Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dhanushkodi - A port town under the sea

In my childhood,  one of the stories  I heard from my family elders was that of Dhanushkodi, a town  on the east coast of India, which  submerged  when a cyclone of wind velocity 270km/hour crashed into it on the night of 22-23 December 1964. The killer wind  and the accompanying tidal wave blew away all structures and the storm marooned the land,  wiping almost the whole town.  Infact the Government of Madras declared it as a ghost town and unfit for living.

But a few survived to  tell the tale and one of the surviving family was my mom’s maternal uncle who worked there as DS of Customs and Central excise and lived there with his family.

Though I  have heard the story many times when I was young,  I recently asked my mom’s mama ( he is now 84 and lives in Madras) to tell it me again during our telecon a few weeks back.

And he said “ Even now, The thought gives me shivers”.(ippo ninaichalum nadungaradu)

On Dec 22, 1964, My mom’s mama, his wife and two sons aged 4 and 2 were  having their noon day siesta.  They were surprised when the water gushed into their house and in no time it slowly raised to the level of bed.  Worried about their sleeping sons and the rising water levels, they immediately placed two tall wooden stools over the bed and stood over the stool holding their 4 and 2 year old and tied them with a rope to the ceiling. The 20 metre  tidal wave flooded the home  and by evening the water came up to their neck level and it was getting difficult for them to hold  the children up there and balance themselves. Thankfully the rising water stopped just there.  With great difficulty they sustained all throughout the night with the wailing children. The water subsided only in the morning around 10 and then they were evacuated to a  temple,  where they were given food and shelter  for 3 days and finally rescued to mandapam relief camp  along with other survivors in  a ship (INS Sarada).Needless to say that they lost all their belongings.

Dhanushkodi ( also known as Sethukkarai)  was a town at the southern tip of Rameshwaram Island(in southern Tamilnadu) on the East coast of India, and the nearest Indian town close to SriLanka (just 18kms to Talaimannar,Srilanka). It was a quiet town till then (1964) except for low tidal waves, It had a post office, a Customs office,  a railway station, temples and a church. All the needs of the town like groceries, vegetables  were met by the railway people who after getting the people’s list would  bring their needs through Indo-ceylon express( also called Boat mail) which connected Madras to Colombo and the ferries from talaimannar brought them textiles and other luxury goods like jewels etc.,  Before 1964,   a train was connected to Srilanka from Chennai. It came up till a pier in Dhanush kodi and from there,  passengers used a ferry service to cross the 18km(13km?)  Adam’s bridge( a series of coral reefs) to reach Talaimannar in Srilanka. (This Adam’s bridge is also called ‘Ramsetu’ the one built by Lord Hanuman to help Lord Rama cross to Srilanka)

It had no colleges or schools so all students travelled to Rameshwaram by a train for their education. On that fateful night, This train which was approaching Dhanushkodi was washed away by the high tidal wave. The train carried  the students  who were travelling back after school and college.

The  mythological importance assigned to this town is that,  according to the hindu scriptures after the Lanka war, when Lord Rama  returned to India, Vibhisana pleaded that Lord Ram break the sethu(bridge) so that no other armies use it. Rama gave in to his request and broke the Indian side of the bridge with the end of his bow. This place came to be known as Dhanushkodi (Dhanush –bow and kodi is end). Thus this is a holy place for Hindus , further made holier by the confluence of two sea bodies, The bay of Bengal and Indian ocean.

Today , 46 years later, The structures that withstood the tidal wave still exist buried  under the sand and some partly weathered by the Sea adding a mysterious beauty to the place. A few fishermen have settled here in thatched huts and life goes on for them unaware of tomorrow.  Of late, I read in a magazine that the sea water is slowly receding and some parts of the submerged town are visible. 

 I have’nt visited Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi, but it is on my ‘to do list’ to see  and experience how it feels, standing at the land mass which is at the tip of India.  Many tourists who travel to Rameshwaram are unaware of Dhanushkodi and the ones who visit sing praises about its  its beautiful coral reefs and rich marine life which is supposed to be very active  here since the ocean waters are very shallow.  

It  is also the birth place of our ex President and missile man APJ Kalam. and this  is  also the town  through which Swami Vivekananda entered India Via SriLanka after his famous Chicago conference.

A port, a holy town, nature lover's paradise   that was (is) Dhanushkodi. Mark it next time around Rameshwaram.
                                                The ruins in the ghost town

                                                           the remains of the church 
                                                         The shores of the bay today

Picture courtesy: Google images


  1. Wonderful post Asha - I had not known of this history in its specifics. Of course Dhanushkodi is mythical in Tamil culture, but its good to learn of he exact chain of events.

    A place to visit, as you say. Did your grandfather ever visit there again ??

  2. WOWOWOW.. I would love to go there and as a matter of fact .. can u email me some details please .. best way to get there etc :)

    NAture well we cant win it .. sorry to hear on so much loss of life


  3. @ ramesh - in august 2011, my husband's mama visited rameshwaram to perform some rituals and visited dhanushkodi. not too sure about my grandpa... will call him this weekend to find out :). My mil too has lived here in 40's( her childhood) close to dhanushkodi at a place called kodikarai (point calimere)

    @ bikram -- route to this place - flight from any south indian capital to madurai and then a 3 hour drive to or the pamban railto Rameshwaram. From rameshwaram only jeeps and cars to dhanushkodi.

  4. Really an informative post.....had been in Chennai but never heard about it.

  5. Thanks for this detailed information, I have heard the name, but was not aware of the details of the place. Rameswaram has been in my list of places to be seen, I don't know when that will happen.
    Happy Holidays!!

  6. uhumm...travellogue ezhutharathula ungala adichika aalay ila..naanum try panni paakalamnu en yelagiri trip pathi eztha start panen..mudikavay mudila..u rock..dhanushkodi pinnala ivlo matter iruka!!!

  7. Interesting post. Makes the place more enigmatic. Will surely make it to the ravaged island next time to Rameshwaram

  8. @ Irfanuddin - thank you :)

    @ RAma - thank you :)

    @ gils - nanri, post yelagiri, iknow writing is cakewalk for you :)

    @kottapli - welcome here and thank you :)

  9. Extremely nicely written. Asha, you are a very good story teller. I liked it and if I go to Rameswaram Dhanushkodi will be included in my to visit list. probably I will go alone

  10. Excellent post. During my last visit to Rameswaram I simply watched in that direction. As you said, now there is a small population living in that piece of land. The Church in the picture looks like the ruins of a 15th century building.

  11. Thank you Asha for this detailed information. I will visit Rameswaram with my family in the next month and will definitely visit Dhanushkodi.

  12. Came here from Ramesh's blog... wonderfully narrated... may be i will go some day too :)

  13. Thanks for the post.My dad too worked in Dhanushkodi in 1958-60 in Central Excise & Customs.I was 3 yrs old and I vaguely remember the sound of the seas-we lived close to the water.
    Thanks a lot- but can anyone post pre 1964 photos of Dhanushkodi? My dad had a few and am deperately searching for same. Remember one
    Customs sepoy Sankaran !!

  14. Hi My friend,
    I have been at Dhanushkodi just few days ago with my family. I was only aware of Rama's bridge for to kill demon Ravana but I only know the history of 'ghost-island' on my trip to there. We have been stay there, I take a bath on the sea but the serious disaster of 1964 was not well known. You done a super post, I wish to visit the place again alone... alone.

  15. Informative, recently been there and soon will be posting my details on youtube(daintellekt channel) and my blog. Really a beautiful place, long and pristine beach devoid of any garbage and crowd, one can spent hours playing with camera and the scene.

    The ruins of the town are still there, one can see the remnants of school, station and railway tracks. The water has receded and the submerged town is now out in the open. The sea water must have traveled over 50 meters to destroyed this town, that shows the magnitude of the cyclone -20 mts high wave travelling over 50 mts inland-monstrous.

    Oceans are monstrous, wild and unpredictable. Place with confluence of two seas even more- a very dangerous place to settle a town.

    1. Good post. But there are few corrections. Sethukarai and Dhanushkodi are two different places. Sethukarai is in mainland just north-west of Mandapam. Also there was a higher secondary school at Dhanushkodi around 1964. My father and his elder brother studied at Dhanushkodi in a primary school during 1925-29. The school later became a middle school and later a high school. Most of the tourist who visit Dhanushkodi just see few buildings on the western side of the Dhanushkodi township facing Gulf of mannar. But the port, the pier and many buildings connected with customs, Railways are at the eastern side facing the Palk strait. It is difficult to reach there but would be great if if the eastern side of Dhanushkodi is explored

  16. excellent article.i visited dhanushkodi 3 days back. travel via the sand ,sinking sand in some places,worthy and risky visit.But beauty... amma it's heart filling

  17. Can anybody post photos of pre cyclone Dhanushkodi. Thanks.

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  20. Good information

  21. Brilliant.... Loved it...

    I visited Rameshwaram sometime in 2002 and in the 60's my dad (when he was a school boy) visited Dhanushkodi.

    No I want to visit DhanushKodi...


  22. Hi! I visited Dhanushkodi in February, 2013. It is as described - pristine and at the same time when one sees the ruins scary. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore is way too close and since it is a narrow strip of land, the waves are heard and seen both sides at the same time.
    But it is an experience - worth going for!