Was Dhanushkodi destined for destruction?
The traffic snarls begin from the monumental elephant-shaped rock hill of Yanaimalai, which stands guard at the outskirts of one of India’s most ancient and spiritually revered cities. Spaces grow tighter as we push deeper into the narrowing arteries of the Madurai. Past gaping construction pits of a ‘work-in progress’ smart city. Through noisy microphones blaring with reprimands of traffic policemen. Along psychedelic gopurams and inviting stalls of white and orange jasmine garlands. In and out of markets crowded with gold jewellery stores and street-side restaurants advertising frothy glasses of Jigarthanda. It’s an eventful drive, even without a glimpse of the iconic Meenakshi Amman Temple.
The surprise factor peaks inside the gates of Heritage Madurai. Lush green surrounds, traditional entry portico, expansive open-style lobby, exquisite sculptures and an intricately carved Mayurbhanj door. Views of a generously proportioned swimming pool inspired by the Meenakshi temple tank. Stone pillared corridors to the in-house restaurant facing a 200-year old banyan tree. Banana-leaf wrapped curried fish, tiny malabar parottas and Wattanapalam dessert. Hunger pangs sorted.
Forested pathways lined with almond, sandalwood and ebony trees leading to our private, palatial 60’s-era Chettinad mansion. Every inch of the ex-British Club House complex stamped tropical modernism ala Geoffrey Bawa. Lazy afternoon fiddling with the Fargo fan of German vintage. Strolling into the inner courtyard to discover an open bathroom with terracotta tiled roofs, 4-feet plunge pool and our very own Champa tree. Loving the creaking sounds of the original wood flooring. Feeling the subtle refinery of the Sungudi saree wall-hanging and the black-white chequered handloom cushions. Feigning languor of country living on the traditional cane recliner. And googling Dhanushkodi, the ghost town at the remotest tip of the country. Lip-service logic battling wild visuals of land as fluid as water. Virtually white-knuckled 4WD over sandbars that seas threaten to swallow up. Yes? No? Yes? No? Yes…
Early morning start. 3-hour drive to Mandapam in a private car with a local driver-guide. Capsule course on filter coffee habits, sugarcane farming, Pongal rituals, bull-taming sport of Jallikattu and mythology. Overstaying the obligatory stop over the cantilevered Pamban Bridge. Staring sunglass-free at the eye-popping aquamarine hues of the Indian Ocean. Approving the red-yellow paint of the 100-year old train bridge below. Following the vibrant symphony of the floating fishing boats. Tracing the deep curve of the golden beach against thickly bunched coconut groves. Being mesmerised by millions of jewels glittering on the surface of the waters. Admiring the perfection of nature’s canvas…for longer than necessary.
Bypassing Rameshwaram to get on to a long, isolated road to ‘nowhere’. No roadside stalls, no pedestrians walking home. Traffic thinning out, habitat disappearing, tree cover reducing…and gone. An expanding emptiness, build-up of suspense and the irresistible query…are we there yet? Neck craning, more peering through the windshield. We seem to be getting closer…there are telltale signs. Sands are appearing on both sides of the road and the ocean beyond, on the left and right directions. This is surreal…we’re driving on a strip of solid, black concrete that separates the Bay of Bengal from the Indian Ocean. Just the place for a drone shot. What about the scary sandbar 4WD? That ended after the road was put in place a couple of years back, clarifies the driver. Phew!
He parks. Is this it? Can’t see any signboards, entry gates, or evidence of any activity, except for a few thatched huts selling shell souvenirs and refreshments. Nobody but us, looking for an episode of enigma and a session of inspired photography. What’s that horse doing here, out on a solitary canter? No riding, racing or load carrying angle, but a navy connect, we’re told. These animals can sense changes in weather, they’re reared for cyclones warnings. What a bizarre turn of events…zero action, eerie vibe enveloping a once-thriving town perched on a busy trade route of yesteryears. Some 500-odd fisherfolk still feel ‘at home’ in this remoteness, but there’s no one to recount tales of the cyclone fury that devastated the town on that ill-fated day of 1964. No wonder safety rules prohibit entry in the area after 4 pm.
All that remains is a haphazard patchwork of broken buildings and a couple of wandering stray dogs. It’s spooky and equally seductive. The cloudless, cobalt blue skies seem bluer here and the silky smooth, creamy sands seem creamier too. Maybe it’s the complementing effect of the two colours, paired up for miles, completely uninterrupted. Feet sinking into the softness of the sands, we trudge along under the relentless mid-day sun. Listening to untold stories hidden in exposed red brick of shattered structures. Decoding remnants of tragedies gaping through blown-up cavities in the church. Circling the window-less, door-less, roofless collection of hollow homes. Reflecting on traces of imperfection that lie scattered, neglected, half-buried. There are a dozen shades of beige and buff in the wrecked walls, a dozen play of shadows behind the fractured facades. We linger, for as long as we can tolerate the direct UV rays.
Further up the road, queued up buses empty out throngs on the recently erected embankment surrounded by emerald green waters. Eye squints prove useless in spotting Jaffna, which lies a mere 30 km away. Adventurous tourists wade knee-deep into the ocean, possibly with the hope of about stepping onto the mythological Adam’s Bridge. Man-made land bridge of floating coral built by Lord Rama’s army a couple of thousand years ago to reach Ravana’s Lanka? Or chain of shoals constructed by aeon-old sedimentation? Either way, it makes a spectacular sight from a flight window.
Back on the deserted road leading to the familiar comforts of civilisation, we debate on the logic of the town’s name. Legend says that after the war, Rama broke the bridge with the tip (Kodi) of his bow (Dhanush). Like the bridge, maybe the town was destined for destruction too.
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