The two kilometer long railway bridge which you see in the photo above is India’s longest sea bridge, and was completed in 1913. It spans the channel which separates the island of Pamban/Rameswaram from the mainland. I was lucky to be near it when one of the few daily trains from the island crossed the bridge. After seeing a photo in a post by a fellow blogger, I looked up its impressive story. When it was designed in 1911 by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, the design was very new. The central span of 88 meters (which you can see in the photos here) are designed to roll up in order to allow ships to sail below. In this century it has been expanded to take modern broad gauge rails, and strengthened to withstand the corrosive salty winds which blow across the Palk straits.
The cost of building a bridge like this a hundred years ago must have been considerable. The fact that it was completed in tandem with a port in the drowned town of Dhanushkodi points to commercial interests, all very well documented. At the tail end of the period of European imperialism, when the bridge was built, commerce between India and Sri Lanka was immense. The attempt to connect Dhanushkodi to Mannar in Sri Lanka by a 21 kilometer long causeway or bridge was slightly too ambitious for its time. The solution that was adopted was to have a high volume port in Dhanushkodi and a railway link from there, over this bridge, to Chennai. That solution lasted till the cyclone of 1964 destroyed Dhanushkodi. The Pamban bridge is no longer a vital economic link, but it remains as an interesting piece of engineering history, still in use.
The high and low tides were at convenient times when we were at Dhanushkodi. The morning’s low tide was at 10:30. This would give us two to three hours at the beach before lunch. We could have a short break after that, before going down to the sea side again for the incoming tide. Sunset was about an hour after high tide. The sun, the moon, and the earth were cooperating with us for a wonderful holiday as we drove down a long narrow spit of land which pointed at the only land border between India and Sri Lanka. That border is a great story, whose beginnings we would see during the day.
Driving to Dhanushkodi at low tide, we saw breakers on the sea to our right. We parked and walked to the beach past a signboard warning us not to go into the sea. I love to tread a path at the very edge of the surf before getting my feet wet; the popping of the millions of tiny bubbles sprays your feet with cool water. This side of Dhanushkodi faces the Gulf of Mannar. The hard packed sand sloped into the waves. The sky was a little overcast, but the contrast of the warmth in the air and the cool water was wonderful. We obeyed the signboards and stayed out of the sea; standing on the beach for breakers to land on our legs.
When we got back in the car, Sathiamoorthy had decided to protect it by laying newspapers on the floor. On the left the level sands stretched far away to the horizon. The waters of the Palk strait was a faint blue line very far away. Clearly this side sloped very little. Sathiamoorthy said something about “soft sand”. Later I realized that this meant quicksand. I would have a much closer look at quicksand later. All I could see from the car was that some parts of the sand looked much more wet than others. I loved the look of the boats beached so far from the sea.
The road now ends at Arichamunai, the very tip of this spit. We walked down to the beach. Along the way we had stopped at empty beaches, but this part was full of people. We walked along the edge of the water, noting the stillness of the water in the Palk strait and the strong contrast with the breakers on the Gulf of Mannar. As we walked, we noticed how the waters are eroding the beach on one side and depositing sand on the other. This turns out to have been studied extensively. The tip of Arichamunai is not a fixed point on the map. It waves back and forth by more than a kilometer when observed for a decade. Sandbars detach themselves, and join the land somewhere else. This is land as fluid as the sea.
When we stepped on to a very wet patch of sand, people around us shouted for us to get back. That’s when I realized that this “soft sand” is quicksand. A policeman had begun to shoo tourists away from this area. It was time for lunch, in any case. We climbed up to the traffic circle. Beyond this beach the extended pattern reefs called Adam’s Bridge or Ramarpalam form a link between India and Sri Lanka. Sandbars accrete around them, some more stable than others. One of the longer lived sandbars, about 15 Kilometers from here nowadays contains the only land border between India and Sri Lanka. If you walked across Ramarpalam from the east, then Arichamunai is where you first know you are in India, from the low-cost version of Ashoka’s pillar planted right at the center of the circle. Some help in recognizing the country is also provided by the rickshaws lined up to take you to Rameswaram, or the many people selling freshly sliced watermelon and pineapple around the circle.
When we came back at high tide the wind had picked up. At Arichamunai the wind was driving the sand very hard. On my legs below my knees I could feel the constant prickling of blown sand. What little I remembered of Bagnold’s classic book verified the evidence of my eyes: the sand grains here are big. The beach is not old enough to have created dust. My slices of pineapple spiced with red chili powder were safe from dust and sand. The sea had come in very close on the Palk strait side. If it hadn’t been for a causeway the Kothandaramar temple (photo above) would have been cut off from Dhanushkodi. I took this photo just before high tide. Right at the horizon you can see a white salt-encrusted sand bar. The day’s tide was too low to drown it.
Just a few days ago, someone passed around an old Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin has a newspaper article about his mother making fish for dinner with the headline Knife wielding mother hacks Ichtyoid! Family devours victim!. So when I spotted fishermen’s shacks in Dhanushkodi, the meme was fresh in my head as I shared lunch plans with our extended family.
You 09:45 More murdered ichthyoids!
A 09:55 Brutal
B 10:02 😝
Did they find their way to your tummy yet?
You 11:32 Soon. We pre-ordered today’s catch.
B 11:34 👍👍😊
You 12:01 Fresh victims
B 12:02 👍
C 12:02 Were they given a respecful burial?
You 12:03 No trace remains
C 12:03 Way to go
You 12:06 OMG!
Preserved dead bodies.
Are we in Hannibal Lecter country?
B 12:13 Dried fish 😖 😖
A 12:14 Silence of the Ichthyoids.
I will pray for the murderers.
Going to a Ganapati puja
B 12:17 😝 😝
You 12:20 👍
We reached Rameswaram later than we’d expected. It was fairly dark, and the market around the Ramanathaswamy temple was clearly shutting down. On the other hand, it was the first day of the Ganapati festival, and there were pockets of crowds. We checked in to our hotel, and were out in no time for a circumambulation of the temple. The highest towers of south Indian temples are the entrance gates, gopuram. In the featured photo you see our first view of the temple: the north gate at night. We walked eastwards, towards the sea. Since the east gate is the most auspicious entrance, if there was any activity at this time, we expected it to be there.
We saw little. The bazaar was almost closed. I talked to the security at the gate about what I could take in (almost nothing) and turned to go when a well-decorated elephant slipped by. It was over before I could take a photo. But behind it was a long procession. A nadaswaram started up as the procession neared the gate, along with its accompanying drums. A crowd of umbrellas was advancing towards me down the street. I hadn’t expected anything as interesting as this!
The musicians and umbrella bearers took up position at the entrance, and I had a clear view of the center of the procession. The movement halted for a while, and I had a good view of the main attraction. This was an idol of Ganesha mounted on an enormous lion. The idol seemed to be made of copper, and the lion was probably made of brass. Although the mouse is most often shown as Ganesha’s vahana, a lion is also canonical. He is said to have inherited it from his mother, Parvati. But this is uncommon enough that this was the first time I’d seen this representation.
A crowd had gathered to watch the procession. I saw many other cameras out. The Family had taken up position across the road from me. This turned out to be a better place to take photos from, since she had the light at her back. The photos she took with her mobile phone were sharper than mine, for example that of the priest as he enters the temple (above). I was closer to the action, but shooting against the light.
Finally the attendants positioned the cart so that the wheels could turn in the right direction, and smoothly and without fuss the procession turned into the famous east-west corridor of the temple. Since photography is prohibited inside, this was one of the few opportunities I had to take photos of the corridor. We were happy that instead of flopping into bed we’d counted on Ganesh chaturthi being a special event and come out for a walk.
Everything had gone well. We missed all traffic in Mumbai because we had to reach the airport in the middle of the morning on a holiday. It was the beginning of the Ganesh festival, but it was too early for crowds. The flight was on time. Sathiamoorthy was waiting for us at the airport in Madurai with his car: a clean and well-maintained little thing, just right for the two of us at the back. We were on the highway almost immediately.
Before I was prepared for anything to happen, I saw one of the odd sights that trips usually hand you: an elephant riding a truck. I fumbled for my phone and took a bad shot as we passed by. What was it doing on a truck. Tame elephants just walk from one place to another. Maybe this was being taken too far away for a half day’s walk. It didn’t look unhappy with its situation. We zipped along, and I was fairly sure that we would reach Rameswaram in three hours, just after sunset.
Our luck ran out soon, as we hit a road block. Tamil Nadu has been in a political turmoil recently, with two major party leaders dying. Parties have to keep spirits up in such situations. One party had a campaign in which workers cycled from village to village. They were going to use the same route that we planned to use; so the roadblock. We had to wait until the whole cavalcade passed. The police and the political workers were a friendly lot, so I managed to take some photos.
The Family decided to make use of the stop to get some coffee. Right at the crossing there was a small highway food stall. The usual small snacks, tea, and coffee were available. I looked at the goodies on display and got a hundred grams of wonderfully crisp ragi murukku to go with the coffee. The filter coffee is always the star of the show in Tamil Nadu, and this place was no disappointment. The piping hot coffee was poured into a small cup in a meter long stream for each of us. The aroma, the sweet milky taste, and the jolt of caffeine wake you into the beginning of a holiday.
Unfortunately we were delayed by a couple of hours between the roadblock and a detour. We reached Rameswaram late.
I had read up on the Christmas cyclone of 1964 before travelling to Dhanushkodi, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of the town which was destroyed by what we would now call a super cyclone. This was one of the first such storms to be imaged by satellite, and the largest storm which has ever straddled the equator. On the bright and sunny day when The Family and I walked through the destroyed town it was hard to imagine the storm.
A low pressure zone was spotted in the Andaman Sea on December 15. This grew as it traveled west-northwest towards Sri Lanka. Satellite imagery was at its infancy at that time, but the storm was unusual enough to attract attention. It developed peak steady winds of 240 Km/hour, with gusts estimated at 280 Km/hour, just before it hit Sri Lanka on December 23. The storm surge peaked in Dhanushkodi and reached 7.6 meters, completely drowning the town. A train was submerged killing 200 passengers.
The port of Dhanushkodi was an important link with Sri Lanka since 1914, with a busy custom house. Over 800 people drowned in the town, and many fishing boats were lost. A single road now passes through a narrow spit of land. We saw a row of broken houses near the old railway station and decided to walk up to them. They looked like colonial bungalows, the kind that would house the families of high-ranking railway staff.
The Family and I walked separately around the lonely building. The sea was slowly reclaiming it. Buildings of this kind had tiled roofs. They must have blown off right at the beginning, and the storm surge would have engulfed the whole structure. If there were people inside, they had no chance of survival. There is nothing here any more. Empty doorways gape at the sand and sea.
I had expected to find moss and growth. There’s very little of that. The tides wash up high fairly often these days. The coral reefs were destroyed in the storm, and the sea and sand have been shifting ever since. The plaster over the bricks is slowly falling away. The exposed bricks were wet and bright red. The tide was now at its lowest, but the bricks had not dried since the last high tide.
My needs are simple: a nice beach, good sun*, clean sand**, food and drink. Other simple needs include: being far from home***, a clean and comfortable bed to sleep in, enough plug points to charge my phone, laptop, and camera, a good breakfast, reasonable wifi****, fresh fish, good coffee, a nice aromatic tea*****, lots of water to drink. Simple really. That’s all. I do appreciate a lack of mosquitoes and other biting insects, a shower whenever I feel hot, nice people******. Not too much to ask for, is it?
But I would give that all up for an interesting photo. This shack on Dhanushkodi beach had nice coffee and great chiaroscuro. Later, walking along the beach I stopped at the play of light and shadow on a piece of driftwood. No crab poked a head out of their bolt holes.
(*) Remember the sunscreen.
(**) Hold the plastic.
(***) But with a comfortable connection without too many layovers.
(****) That can’t be hard, can it?
(*****) Make that hot, please. I hate cold tea.
(******) The kind who read, like, or comment on your blogs are the best
Life is too busy, and the wifi too troublesome, to leave more than a bare trace of what we have been up to. We’ve become beachcombers for a while, abusing our skins with sun and salt, and our hair with salt winds. In the once-bustling town of Dhanushkodi we now found the oddest beaches. Quicksand and good beach are mixed with each other as the sea erodes the coastline at one place, and deposits sands in another.
We found masses of cockle shells in all colours. Was this colour (featured photo) due to oil from the fishing boats, or natural? I don’t know enough about sea shells to be able to give an answer. And the odd fish that had washed up? I guessed it must be a deep-water fish, from the hard skeleton that it has. I’d always thought that fish bones would sink, not float to land. I’m wrong, but why?
Bits of plastic are inevitable on beaches now. Sometimes it is a large bottle like the one in the photo above. But more often they are smaller things: eroded pieces of thermocol, a little part of something which you mistake for a shell until you pick it up, frayed bits of nylon rope, tootbrushes, sandals. Almost anything that we make goes into the sea, and then a little bit of it comes back.
I held on to this image for several months hoping to be able to work it into a nice story. I couldn’t find one. So before I forget, here is this photo of condemned railway coaches going past a traffic jam on the road. The story I’m tying that to is rather trite, but it is a photo that I like. I used to love traveling by train, but it is hard now to plan ahead to buy train tickets. Flying and driving is not the most eco-friendly way to travel, but given work schedules, there is little else that is possible now.
It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.
When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get