Rameswaram: Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicating to the nation on Thursday the now-renewed missing link of 9.5 km stretch of the National Highway (NH-49, now new NH 87), that will link the sacred spot of Dhanushkodi, at the Southeastern tip of this pilgrim-island of Rameswaram, is a matter of joy for the locals.
A new beginning unfolds from this auspicious Tamil month of ‘Aadi’, as this vital infrastructure link holds the key for the rejuvenation of this once flourishing coastal town. Nature’s fury had blown it into smithereens, as a super cyclonic storm on the night of December 23, 1964, had in one stroke not only washed away over 300 train passengers but also reduced Dhanushkodi to rubble.
The geography of the epic Ramayana would be incomplete without Dhanushkodi, said to be shaped like Rama’s bow itself, and the nearby ancient Shiva temple in Rameswaram where Lord Ram, on retrieving Seetha after vanquishing the Lankan King Ravanna performed a purification ritual on way back to his home in Ayodhya.
What further adds to Dhanushkodi as a ‘sacred theertha ’from‘ Puranic time is that it is a confluence of two seas – Rathnakaram and Mahodhikam-, in modern days known as the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Straits. So much so, Hinduism’s folklore has it that a pilgrimage from ‘Kashi’ is never complete without a dip in Dhanushkodi, enchantingly encircled by sea on three sides.
This coastal tip did have a flourishing maritime past as historians point out that during the British period, a small port was developed in 1914 in Dhanushkodi. It was the point that anchored a rail-cum-sea route right from the erstwhile Presidency capital of old Madras to Talaimannar in Northern Sri Lanka and the train on that route was called ‘Boat Mail’. The rail link to the port-town and from here a ferry across the shallow Palk Straits to Talaimannar was part of the umbilical chord relationship between India and Sri Lanka.
‘Irwin’ and ‘Goshan’ were two small passenger ships that ferried people who alighted by train from Madras and other places at Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar. Thus Dhanushkodi evolved into a tiny commercial hub, earning the sobriquet ‘Kutti Singapore’ those days.
But all that changed so dramatically after the 1964 tsunami-like phenomenon that ravaged this coastal town. The railway line beyond Rameswaram disappeared under mounds of white sand, even as the heritage structures including a church, a post-office and railway station at Dhanushkodi turned archaeological remains.
Considering the mammoth proportions of the tragedy and the extent of its vulnerability, the Tamil Nadu government then declared Dhanushkodi an uninhabitable place.
The Ramanathapuram district administration had then made arrangements to resettle and rehabilitate the survivors of the 1964 tragedy in other coastal areas in the district, as that coastal stretch, for all practical purposes, was cut off from even Rameswaram, leave alone the Indian mainland that is accessed by the Pamban rail and road bridge later.
However, for about 650 fishermen’s families of Dhanushkodi, whose resilience was built on the intense knowledge of fishing along that spot alone to eke out a livelihood, returned back here, despite the lack of basic facilities like roads, water supply, electricity, school or a hospital. For long years, they were content to live like inland fishermen confined to a small area. Years later, the laying of an 18-km road from Rameswaram town to Mukundarayachatram, re-kindled pilgrims’ interest to try and reach Dhanushkodi and its farthest sea point of Arichalmunai.
This road-stretch raised income possibilities for the locals too as pilgrims managed to traverse the remaining six-km distance between Mukundarayachatram and Dhanushkodi-Arichalmunail in rugged jeeps on the sandy stretch with completely no road access at all. Hundreds of pilgrims, albeit in batches, began to take this rough journey, packed like sardines on these ‘phat-phat jeeps’ to offer oblations to their forefathers at Dhanushkodi.
Meanwhile, the Sethusamudram project raised fresh hopes for locals as 760 hectares of land were planned to be rehabilitated by filling it up with silt dredged elsewhere as part of the project to deepen the Palk Straits and make it navigable for bigger ships. People here believed that it could spell the commercial revival of Dhaushkodi after four decades.
However, those hopes were to be dashed soon as the Sethusamudram project was shelved on environmental grounds. As late as 2006, a primary school was opened in Dhanushkodi which was later upgraded to a middle school with classes up to standard eight. About 72 children are studying in that school now, small consolation for the locals.
A more significant transformation came during the NDA regime in 2014, when the construction of a new all-weather highway with sufficient precautions against sea erosion on either side was taken up for a stretch of five-km from Mukundarayachatram to Dhanushkodi at a cost of Rs 26 crore. That road, a National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) project along with the state government is a reality now. Work on the remaining 4.50-km stretch from Dhanushkodi to Arichalmunai at a cost of Rs 26 crore has also been taken up and is expected to be completed soon.
Boost to religious tourism
Once the full NH link between Dhanushkodi-Arichalmunai to the mainland via Rameswaram and Pamban is a reality, locals believe it would give a big boost to not only religious tourism in this part of the island, but also give a logistic advantage to the Indian security forces maintain a strategic vigil along this segment of the coastal stretch. Already encroachments have come up along the completed part of the new NH link in the form of eateries, petty shops and so on as tourists inflow of late has picked up considerably to Dhanushkodi. But it is in this new road link the people here now see the possibility of this coastal spot regaining its lost cultural sheen and tourism potential....