We begin our journey to Dhanushkodi in the holy city of Rameswaram, about 15 miles away. Rameswaram bears several markers of Prince Rama’s journey, including places where he rested, coronated Vibhishana, and prayed. Most important is the main Ramanathaswamy temple which contains one of the 12 jyotirlingams, representations of the god Shiva, one of the members of the Hindu holy trinity.
Prayers to all 12 jyotirlingams are said to absolve a Hindu of all sins and end the cycle of death and rebirth to achieve nirvana. In addition, the main lingam is considered to have been created by Sita from sea sand for Rama to worship after her safe return from Lanka. Both Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi are extremely significant for the rites of absolution because Rama’s prayers to Shiva are said to have absolved him of the killing of the Brahmin Ravana. If Rama could be cleared of such a heinous sin, why not us mere mortals for our petty transgressions?
The last five miles to land’s end are only accessible through private jeep and van operators and we opt to hire a jeep for the three of us, my parents and myself. We start at seven in the morning from Rameswaram and reached the checkpoint to Dhanushkodi in about half-an-hour. A rickety jeep awaits us, with the driver in a shirt and veshti, a piece of cloth tied around the waist and lower limbs. We climb in and hang on to the crossbar for dear life as the jeep wobbles and bucks its way through the sand dunes. The little town that serves the tourists to Dhanushkodi rapidly recedes, till within a minute we are all alone on a sandy path that is spanned by the sea on both sides.
Along the way the driver narrates the history of the town, and later Wikipedia research confirms he knows what he is talking about. As the jeep navigates its way through low shoals marked by the footprints of water birds, we learn that, once the district headquarters for the area, Dhanushkodi is a ghost town today, inhabited by just 350 fisher families after a massive tsunami completely wiped out the town in 1964, killing over 1,800 people and destroying every building. Today the area has been declared “Unfit for living” by the Indian government and deprived of electricity, running water and other basics for habitation. Despite the horrific effects of the tsunami, fisher folk returned to the area gradually, choosing to brave the elements to make a lucrative living off the sea. They live in thatched huts that they abandon every winter when powerful winds buffet the area, destroying the makeshift dwellings.
As our jeep makes its way to the final beach, we stop near the water birds crowding the shallow waters and step out on to the sand, hiking our pants to keep them dry. In April there are mostly egrets and herons, but visitors in February have spotted visiting Australian flamingos, and there have been reports of some lucky encounters with dolphins.
On the way we have noticed heavy rains across the sea over Sri Lanka. The clouds eventually reach us and a little cloudburst right over our path cools down the temperature and makes the sweltering summer heat a little bearable. The pristine beach beckons and we notice a few earlier visitors making their way to the shore.
Some are dressed in the formal attire suitable for religious ceremonies, leading us to the conclusion that these are rites for deceased ancestors. After Kashi, a North Indian city significant for these rites, it is said that bathing at Dhanushkodi is a must for helping ancestors ascend to heaven.
Enterprising locals have set up stalls for shell-based trinkets and we saunter over to examine them. On display are necklaces of shells and pearls, and little oval black and white stones representing the Shiva lingams so venerated in nearby Rameswaram. Some of the mother-of-pearl necklaces are embossed with rather professional designs and a conversation with the enthusiastic seller reveals that these were screen printed using computers in the city. We are delighted with this confluence of ancient trade and modern technology. Much to their credit, the fisher folk value education and all the children study in a local school, moving on to to higher education in the city when they are done.
The sea is a rich source of wealth for these folk and the living is rather easy, given that the waters are so shallow that one can walk about four miles across the water to an island visible nearby. Sri Lanka is just 15 miles away, as the pings from Sri Lankan cell towers can attest, but these fishermen stay out of trouble by hewing close to the Indian shore in their simple oar-propelled boats.
Alas, the fishermen in Rameswaram are not quite as prudent, and commercial trawlers have often strayed into Sri Lankan waters, prompting arrest and retaliation from that country’s Coast Guard, an understandable reaction. After repeated requests of intercession from various Tamil Nadu governments to rescue these foolhardy souls, the Indian central government has decided to put up a naval station nearby to discourage fishing beyond territorial waters.
We take a dip in the placid and warm waters without any religious motives behind our splashes. A little exploration rewards us with conch shells, perfect miniatures of Panchajanya and Devadutta, martial conch trumpets blown by Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield in the epic Mahabharata.
Heading back, we stop at the fishing village, where we encounter one of the few remaining survivors of the 1964 tsunami, a toothless crone who was ten when the waves struck. She was rescued by her grandmother and lost her parents in the tragedy.
Ruins from that disaster still exist; a church facade here, a crumbling post-office wall there. Remnants of the railway station have been featured in the most common photos of Dhanushkodi and we stop the jeep there to take pictures and visit a little shrine which has a “floating stone” as its main attraction. The “stone” is not well protected and we get close enough to notice that it is in fact a coral fossil, which explains its buoyancy.
These are the stones that are supposed to have formed the top of the bridge that Rama built to Sri Lanka and, suddenly, the legend of the Ram Setu (Rama’s bridge) seems almost plausible, though geologists describe the underwater ledges of sandstone and conglomerates variously as coral reefs or limestone shoals.
Regardless of the veracity of the legends of the Ramayana, this is a magical place for both religious worshippers and nature lovers and we return from Dhanushkodi in our bouncy jeep well satisfied with our excursion. Future visitors will have an easier time with the construction of a motor road right to land’s end, but I feel rather sorry that they will miss out on our bouncy sand dune adventure. The road is planned for later in the summer of 2016, so hurry if you want to experience Dhanushkodi in its unspoiled glory.
How to get there: Rameswaram is accessible by rail and by road via NH 49. The rail journey goes right over a cantilever bridge below the famous Pamban Bridge and is a very convenient overnight journey but needs advance booking. For a road journey, visitors can fly in to Madurai and travel about 3.5 hours by car to Rameswaram.
Where to stay: Rameswaram has had its share of budget hotels, but a few bigger chains are considering developing properties in the area. A Hyatt is supposed to be built soon, but for now here are a couple of recommendations – a budget hotel named Blue Coral Cottage for about Rs.1500 a night and Jiwan Residency, a budget luxury hotel for about Rs. 3000 a night. Both are very close to the water, though the Jiwan Residency is much more in line with visitors accustomed to professional hotel accommodations.
When to visit: Other than the winter months from November to January, when the area is too wet and windy to visit, any other time of the year is suitable.
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and a published author of children’s books. She was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012. She hosts the popular Safari Quiz Show every Saturday on 1550 AM in the San Francisco Bay Area.