The town of Rameswaram holds an exalted status in the crowded pantheon of Indian holy cities. For this is the place where, in the Ramayana, Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka to pursue Ravana, the demon who had abducted Rama’s wife Sita. The bridge is very much there, in the form of a 30 km long chain of limestone shoals that straddle the sea precariously between the Indian mainland and Sri Lanka. Rama’s Bridge – commonly known as Adam’s Bridge thanks to British cartographers – is thought to have constituted an actual land link between the two countries that was passable by foot until it was destroyed by a cyclone in the 15th century. To Hindus, this is no myth explaining a unique geographic formation; the bridge is considered actual physical evidence for the events in the Ramayana. And in fact, viewed in a satellite photo, Adam’s Bridge is quite astonishing:
Rameswaram is, correspondingly, the second most important pilgrimage destination in Hinduism, and the Ramanathaswamy temple stands at its heart. I was told beforehand that visiting the temple is a unique experience; even non-Hindus are invited to strip to their dhotis (women presumably would slip into something more gender appropriate) and perform ablutions at the 22 wells that comprise the pilgrimage circuit at Ramanathaswam. While I didn’t intend to do this myself, I was interested in catching another glimpse of an inner sanctum of a Hindu temple, especially such an important one as Rameswaram. Unfortunately, my visit turned into something more like an episode of The Amazing Race: Ramayana. Just outside the temple, two men in white robes and official looking name cards who asked me if I wanted to perform the full bathing ritual. I think that my face must have betrayed my thoughts about wearing a dhoti and taking 22 ritual baths, for the men hurriedly assured me that, alternatively – and for a rather princely sum, they could offer me a darshan in 20 minutes rather than the usual two hours. Thus began a frenzied mad dash as I was bundled through a side entrance, whisked from shrine to shrine, had some white ash smeared on my forehead, was made to imbibe a cup of what I fervently hope was milk, and then ferreted past long lines of patiently waiting genuine pilgrims for the darshan, where I huddled with a group of elderly devotees for a glimpse of…something. Unfortunately, though I was impressed by the fervour and excitement of those around me, I couldn’t for the life of me make out what it was that I was looking at. And then it was time to go; after a short time wandering through the corridors of the temple, my visit came to an end.
Eighteen kilometres or so south of Rameswaram is where India comes to an end and the long chain of rocks and shoals that make up Adam’s Bridge begins. At the very tip of the thin wisp of land that extends towards Sri Lanka lie the ruins of the former fishing village of Dhanushkodi, which was utterly wiped out by a cyclone in 1964. While a railway once extended all the way to the village, the paved road now ends abruptly about 4 km away. To get to Dhanushkodi, travelers have to, as my driver Vinod and I did, pile into a large covered 4×4 that accommodates 30+ people, (of which only about half sit inside the cab, while the other half perch on top or cling precipitously to the sides) and hang on for dear life as the vehicle navigates a tough track for several kilometres over windswept sand dunes, often pitching violently and threatening to send the entire load of passengers careening into the sea.
Upon reaching Dhanushkodi, it is not difficult to imagine the remaining ruins slipping under the sands or the waves in years to come. I recently visited southwestern Sri Lanka, where signs of the 2004 tsunami are still visible, but whereas Sri Lanka has been rebuilding continuously since the tsunami, Dhanushkodi was simply abandoned and allowed to revert to some earlier age of man. There is a small settlement of people who live at the water’s edge without water or electricity, and who seem to eke out a precarious living by fishing and selling cowrie shells and snacks to tourists. But the houses of today’s Dhanushkodi, clustered next to the ruined brick and stone of their predecessors (ironically, the former church seems to have been constructed at least partly of coral), are nothing more than small huts with walls of woven coconut leaves and roofs of thatch. And where one might expect to see seagulls, the predominant birds in Dhanushkodi are crows – drawn apparently by the dried fish whose sharp odour pervades both Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi – and who lend a sinister note to the place, as if to seal the finality of the town’s destruction.
After Dhanushkodi we set off on our return journey but, due to a miscommunication between with Vinod (Rameswaram is strictly a vegetarian town, and he somehow got the idea that I wanted to eat meat now), and to my having dozed off in the car before we had a chance to clarify the situation, I woke up to find that it was past 3 pm and that we were both very hungry. We were in the countryside well past Rameswaram, and the next eating place we came to turned out to be what I think in North India might be called a dhaba – a dubious-looking hole-in-the-wall highway restaurant generally frequented by truckers. These are places that I would generally avoid for fear of upsetting the fragile entente that my stomach has reached with India. But since it was my “insistence” – real or imagined – on a non-veg meal that had brought us here, I decided to put a brave face on it and make sure to wipe my hands assiduously after washing them (contaminated water rather than food is the main cause of Delhi Belly). When I sat down, however, it dawned on me that, this being Tamil Nadu, our meals were to be served on banana leaves, which custom calls for each diner to wash with water just before eating. I did this with some trepidation, muttered a quick prayer to my own God with the same fervour that the Hindu pilgrims had shown, and tucked in. Hours later, the meal is still where it should be. Maybe my digestive system has finally made its peace with India after all.