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.

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.