Church of coral

The drowned town of Dhanushkodi was big. You can still see the railway station, a post office, a big school, and a church. From the road I saw the front of the church with its niche for a bell. We’d just wandered through the ruins of some houses, but Sathiamoorthy was happy to stop the car. I walked up to the church wondering whether the bell tolled as the Christmas super-cyclone of 1964 approached. Maybe they had tied it down against high winds earlier.

More than half a century, two generations later, there is no sense of tragedy here: only a romantic ruin standing on a clean beach. There’s a steady trickle of tourists. I waited for families to finish taking their group photos in front of the gaping doorway of the church. The last family was large, and apologized for the long time they were taking. I was happy to wait, I assured them. When they went in, the grandfather said to me, “I can’t walk any more.” I told him he was not in the way. I liked him sitting there to give a scale to the photo. So many tourists stop here that a large cluster of shops in shacks has sprung up around it.

I walked around the structure and looked in through a hole in the wall to find that the altar is fairly undamaged. It would have been raised fairly far above the pews, but it is now level with the sand. I realized that the hole that I was looking through would have been a window, possibly raised waist high above the floor of the church. That is a lot of sand, but then it has been many years since the church was abandoned.

There was something interesting about the wall. I stepped forward for a closer look. The church walls had been built of blocks of coral, brick was only used in arches. What an amazing thing to do. The church must have been for the use of the British functionaries here. Stones had been transported to make the railway station and the port. Bricks had been used in houses. It must have been a conscious decision to make this church out of coral. You can see three different types of coral in the photo above. The storm of 1964 killed the reefs here. I wondered whether the previous half a century of work in the surrounding waters had depleted the reefs so much already that the storm just struck a last blow.

We came back later before sunset to walk on the beach here. The sand is very clean. There aren’t even the remains of sea shells. From the number of shops here which sell things made of sea shell, I guess there must be beachcombers busy at work after every high tide, picking up whatever has been washed ashore. I walked out towards the incoming tide to take this photo. The salt wind and water must be at work to wear down this remnant of a short lived port. The atmosphere is gently corrosive. No lichens or moss grow on the walls of this church. We were on the verge of a bad sunburn as we walked away.

Pamban

I liked the view of the fishing village on Pamban’s beach from the road bridge over the Palk strait. In one glance you could guess the main sources of income: fish and coconut. At the horizon here you can see the long isthmus which leads to Dhanushkodi. Since Dhanushkodi port and town was drowned in 1964, Pamban island only has two towns: Pamban and Rameswaram. The vanished economic prosperity created by Dhanushkodi port has not really been compensated by anything new. Tourism and pilgrimage are the mainstays of the island.

The Pamban channel had a flotilla of boats. One reads in newspapers every month about low-level friction between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. This is one of the communities on the Indian which must be most affected by the mismatch of international treaty borders and traditional fishing rights. The Sri Lankan navy patrols the international border and is not very friendly to the Tamil fishermen who stray. It will require decades of effort on both sides for this irritant to be resolved.

In Pamban we passed many small churches. The biggest was the very striking one whose photo you can see above. It is clear what the profession of the majority of the congregation is. Pamban island has a curious mixture of faiths. The most famous person from this island was A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, once the chief of ISRO, and later president of the country. An interestingly large number of shops are named after him; an even larger number have huge portraits of him framed on the wall. Before 1964 there must have been good schools and inspiring teachers here.

Restored temple

Many of the beautiful ancient temples of India have taken to forbidding photography inside. This recent development means that the historic sculptures and beautiful architecture cannot be captured on film any longer. The Kothandaramaswamy temple in Dhanushkodi is more nuanced. It forbids photography of the main idol of Rama with his bow (kothanda), but otherwise photography is allowed. I wasn’t prepared for this, so I couldn’t take photos of the idol of Vibhishana. This idol was special, because the temple is said to commemorate Vibhishana leaving his brother Ravana to join Rama’s army.

One can see from the idols inside that the temple is post-medieval. The intricate sculptures that one sees in the Ramanathaswamy temple and its contemporaries are also missing. It is a few kilometers away from the drowned town of Dhanushkodi, and was spared destruction in the hurricane of 1964. However, it must have needed repairs, because a large stone tablet at the entrance says that it was restored between 1976 and 1978 by Mugneeram Ramkumar Bangur of Calcutta. The structure, with its flat roof, is clearly 20th century modern. A nod to traditional temple architecture is the well-decorated dome at the center of the roof.

I’m very fond of the modern clay images which decorate temples in south India. This one had particularly interesting examples. I specially liked the figure you see in the featured photo, one of four facing the cardinal directions. It incorporates many different artistic influences. Like many minor but important temples, this was surrounded by trees. The champa was in bloom, and its fragrance overlay the briny smell of the sea. It added a nice note to this calm temple.

India’s oldest sea bridge

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 beautiful, and in use.

Drowned town

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.