THE SONG OF THE SEA

Dawn hadn't yet come to Dhanushkodi, when amidst the rhythmic crashing of the waves, I saw some silhouettes, dark against the dim light, singing aloud as they pulled at what seemed to be a heavy net.

Oh Liya, Po Mele (Oh fishermen catch the rope; Keep pulling)

Oh Vele (Oh fishermen that is your job)

Aa Liya (I have caught the rope)

Raja Suta, Palaharam Nalla Irka (The king’s snack is good)

Oh Liya, Po Mele…

These were fishermen, engaged in their daily tug of war with the mighty sea. They formed human chains on either end of a long rope, hauling in a net filled with fish, stones, floats and the other junk that got entangled in it.

By 7 am the sun was harsher, the sand-covered bodies perspiring freely, and the song even louder.

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A SILVER LAND

Dhanushkodi, lying just 20 km west of the pilgrimage town of Rameswaram, is a long strip of land at the southern tip of India. Flanked by the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, it is one of the most beautiful coastal stretches of India.

I first glimpsed Dhanushkodi through the song, ‘Kannathil Mutthamittal’, shot exquisitely by filmmaker Mani Ratnam in 2001. On my maiden visit in 2017, Dhanushkodi looked every bit as beautiful. I was welcomed with sights of the deceptively still inkjet-blue seas, and waves crashing on miles of uninhabited shores. It seemed as if Potosi’s Cerro Rico had been laid out flat in front of me. A silver land!

Like Potosi, Dhanushkodi also suffered a terrible past. However, Dhanushkodi’s conquistador was nature herself.

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A JOURNEY OF FAITH TO LAND'S END

Dhanushkodi holds religious significance for Hindus. Mythological accounts state that Lord Ram marked this place with the end of his bow to build a bridge (setu) to enter Ravana’s Lanka. This gave the place its name: Dhanushkodi, meaning ‘end of the bow’.

I reached Dhanushkodi in a bumpy tourist van that plied on the marshy terrain along the beach. Now, there is a road that connects to Dhanushkodi, inaugurated in July 2017 by Narendra Modi, which allows tourists to travel to its end point, known as Arichal Munai (Erosion Point), a place that marks the confluence of the sea and the ocean. This is the where pilgrims come to perform the last rites of their loved ones.

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THE DARK NIGHT OF 1964

Fishermen call the Bay of Bengal ‘Penn Kadal’ (the feminine sea), as it is calmer than the choppy Indian Ocean. For six months of the summer, they fish in the Bay of Bengal and for the rest of the year, when the wind changes its course, in the Indian Ocean.

The sea is the paramount force dictating any coastal town’s lives and here there were two, possibly reflecting the inherent duality of the life of Dhanushkodi’s residents. They depend on the sea for their livelihood but they’re helpless when the same sea unleashes its fury.

And it did just that in 1964. A massive cyclone changed the fate of Dhanushkodi forever. It ripped apart the town, ravaged its school, swept away a train (the Boat Mail Express) and killed nearly 1,800 people.

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THE GLORIOUS PAST

During the British Raj, Dhanushkodi was a small flourishing town, more developed than its neighbours. It was an important port on the route to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Several ferry services plied between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar in Ceylon, transporting travellers and traders alike. Its strategic location encouraged the British to develop Dhanushkodi with all modern amenities. There was a police station, a church, a railway station, a school and a housing society of over 600 dwellings to provide for people working on ships, operating trains and disbursing services in government offices.

However, it was all washed away in the cyclone. A memorial now stands in the sand dunes as a remembrance of the villagers who lost their lives. Sitting beside it, I couldn’t help wonder how different Dhanushkodi would have been but for that fateful night.

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HAUNTING TALES

All that’s left now are the stories and everyone has their own. Some have lost their spouses, others their children, while some their limbs and livelihoods. During a recent visit, I spoke with a few of the locals who survived the devastation.

Muniyaswami, 66, used to work as a fisherman. He took up a new job but after losing his leg in a boat accident. He now sits beside the vanishing ruins of St. Antony Church in order to protect it from tourists who take away the corals.

For the tourists, he recreates the horror of that night by drawing on the sand. In his broken English — interspersed with Tamil — he recounts: “Cyclone hit at night around 1 o’clock in Bay of Bengal. Later the direction of wind changed and dead bodies were floating in Indian Ocean. We were on the higher ground, so we survived. My family and I walked all night to reach Rameswaram, when the water was almost till my shoulders [sic]”.

Muniyaswami, 64 protecting corals

AN ABANDONED TOWN

Post-cyclone, Dhanushkodi was declared ‘unfit for human habitation’ and survivors were rehabilitated to a small town nearby. A motley group of fisher folk later returned to Dhanushkodi and have been living here in thatched roof houses. It is difficult to distance fishermen from the sea. Over the last 54 years that they’ve lived here, however, nothing much has changed. There is neither electricity, nor piped water, hospitals or any other amenities.

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A LIFE ON THE MARGINS

The villagers live a simple life — with just a handful of utensils and fishing equipment — but it is by no means an easy one. For sweet water (for drinking and other domestic purposes), they must dig a pit at least 4 feet deep, removing the sand with their hands. Carrying the water home entails a long trek. The women of Dhanushkodi bathe in the open, near these pits.

These “wells” go saline within a week, so the villagers are constantly on the lookout for new sources of water.

Twenty nine-year-old Mari says plaintively, “We have been abandoned; no one comes and asks about how we live here.”

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WHERE THE SEA BRINGS LIFE — AND DEATH

The fishermen risk their lives every day in the unforgiving seas. The Sri Lanka border is only around 18 nautical miles (33 km) away, and their navy has a heavy costal presence in these waters. Dhanushkodi’s fishermen live in constant fear of being caught, which means losing their boats and their fishing nets — in essence, their livelihood.

A local fisherman showed me his inflamed hands and confided that he and his peers often switch off the engines of their boats, fearing the Sri Lankan navy, and row their boats all night to reach home safe.

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FOLLOWING TRADITION

In Dhanushkodi, the traditional methods of fishing still hold sway. The fishermen venture out into the sea at night and haul up their nets in the early morning. Without any GPS or wireless devices, they rely on reading the winds, stars and direction of the waves for navigating the seas.

The most commonly followed fishing method is olla vella. Palm leaves are tied to a fishing net, so the fish cannot escape. The net is cast close to the shore and then pulled back after 15 minutes. The locals find it cost-effective and safe as they don’t need to venture into the deep sea or use big boats.

The one thing that has changed over the years? Instead of handmade jute rope and net, the fishermen now buy the Chinese net and plastic ropes available at the market.

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A QUIET COURAGE

Amudha and Selvi were just two and five years old, respectively, when their father abandoned their family. Years later, their husbands would abandon them too. Amudha says, “I am happy living with my children, sister and mother. I don’t need a man who comes home drunk and beats me up.”

Selvi (to the right) went to work alongside her mother when she was just eight. Amudha continued her education until Class Eight, but had to discontinue when their mother got too old to work. Amudha took her mother’s place in the fishing line. She and Selvi earn up to a dollar a day for pulling in the nets and selling fish in the market. They’ve worked here for a decade now.

Most of the girls in Dhanushkodi quit school by Class Eight as their parents do not allow them to travel to the next town, where the high school is.

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A FRAGILE ECO-SYSTEM

Dhanushkodi is blessed with rich marine life and biodiversity which needs special attention and conservation. In the month of January, migratory birds like pink flamingos are a common sight. In 2017, large numbers of tourists and biologists poured in, to see the hatching of Olive Ridley turtles by the beach.

The sea is also home to varieties of exotic fish, crabs and lobsters which are often snared and exported to different parts of India and the world by the giant fishing companies from neighbouring towns. Karadi, a fisherman, laments about how at least 10 species of fish, known to him, have disappeared over the years due to wrong fishing methods.

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AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Over these 50 years, the villagers have learnt to live in harmony with nature, embracing life in Dhanushkodi with all its sharp edges. However, the apprehension of losing their livelihoods and their meagre shelter is ever-present.

One of the local leaders — Parmar (45) — informs that there have been numerous announcements by the authorities, asking residents to vacate Dhanushkodi. He says the administration is now planning to develop the place for tourism as they realise its potential.

The increasing influx of tourists, and the resultant urbanisation, would adversely affect Dhanushkodi’s residents — unless planned properly.

Only time will tell if tourism will bring them new opportunities or snatch away their livelihood. Till then, Dhanushkodi will continue its battle — against apathy.

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— All photos by Deepti Asthana

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