The original write up on Dhanushkodi, an edited version of which was published in The Week on the 6th Sept.
Rameswaram, a small island off the Gulf of Mannar, is popular for its connection with the Ramayana. Legend has it that Rama, on his way back from Lanka, had stopped over at the island to offer prayers to lord Shiva and to atone for his sin of killing Ravana. One of the most revered pilgrimages in the country, and one of the four dhams, it is home to numerous temples, most significant of them being the Ramanathaswamy temple. The temple is believed to have been built around two shivlingas – one, that Sita had created and the other, which Hanuman had brought in. Also famous for its twenty-two tirthas (wells) and unusually long corridors – one of them being the longest in the world – the temple is equally important for shaivaites and vaishanites.
I arrive at the Rameshwaram railway station at four in the morning by the Chennai Express. Having made no hotel reservations, I pin my hope on the railway retiring room, which I have been trying to book unsuccessfully ever since I bought the ticket two months ago. With firm faith in the Indian Railways, I approach the stationmaster requesting for a room, only to be told that all the rooms are taken. Having nowhere to go at four in the morning, I seek refuge with my co passengers, an elderly Brahmin couple from Jodhpur, who I had befriended in the train and, in the process, I share a room with strangers for the first time in my life.
To avoid the early morning crowd at the temple, we leave the lodge almost immediately after checking in. Inside the temple we find the thousand-pillar corridor and the compound mostly to ourselves. After admiring the brightly coloured pillars and the never-ending corridor, we make our way to the sanctum sanctorum and realise why the corridors and compound were deserted: hundreds, if not thousands, of people have already queued up outside the main temple, awaiting their audience with the lord. The morning darshan at the temple is particularly significant for it is the only time when you can see the sphatik lingam that Adi Shankracharya had gifted to the temple. It takes us more than an hour and a half to reach the sanctum sanctorum but the little time we get with the lord, makes up for the wait.
Content with the darshan, my companions now want to bathe in the twenty-two tirtha’s that run along the periphery of the compound. According to popular belief, only when you bathe from the water of each of the twenty-two tanks, do you obtain the complete benefit of the pilgrimage. Although a non-believer of practices like these, I accompany them for the tirthas , it somehow gives me the feeling of taking my parents around. The priest who is facilitating the process, mistakes me to be their orderly, even orders me around a few times, perhaps because I have offered to carry their belongings. He also finds it amusing that I am taking notes instead of praying for atonement. The rituals observed, we finally leave the temple compound, more than two hours after we had entered it.
At six thirty in the morning, hundreds bathe in the sea outside the temple -- infants, children, elderly, women, wheel chair bound -- all for the salvation of their ancestor's souls. Most men have shaven their heads; women meanwhile make small shivlingas out of sand, offer flowers and kumkum to the linga and offer food to crows that hover around the place. Looking at the sea of humanity praying for the peace of their ancestors, I wonder how many of them would have paid similar respect to their elders had they been alive.
My reason for travelling two thousand seven hundred kilometres away from home however was neither religion nor atonement, it was a tiny shoal called Dhanushkodi, the only land border between India and Srilanka. Once a flourishing town, all that remains of Dhanushkodi today is sand and water. And that little strip of land, jutting into the sea, forming the gateway to the Adam’s bridge, had brought me to the tip of the country on a hot summer morning.
The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by special jeeps, which, with the addition of a little part onto one of their wheels, transform into 4*4 vehicles (it is impossible to drive on the sand in a normal vehicle). We hire the services of a man call Dharmam and his rickety jeep, and drive on an impossibly straight road, with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Bay of Bengal on another. The picturesque drive with the waters glimmering in the suns’s rays, the stone boundaries erected for the safety of the road, the sound of the ocean – and the old jeep – is an experience that I thought could not be outdone. Until I reached land’s end that is. At around ten in the morning we are the only people there – apart from the driver and the women who man the refreshment and trinket stalls.
It is ironical that devastation should be so beautiful. The piece of land where I stand now can pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean: clean, white sand, bright blue sky, sparkling water and untouched by humanity. The ruins only add to the enchanting feel of the place: the remains of a church, with its alter and windows intact but the ceiling missing; a wall and a half of the hospital; a tall column of arches of the railway station; and a few neatly arranged rocks that denote what once was a railway track. The site makes for a perfect picture.
My not knowing Tamil, at this point, becomes a handicap, but with the little information available in English, and a broken conversation with Dharmam, I find out more about the ghost town: Dhaushkodi, which literally translates into bow's end (named after Rama's bow, which supposedly broke the bridge on the sea), was once a busy town with schools, temples, a post office, a railway station, a railway hospital, a church, customs offices and all possible amenities. But everything changed on the night of 23rd Dec 1964, when a massive cyclonic storm hit the coastal settlement and huge tidal waves engulfed the entire town, and a passenger train with more than a hundred people on board. Since then, the town has been declared unfit for habitation. Even today, fifty years later, the only sign of life here are the red crabs and the green weeds. The few people who work here, return much before the sun sets.
Although I have always known about the place – and its story – listening to it now, standing at the spot, makes me uneasy. As I drive back, I think about the contrast between the twin towns, just thirty kilometers apart, they seem to belong to different worlds: one – a bustling temple town, brimming with life; the other – a barren land, with only the ghosts of the past for company. I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for peace and calm, but I now want to escape to the chaos of Rameshwaram.