On The Tip of Rama's Bow
October 11, 2011 9:57 AM   Subscribe

India's Lost Southern Border: Somewhere near the town of Mandapam on peninsular India, India's vast rail network is at its closest to the sea-coast; indeed, it crosses a 2.4 kilometre stretch of the sea, and then extends for another 12 kilometres, before terminating in an ancient temple town, Rameswaram(YouTube), close to the impressive Ramanatha Swamy temple around which the town is centered. Another 20 kilometres through an increasingly rough terrain brings us to a forgotten fishing hamlet, Moonram Chathiram, before bringing us to some ruined buildings, abandoned rain-tracks, a submerged temple and a ruined church. Welcome to Dhanushkodi(YouTube). Till tragedy struck on the night of December 22nd 1964, this was India's only border-town in the south.

So both India's and Sri Lanka's territorial waters extend for a distance of up to 22 km from its continental shelf. That would place the border somewhere along one of these shoals [wiki, previously] between Dhanushkodi and Thalaimunnar, a village on the tip of the Munnar island in Sri Lanka.

Passengers would get a ticket on the Boat Mail from Madras Egmore, get off at Dhanushkodi to get into a waiting ferry that would take them across the 30 kilometre stretch to Thalaimunnar, where they would board another train to Colombo. Swami Vivekananda famously took this journey in reverse on his return to the sub-continent after speaking in the Parliament of World Religions and other venues in the West. Dhanushkodi lays claim to being the hometown and birthplace of India's 11th President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, whose family used to lease fishing boats until the Cyclone of 1964.

Now, tropical cyclones are common to the Bay of Bengal, but not necessarily at that latitude and in that season. By night of 22nd December 1964 [PDF; meterologists' report] however, a depression near the Andaman islands developed into a storm system, and moving westwards very rapidly, struck land at 150 knots per hour, unleashing tidal waves that were 8 yards high. The Boat Mail had just left the Dhanushkodi at land-fall, and was immediately swept up in the waves, killing everyone onboard. Many souls perished; many survived by sheltering themselves at the Ramanatha Swamy temple. The town of Dhanushkodi was effectively swept away, soon to be declared a ghost-town.

In due course, sectarian tensions in Sri Lanka led to strife, (in which India played no small part), thus leading to the closure what was becoming a restive international border.

Now that peace has returned to the Jaffna peninsula, there's talk of re-building the road and railway links in both countries. There's already a new cruise service operating between Tuticorin and Colombo; there's talk of restarting a ferry from Rameswaram to Talaimunnar as well. As always, some political opposition might have to be overcome along the way.

No word, though, if the erstwhile town of Dhanoshkodi will ever be revived.
posted by the cydonian (12 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
All of this is new to me. Thanks for the very well done post.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 10:13 AM on October 11, 2011

Wow, thank you for this impressive post. I grew up in Chennai and have never even heard of Dhanushkodi. I don't have time to delve into all the links right now but will look forward to it this evening.
posted by peacheater at 10:14 AM on October 11, 2011

This is a good post, thanks. Have never heard of this.
posted by everichon at 10:20 AM on October 11, 2011

I wonder what the construction of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal would mean for this area? I'm looking at the proposed alternate routes on wikipedia, and several of them seem to cut this area off from mainland India even more than it is now. I wonder if the current proposed route through would actually spur development again, or whether being right next to a shipping canal would make for even less desirable area for development.

(I remembered reading about this area a while ago with relation to religious objections to the canal project.)
posted by Hactar at 10:46 AM on October 11, 2011

I visited in 2005. Rameswaram is fascinating and virtually ignored by western tourists. Dhanushkodi has a kind of tropical JG Ballard vibe to it; the whole sand spit beyond Rameswaram is incredibly desolate for somewhere so close to the equator.
posted by rhymer at 10:48 AM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

...and very nice post.
posted by rhymer at 10:48 AM on October 11, 2011

Lovely post, thanks very much!
posted by carter at 11:13 AM on October 11, 2011

Apart from all the other awesomeness in this post, I would like to highlight: The Boat Mail.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:19 PM on October 11, 2011

The humanitarian objection to this ferry is impossible to understand without some knowledge of the conflict. The underlying reasons for the Civil War are not gone, the current 'peace' is a negative one of an absence of tension not a positive one of a presence of justice

Vanguard did a piece on where things stood a little while ago
posted by Blasdelb at 9:53 PM on October 11, 2011

Thank you! This is quite a gem.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:26 PM on October 11, 2011

I would like to highlight: The Boat Mail.

Yup, trés trés awesome that, that engaging picture of a boat parked next to a train was the reason I got interested in all of this. :)

(I remembered reading about this area a while ago with relation to religious objections to the canal project.)

Yes, wanted to mention more of that, but it was already long, Dhanushkodi itself was rather romantic in a historical sort of a way, and I wanted to sleep. :)

So as I had said in the previous thread on this, I quite think that the religious aspect is nonsense; none of the lines of argument that right-wing-ers have advanced had convinced me that Sri Lanka is the Lanka, or that Adam's Bridge is the Ramayana-ian vaaradhi. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the temple at Rameswaram in itself was a 10th-11th century attempt at bridging (see what I did here!) the schism between the then warring Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects; it's perhaps the only temple dedicated to Shiva that has Ramayana-ian leanings, so to speak.

That said, as the Wikipedia link on Adam's Bridge says, there apparently are historical records to suggest that, at least until the 14th century, you could walk across the shoals end-to-end between Dhanushkodi and Thalaimunnar. Again, this isn't really that hard to believe - you really don't need to rely on the Ramayana to appreciate this - given the changing ecology of the region, it's quite possible. Indeed, as the meterological report says, Dhanushkodi town itself sank some 5 metres between 1900 and 1940's.

I believe a more compelling line of argument against the Sethusamudram project would be on ecological and sociological consequences; to that end, the Wikipedia page has some credible arguments. However, here's the Sethusamudram Corporation's response, particularly to the argument that dredging would expose India's west coast to more tsunamis.
posted by the cydonian at 11:32 PM on October 11, 2011

awesome post, utterly fascinating reading, thanks!
posted by Wilder at 12:30 AM on October 12, 2011

« Older It's Marrow That I Love   |   Pegasi, Dinosaurs, and Lightning Bolts Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments