Our visit to Dhanushkodi fifty years after 1964 Cyclone.

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Our visit to Dhanushkodi fifty years after 1964 Cyclone.

Our visit to Dhanushkodi was a memorable one. We decided to stay an extra day at Hotel Daiwiki for an adventure trip to Dhanushkodi as a part of our visit to Rameshwaram and expected a crowded place, were taken aback by the exceptionally bumpy ride by a jeep to this island, which enchanted you with its beautiful views of the two oceans namely the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, but at the same time left an eerie feeling with its emptiness and a view of the ruins that gave you the impression that this had been a different place before.

There were hotels, textile shops and dharmashalas catering to these pilgrims and travelers. The railway line to Dhanushkodi which did not touch Rameswaram then and was destroyed in the 1964 cyclone went directly from Mandapam to Dhanushkodi. Dhanushkodi in those days had a railway station, a small railway hospital, primary schools, a post office, customs and port offices, and other buildings. It was here in this island in January 1897 that Swami Vivekananda again set foot on Indian soil, after his visit to the west to attend the World's Parliament of Religions held in the United States.

This deserted island is occupied by hutments of fisher folk who seemed to live in isolation and with no connection other than jeeps to the mainland and their main means of survival seemed to depend on the fish they catch from the sea. With no basic facilities to depend on, we came across an interesting way in which women from those communities got their drinking water and wondered if this was the place where reality coexists /mingled with myths, mysteries and miracles turning it into a seemingly unique location. I had been travelling worldwide with my husband and what I saw and experienced was unparallel .

Bordered by the Bay of Bengal on one and the Indian Ocean on the other, Dhanushkodi, some 20 kilometers away from Rameshwaram, is one of the most spectacular stretches of Tamil Nadu with not more than 20 fisher folk dwellings with a population of around 300. 


Myth says that this is the place where Lord Rama pointed to with the tip of his bow and Lord Hanuman along with his army built a bridge (Setu) to cross the sea to reach Sri Lanka.  Indeed, Sri Lanka is just 31 kilometers away from Dhanushkodi.


A visit to Dhanushkodi takes your breath away and is a visual treat with incredibly beautiful views of the clear blue sea, but at the same time envelopes you with sadness with its ruins and the dilapidated remains of what was once a flourishing town.  Dhanushkodi was a major point of entry to India until 1964, when a cyclone devastated the entire town, washing away the railway track, a steam engine and its carriages, and the entire village.
 

The cyclone in 1964 that destroyed Dhanushkodi 

There were many ferry services between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar of Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), transporting travelers and goods across the sea. There were hotels, textile shops and dharmashalas catering to these pilgrims and travelers. Dhanushkodi, in those days, also had a railway station, a small railway hospital, a higher secondary school, a post office, customs and port offices etc. One can still see the sad remains of the railway line, some of the ruins of the offices and the hospital and the old school, which is reused now for the 500 inhabitants who continue to stay on the island . Before the cyclone, there was a train service up to Dhanushkodi called Boat Mail from Madras Egmore (Now Chennai Egmore), which would halt on the south-eastern side of Dhanushkodi township, where a waiting steamer transported passengers to Sri Lanka . Our visit also brought memories of my Husband’s relation Late. Captain Praksh , who lost his only brother a Final Year Medical Student attending Medical camp at Dhanushkodi Railway Hospital .

A depression with its centre in South Andaman Sea on 17th  December 1964 was what brought about this cyclone. On 19th  December, it intensified into a cyclonic storm. After 21st  December 1964, it started moving westwards at the rate of 250 miles (400 km) to 350 miles (560 km) per day. On 22nd  December, it crossed Vavunia of Ceylon ( now called Sri Lanka) with a wind velocity of 280 km/hour, moved into Palk Strait in the night and crashed into Dhanushkodi of Rameshwaram island on the night of 22–23 December 1964. It was estimated that tidal waves were 24  feet  high when it crossed Rameshwaram

On that night (December 22) at 23.55 hours while entering Dhanushkodi railway station, the train No.653, Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger, a daily regular service which left Pamban with 110 passengers and 5 railway staff, was only few hundred yards before Dhanushkodi Railway station when it was hit by a massive tidal wave. The entire train was washed away killing all 115 on board. A few meters ahead of Dhanushkodi, the signal failed.  With pitch darkness around and no indication of the signal being restored, the driver blew a long whistle and decided to take the risk. Minutes later, a huge tidal wave submerged all the six coaches in deep water. The tragedy that left no survivors also destroyed the Pamban bridge, which connected the mainland of India to Rameshwaram island

Reports say that over 1800 people died in the cyclonic storm. All houses and other structures in Dhanushkodi town were marooned. The high tidal waves moved deep onto this island and ruined the entire town. Indian Naval vessels sent to rescue people reported seeing several bloated bodies around the eastern end of Dhanushkodi. Eyewitness accounts recollected how the surging waters stopped short of the main temple at Rameshwaram where many people had taken refuge from the fury of the storm. Following this disaster, the Government of Madras declared Dhanushkodi  a ghost town and unfit for living .

 

The remaines after the cyclon  25-12-1964  now; Old steam boat skeleton. The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22 – 25, 1964.50 years later still remains reminding of the nightmare:

 

 Fisher folk staying in Dhanushkodi

Only a few fisher folk now live here. One can now reach Dhanushkodi either on foot along the sea shore by the sand dunes or in jeeps and tempos of fishermen. A ride down this 20 km long straight road leading to the ruins of the township is an exciting experience in itself. We had hired a jeep and the driver was a resident of the village itself. During the bumpy ride, he showed us the remains of the rail tracks covered with sand, and those of the school, the hospital and office buildings. He also showed us the village that includes some 50 households staying in makeshift thatched houses.

Sweet drinking water found on the sandy beach flanked on both sides by the two oceans

We wondered about the drinking water availability in the villages and followed two women who showed us a sandy place, which lay bordered between the two oceans on the two sides. The women told us that all from the villages came here to get water. We watched and wondered while the women started digging in the sand with their bare hands to make a pit, to find water in the pits!

 

We asked him to take us closer to the clustered villages, all made up of thatched roofs with children playing alongside the houses who ran up to us to sell sea shells. The dwellings here seemed to survive mostly on fishing, besides getting some income from the small number of tourists who brave their way here by traveling in old jeeps and a very bumpy ride. We went around in the village and found some of the fishermen with their boats collecting their catch for the day. We also saw a few women washing clothes near a well and wondered where they got their water from. There seemed to be a few wells that had salty water that people used for washing clothes and utensils.

We reach the end of the land where the two oceans met and took in the view of the deep blue sea, gradually changing colors with the afternoon sun wondering how such peace and tranquility can at times, also unleash such fury and destruction, but then, time goes on and heals all wounds!

M. Bhaktavatsalam, then the chief minister of Madras State (now Tamil Nadu), flew over the place and reported that the tip of the engine was barely visible in the water. Incidentally, the disaster did not take place on Pamban Bridge as is popularly believed now, but at the Dhanushkodi end of Pamban Island, which is 28 kilometers (17 mi) away from the bridge. The bridge, connecting mainland India with Rameswaram Island, was also destroyed in the cyclone.

Altogether, over 1,800 people died in the cyclonic storm. All dwellings and other structures in Dhanushkodi town were destroyed  in the storm. The high tidal waves moved deep onto the island and ruined the entire town. Naval vessels sent to the relief and rescue of marooned people reported to have spotted several bloated bodies around the eastern end of Dhanushkodi. Following this disaster, the Government of Madras declared Dhanushkodi as Ghost town and unfit for living. Only a few fisher folk now live there.

Though the fatalities from the Rameswaram cyclone were fewer compared to the 1977 Andhra Pradesh cyclone and the 1999 Orissa cyclone, in terms of wind velocity, which touched 280 kilometers per hour (170 mph) at Vavunia in northern Sri Lanka on the evening of 22 December, the Rameshwaram cyclone is regarded as one of the Bay of Bengal's fiercest cyclones in the 20th century.

In December 2004 just before the arrival of 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck South India, the sea around Dhanushkodi receded about 500 meters (1,600 ft) from the coastline, exposing the submerged part of the town for a while. This rare event was witnessed by the local fishermen.

The episode reminded me of the  Titanic disaster and the way the incidents and emotions were depicted in the Move. What happened onboard of  the train No.653, Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger with its  110 passengers including Late Captain Prakash’s brother  and 5 railway staff  in the pitch darkness , chill your bones  with fear .