It had taken nearly 4 hours to reach Pamban Island from Madurai and apart from the 1st awkward half of the journey, it had been a great experience. My co travelers had been groups of Bihari families from Darbhanga and Madhubani districts, Bihar and they had been most unprepared to have me amongst them. The whole bunch of them had unanimously gawked at my “fish out of the water” presence, my tattoos and short hair and I had stared back with equal ferocity at their bundle of bare feet half naked children. There had been a whole lot of noisy chirpy children who had gone pant and shoe less throughout the entire journey and I had tried, without success, to imagine my own prissy little daughter there.
The men however, with their mellifluous Maithili accent and elegant sikhas (long tufts of hair left at the top of tonsured heads of orthodox Hindu males) had been quite suave and I had loved the way their hairy crowning strips had dangled every time they had nodded their heads. Their women had been simply fantastic and regardless of age, they had been gaudily beautiful. Sporting thick columns of neon orange dust in the parting of their hair, colourful glass bangles, bright printed sarees and big moon like bindis (dots in the middle of their brows), they had been absolutely gorgeous. Proud of their marital status and happy to have been on vacation, they had been decked in their Sunday best and the amount of bling flaunted inside the little bus had been quite blinding.
The bus itself had been strangely segregated and the whole Bihari bunch had sniffed at me in annoyed confusion, as neither of us had been sure of which way to go. The giggling and blushing ladies had huddled on one side of the bus, while the men had neatly grouped on the other leaving their half naked children to scamper down the aisles playfully. Nylon bags, pots, pans and sheets had been strewn all over the place and the coach had reeked strongly of spicy food. Terribly under dressed, impossibly bland and carrying an ink art decorated body, I had never felt more outlandish in my life and the fierce staring game had continued even after my seating arrangement at the ladies section.
It had only been 7 in the morning and suddenly the day had seemed to have gotten tortuously long, with no possible way out in sight. I had been the last one to join the group and the Madurai morning traffic had been delightfully light as we had maneuvered out of the city limits. Tamil Nadu highway had stretched ahead like a smooth narrow ribbon and vehicles had raced on it at reckless speeds. Loud, annoying horns had filled the hot southern morning and dry semi arid land had bordered on both sides of the road. In every part of India, we use vehicle horns as a mode of communication, rather than an emergency equipment as it is originally meant to be and in the southern states, they give honking a whole new meaning.
South Indian roads are filled with grinning drivers, who love indulging in raucous, abrasive to the ears, honking games and they compete with each other in volume, musical composition and other highly annoying qualities of their horns. The result is a cacophony which assails every non Indian like a hail of bullets and drives tourists (especially foreigners) berserk. That morning too, the highway had been noisy as usual and the sun had burst into sudden intensity as we had raced towards Rameshwaram.
Tamil Nadu countryside had seemed to be made up of only 2 shades, yellow and dusty green and litter had choked nature out of existence. The sandy unkind land had been broken by scrubby thorny acacia bushes and a faded blue sky had tiredly stretched overhead. Quaint, clean pockets of villages had appeared now and then and trash hills had towered, immediately outside their periphery. The entire scene had been depressingly dismal and the endless stretch of badly littered, toxic country side had been an utter eye sore.
Intensely bored and suddenly very lonesome, I had shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep as hot, dry air had blown harshly on my face. Excited children had shrieked in thin little voices and the Bihari bunch had gregariously enjoyed their annual holiday. Farmers, school teachers and lower rank government clerks, the trip to Rameshwaram had been their long cherished dream and they had slogged and saved every precious penny for two years to make it happen. They had been in real holiday mood and I had jealously pretended to be completely unaware of their presence, as songs, loud chatter and food smells had filled the bus. A few of them had brought along their elderly parents on the holy pilgrimage and they had gloated with pride at having fulfilled their son’s duties optimally.
Taking care of our aging parents, sending them on pilgrimages etc, are epitomes of children’ s love for the previous generation and in India, we take pride in such gestures. The older Bihari couples had been more stoically silent and except for occasional fierce discharge of red stream of spit/nose blowing through the open window, they had stared at me unblinkingly through thick, foggy glasses. Boredom had settled in fast and I had found myself deeply questioning my rational thinking capacity, when thankfully a tea break had happened.
Nothing bonds Indians faster than chai (tea) and gossip and at the roadside pit stop, called dhaba there had been plenty of both. After 2 cups of tea in earthen pots, the ladies had included me into their folds and questions about my tattoos, family, marital status, employment etc had flowed like water. They had been deeply intrigued by my solo woman traveler status and to keep my new friends happy, I had struggled hard to give as much acceptably sedate (and sometimes concocted) answers as possible. After the ice breaking tea break, time had raced through rural Tamil Nadu and soon a blue strip of frothing ocean had appeared along the road.
Pamban Bridge had zoomed ahead and Rameshwaram had been only a few minutes away. Excitement had rippled through my co travelers and their loud religious hymns had filled the bus. I too had looked forward to Pamban, although it had been Dhanushkodi which had been on my mind. Excitement had visibly peaked as the bus had sped over the sturdy Pamban Bridge and the Indian mainland had eventually melted away. An endless vista of blue had spread on both sides of the bus and gulls had shrieked noisily over the floating crowds of fishing boats.
We had paused midway over the Palk Strait, for a customary photo stop and all of us had excitedly spilled out to stretch our legs. The sun had been high overhead and in the harsh glare, Pamban Island had seemed like a mirage. A sharp odour of drying fish had filled the air and the two elemental blues had somewhere merged into the international border. The adjoining railway bridge, which connected the island with the Indian mainland, had gleamed a dull silver and despite its age, the causeway had looked proudly well kept. Constructed in 1924, Pamban Bridge had been India’s 1st sea link and had been vying for UNESCO World Heritage status for some time.
My inquisitive eyes had spanned all directions to see evidences of the famed Adam’s Bridge, but apart from boats, gulls and land’s end, I had found nothing scintillating to gossip about. My well spring of logic had always made me question Ram Setu‘s existence and still now I find the story extremely controversial. I had once met a very old Sinhalese man in Jaffna, Sri Lanka who had spoken volumes about seeing the Adam’s Bridge with his own eyes but my science loving brain had refused to believe him, until the receding water of 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami had proved otherwise.
All these thoughts had clouded my mind, when the swan white pyramidal gopuram of Rameshwaram Temple had dazzled in front of me. In spite of a quiet guilt of giving the temple amiss, I had happily melted away from the gaggle of excited pilgrims and had hurried into the tiny lanes of Pamban to search for a Dhanushkodi jeep. Located 30 kilometers away from Rameshwaram, on one end of Pamban Island, Dhanushkodi had been accessible only by modified jeeps and they too returned to the temple town before dusk. I had found the jeep stand, discretely tucked away in a tiny lane, behind the grand temple and after a quick, lunch had gladly left for Dhanushkodi.
A dusty, claustrophobically small pilgrimage town, Rameshwaram had been simply awful. Smell of drying fish, open sewer and dust had thickly permeated the harsh, hot air and large bristly boars had wallowed in slimy filth. It’s narrow lanes had been choked with vegetarian eateries, guesthouses and shops selling religious paraphernalia and the tiny settlement had seemed to be bursting out of its seams. Scattered rubble had made the roads dangerous to walk on and aggressive touts had made the visit as repulsive as possible. Many seafood and shell export houses had also jostled for space among the religious crowd and wooden carts with huge, dangerously large horned bullocks had created bizarre traffic congestion.
Nearly every house in and around Rameshwaram had sheets of smelly fish spread out in the sun to dry and bells from the curved ox horns had jingled dangerously close. The noxious smell had nearly made me throw up when thankfully the temple town had ended as abruptly as it had started. The thatched roofs, noisy auto rickshaws, bullock carts and grime had quickly faded away leaving the long empty road stretching into what had seemed like eternity. Soft sand dunes of Pamban had lain pink and white on both sides and Ramayana temple sites had been peppered all over them.
A few scraggy trees had created a partial green tunnel and the silence of the dunes had been absolutely deathly. The contrast between the emptiness of the stretch with Rameshwaram’s bustle had been very unsettling and I had watched the desert change colours in the hot sun. The road had nearly ended into the sea when the jeep had turned sharply into the desert to go towards Adam’s Bridge. Dhanushkodi had officially begun and the slender finger of land had indeed been India’s southern most end. “Bow’s End” of Dhanushkodi had been unbelievably beautiful and deathly still at the same time. It had borne it’s ravaged beauty with quiet submissiveness and all around me, there had been an all pervading aura of defeat.
Nature had seemed to have used the space as a blank canvas and exquisite shades of pink, white, gold, blue and olive green had mingled there in a most carefree way. Sand dunes had rolled like softly budding breasts and figs, coconuts, eucalyptus and dates had grown in scattered undulating patches. Pools of salt water left behind by receding tides had attracted large sea birds in hordes and weeds and marshes had painted the grooves with deep rose reds. An empty sky of a most clearest shade of blue had smiled overhead and bordering them all, had been the two encircling blue green oceans.
Skeletal ruins of the once flourishing town, remains of the 1964 cyclone destroyed boats and pieces of jetsam had hulked around like banished ghosts and the complete emptiness had been eerily beautiful. It had been the land of death, the kingdom of tranquility and human had never before seemed so puny against nature’s fury. The sight of the ghost town’s destroyed church, railway station and train tracks had been very unnerving and the empty shells had silently screamed of the penultimate force of nature. A few ragged human figures had dotted the vast emptiness and they had been the handful of fishing folks who had lived on the deserted town, even after the cyclone.
Solely dependent on fishing, they had been real children of the seas. Jumble of flimsy, makeshift huts had made their homes and their boats had been their sole worldly possessions. They had chosen to live by the confluence of the two seas willingly and every day had seemed to draw fresh courage from the elements, to just keep existing. The blue choppy water of Bay of Bengal had mingled dangerously with the green smoothness of Indian Ocean and collectively, the two had blessed Dhanushkodi with fishes, shells and cyclones. With their household supplies being brought in by the occasional visitors’ jeeps, the Dhanushkodi fishermen, had lead completely isolated lives, selling coconut, shells and water to tourists from make shift tables set on the beach. Nights had always made ocean advance deep into Dhanushkodi, thus marooning it’s children in the most literal way, yet they had stubbornly refused to give up their abodes by the cyclone prone confluence.
Nature had however taken care of them and the Dhanushkodi beach had been miraculously scattered with shallow sweet water wells, which could be dug out from the sand with bare hands. It had seemed to me, as a very lonely choice of life and even thinking about them, had made me feel awfully lonesome. It had been a long, empty drive through an beautiful ghostly landscape, when the tapered most end of India had stretched before my eyes. It had also been mostly empty and apart from a few brave pilgrims paying religious obeisance to Rama Setu, hardly anybody had been present at the pointy beach.
Deeply unnerved and strangely blank, I had sat by the two seas for a long time, until rushing tide had sucked sand from under my feet. It had started to get windier, as the sun had dipped low in the horizon and prayers of staunch Hindu pilgrims had rang through the ocean air. The softening sun had heralded my time to head back to life and I had been deeply caught up inside my head as the motorcycle had sped towards Rameshwaram. Incidentally, my makeshift jeep had broken down amidst the treacherous swampy dunes of Dhanushkodi and I had to borrow a guide’s motorcycle to return to the temple town.
While in most other places, the help would have guaranteed hefty price, at Dhanushkodi’s barren emptiness, it had come with only directions, as to where I should leave the bike in Rameshwaram. The haunting nature of Dhanushkodi had affected me deeply and even today, I find it hard to put its beauty in words. Two highly contradictory terms do justice to Dhanushkodi and those are death and beauty. As impossibly beautiful as it is, Dhanushkodi, to me, had been a strange mix of both and had been more of a humbling lesson than a destination. It had come as a hard hitting reality check to see, how helpless we, humans actually are. And that in spite of all our military, scientific and medical advancements, it would take nature just another night like 1964 (or 2004 Tsunami) to topple us from our foolish egoistic pedestal.
Upon my return to Rameshwaram, I had found my co travelers patiently waiting for me by the bus and surprisingly the thought that my delay might have caused them inconvenience, had not even occurred to their simple minds. After making the necessary, peripheral temple stops, we had tired raced towards Madurai and I had left India’s end with a hauntingly emptied mind. A beautiful sunset of coral colours had lit up that Tamil Nadu evening but my mind had wandered like a displaced ghost, through the barren beauty of death at Dhanushkodi.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE
Some photos have been taken from internet.