July 19th, 2016
You couldn’t miss them — ruins and remnants protruding through the sand; a haunting reminder of a world that once was. Exuding the reverence of an isolated realm, Dhanushkodi glistened in the afternoon sun.
The origin of its name, which translates to ‘end of the bow’ can be traced back to Hindu scriptures. When Lord Rama won the war and crowned Vibheeshana as a successor to the throne in Sri Lanka, the king requested him to destroy the bridge which was built to march towards the country with his army. Honouring his wish, the lord then shattered the bridge with one end of his bow.
However, according to its estranged inhabitants, the place held memories of a civilisation that once thrived on the eastern shores where humankind dwelled in solidarity with land and water. Amidst white sand beaches and turquoise waters, we crossed a mystical forest adorning the shores of Indian ocean. Structures and shelters soon vanished. And, awakening from their slumber, trees swayed to gentle winds and roaring waves. We drove towards a large collapsing structure falling into a gentle ruin. We then walked to a soda stall run by a ﬁsherman and his wife. They showed us some jewellery made with pearls collected from the ocean. Adjoining their stall, lining the beach were several makeshift outlets offering seared ﬁsh and coconut water to tourists. We took a stroll alongside the endless stalls till we stumbled upon a lonely structure facing the decayed vestiges of a church.
A young man with a shock of white hair on his head sold cigarettes, biscuits and cakes. His name was Kumar Kali. Beside him a large poster of an old man with a beard leaned against the counter. His eyes twinkled with a spark. We struck a conversation with him and asked him if he knew anything about the history of the town. He looked at us with surprise and said, “Yes, of course. It was in 1947 that the town was ofﬁcially christened as Dhanushkodi. It is the last point of land on the coast of Tamil Nadu. Sri lanka is just 18 km from the shore. It used to be a ﬂourishing town with beautiful rocky pavements and sturdy houses. It was founded by the British in 1880 and was called mini Singapore back in the day. There was a hospital, post ofﬁce, school and railway station connecting the mainland to the island. Apparently, we had a huge ship and a beautiful port too. But they were all destroyed years ago,” he said with a frown.
On December 23, 1964, at 11.35 pm, a devastating cyclone hit the shores of Pamban Island and Dhanushkodi. Tidal waves rose to almost 20 feet. A shimmering ﬂuid veil blanketed the sky as clueless residents drifted off to sleep. There were 5000 families residing in the area who perished in the ocean. Kumar told us that a train travelling from Chennai to Rameswaram derailed and was swallowed by the waves. There were 1,200 families returning to the coastal town that day. No one but the station master remained alive since he was out of town.
Only two people survived the tragedy. “The man you see in this poster is my father. He was fondly known as Neechal Kali and was one of the survivors of the cyclone. He swam in the dark for two hours to save his life. That night, waves rose from both Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, and crashed onto the shores. And, everyone he knew ceased to exist,” said Kumar.
The government declared the land a ghost town thereby rendering it unﬁt for inhabitation. However, his father continued to stay there all alone by himself. He refused to leave. He started a family in an abandoned coastland despite the government offering him alternate housing in neighbouring areas.
In 1984, people from distant lands started migrating to Dhanushkodi for they had heard rumours of a brave man living by the shore who once fought the ocean and against all odds survived. Till he breathed his last, Kali stood outside the stall now run by his son narrating stories of a lost town. To everyone else, he was just another old man reciting tales of his triumph and bravery.
To him, he was an ordinary human being struggling to keep memories of his childhood; memories of his friends who died without any warning; memories that deﬁned who he was alive. It almost seemed as if he told these stories day in and day out to every passerby to make certain he never forgets what it meant to have everything one could ever hope for and lose it all in an instant..
(To be continue..)
Submitted By Akshatha Shetty & Photos By Piyush Goswami