In late evening, the 22nd December 1964 a small train ,which was the only one from Madras to Dhanushkodi in Tamilnadu, South India entered the lands end, called Pamban. It was tugged by a steam engine, manned by five railway staff and had 110 passengers on board. It slowly yet steadily chugged towards its destination, just a few kilometers away.
The town of Dhanushkodi was a small prosperous island connected by a bridge with the mainland of India.Surrounded by the sea and high sand dunes it is situated about 29 kilometers from Thalaimannar in Srilanka. It had a population of about 1000 people who were government staff, fishermen and traders. A major port for sail boats, railway station, customs offices, school, post office, church and temples dotted its political landscape.
The town was originally connected by land with Thalaimannar and people crossed freely between India and Srilanka. In 1948 and 1949 the smaller less inhabited islands and rocky coral reefs, sank about 5 meters deep into the sea, due to a vertical tectonic shift parallel to the Indian coastline.The natural landscape of about 7 kilometers all around the island was submerged beneath the shallow waters of the Palk straits. This landmark reef which was a causeway between Dhanushkodi and Thalaimannar was called by the British as “Adams Bridge”.The natives called it “Ramar Palam” or a bridge built by King Rama who was believed to be an incarnation of a Hindu God with the help of Hanuman, his faithful devotee, who was also a king of a monkey tribe.
The purpose of such a construction was to march an army into Srilanka which was the land of Ravanna, a Dravidian king who had abducted Rama’s wife Sita, with the evil intent of marrying her, against her wishes. Dhanushkodi was the end of the Indian sub continent which was closest to the Srilankan Island. It was therefore from here, where probably the bridge would have been, if at all constructed. The Hindu epic Valmiki Ramayana and the native Kambar Ramayana narrates that Rama was an incarnate, who was a just and virtuous ruler, who believed in the virtue of one man, one woman and one marriage in one’s only life. To take another mans wife as well as possess a woman against her will therefore, was considered a heinous crime. This town is from where Rama along with his brother Laxman, and devotee Hanuman marched his army along the bridge to overcome Ravanna. It was here that Rama returned with his wife brother and ardent devotee with the victorious army to return to his land in north India. It was therefore for many ages considered to be a very important Hindu religious sacred pilgrimage center.
Train number 653 had therefore many pilgrims from various parts of India. They had braved the persisting rains of a storm that was brewing into a cyclone in in the nearby, south, Andaman sea.
It was almost midnight as the train was just a few hundred meters from the railway station at Dhanushkodi when the storm, which had turned into a cyclone crossed Srilanka. It had moved at a speed above 400-550 km per day, with winds more than 280 kilometers per hour. It coupled itself with a tidal wave of about 7 meters high and landed on the Indian coast cutting off all communication as well as destroying the bridge, which the train had crossed an hour before. While the train signals fell, the train grated to a halt just a few meters away from the station. The engine driver sensing trouble, chugged the train forward trying to reach safety, within the walls of the station. The train was too slow and the typhoon and tidal wave struck like an avenging angel. It derailed the train, dragged it off and along with the rail tracks, and submerged it under the sea. Train 653 took many a tumble to sink like the Titanic. All the passengers and staff lost their lives but would they have survived if they had reached the station? No, the fury of nature was so harsh that that none in the town, survived the tragedy. The tragic incident spared nothing.
The tragedy left the entire nation in shock, while it strung the town with many ghost stories. Talk about nights when one could hear the hooting whistle of the train, wailing of the dead people, crying of children, howling of dogs, screeching of owls and wandering spirits were many. No one dared to stay overnight, even though they ventured to the desolate town during day. The Government declared it a ghost town and restoration was declared unnecessary. The ghost town for many years therefore stood desolate, , reminding all of the tragedy and its haunted past.
As an adult I relish history but when a child I dearly loved stories. I remember my grand mother telling me how my forefathers crossed this route by land and sea as traders. It was she who put me to dream of places while unwittingly scaring the other grand children with her ghost stories about this town.
My cousins from France visited and we reminisced the childhood tales. Curiosity made us make a trip to this ghost town more than 257 kilometers away. There, the landscape fascinated us and painted my grand mothers stories into a motion picture of sorts.
Today, the ill fated town is hard to reach though only a few miles away from the mainland. One has to hire a four wheeler jeep or van and drive through the backwaters to make it to the devastation. It is now teeming with tourists and pilgrims alike. A few families of fishermen have settled themselves a few kilometers away from the site but thatched souvenir shops have sprung up like ghosts and are haunting the beauty away from the history of what this town was and what it had become to be.
I very quietly took photos while listening to the slow breaking of waves on the shores of the bay. The howling wind flowing through the demolitions was another highlight. I wondered what the night would turn out to be, with its dark skies and voices of the ghosts, if one believed in what was said about them.What if they could still be roaming here? Though I wished to stay back I was told that tourists or pilgrims were not allowed to visit or stay back after dusk.
I therefore left the shores of Dhanushkodi with a sigh and loved my grandmother more for her stories about this ghost town.I realized that it is upon us elders, who are more benefited with history, education as well as technology to rationalize things while sharing our experiences with our children for fraternity to know about nature, beautiful places, wonders and maybe some times about ghost towns with never ending stories.