Dhanushkodi: Why A Road Trip To this ‘Ghost Town’ is Worth Your Time and Fuel

Perched on Tamil Nadu's southeastern tip, Dhanushkodi is from where Palk Strait begins. Sri Lanka's coastal settlement of Talaimannar is barely 29 kilometres away.  
All that’s left of Dhanushkodi today are its skeletal remains, like the ruins of this church.
Photograph by: James Adaickalasamy/Getty Images
All that’s left of Dhanushkodi today are its skeletal remains, like the ruins of this church. Photograph by: James Adaickalasamy/Getty Images

Embarking on a road trip whose destination is the last strip of land along India’s southern coastline had been on my bucket list for years. After much procrastination, this March I finally hit the road to Dhanushkodi. Perched on the southeastern tip of Tamil Nadu’s Pamban Island, Dhanushkodi is the where Palk Strait begins. Sri Lanka’s coastal settlement of Talaimannar is barely 29 kilometres away. Apart from its proximity to a neighbouring country, Dhanuskodi’s history is the main reason I was keen to explore it; on a road trip nonetheless. Once a bustling town, it was uprooted overnight and reduced to ruins by a monstrous cyclone in 1964. Dhanushkodi has since been declared a “ghost town”. Only a clutch of fishermen call it home today and no tourist is allowed to enter the town after 6 p.m.

Local fishermen cast their net for the day’s fresh catch. Photography by: Indiapictures/Contributor/Gettyimages

Local fishermen cast their net for the day’s fresh catch. Photography by: Indiapictures/Contributor/Gettyimages

Even before I left Mumbai I had a vague idea how deserted Dhanushkodi would be—save for a few tourists, majority of whom are pilgrims drawn in by the belief that it was from here that Hanuman, on the behest of Ram, built a bridge to Lanka to free Sita from Ravana. But it wasn’t the mythology that had me sold. I was, in fact, eager to experience the calm after the chaos this tiny hamlet has now come to symbolise. So, with chocolate bars, packs of cookies and a crate of water stacked in the backseat, and my brother for company, I fired up my 4×4’s engine for the 1,580-kilometre drive. Three fully charged cell phones and two power banks were thrown in too, for navigation purposes and to record the vistas that would greet us and terrains that would challenge us.

The easiest route from Mumbai is via Bengaluru and then Salem on National Highway 48. After Salem, you’ll cross Tiruchirappalli and the heritage town of Karaikudi before reaching Rameswaram. Pamban Island, from where Dhanushkodi is 21 kilometres south, is in Rameswaram. You can also take the Madurai route and make a quick stop at the historic Meenakshi Amman Temple. In the 18-hour drive, you’ll whizz past lush green landscapes, gleaming rivers, and giant rock formations.

Ruins of an altar. Photograph by: Hari Govind Nair

Ruins of an altar. Photograph by: Hari Govind Nair

To enter Pamban Island one needs to take the Pamban bridge. This two-kilometre-long railway bridge across the Indian Ocean is what connects Rameswaram to mainland India via parallel rail and road lines. What’s nerve-wrecking, though, is the drive leading up to the bridge. At one point it seems like the sea will swallow the road. When you inch closer to the railing is when you realise where you really are—surrounded by the Indian Ocean on all sides in a car that occasionally sways to the tune of the wind.

After 18 hours of non-stop driving, I finally pull into Rameswaram. Weary from the road, my brother and I decide to spend the night at the Tamil Nadu tourism board’s guesthouse.

Final Destination

To reach Dhanushkodi at the crack of dawn, I start at 4 a.m. the next day, clearing the 15-kilometre stretch to the checkpoint in 20 minutes. Dhanushkodi’s beach is another six kilometres from the checkpoint. These final six kilometres, also the last leg of my journey, challenge me to trail tracks carved out in sand; ones that keep eroding every time a giant wave grazes the shore. Thrilled by the temporariness of these tracks, I slow down to savour the moment, occasionally allowing gentler waves to rise and crash against my SUV.

After manoeuvring through Dhanushkodi’s tricky beach, both your vehicle and you will need some rest. Photograph by: Hari Govind Nair

After manoeuvring through Dhanushkodi’s tricky beach, both you and your vehicle will need some rest. Photograph by: Hari Govind Nair

Driving on the beach, flanked by the Indian Ocean on one side and the Bay of Bengal on the other, I make a quick detour to a village where the locals stay. A trip to a nondescript temple here and a chat with the priest led me to photographs of Dhanushkodi before the cyclone ravaged it. In these images, Dhanuskodi looks straight out of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days. Upon resuming the drive, I finally come face-to-face with the skeletal remains of the structures whose photos the priest had just shown me: ruins of a church, school, post office, and even an abandoned railway track.

It’s only when I step out does it hit me: Dhanushkodi is not for people who travel to a place “to do” something, it’s for those who pine the exact opposite. It touches your soul, makes time stand still and, above all, leaves you feeling insignificant in the larger scheme of things. To soak in my surroundings then, my brother and I lie down on the beach. Once our siesta ends, we dust the sand off our clothes and head in the direction of some stalls selling seashell necklaces. We buy few pieces as souvenirs before settling inside a shack for a quick meal of Kerala parotta dunked in an oniony gravy that tastes like Maggi. This simple meal serves as the perfect closure to an extremely humbling road trip.

ESSENTIALS

Getting There Dhanushkodi is nestled on the southeastern tip of Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram district and is 1,580 kilometres from Mumbai via NH 48. It can only be accessed through the Pamban bridge that connects Rameswaram to mainland India. The last six kilometres from Dhanushkodi’s checkpoint to the beach are the trickiest to drive. The local police station’s permission is needed to access this stretch. Regular trains ply between Mumbai and Madurai, and then from Madurai to Rameswaram (check http://www.irctc.co.in/ for schedules and bookings). From Dhanushkodi’s bus stand, private vans charge Rs250 up to the checkpoint. From here, locals offer a tour of the ruins in a van for Rs150.

Stay The closest hotel from Dhanushkodi is the Tamil Nadu tourism board’s guesthouse in Rameswaram (www.ttdconline.com; doubles from Rs2,400).

  • Hari Govind Nair has been writing about automobiles for almost a decade and a half. This might conjure up images of him driving around the world in smashing supercars. What it actually means is being constantly cornered to resolve which-car-shall-I-buy dilemmas or being treated as a 24x7 on-call mechanic. But thankfully he gets to work out his angst by ploughing SUVs through jungles, mountains and deserts.

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