This fragile last frontier deserves to be preserved, and not just in the picturesque frames of Mani Ratnam’s films.

Features Travel Thursday, February 02, 2017 - 18:53

By Ayshwaria Sekher

Remember the stunning panorama of sea, sand and a solitary boat run aground in the song ‘Oru deivam thantha poove’ from the 2001 Mani Ratnam movie Kannathil Muthamittal? It was shot along the coastline of Dhanushkodi, declared a “ghost town” by the state of Tamil Nadu over fifty years ago. 

Legend has it that Dhanushkodi, which literally means “end of the bow”, was marked by Lord Rama with his bow as the spot from where the bridge to Lanka would be built by his vanarasena. Situated at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, twenty kilometres south of the temple town of Rameswaram, Dhanushkodi stands at the farthest edge of the Indian mainland, with Sri Lanka a mere twenty-nine kilometres across the sea. 

Till date, its vast white sand beach can be reached only on rickety jeeps and Matador vans that ply through tricky stretches of marshland. Once accessible by railroad, the supercyclone of 1964 turned this bustling port town into an expanse of ruins overnight.

On December 22, 1964, as the Dhanushkodi railway station awaited the arrival of the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger, its last train for the day, a cyclonic storm with a wind velocity of 280 kmph swept in, flinging the train and all 115 on board into the ocean and flattening the entire town forever.

Half a century (and a tsunami) later, all that remains of the station are rail tracks buried under layers of sand. Shacks selling shells, trinkets and snacks have long since appeared above them. Corroded remnants of brick buildings stand bare against the bright blue arch of sky and sea, telling their own tales of endurance.

The idyllic beach could have been usurped by tourists and resort barons, but the relentless influx of sand and sea salt into the mainland has been a major deterrent to the process of restoration, leading successive governments to abandon all hope of progress and declare Dhanushkodi a “ghost town” unfit for human habitation.

The few survivors of the 1964 cyclone live in utter penury. An old man, propped up on crutches, sits by a shack near the dilapidated Dutch church and reminisces about his days of glory— when he swam across the Palk Strait and received a medal from no less than the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu MGR— hoping for a few rupees in exchange.

A community of around five hundred fisherfolk constitutes the current population of Dhanushkodi. They eke out a meagre living, rotating their fishing routines across the three sides of the ocean in concurrence with the season and the wind. All they can afford above their heads, bearing the brunt of cyclone, are only makeshift thatched roofs.

Electricity is yet to reach these shores. Potable water is scarce and drawn from small shallow aquifers that trace their origins back to the legend of Lord Rama who is said to have shot his arrow into the ground for water springs to emerge.

While the sea at nearby Rameshwaram continues to be mired in pollution in the name of rites of absolution for the deceased, with ashes dissolved in its waves and mountains of ritually discarded clothes and non-biodegradable waste left to stagnate on its shores, the clear waters of Dhanushkodi seem to have been spared by default.

However, in recent years, Dhanushkodi has caught the attention of the powers-that-be at the centre. Perhaps the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose keenness to rebuild the Ram temple in Ayodhya is no secret, saw an opportunity to reclaim Dhanushkodi as a place of significance from the times of the Ramayana.

The Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways launched an ambitious road project to connect Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi in 2014. After several postponements, Phase II of this project, a nine-kilometre-long stretch of tar road from Mukuntharayar Chathiram all the way up to Arichalmunai, the southernmost tip of Dhanushkodi where the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal meet, is expected to be declared open for tourists in 2017.

While the opening of the road will ostensibly pave the way for new businesses for the fisherfolk and their families settled in Dhanushkodi, the question of whether it will provide them a markedly better quality of life remains to be seen in an area where there has been no other infrastructure development in decades.

What this could also mean for the livelihoods of the fifty-odd locally registered van and jeep operators who have been transporting tourists and pilgrims for decades, and whose strong trade union had ensured equal opportunities thus far, only time will tell.

One can only fervently hope that Dhanushkodi does not meet with the fate of its neighbour Rameswaram under the onslaught of tourism and development. This fragile last frontier deserves to be preserved, and not just in the picturesque frames of Mani Ratnam’s films.