This piece first appeared in The Hindu.
At 10 in the morning, the sun is as bright as it is hot. It is hard to keep your eyes open without a pair of sunglasses on, just as it is difficult to stand in the sun for long without having to scurry for cover every now and then. However, shade is not that easy to find; after all, I am at a place where there is hardly anything except the sun, sand and some roofless ruins.
The idea of travelling 2,700 km from home to a tiny shoal of land jutting out from the southern tip of the country had struck me while reading about The Ramayana. I had not only discovered the interesting past of Rameswaram — until then, it was just a pilgrim centre to me — but had also come across the story of the ghost town of Dhanushkodi. I had planned to visit soon after reading about it in December, but could manage to get away only in the middle of summer, after months of planning and days of travelling.
According to legend, when Rama’s army had to cross over to Lanka, he built a stone bridge over the ocean. After the war, when there was no use for it, he broke it with the end of his bow. Dhanushkodi happens to be one part of that bridge.
If one part of Rama’s bridge lies at Dhanushkodi, the other end is not too far away: just 30 km into the ocean is the Sri Lankan border town of Talaimannar. Supposedly the other end of Rama’s bridge, it is a flourishing coastal town and the closest land border with India.
Strange as it may sound, until only 52 years ago, India and Ceylon were connected through these two towns. The Indian Railways ran a train called the Boat Mail from Madras to Dhanushkodi; from there, passengers were ferried across the straits in boats to Talaimannar. At this time, Dhanushkodi was a bustling town with a sizeable population.
All that changed on the night of December 23, 1964, when a cyclone of unprecedented scale hit the coast. So high were the waves, that not only the coast, but the entire town was taken in its wake.
The tide engulfed homes, schools, hospitals, post offices, railway lines, and even a running train with more than 100 people on board. Neither the train nor its passengers were ever found. The town was declared unfit for habitation. The railway line was terminated and diverted to Rameswaram. The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by vehicles that have been converted into a 4-wheel drive indigenously, by attaching a small metal part to the wheel. No other vehicle can run over such thick layers of sand. We travelled in one such jeep from Rameswaram. Since the time we left the chaos of the temple town behind an hour ago, we had only had the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal for company on either side. There were some stone walls too, erected for the safety of tourists and pilgrims. Beyond the haphazard walls was a never-ending stretch of gold: the sun’s rays dancing on the surface of the sea. The sky, meanwhile, was a deep shade of blue.
The surreal drive, with the glimmering waters, the uneven boundary walls, the sound of the sea and the salty breeze, was an experience that I thought could not be outdone; until I reached land’s end, that is.
It is ironic that devastation should be so beautiful. With its untouched beaches, sparkling water, and distance from the chaos of cities, Dhanushkodi could pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean. Should you build a luxury resort here, it could give the most exotic islands a run for their money. But all you see are ruins: the walls of a church, with its altar and windows intact but the ceiling missing; a wall-and-a-half of the hospital; a tall column and some arches of the railway station; and a few neatly arranged rocks that denote what was once a railway track.
There are some humans too — five, to be precise. They run shacks here, selling trinkets and packed food and beverages to the few who find their way into the wilderness. But they do not live here; they come here much after the sun rises and return much before it sets.
My not knowing Tamil at this point became a handicap, even though I wanted to talk to these people, to find out if they belonged to Dhanushkodi, or if their ancestors ever lived here, but all I could manage was a polite greeting before going ahead.
The quietness was unsettling; the lack of any sign of humanity eerie, and the melancholy the place induces, unnerving.
I tried looking for signs of life — a stray dog, some birds, trees, vegetation — but apart from some tiny crabs on the sand and some wild weeds, I saw nothing. I walked a little more, and then, I did not have even the weeds or the crabs for company; just the sun, sand, sea and me.
I thought of looking myself up on the map — by my estimate, I would be a tiny dot placed almost inside the sea — but gave the thought up midway and quickly headed back to the vehicle.
I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for solitude, but was now eager to get back to the commotion of Rameswaram.