Pamban island was a lovely weekend getaway for us, not only the drowned town of Dhanushkodi at its southern end, but also the ancient town of Rameshwaram. The town is mentioned as a place of pilgrimage in the Skanda Puran, which is dated to the 8th century CE. So, it is a reasonable guess that the kernel of the town, the temple, existed already 1500 years ago. On our way out, I stopped the car at this orange house to take a photo of the naive painting of the religious story which the temple celebrates. According to it, Pamban Island is the place where the monkey army of Ram built a causeway to the island of Lanka, kingdom of the demon Ravana, who had abducted his wife Sita.
This other image I had captured in a street right outside the temple. Beautifully executed, the detail that drew my eye is how the drip of the black paint is incorporated into the composition. I loved this piece of art. Naive is the last word that you might apply to it. Look at the beautifully rendered lotus leaves in that delicious blue! Could the woman in the pose of supplication be a personification of a lotus flower? Then, is the goddess a depiction of Lakshmi? Perhaps it is different a religious story, maybe from the Ramayana? I do not recognize this picture. If you do, please leave an explanatory comment for me and other readers.
Around the parking lot in Aryaman beach are food stalls. I strolled around the perimeter looking at the choices available. We’d planned on eating at the beach, after the previous day’s spectacular lunch prepared by fishermen in Dhanushkodi. There were the obligatory few ice cream vendors. As you can see in the photo below, they weren’t doing much business. Elsewhere people were just setting up their make-shift stalls and cleaning out pots and pans. It looked like it was too early in the day for customers to turn up.
On one edge of the parking lot someone had already started frying fish. I liked the roof: a canvas hoarding for a movie would lead a zombie life here providing shade (photo below). No coal fire in this stall; the cook was using wood. He’d probably just collected it from the area around him, because the wood was not completely dry. The fire sputtered a little, and produced quite a bit of smoke. The fish sizzled in hot oil. Any time is fried fish time I suppose, but maybe not just before you get into the water. There didn’t seem to be a cooler full of fish with these guys, so either they just shut down their shop when the fish on display was sold, or they got fresh supplies from local fishermen.
Fishing boats were drawn up on the beach. Fishing nets had dried and were bundled up next to the boats. Maybe they fish at night here, like the fisherfolk in Mumbai. We walked along the beach and came across two men washing cleaned fish in the waters of the Palk straits. Sathiamoorthy had many questions for them while I took photos. In the featured photo you can see how gentle the slope of the beach is. Sathiamoorthy summarized the long conversation for us. These were not fishermen, but they’d bought the pan full of fish from the morning’s landing. They are preparing for people who’ll appear for lunch. There wasn’t much choice of catch here, so we decided to drive on.
When I was looking for a hotel in Pamban island, one suggestion thrown up by a search was on Aryaman beach. I searched for this beach and found it described in superlatives: silky sand, long beach, beautiful, uncrowded. But it was ten kilometers away from Pamban, on the mainland, so we decided not to stay here. But it sounded like the perfect place to stop after an early check out when we left Rameswaram. Our plan to spend the morning here, eat something on the beach if possible, and then to go on to Madurai.
Sathiamoorthy was excited about it. While driving he told us that it became famous after it was used as a location for a blockbuster Tamil movie. I filed the information away to check on later. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to search out this movie (if you have a clue, please leave a comment). As he parked he said that something should be done to improve the beach. Why, was it dirty? No, there was just no place to eat here.
It is a lovely beach. The sand is indeed silky smooth. The beach slopes very gently into the calm waters of the Palk Strait. It was a hot day; we saw a few families with children taking dips in the sea. Little fish swam in the shallow wate. We spotted a turtle swim away into the sea. But for our tastes the sea was too calm, almost a swimming pool. The lack of waves also meant that there was no breeze. If we’d been here really early, we might have enjoyed a long walk along the beach. You can see in the featured photo how long it is. But it was getting too hot for comfort, and we called an end to our morning. We had miles to go before lunch.
Rameswaram is a temple town, centered on the ancient temple of Ramanathaswamy, which is another name for Shiva. Every few centuries a layer of gopura (gates) was added to the core temple with the shiva lingas. No cameras are allowed inside. We walked through the famous corridors, gaping at the long painted outermost corridor lined with statues. Then we passed into the next circle; no plaster and colour here, only finely carved stone. The carvings were finest and most exuberant in the innermost layer.
Later in the day I was at the western gopuram while the setting sun shone on it. This was a wonderful sight, I thought, as I took the featured photo. In this wonderful light I could zoom in on the clay idols which decorate the gopuram. At the top is a gigantic representation of the mythical Makara. This recurs in the rest of the structure as well. But the different layers of the structure contain well-modeled human figures. I could see elements of the Ramayana depicted here. The uniform golden colour of the gates of this temple are unusual.
This style of decoration is followed in smaller temples. At the edge of Rameswaram town, on the way to Dhanushkodi, we saw a temple to Nayaki Amman. The gate was simple: two pillars with a beam laid across it. This is a modern temple, so the gate was made of concrete, with baked clay idols put over it as decoration. The bright colours are characteristic of south Indian temples. The female figures on the pillars are modelled pretty well, although I found it difficult to tell because of the foreshortening. The figures over the beam are less well done.
On the way to the Pamban bridge I saw this lonely but bright temple on the sea side. In the bright sulight it looked like it could have been the subject of a painting by an Indian De Chirico. Coming closer, I realized that it was a temple for Kali. I’d begun to recognize the red and white stripes as a sign denoting a temple. There was no one around, except a person who tried to sell us sliced fruit.
The clay figures decorating the spire above the temple were clearly the work of an amateur. Parvati, Ganesha and Murugan were done fairly well for an amateur. They stand in wooden poses, but are not misshapen. The lions, on the other hand, are clearly done by an artist who has never seen the animal. I would see such extremes in temples through the rest of the trip. As always, the quality of the work depends on whether you are able to pay for the services of a good artisan.
I’m a city person. As far as I’m concerned, water comes out of a tap. I’d not thought much about the water supply to the fishermen who live in Dhanushkodi until I noticed a woman drawing water from a well outside the church of coral. Suddenly the absurdity of my assumption struck me: the villagers could not possibly have had water piped in from the mainland. I walked up to the well and looked in. The water was fairly close to the surface. I wondered whether this was potable water, or strongly contaminated by the sea. At lunch we asked the fisher family which managed the shack we ate in. They said that they could drink the water. I was intrigued by the shallow aquifer near the sea.
There must be studies of this, The Family said. A quick search led me to many studies of the quality of ground water in this region. It seems that seepage of sea water into these aquifers is a continuing problem. But the papers don’t answer the question which puzzles me: how large must the aquifers be on this island? It has seen large numbers of visitors over centuries, even before the population exploded in the last hundred years or so. For there to be any potable water at all, the aquifers must be either large, or quickly replenished.
There is a lot about the geology of this area that is not well understood. The Ramarpalam which is visible above the ground, and the water table below are probably just two aspects of the interesting geology of this area.
Pamban island is supposed to be a good place to watch migratory birds starting in October. We were probably a couple of weeks early, but The Family had packed her binoculars. As it turned out, the beaches were so wonderful that we forgot to take time off to go look for birds (yes, you’re right; we are not natural born birders). On the occasional mud flat next to the sea in Dhanushkodi we saw very few birds: some sandpipers, no egrets, kingfishers, herons or gulls. If the migrants had already started coming then we should have seen some.
We saw lots of crows and black kites (Milvus migrans) beating against the wind. Looking closely at them I realized that there were several Brahminy kites (Haliastur indus) amongst them. These are close relatives of the more common black kites. I eventually took a photo of one at a tiny pond next to the road in Pamban town. These strikingly coloured scavengers are found in an arc of land from India through south eastern Asia all the way to Australia. It has been a long time since I saw them. Interestingly, although their numbers are decreasing rapidly, they have still not fallen catastrophically enough to move them out of the “Least Concern” category of the IUCN red list.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, but I don’t have any Gandhi memorabilia to write about. Instead I have a photo of the memorial to the 11th President of India: A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. He started as an engineer, became the chief of ISRO, and after retirement was elected the president for a single term in 2002. When the memory of the Mahatma is fenced into the little boundary of keeping your house clean, it is good to break out of it to look at the country which he was partly responsible for creating. This is a country in which the son of a fisherman could become a president.
Kalam is buried in Pamban island, a few kilometers from the site of the house where he was born. We walked through the memorial built around his grave. From outside the building looks blocky and closed, but the corridors inside with enclose little gardens. From inside the structure is full of light and air, not at all like its forbidding facade. I wish I could find out which architect designed it.
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.