The ghostly skeleton of a Railway Station. The ruins of a once busy school . The dilapidated remains of a mega Church. The lonely ghost of a water tower. All stood there lifeless, reminding the tragic end, the event that occured half a century back!
Before the 1964 super cyclone, Dhanushkodi was a bustling town, a major tourist attraction and an important pilgrimage centre.
Along the picturesque coast of Rameswaram, Dhanushkodi, a small town that once was not just at the edge of the country, but at the very centre of mythology, epic and anecdotes.
When people disappear into nothingness, all on a sudden, on a turbulent night, do their dreams, their joys and their aspirations vanish too! No one knows. It’s an enigma of this eerie place.
Now, this once busy and bustling town is forgotten. Washed out by a massive cyclone. Forlorn. A Ghost Town that stands on the grave of the past, burying inside the joys, hopes, ecstassies and very existences of a lively, simple and hospitable townfolk!
In this Ghost Town, living in it’s eerie shadows are a handful of fisherfolk, who are the only living beings, strenously eking out their livlihood in this forlorn land! They often double up as the information men and narraters about the place , when one stops to look closely at the remains of the past.
Dhanushkodi has the only land border between India and Sri Lanka which is one of the smallest in the world- on a shoal in Palk Strait.
And traditionally, Rameshwaram tour is not considered complete if Dhanushkodi is not included in one’s itinerary, as a part of pilgrimage to this holy site where Rama marked the spot for the Sethu (The bridge built to cross the sea and rescue Sita, abducted by the Demon King Ravana) with his Dhanush (bow) Kodi (end).
For the pilgrims who visited the eponymous Shiva temple in the temple town of Rameswaram, a visit to Dhanushkodi, around 20 kilometres away, was a must in the itinerary, a bath in the ocean was not advised though due to the treacherous waves.
Today, the Rameswaram tour operators throw in a bonus tour of this Ghost Town for those travellers, who are keen and expeditious enough. Mythology and Epic meet the real life tragedy here at the Land’s End.
There Was A Town
Dhanushkodi was just another small port town with a population of around 25,000.
Dhanushkodi is also the only land border between India and Sri Lanka. It was one of the smallest inhabited landmass in the world.
Till the massive disaster, Dhanushkodi was like any other small Indian town. It had a Port for commuting to and fro Sri Lanka. Had a railway station, a post office, a railway hospital, a post office, primary schools, customs and port offices, a big drinking water supply unit, guest houses and small hotels, array of shops selling items to the tourists and pilgrims, a police station and the colony of fishermen. Among the Dharamsalas, Tanjavur Raja’s Dharmasala was the biggest in town.
Before the 1964 cyclone , there was a regular train service up to Dhanushkodi called Boat Mail from Madras Egmore (Now Chennai Egmore) and the train linked to a steamer for ferrying travellers to Ceylon.
Pamban, the island in Ramnad district which houses Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, was connected to Mannar in the Sri Lankan mainland via the railway line. And regular trains would ply between Madras Egmore and the tip of the island, disgorging and collecting men and merchandise from the Ships(Big Boats or Steamers) from Sri Lanka’s Talaimannar.
After the Disaster in 1964, the Govt declared the place unfit for living. Some of the Dharmashalas and a prominent Mutt based in Dhanushkodi started anew in Rameswaram. The ruins, the relics of the station and the railway track were left untouched and Dhanushkodi could never be rebuilt again.
However amidst the ruins of the old island town, that was swept away, there is a small fishing encampment that exists now at this Ghost Town.
The train to the island is now terminated at Rameswaram. There was a small ferry service from here to Talaimannar, but it had been suspended in the year 1982, because of the fierce fighting between Sri Lankan Government Army and the LTTE.
Just where the waters of Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal meet in many shades and hues, lies Dhanushkodi, where legend, belief, beauty and macabre past mingle to form a trapestry of emotions, as one gazes across the appalling, sere, and otherwise scenic landscape.
Legend has it that Lord Rama crossed over to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita from Ravan’s captivity from here.
From this ghost town, one can cross over to Talaimannar, in Sri Lanka, a distance of some kilometres across the Palk Straits.
Talaimannar. on the other side of the Strait
Legend further tells that on his return from Lanka, Lord Rama destroyed the bridge with the tip of his arrow on the request of the new king of Lanka, Vibhishan, thus immortalising the town’s name (Dhanush + Kodi meaning end of a bow).
On the way from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi is the Kodhandaramar Temple, where Vibhishan is said to have anointed the new king of Lanka, after atonement.
Arichal Munai(Arichal Point) is the merging point of two seas and the end of Rameswaram. This point in Dhanuskodi is the land border of india and Sri Lanka. From here Sri Lanka is barely 15 Km away.
Once there was no regulation and movement was quite easy. But since Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic problem began to intensify, this was where boatloads of Tamil refugees would alight at night , and as the militancy in the island-nation grew virulent the authorities moved in, clamping down on any illegal entry.
Traffic today is regulated and checked. So even if you have your own vehicle, you have to register it at the Checkpoint at Mukundarayar Chathiram where all tempos, waiting for passengers, are grouped and allowed. A car will not be comfortable to drive in deep sand, so passengers opt for Jeeps Tempos or Trucks to reach.
On a clear night, thought no travellers will be allowed to stay, but the coast guards say that the lights of Sri Lankan Talaimannar town can be seen from here.
Arichal Munai is captivaring. There are a few stalls , selling the usual souvenirs like shells, shell products in all shapes and sizes, vaazhakkai bajji (coconut fritters). bottled water, juices etc.Fried fish is available sometimes, and the place is strictly no no to liquor. But local connoisseurs hardly care.
The Night Of Apocalypse
A mega cyclone with a wind velocity of 270km/hr hit Dhanushkodi town, on the night of 22-23 December in 1964. The local Church was getting ready for its Christmas celebration and the town was asleep.
All structures big and small, the railway station, the school, the Church, the Police outpost and the houses were blown up in the storm and marooned in daekness.
On that fateful night , at 23.55 hours entering Dhanushkodi Railway Station, was Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger train , a daily regular service which left Pamban with 110 passengers and 5 railway staff.
A few metres ahead of Dhanushkodi, the signal stopped working. With pitch darkness around and no indication of the signal being restored , the driver blew a long whistle and decided to take the risk.
Minutes after the train started rolling along the sea, a huge wave as high as 20 feet smashed it, submerging all the six coaches under deep water. The whole train was washed away, killing all 115 on board.
The tragedy that left no survivors came to light only after 48 hours when the Railway Headquarters issued a Bulletin based only on the information provided by the Marine Superintendent at Mandapam.
The extremely high tidal waves moved almost 10 kilometres onto the island and ruined the entire town. Over 1,800 people died in the cyclonic storm, according to the govermnent count.
Part of the Pamban bridge was also washed away by the high tidal waves . Believers recollected that the surging waves stopped just short of the sprawling main Temple at Rameshwaram, where hundreds of people had taken shelter from the fury of the storm.
After the storm
The furious cyclone swept the then bustling town, people, buildings, everything into the all-devouring oceanic jaws.
After the killing cyclone, the town was declared “unfit for occupation” and it doesn’t look like anything has changed on the ground,even after 50 years!
The omnious ruins of the Railway Station and the Railway Track, the Church and the School were left untouched even today, and Dhanushkodi could never be rebuilt.
The local Church, its roof blown off, like a silhouette stands like a silent sentinel over the destroyed homes around, and there’s remains of a temple . A little further is what seems, was the Dhanuskodi Railway station.The water tank supplying drinking water to the town, is nowhere to be seen. What is left of it are the supporting columns , heading the skies!
There was no Railway station in Rameshwaram until 1964 as the railway line straightly ran from Pamban to Dhanushkodi, which had a Railway station.
The train today finishes at Rameswaram. There was a small ferry service from there to Talaimannar, but it has been suspended around 1982 because of the fighting between Sri Lankan Government forces and the separatist LTTE.
Eking Out A Living At The Ghost Town
Only a few fisherfolk now live there in this Ghost Town.
One can reach Dhanushkodi either on foot along the sea shore by the sand dunes or in jeep. A few Tempos also ply between Raneswaran and Dhanuskodi, carrying the fishermen and their catch . The place now accomodates some 50 households, staying in makeshift thatched huts.
These people here survive on fishing, also get some earnings from the small number of tourists who brave their way here by traveling in old Mahindra jeeps, taking a very bumpy ride.
The women collect water from some nature made wells, peoviding drinking water. A few wells that have salty water people use for washing clothes and utensils.
Drinking water found here in spots on the sandy beach, flanked on both sides by the two oceans. The women dig in the sand with their bare hands to make a pit, to collect deinking water in the pits!They collect this water in their pots, filtering it through a piece of cloth . Surprisingly , the water is sweet and not salty!
The place is a disputes point for the fishermen, both from India and Sri Lanka. Policemen, Coast Guards and the Indian Navy keep a constant vigil.
Coming Back To Life?
The entire area of Dhanushkodi is covered with sterile white sand and uninhibited stretches of land. The place is not suitable for any cultivation. Coconut and palm trees are the only vegetations. The localities, shops even the telephone facility are also not in the vicinity and can only be found kilometers away.Casuarina groves have sprung around the ruins and the remains of the twisted train tracks.What is left today are the white sands, salt-eaten ruins and a handful of fishermen families who have made the barren land their home.
Bordered by the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, a forlorn place which was once alive and now a ruin city, reduced to rubble, makes it eerie and a place less travelled.
But Dhanushkodi surely needs to snap out of its present oblivion and remoteness. 50 years is enough time to bewail.
Time and again there is talk of reviving the place but little effort has been made, so far.
Railway sources has said recently that a survey had already been taken in 2003, for construction of railway line between Dhanushkodi and Rameshwaram. A cost of Rs. 30 – 40 crores had been estimated at that time. Sources said that there was no requirement for major land acquisition , as the alignment could be taken up for relaying the railway line.
Tamilnadu Government has sanctioned a road connectivity from Mukundarayar Chathiram till Arichal Munai, which is expected to become a reality, in the years to come.
Few earthmovers can be seen clearing the way for the road , and there’s some hope among the locals living on the way to Dhanuskodi that road connectivity will improve their lives. But the fishermen folk is also apprehensive that they would be evicted from the island ultimately, once the work begins in full swing.
The MLA from Ramanthapuram, M H Jawahirulla is assured that the road could be completed very soon. He said that It was a long pending demand to have a road to Dhanushkodi . It would improve people’s lives and the island fishermen need not to be afraid of eviction, they would also be accommodated in the process of revival.
The sea and sand of Dhanuskodi is perfect for film shootings. And whatever little is left of Dhanushkodi been ulilised recently by the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada film industries.
Using the backdrop of this devastated town, several movies have won recognition. ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’, a movie by renowned Film Director Mani Ratnam, has bagged a National award too.
“Sathriyan”, written and produced by Mani Ratnam and shot in Dhanushkodi, was a milestone for Vijayakanth, who played the role of an honest cop.
Mani Ratnam has also shot several scenes for his movie “Kadal” in this unique location.
The first few episodes in Tamil TV serial “Selvi” were shot in Dhanushkodi.
Telugu movies “Par Magale Par“, “Senkottai”, “Rameswaram” and “Sura” are among the few that were also shot in Dhanushkodi.
Thulasi Nair, who as the lead actress Beatrice, danced to the song Adiye in Ratnam’s film “Kadal” at the Dhanushkodi beach , recalled : “Though we had our Vanity Van and the crew, the place was surprisingly deserted and a few people I met there were too poor, working hard to make a living”.
Suriya. another lead actress had scenes filmed in Dhanuskodi, in the hit Tamil movie “Nandha” , directed by Bala. It had won many Filmfare and Tamil Film Awards. This film has also been dubbed in Telugu as “Aakrosham“.
“The water here is clear. The beautiful Coral reefs can be seen clearly under the sea. The sea beach here is surprisingly clean, long, free from crowd and stalls, totlly unspoilt. Filmmakers, specially those from the South find this place unique and quite exciting…. “. commented a facilitator in Tamil tinsel town.
After half a century of oblivion and neglect, Danushkodi has more to offer beyond the religious sentiment and Dark Tourism .
Without proper roads and infrastructure , the local Jeep and Van operators fleece the tourists. There is no electricity, drinking water, basic rain shelter, medical facility or mobile towers in the vicinity. Thankfully, the government is rising from a deep slumber, after such a l-o-n-g time. But it will definitely take more time and energy.
Dhanushkodi will never be rebuilt as a full fledged city. But it can’t remain as a grave for ever. Certainly it can be revived, restored and turned into a naturally beautiful place.
By Deep Basu
Images were supplied by the author.