A long-standing wish to see India's oldest seabridge, an urge to visit the seaside town of Rameswaram, a low-key weekend, and an impulsive decision spurred a train journey to the eastern tip of India. Known as the Varanasi of the South for its cultural and spiritual significance, Rameswaram is a town located on Pamban Island in the Gulf of Mannar in the eastern state of Tamil Nadu. It is a popular pilgrimage destination in India, and the birthplace of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, India's former president, and a scientist who made notable contributions to space and defence research.
Our journey to Rameswaram started from Madurai in the wee hours of the day. Soon, we could tell we were approaching our destination by the palm trees lining the sides of the tracks. The soft and shimmering golden rays of the rising sun shining through their long green leaves made us feel like we were holidaying in a Middle Eastern country.
Rameswaram was connected to the mainland only by the noted Pamban rail bridge until the late 20th century. In 1988, the Annai Indira Gandhi road bridge was constructed parallel to the rail bridge. The 2-km Pamban bridge was the longest sea bridge in India until the Bandra-Worli sea link was built in 2009. The construction of the bridge was commissioned by the British in 1914 with the aim of expanding trade to Sri Lanka.
In 1964, parts of the bridge were damaged by the cyclone which had left a trail of devastation in its wake. At about 7 am, the train entered the Pamban bridge marking a milestone moment of the trip. The calm water shining in the early morning light, green in some parts, blue in others, stretched out on either side – so clear that one could see the rocks lining the bed. The refreshing morning sea breeze helped revive travel-weary passengers and shouts of excitement could be heard from other coaches as passengers slowly woke up.
The train moves very slowly on the bridge, which allows one to relish and record this memorable experience.
Our home for the weekend was not very far from the railway station so we decided to walk there and get ourselves acquainted with the town. Our first destination was the historical town of Dhanushkodi, which is about 20 km from Rameswaram. Once an important transit point between India and Sri Lanka and a flourishing trade centre, this town was destroyed overnight by the 1964 cyclone and has not been rebuilt since and is now known as a ghost town occupied by only a small fisher community.
We decided to hire a local rickshaw to take us there and our driver, a local born and brought up in Rameswaram, kept us entertained with facts about Rameswaram. Unexpectedly, the journey was food for our birding souls with sightings of some incredible water birds including terns, gulls, and even flamingos. As we neared Dhanushkodi, we saw ruins of an old church, a railway station, and a school – the only reminders of this once flourishing town, now a mere shadow of its former glory.
In the town, fruit vendors were selling delicious fruits to beat the heat and local shops boasted fresh coastal cuisine and seashell handicrafts. When we walked to the closest point to Sri Lanka (which is only about 30 km away), we saw the Bay of Bengal meet the Indian Ocean. There seemed to be some commotion on the beach and upon enquiry, we found out that the police had detained a group of Sri Lankans illegally found on Indian waters. There was a man showing tourists the location of the mythical bridge (sethu) that Lord Rama and his monkey brigade built to reach Lanka through a spotting scope. The serene turquoise water and the white sandy beach stretching out dotted with colourful fishing boats and fishermen expertly handling fishing nets seemed picture-perfect.
The trip to Dhanushkodi took up most of our afternoon, and the long journey and the dry heat had left us exhausted. After a short nap, we decided to take a walk around Rameswaram. We stood by the beach near the famous Ramanathswamy temple at twilight enjoying the lovely cool breeze and watched devotees take holy dips in the water. There were fisher boats in the distance, their presence announced by tiny lights dotting their wooden frames. The temple stood lit up in all of its majestic glory with devotees lining up to see the evening pooja and the idol of Lord Shiva being brought out for the last ritual. The sound of the evening aarti, the bells ringing and the chants by the priests reverberated around us. We returned to our hotel after dinner.
The next day we decided to visit Dr APJ Abdul Kalam's house. Rameswaram is a small town and everything is within walkable distance. Dr Kalams quotes were inscribed on the walls of town buildings. When we arrived at his house, we saw that there was a long queue of people waiting to get in to see this piece of the beloved former president's childhood. The house has been rebuilt into a two-storey structure. The first floor was a memorial to Dr Kalam and showcased his achievements, awards, and honours he had received during his lifetime while the second was a gift shop which sold local wares and handicraft items.
We then decided to go near the Pamban bridge to take a closer look. While walking towards the bridge, we came across a small coastal settlement. The men were out at sea and the women were cutting and drying fish outside their homes. No matter how busy, they smiled and chatted with us, telling us about the catch and asking us questions about the city.
We walked a little distance to a secluded part of the beach, sat and watched the sea. Fishing boats were docked at a distance; raptors were hovering over the water to grab the small fish that were probably dropped by the fishermen; the sea was gently breaking on the shore. The receding waves left behind pieces of corals and other bycatch. Along with all of these, unfortunately, were also reminders of what humans have been giving the sea – used plastic waste and other bits and pieces of garbage that we have been dumping into the waters creating a huge environmental challenge. After contemplating the mindless overconsumption and waste generation by mankind, we left to catch our train back to Madurai. As we travelled once again on the Pamban bridge, we were quiet – looking at the azure water glittering in the evening light, birds flying around enjoying the cool breeze, the sun starting to set, spreading its golden hue across the sky, wondering when we would come to this special place again.