In Search of Solitude

At ten 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 ever now & then. Shade is not that easy to find however, after all I am at a place where there is hardly anything except the sun and the sand and some roofless ruins.

The idea of travelling 2700 kilometers 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 just a pilgrim centre for me, but also came across the story of the Ghost Town of Dhanushkodi. I had planned to be here soon after reading about it in December but could manage to get here only now, in the middle of summer, after months of planning & days of travelling.

According to legend when Rama’s army had to cross over to Lanka, he built a stone bridge on the ocean for them. After the war when there was no use left for the bridge, he broke if off with the end of his bow. Dhanushkodi happens to be one part of that bridge.

If one part of Rama’s bridge lays at Dhanushkodi, the other end is not too far away.

Just 30 kilometers from Dhanushkodi, into the ocean lays the Sri Lankan border town of Talaimannar. Supposed to be the other end of Rama’s bridge, it is a flourishing coastal town in Sri Lanka and the closest land border with India.

Strange as it may sound, but until only 52 years ago, India and Sri Lanka were connected through Dhanushkodi & Talaimannar. The Indian Railways ran a train called the Boat Mail from Chennai to Dhanushkodi; from there the passengers were ferried across the ocean in boats to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. At this time Dhanushkodi was a bustling coastal town with schools, colleges, hospitals, post offices, railway station, and a lot of people.

All that changed on the night of 23rd December 1964, when a cyclone of unprecedented scale caught the town unaware. So high were its waves that not only the coast but the entire town was taken in its wake. The tides engulfed homes, schools, hospitals, post offices, railway line, and even a running train with more than a hundred people onboard. 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 few people who lived to see the tragedy left.

The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by jeeps that are 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 have travelled to Dhanushkodi in one such jeep from the bustling temple town of Rameswaram. For past one hour, since we left the chaos of Rameswaram behind, we have only had the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal for company – one on our left, the other on the right. There are some stone walls too, erected for the safety of tourists and pilgrims from tidal waves. Beyond the haphazard walls is a never-ending stretch of gold: morning rays dancing on the surface of the ocean. The sky meanwhile is such a deep shade of blue, that it is hard to believe its real.

The surreal drive with the glimmering waters, the uneven boundary walls, the sound of ocean, and the salty sea breeze is an experience that I had 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, deep blue sky, and distance from the chaos of cities, Dhanushkodi can pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean – should you build a luxury resort here, it can give most exotic islands a run for their money – but all you see is ruins & devastation. 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 once was a railway track.

There are some humans too – five to be precise. They run shacks here selling trinkets and packed food & beverage 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, presumably in a similar Jeep.

My not knowing Tamil at this point becomes a handicap, even though I want to talk to these people, to find out if they belong to Dhanushkodi, or if their ancestors ever lived here, but all I can manage is a polite greeting before going ahead.

The quietness at Dhanushkodi is unsettling; the lack of any sign of humanity eerie, and the melancholy the place induces unnerving. I try looking for signs for life – a stray dog, some birds, people, trees, vegetation – but apart from some tiny crabs on the sand, and some wild weeds, I see nothing else. I walk a little more, and now, I do not even have the weeds or the crabs, just sun, sand, sea & me.

I think of looking myself up on the map – by my estimate, I would be a tiny dot placed almost inside the ocean – but give the thought up midway and quickly head back towards the Jeep. I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for solitude, but am now eager to get back to the commotion of Rameswaram.

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