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Dhanushkodi- The Indian ghost town destroyed by unmerciful cyclone in 1964

Ian Smith

Dhanushkodi is a haunting ghost town in India, the name is Indian for “end of the bow,” describing its location at the south-eastern tip of Pamban Island of the Tamil Nadu state.

Situated to the South-East of Pamban, about 18 miles (29 km) west of Talaimannar in Sri Lanka,  Dhanushkodi was demolished and destroyed by a terrible cyclone in 1964.

Dhanushkodi has the only land border between India and Sri Lanka which is one of the smallest in the world-just 45 meters in length on a shoal in Palk Strait. Before the 1964 cyclone, Dhanushkodi was a flourishing tourist and pilgrimage town.

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The Hindu scripture Ramayana says that Lord Rama built a bridge or causeway, called Ram Setu or ‘Rama’s bridge’, between the mainland and Sri Lanka, in order to bring his army across. After Rama won the war and crowned a new king of Lanka, Vibhishana asked Rama to destroy the bridge. According to the Hindu story, Rama then broke the bridge with one end of his bow. Hence, the name Dhanushkodi or ‘end of the bow’ (dhanush meaning ‘bow’ and kodi meaning ‘end’). It is also said that Rama originally marked the spot for the bridge with one end of his famous bow that he strung to marry Princess Sita. The series of rocks and islets currently found in a line between India and Sri Lanka suggests there was indeed a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. The Kodhanda Ram Kovil temple marks the place where Rama is said to have begun his journey to Lanka.

An aerial view of Dhanushkodi, at the tip of Rameswaram

Hindu pilgrims usually bathe in the ocean here before completing the pilgrimage to Rameswaram. The spot is considered a sacred confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. In addition, it is said that pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi in North India is not complete without also worshipping at Rameswaram, including the ritual bath at Dhanushkodi.

The beach near Dhanushkodi Town. The metal road ends here.

The beach near Dhanushkodi Town. The metal road ends here.

The area around Rameswaram has been frequently ravaged by several high-intensity cyclones and storms in the past. A scientific study conducted by the Geological Survey of India indicated that the southern part of Dhanushkodi Township, facing the Gulf of Mannar, sank by almost 5 metres (16 ft) in 1948 and 1949, due to vertical tectonic movement of land parallel to the coastline. As a result of this, a patch of land of about 0.5 kilometres (0.31 mi) in width, stretching 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) from north to south, submerged in the sea along with many places of worship, residential areas, roads and other structures. Incidentally, Tanjavur (Tanjore) Raja’s choultry, a known dharmashala for pilgrims in those days, located in this area, also submerged.

Before the 1964 cyclone, there was a train service up to Dhanushkodi called the Boat Mail from Madras Egmore (Now Chennai Egmore). The train would halt at a pier on the southeastern side of Dhanushkodi township, where a waiting steamer transported passengers to Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait.

 

Remnants of the Dhanushkodi Railway Station

Remnants of the Dhanushkodi Railway Station

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The 1964 cyclone was unique in many ways. It started with a formation of a depression with its centre at 5°N 93°E in the South Andaman Sea on 17 December 1964. On 19 December it intensified into a cyclonic storm. The formation of depressions at such low latitudes as 5°N is rare in Indian seas though such cases of typhoon development within 5 degrees of the Equator have been reported in the North Western Pacific.That the Rameswaram cyclone not only formed at such a low latitude but also intensified into a severe cyclonic storm at about the same latitude is indeed a rare occurrence. After 21 December 1964, its movement was westwards, almost in a straight line, at the rate of 400 to 550 kilometres (250 to 340 mi) per day. On 22 December it crossed Vavunia, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) with a wind velocity of 280 kilometres per hour (170 mph), moved into the Palk Strait in the night and made landfall at Dhanushkodi on the night of 22–23 December 1964. It was estimated that tidal waves were 7 metres (23 ft) high when it crossed Rameswaram.

 

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On the night of 22 December at 23:55 hours, 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 from entering the Dhanushkodi Railway Station when it was hit by a massive tidal wave. A few metres 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 whole train was washed away, killing all 115 on board. The tragedy came to light only after 48 hours, when the railway headquarters issued a bulletin based on the information given by the marine superintendent, Mandapam.

 

The Beach near old Dhanushkodi Town. It's called Archal Munai in local tongue.

The Beach near old Dhanushkodi Town. It’s called Archal Munai in local tongue.

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 kilometres (17 mi) away from the bridge. The bridge, connecting mainland India with Rameswaram Island, was also destroyed in the cyclone.

 

Wrecked fishing boat at Lands End, Dhanushkodi

Wrecked fishing boat at Lands End, Dhanushkodi

Altogether, over 1,800 people died in the cyclonic storm. All dwellings and other structures in Dhanushkodi town were marooned 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. Eyewitness accounts recollected of 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 as Ghost town and unfit for living. Only a few fisherfolk now live there.

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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 kilometres 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 metres (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.