one by one, to capture the big occassion. While they began parking just in front of the venue, other vehicles were directed to a distance away, anticipating arrival of large number of VIP vehicles. The Hotels were all booked for next two three days. Even the non descript hotels, have the same answer… no rooms available.
Heavy Police bandobast in the town
The hotel lobbies had a large number of men in khaki as well as in mufti , also one could spot men in commando uniforms, coming with heavy bags accompanying them.
Rameswaram The Last Post
The late President’s last rites were performed in the island town according to the wishes of his close relatives and the general public in the island town. District officials were, meanwhile, started inspecting a site near a mosque, adjacent to the Railway station for burying the former President, once the State Funeral was announced.
All the shops , educational institutions and commercial establishments in Rameswaram remained closed as a mark of respect for the town’s beloved son. Fishermen also decided not to go to the sea for the next three days to mourn his death. The local Jamath President Abdul Hameed said Kalam was a mentor to the youths and taught them discipline and integrity.
Students in various schools in the town brought out processions and candle marches in the evening of 27 and 28 July. About 5,000 students of the St.Josheph College in Trichy , where Kalam pursued his B.Sc (Physics), took out a silent march to pay homage to the former President.
After watching the funeral ceremony on television on Thursday, many schoolchildren from places as far as Trichy or Dharampuri, arrived at Rameshwaram, taking leave, accompanied by their parents. Kalam was an ideal for many of them.
The Gravedigger’s Story
The late Indian President’s last rites was performed in the island town of Rameshwaram, as per the wishes of his close relatives and the people of the island city.
His body was brought from New Delhi to Madurai in an Indian Air Force aircraft, accompanied by Union Ministers Manohar Parrikar and Venkaiah Naidu. In Rameswaram, while the Army convoy was carrying the body of former President Kalam crossing the Pamban bridge on Wednesday, in the Juma Masjid a Hindu gravedigger B. Ganesan, was inforned of some very “important work” to began at around 6.30 am in the morning.
B. Ganesan, a Hindu, who dug Kalam’s grave
He was the chosen man who would dig the grave on 29 August, Thursday morning to lay to rest the Eleventh President of India at Rameshwaram. The illiterate man in mid fifties came to know about Kalam in May this year, when the former President visited his home town to meet his family.
“I met him. I was cleaning the mosque compound. I stood up and folded my hands. I remember, he looked and smiled at me.” Ganeshan said.
“I heard people were saying that he was a big scientist who became the President of India. I heard, he was a simple man. Very affectionate to kids and the poor people. His family still lives in a modest house.”
He generally digs graves for three to four burials in a month. But the place is near the sea and digging needs much care and practice. He charges around Rs. 1,000- Rs. 1,500 per burial. Most of the days there is no burial, so he gets just Rs. 50 a day for cleaning and de-weeding the burial ground. He was given no special treatement for that day’s burial.
During burial his job is to dig generally a 3-feet-wide and 7-feet-long grave and frame it with logs cut from nearby palm trees.
The School Kalam Studied At
Kalam first studied at the local primary school. Later decided to go to Ramanatahpuram. There were only two schools in nearby Ramanathapuram at the time: the Rajah High School,and the other was HS Schwartz,perhaps one of the oldest schools in India! Kalam wrote that, it was his father who ignited his mind for doing things big. It was his father who encouraged him to leave Rameshwaramand gave example of young seagulls who leave their parents’ nest to learn to fly!
“He used to stay at a hostel, paying Rs 2 per month for meals.” Remembered one of his surviving classmates, who is now 83 yerars old.
Kalam’s first school at Rameshwaram
At HS Schwartz High school in Ramanathapuram, where Kalam had studied from 1946-50, homage was paid to the departed alumnus, by garlanding a black and white photograph, in front of the classroom where the former President had studied.
Teachers remembered that President Kalam had discouraged the school authority, when there was a proposal to name a block after him. “He objected to our decision to name a new block after him. That incident reflected his principles.” Headmaster Paul Maran said.
A plaque was later put on the corridor that reads: “President Abdul Kalam studied here.”
Established in the year 1785, the Schwartz Higher Secondary School in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu has the the old-world charm, one would expect from a more than two-century-old school. There is not much that can be called modern about the place. But there are the the big trees around, large play grounds, tiled high roofs and columns are part of an classic old design. The desks and benches in the schools bear the marks of the time!
It is one pupil who has drawn all the attention of the people to this Tamil-medium school. APJ Abdul Kalam studied here from 1946 to 1950.
Frankly speaking, the school has not changed much since the days when Kalam studied there. The same old tiled roof and the wooden furniture are still around. It has now become a kind of tourist spot.
Said the Vice-Principal Raja Suviseshapandian:
“Every tourist bus that goes to Rameswaram halts at our gates as the driver informs the pilgrims that this is the school where Kalam had studied. Often the occupants would stop the bus, alight and make a tour of the school without any inhibition that they might be disturbing classes. Soon we got used to these intrusions, realising it is difficult to fight the Kalam effect!”
According to old surviving teachers, young Kalam was an average student. The Headmaster, Paul Maran remarked that Kalam’s rise to fame actually came in the later years. In his famous years, Dr Kalam visited his school only twice – once during an alumni meet and another time, when he was the Presidential candidate.
“He spoke to the children of his vision for India. They were so inspired!” remembered Headmaster Paul Maran.
Reaching For The Stars!
One of Kalam’s school teachers Sivasubramania Iyer, gave him an aim in life.
“One day, the topic of discussion in our class was ‘how birds fly’. He (Iyer) went to the blackboard and drew a sketch of a bird with a tail, wings and head and explained how a bird flew”.
The same day he took them to the Rameswaram seashore where we saw dozens of seabirds flying. The science teacher said, “Look how the birds are flapping their wings! What is the locomotive force behind this flight … it is the life energy of the bird’.”
Kalam recalled, that single lecture transformed his life and led him to make a profession out of his passion: Rocket Engineering and Space Science.
Kalam always believed that children out of small towns of India were capable of great things if only they received exposure and encouragement, like he once did. He himself visited many of them, in his later years.
Returning to the small house on the small street he lived with his brothers, he dreamt of seeing the children of the small town outgrow their roots and achieve big. For the last few decades of his life, it became almost like an obsession.
Kalam grew up as the son of an ordinary Muslim boatman who ferried Hindu pilgrims to Dhanushkodi, in the coastal town of Rameswaram, and he was equally influenced by Islamic tenets as well as the legends of Rama and the famous Shiva temple near his home.
Children of Priests in Rameswaram temples were his childhood friends.He was taught by the Catholic teachers at school and later at St Joseph’s College in Trichy. APJ Abdul Kalam was not just a “product of provincial India” who grew to greater heights “despite his circumstances”, it was his time and predominating social harmony, his family’s liberal minds, his inspiring circumstances, and the candid, well intentioned people who rallied around him to inspire and push him ahead to outgrow his limitations. As it happened to him. it can happen to all of us.
He was an inspiration, a benign soul who told us and will always tell us :Go. Cross all limitations. Dream Big!.
By Deep Basu
Images contributed by author