Was Dhanushkodi cyclone the start of climate change in South India?

Once, a confluence of the unending blue of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on either side of the land with baked white sand beaches, Dhanushkodi is now -- after the 1964 cyclone --a ghost town
A view of Dhanushkodi
A view of Dhanushkodi

The year was 1964. A severe cyclone with unmatched velocity swallowed Dhanushkodi.

Today, in the age of climate change, it would be worthwhile to reflect on the tragedy that struck the coastal town. At least, for the sake of posterity.

Once, a confluence of the unending blue of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on either side of the land with baked white sand beaches, Dhanushkodi is now -- after the 1964 cyclone -- a ghost town, where the mighty waves of the implacable seas come crashing with roaring loudness.

A bustling port town

Dhanushkodi, the then bustling port town in Tamil Nadu, sat on the long, slender tail (south-eastern edge) of the tadpole-shaped island of Rameswaram.

The name of the town comes from Tamil for ‘the bow’s end.' The legend has it that Lord Rama destroyed the link between India and Sri Lanka with the stroke of his triumphant bow.

Nicknamed ‘Mini Singapore’ in 1880 by the British, Dhanushkodi was not a mere fishing village or an extension of Rameswaram, the pilgrim center. It was cosmopolitan in its outlook. With the Pamban bridge, a harbour, and a railway station, the town provided easy accessibility to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

Palani, the horse cart rider

On the night Dhanushkodi went under water, Palani, the horse cart rider, had gone home after a grueling day’s work. Palani’s daily work involved picking up pilgrims arriving on passenger trains to visit the holy temples of the island.

By 5 30 pm that day (December 22), it grew dark. As his horse trotted behind the station quarters on the south side of the town, Palani sensed a slow surge in the squally winds. A chasing breeze whipped up his worry to life: his younger brother, a Tamil movie buff, had boarded a passenger train to Rameswaram to see the movie stars of the time: Gemini Ganesan and Savithri. The movie stars were on a temple visit from Madras. He hadn’t returned yet. It rained heavily. Despite the rains, Palani learned that the privileged Boat Mail Express that took its passengers from Madras to Dhanushkodi pier via Mandapam was right on time.

But the ferries plying between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar in north Sri Lanka were late. Later that evening, Palani rode back home after dropping off his last two customers: a customs officer whose quarters were situated near the harbor and a school teacher who lived near the post office.

Four days earlier, the Indian Meteorological Department had announced the formation of a deep depression in the Bay of Bengal.

The catastrophe arrives

As Palani sat down for dinner with his family, the Ceylon radio news announced the probability of gale winds, violent storms, and huge, destructive waves in northern Sri Lanka.

For the railway employees on night shifts, the icy cold rain hurt like glass splinters. Then, in an unexpected move, gathering further strength, the cyclone turned back and moved towards the west-northwest with a rising tide. It did not grow gradually and acquire power; instead, it exploded forth. Doubling its wind speed with gusts as high as 280 km/hr (175 mph), the squalls rambled on with great fury towards the edge of 3.5 sq km Dhanushkodi town nestled in the 20 sq km tail of the Rameswaram island.

A downpour began by 11 pm on December 22. The bridge inspector cleared the sands and piloted the train, which left the Rameshwaram Road station to head towards Dhanushkodi station. It was 11.55 pm By then, the intensity of the gale winds increased, and the Rameshwaram Road station master attempted to issue warnings to the Dhanushkodi station. But then, signals failed by midnight.

According to the railway accident report by the Ministry of Transport and Communication, Government of India, “The train did not reach Dhanushkodi, and it was, therefore, presumed by the staff at Dhanushkodi station that this train returned to Rameshwaram Road.”

Meanwhile, tidal waves as high as 40–50 feet breached the boulders and struck the six bogie coaches of Train No. 653 Down Pamban - Dhanushkodi Passenger.

Palani woke up to the touch of chilled waters grazing his coir cot. His family lying on the floor were silently washed away. The wave swells had come slowly at first. But the next moment, the winds were head-on and ruffled him out of his cot. He saw the white froth on top of a huge tidal wave, and before he could dive in and swim, it pulled his cot and him into a deep abyss. He kicked hard to fight the waves, swimming with all his might. But the floating back wall whisked him away right into the sea. Closed in by the house, Palani sank. The house shuddered, moved, and became buoyant.

Only a few huts around the station had collapsed, while all the others had been drowned in the Arabian Sea. Residents who had attempted to flee to the north-east end were caught in the floating debris and pulled back into the sea. With no time to take their belongings, people ran into the station to take refuge; many others went further to Thanjavur Raja’s choutry and the Kothandaramar temple on the east, with the rains and winds chasing them. Tsunami-like waves lashed on continuously. The transformation was unbelievable: one moment, a nondescript storm; the next, a super cyclonic storm of the severity no Indian had ever experienced. Kumar Kali, the son of one of the survivors, said, “My father, Neechal Kali, was one of the survivors of the cyclone. He swam in the dark for two hours to save his life. And everyone he knew ceased to exist.”

By the time the clouds had squeezed themselves dry and the winds had abated, dawn had broken. In the gray light, the townspeople saw what should have been a long stretch of land turn out to be the sea surface instead. Houses were upended.

What remained of the town on the morning of December 23 was only a sandy strip of 2,000 feet by 500 feet on which 3,000 survivors stood. A total of 2,000 people drowned; a train was washed away; office buildings collapsed; the harbor was ruined—only a line of breakers stood where the jetties were; and roads were submerged. There was no sign of the hospital or post office.

Elsewhere in Rameswaram, the Pamban rail bridge was washed away with only the pillars standing, and the island was cut off from the mainland. Only by next morning, when some railway staff noticed the engine chimney projecting out of the water near the outer signal of the Dhanushkodi station, which itself was bent and under water, did they realize then that the train had submerged, and none of the 200-odd passengers survived?

It was on the night of December 23, about 10 30 pm, the first of the rescue choppers arrived.

The Indian Navy sent vessels to rescue the stranded. The rescue teams saw several bloated bodies around the eastern end of the submerged town.

The Government of India declared Dhanushkodi unfit for living; the town was abandoned.

On the 50th anniversary of the disaster held at Kambipaadu near Dhanushkodi, an assistant loco pilot, K Nagalingam, recounted how a giant wave ripped the train’s engine off the tracks and dragged the coaches into the sea.

He and a few others had climbed atop another train and jumped into the sea to rescue others. Palani’s brother survived; he returned to search for his brother and couldn’t get over the loss to this day. He works as a horse cart rider at Rameswaram. The Pamban bridge was rebuilt immediately in the next six months.

The sea swallowed one-fourths of the long, tail-like strip of Dhanushkodi that was once a booming town. The rest remains wasteland, dotted with shrubs and layered with sand, and a lagoon that gets waterlogged during rains. Haunting ruins adorn the beach. The last point on Indian soil, Arichal Munai, keeps shifting...

Today, if there is a perfect example of unpredictable weather every ten minutes, one can point it out at Dhanushkodi. In that climatically fragile part of the world, one can feel nature’s overwhelming force.

Then again, the few fishermen who continue to live there are hopeful that the government will one day restore the port town to its past glory.

Among the optimists, S Rajendran, a trader, is happy with the opening of a middle school in 2006. The government has laid a road for Arichal Munai as well.

A school teacher, Periasamy, discussed climate change and said, “Cyclones are getting more frequent, changing directions, and dumping rain over hours at a spot. What if the Dhanushkodi cyclone was the start of climate change, especially in the south of India?”

(Padmaja Sriram is a writer from Chennai whose articles and short stories have been published in various magazines and journals, both online and in print)

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