I was on a voyage of exploration to Dhanushkodi, the ghost town forgotten in time. On the way I stopped by the Indira Gandhi Bridge, a customary halt on the itinerary of all tourists and pilgrims proceeding to Rameswaram. Connecting Rameswaram with the main land at Mandapam, this bridge spanning 2.2 km is presumably the longest sea-bridge in India. We gazed in wonder at this engineering marvel that had taken 14 years to complete. The view from the bridge was amazing with the vast expanse of the blue-green sea and the long Pamban Railway Bridge running parallel. The rail bridge stands as a mute spectator to history and mythology.
Indira Gandhi Bridge and the Pamban Railway Bridge
Standing on the Road Bridge I could imagine the agony of the train-load of travellers on the ill-fated Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger when a killer cyclone shattered part of the bridge on December 22, 1964. The narrow gauge train was swept away as it crossed the Pamban Rail Bridge from Rameswaram Island to the mainland. Facing the wrath of the sea, all the 128 passengers and the railway staff met a watery grave.
Thanks to the ingenuity of the Indian railway engineers, headed by ‘Metroman’ E Sreedharan, the rail bridge was rebuilt in 45 days and made operational again. Several decades ago, the railway line went up to Dhanushkodi culminating at a jetty from where passengers once boarded the Indo Ceylon ferries to Sri Lanka.
Located about 18 km southeast of Rameswaram town, Dhanushkodi is a long, windswept surf beach and sandpit which exudes an end-of-the-world feel. At the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, Dhanushkodi, besides attracting tourists is also a forward outpost of the Indian Navy. The name Dhanushkodi sounds musical. In local parlance, Dhanushkodi means ‘Bow’s end’. The gently shaped shoreline here does indeed suggest a bow. It was a town at the southern tip of Rameswaram Island, on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu.
Meeting place of Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal
Fringed with casuarina trees on one side and the sea on the other, the ride to Land’s End was pleasant. Whizzing past, we had fleeting glimpses of the serene waters through the trees. Other than the beach and some straggling fishing shanties, there’s not much here. We reached a tiny fishing hamlet with thatched huts and a few battered fishing boats entrenched in the sand. Apart from that, there are a few ‘shops’ nearby selling all kinds of sea shells and soft drinks.
Entering the ghost town, I was caught in a time warp. Exploring the ruins along the desolate coastline, I found a roofless, battered edifice, which looked like it must have once been a church. Inside, a pedestal, which could have been the altar, stood intact. A sense of peace overwhelmed me as I stood inside, gazing at the unscathed altar. I could imagine the pews packed with a choral-singing congregation and the church resonating with prayers and the pastor preaching sermons during a Sunday morning mass.
Roofless, battered church
Moving on I found that the sand had gobbled up everything in the course of time except for the crumbling walls of a few scattered buildings with exposed bricks that stand as mute witness to the terrible tragedy in which a storm washed away this hamlet. I came across the four-pillared structure of a water tank and stumbled upon the Dhanushkodi railway station, a solid stone structure that is a sad reminder of the ferocity of the storm and the havoc created by the raging sea.
Further to the tank are some ruins of the quarters for railwaymen. In some places the metre gauge tracks were discernible half-hidden under the sand. These were the rails that carried the Boat Mail to Dhanushkodi. It was called Boat Mail because it carried passengers to take the steamer service to Ceylon, the old name for Sri Lanka. The killer cyclone swallowed it all – the railway track, train, station and the entire village.
Remains of a water refilling station
Another interesting structure is a grand red arch of the village post office, the rest of it buried in sand. I stumbled upon the remains of a granary, the relics of a temple buried among the debris, some battered boats firmly entrenched in the ground, the railway tracks and part of a bogie buried deep in the sand. There is a big building that was once a school, two-thirds of the insides strangely covered with mounds of sand. It would have housed school kids once, most of who were probably washed away that fateful day in the storm. Ambling among the ruins, I could not believe that the now abandoned village was once a bustling centre for travel and trade, connecting India and Sri Lanka with a railway and ferry service.
Ruins of a granary
After strolling through the ruins, I walked to the end of the peninsula where the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet. I could gaze upon Adam’s Bridge, the chain of reefs, sandbanks and the islets that almost connect Sri Lanka with India. The Hindu epic Ramayana recounts how Rama and his devotee ‘monkey brigade’ built a bridge of stones across the sea to Lanka to rescue Sita from the demon king Ravana. Some Christians believe this mythical bridge to be Adam’s bridge. Absorbing the mythical aura of our surroundings, I took a dip in the shimmering waters and felt blessed.
Seeing the scale of destruction and the ferocity of nature’s fury, a sad sensation overwhelmed me. I wished I could tarry a little longer to know more about the ruins. It was difficult to leave the place without feeling emotionally battered. I promised to return to continue my voyage of exploration.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.