Executive Director's Blog. Published on 17 Sept., 2016
During our family’s visit to Rameswaram island in September 2016, we went out to see Dhanushkodi which is the tip of the Pamban island and is India’s border point protruding out Southeast into the Bay of Bengal. The place is at sea level and tapers off to a thin strip from where Sri Lanka is only 19 miles away.
Dhanushkodi became a “ghost town” about 52 years ago, after a cyclone wiped away the town and 1800 people in a few hours of Nature’s rage. Some survived to tell the gruesome story.
Historical narrations describe the bizarre events of the night of December 22, 1964 when a rare cyclone hit Dhanushlodi, the vibrant transit point from Sri Lanka to India. It has been raining heavily for several days, but in those pre-weather-satellites era, nobody predicted the path of an imminent cyclone or its speed, strength or direction. People couldn’t be forewarned to evacuate or stay away. At 11.55 pm on that ill-fated night, a passenger train was entering the Dhanushkodi Station, with 110 passengers and 5 crew. The signal had failed sometime back, but the driver decided to take the risk and take the train forward. A series of 24-feet-high, forceful, twirling, lashing waves hit abruptly and the train disappeared for ever with its load of people. Gone without a trace. In those moments, everything else in Dhanushkodi also crumbled instantly to pieces. Within a span of minutes, Nature finished its ruthless frenzy.
Dhanushkodi was a thriving place, because local people and tourists continuously transited through the town to board the ferry to Sri Lanka. There were houses, hotels, hospitals, shops, places of worship and everything else associated with human dwellings. It was the scenic strip of land closeted by Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. The town was destroyed beyond recognition overnight. It took 2 days for people in the mainland to know of this disaster – unimaginable in today’s internet-connected world of instant messaging and real-time streaming.
I went there after reading some historical pieces and blogs of others who visited earlier. I had some mental pictures of what to expect. Seeing the place first-hand allowed those hazy pictures to come alive in my imagination and I was able to link it further in my thought process.
When we arrived, private vehicles were allowed only up to a spot about 10 km from the tip of land. Further down from where vehicles see ‘No Entry’, we saw a beautiful, straight, 6 km road, just completed, stretching till the old Dhanushkodi Railway Station. The road is not opened for public yet. We hired a 4-wheel drive Tempo van to reach a beach about 4 km up from the tip, but further down from the old Dhanushkodi Railway Station. The driver took us through an uneven shallow path that wound in and out of sand, dirt and water close to sea shore all the way. That was one tough ride. He stopped at the lonely remote beach for some time and let us enjoy the sea for a few minutes. I walked and ran further down about a kilometer on the sea-shore. I wanted to get a feel of the loneliness and quietness of the remote place, and then I ran back. The sun had almost gone down when the driver took us back. Ravi, our driver, brought us to the relics and left us to wander through the ruins of Dhanushkodi.
None of the old structures had roofs. There are pieces of walls still standing, that helped me mentally re-create the pre-cyclone days. There are a few broken structures still around, including the wall of the big water tank and remains of the railway platform, reminding us of the extent of devastation and harshness of the fury. There is a big roofless church with walls intact. The windows and doors are gone – I don’t know if it was taken by the looters or the waters. Ravi pointed us to a make-shift temple where a “floating stone which appeared in the water after the cyclone” was kept alongside idols of other deities. There were thatched huts – some with roof, some without. Peacocks roamed around leisurely here and there. An eerie silence draped the place. On an elevated ground in the middle, there were heavy construction equipment to pave the road, pointing us towards the future and prompting us to forget the past.
Standing there, I looked up at the sky. It was calm and clear. I looked out at the sea. It was calm green water all around and it seemed peaceful all the way to the horizon. I tried to project on to my mental screen that wild night when the water was lashing out and whirling high. I tried to feel the cold salty water that hit the train and took it violently to the bottom of the ocean. I tried to listen to the screams and then pictured the silence at the bottom of the sea with all 115 bodies lying still in 6 coaches and the engine. It all must have been over in a few minutes. Although I tried several times, the brutal strength of the water was unimaginable for me. I have seen places like Niagara Falls where water fall down with great force and terrifying sound, but I was not able to imagine the fury of the lashing waves that can pull down whole trains, take off roofs, break down walls, and take away hundreds of people instantly.
The Tamil Nadu government declared the place uninhabitable once the reports were made and assessment of the events completed. They didn’t want to build another town in that vulnerable place. However, life limped back to Dhanushkodi some time later, as a few went there to live in huts. They spread their fishing nets to make a living. Uninhabitable didn’t carry any meaning for them. It didn’t deter them from returning to the same disastrous piece of land.
However, Dhanushkodi is no more the old bustling, busy town. Will it regain the old glory to be the transit point between two countries? I don’t know. But my thoughts drifted off to look at this creepy place from another angle.
As I stood among the ruins, roughly 52 years after the dark day, the eerie silence around the “Ghost town” was a loud testimony of 4 basic aspects of human existence – fragility, uncertainty, undying spirit and ingenuity.