A Bridge, a Train Over the Sea & a Ghost Town: Rameswaram Diaries
I’d been waiting for this moment ever since I saw a stunning image of a train emerge from India’s first sea bridge.
I don’t think I’ve waited more anxiously for a train, ever, in my life and I wasn't even at a station.
I’d been glancing at my watch for almost four hours almost since I reached town and checked into the Hyatt Place. I only stopped when I finally heard the train in the distance.
I’d been waiting for this moment longer than four hours, ever since I first saw a stunning image of a train emerge from India’s first sea bridge a few years ago. I had my mobile shooter ready and took aim from the perfect vantage point; it was well worth the wait.
Rameswaram, located in Southern Tamil Nadu, is a busy Hindu pilgrimage centre and steeped in Ramayana legends. My motivation to visit Rameswaram, however, was a slightly more modern bridge that was unveiled in 1915.
The Pamban bridge is nothing short of an architectural marvel and connects the mainland of Tamil Nadu with the Pamban Island which Rameswaram is part of. It features a double-leaf bascule (a type of bridge where a section can be raised and lowered using counterweights) section midway which can be raised to let ships pass through. Locals tell me that happens only once a week – usually Thursdays, something I intend to witness on a future trip.
The sight of a train slowly pass through the bascule section with the azure blue waters in the background is enough to turn selfie fiends into a tizzy. That’s the problem with camera toting tourists (me included). We are so busy trying to capture the perfect Instagram moment that we miss enjoying the ‘offline’ moment.
It's why I went back the next day to admire this historic British era bridge and watched another train amble through. It was a picture of calm – the Pamban lighthouse in the distance and fishing boats in multiple colours that are offset by the still blue waters. Quite a contrast from December 1964 when the Pamban bridge was almost permanently destroyed by a horrific cyclone that marooned an entire town south of Rameswaram.
I walked through the ruins of Dhanushkodi that was deemed unfit for inhabitation after this violent cyclone with winds speeds of 280 km/hour. It was almost inaccessible till a new road that runs along the ocean was built recently. It extends all the way from Rameswaram to Arichal Munai or Land's End, the closest point to Sri Lanka on Indian territory and a point flanked by the ocean on all three sides.
The choppy waves along this road are a contrast from the tranquil waters around Rameswaram. But the sands are the same powdery white and the waters wear a distinct turquoise glint that you normally associate with exotic beach getaways in South East Asia.
Access to this road currently requires special permission – but that might change once the road is formally inaugurated by the Prime Minister at the end of July. The PM will also unveil a large memorial for Rameswaram’s most favourite son – APJ Abdul Kalam. Many visitors walk some part of the 9.5 km road or jump aboard a few private shuttles that operate all the way to Land’s End.
One of the only structures that survived the 1964 cyclone is the Kothandaramaswamy temple that is on the edge of the sea. It’s one of the town’s smaller temples compared to the Ramanathaswamy temple that is home to the famous 1000-pillar hall. Unfortunately, cameras and mobile phones are not allowed inside this imposing temple.
Cameras are always in the mix in Dhanushkodi though; the ruins are a photographer's delight – especially if you love to shoot in monochrome.
There are remnants of a train station that are almost unrecognisable and the façade of a chapel – probably Dhanushkodi’s most distinct landmark. A frail old man seated outside the façade has a few sepia images of Dhanushkodi before it was abandoned; it’s impossible to believe that this ghost town was once a busy fishing community.
He’s not the only one trying to cash in though...
The new road has sparked a wave of petty shops that have begun to cater to tourists who are beginning to trickle in. It’s one reason you need to head to this quarter before this trickle of visitors turns into a wave that is likely to dent Dhanushkodi’s charm.
Getting there and around: Rameswaram is a 9-hour drive from Chennai and 3 hours from the Madurai airport.
Accommodation: The Hyatt Place is among the first high quality accommodation options in Rameswaram. It’s just 15 minutes away from the Pamban bridge and Dhanushkodi. The hotel is about 20 minutes away from the pristine Ariyaman beach with still waters.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)
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