Dhanushkodi: A Disaster that Wiped out India’s Geography

By: D Mitra
The ghost town of Dhanushkodi, Located on a tombolo a little beyond Rameswaram, used to be India’s furthest outpost in the Indian Ocean. However, the super cyclone OF 1964 not only wiped out India’s history but also its geography.
Disaster Events

The remnants of Dhanushkodi, located at the southern tip of the island of Rameswaram on the eastern coast of India in Tamil Nadu, are about 29 km (18 miles) west of Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. The Dhanushkodi railway line, running from Pamban Station, and much of the small town were destroyed in the 1964 cyclone. The passenger train with over 115 passengers drowned in the sea on the fateful day. Now it is nothing but a ‘ghost town’.

Before the 1964 cyclone, Dhanushkodi was a flourishing tourist and pilgrimage centre. Since Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is just an hour away, there were many ferry services between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar, transporting travellers and goods across the sea. The town was vibrant with hotels, textile shops and dharamshala catering to every need of a traveller. The now defunct railway line—ran directly from Mandapam to Dhanushkodi and had a railway station, a small railway hospital, a higher secondary school, a post office, customs and port offices and more. It was here that Swami Vivekananda set foot on Indian soil from Colombo in January 1897 after his triumphant visit to the west to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions held in USA in September 1893.

On the night of December 22, train no. 653, the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger, a daily regular service which left Pamban with 110 passengers and 5 railway staff, was only a few hundred yards from the Dhanushkodi Railway station when it was hit by a massive tidal wave caused by the 1964 super cyclone. The whole train was washed away, killing all 115 on board. The high tidal waves moved deep onto the island and ruined the entire town.

Over 1800 people died in the cyclonic storm, and all the structures were marooned. In terms of wind velocity, which touched 150 knots (277 km per hour) at Vavunia in Northern Sri Lanka on the evening of 22 December 1964, the Rameshwaram cyclone is regarded as one of Asia’s fiercest in the 20th century. Eyewitness accounts speak of how the surging waters stopped short of the main temple at Rameshwaram where many people had taken refuge from the fury of the storm. Following this disaster, the Tamil Nadu state government declared Dhanushkodi unfit for living. It is now intermittently visited by a handful of fisherfolk.

A tombolo—named Adam’s Bridge, extends from Dhanushkodi into the Gulf of Mannar. The sub-basin of the Gulf of Mannar constitutes the south-eastern offshore section of the Cauvery Basin, the southernmost of the Mesozoic rift basins along the east coast of India. The late Jurassic fragmentation of eastern Gondwanaland into India, Antarctica, and Australia initiated the formation of Mesozoic rift basins on the eastern continental margin of India including the Cauvery Basin. Numerous deep extensional faults developed in the NE-SW direction during rifting which initiated active subsidence that resulted in the formation of graben and horst blocks, subdividing the Cauvery Basin into many sub-basins including the Gulf of Mannar (Fig 1).

 Geological map of the Gulf of Mannar
Geological map of the Gulf of Mannar

A group of professors from Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU) and colleges in the southern districts asserted during a 2007 press meet that the Adam’s Bridge was “a geological formation, which took place around 17 million years ago when India and Sri Lanka were detached in a drift. It had been geologically proven that the sand bars were formed at this time”. Udhayana Pillai of the Department of Geology of Chidambaram College, Tuticorin, added during the proceedings that the bridge belonged to the Miocene era. S Krishnasamy of Department of Biotechnology of MKU pointed out that human beings reached Talaimannar and Rameswaram about 50,000 years ago and there was no scientific basis to show that the Adam’s Bridge was man-made as Hindu mythology leads us to believe.

Landsat imagery of Dhanushkodi
Landsat imagery of Dhanushkodi

The region is highly dynamic because the confluence of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal is subject to constant modification. Changes in the region are evident from multi-temporal satellite imagery (Fig 2). Strong sea currents modify the coastal land forms, as do cyclones and associated storm surges.

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