Dhanushkodi: The Haunting of a Forgotten Town by the Indian Ocean

About the blog: Dhanushkodi, often touted as India’s ghost town, is located by the south of Pamban island, Tamil Nadu (also known as Rameswaram). Highly regarded as a holy site among the Hindu pilgrims visiting Rameswaram temple, Dhanushkodi is also a place where the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal merge together. Ram Setu from the Hindu epic Ramayana is proven to exit where the lands end at Dhanushkodi. The scenic stretch of motorable highway makes for one of the best road trips in India.  

Dhanushkodi
Where the lands end…. At Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu and looking at Bay of Bengal

Dhanushkodi, Where Life Stood Still

In an alternate world, Dhanushkodi lives and thrives as a picturesque town, set amidst the gentle green and blue hues of a bay and an ocean! In this southernmost island of India, men wake up at the wee hours and venture into the deep of the sea to find day’s catch. Womenfolk conduct household chores and ready the shacks that sell the seashells by the seashore. Children walk the way to nearby primary school, their reflection shining pretty of the backwaters. Seagulls sneak in with waves of Bay of Bengal.

A church made of corals (yes, you read that right) stands tall. The tip of India’s eastern coast, the Pamban island also houses a rail line, bringing in the world.

Dhanushkodi Rail Station
The poignant ruins that tell a different story. AT a distance you can see the remnants of Dhanushkodi Railstation!

But man proposes, nature disposes…

Reality is scary, if you take a lingering look, you know the rail tracks are nothing but the mirage play of a cruel nature, that engulfed the little town of Dhanushkodi. During the horrendous 1966 Rameswaram cyclone, the sea soared like never before, brought in the scourge of 7 meters high waves, and washed away the very last trace of life.

The Last Train to Dhanuskodi

Pamban Railway bridge
The Pamban Bridge: more than 100 years old, this Bascule sea bridge is a legacy in India
However, the infamous accident of washing away the Dhanushkodi bound passenger train took place near Dhanushkodi, not on this bridge.

Train no 653, the Pamban to Dhanushkodi passenger train was crawling towards the destination amid horrid weather, the dark of night and almost no signal. The driver hesitated before igniting the engine, not having any idea what was looming in front. At this point, a huge tidal wave washed away the train along with 150 passengers that night. Not a single one was found alive.

The rail station at Dhanushkodi stood erect in the face of gutsy cyclonic wind and housed the few survivors of the island for that night.

It was hardly a decade after independence. Where was the rest of the world? Far away and difficult to get connected.

Mainland India came to know about the tragedy only after a couple of days. Later, only the nose of the rail engine was spotted from aerial surveys.

The government of India rehabilitated the survivors and declared the area abandoned.

Dhanushkodi Indian Ocean
The Ratnakar, Sanskrit for Indian Ocean: Azure. And a few ruins.

“Look, I got Mobile signal from Sri Lanka!”

The remains of Dhanushkodi sits close to the international border between India and Sri Lanka. In fact, at just 45 metres in length on a shoal in Palk Strait, Dhanushkodi is also one of the smallest land borders in the world. In friendlier times, there was a ferry service between India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) which stopped for politics. And, the Rameswaram cyclone of 1966.

Photography at Dhanushkodi
A photographer stands with his shop and hope at Dhanushkodi. Everyday India


On a clear day, you may see Sri Lankan Coastline in bare eyes. Witness also suggests a beautiful show of dim lights playing all as night falls.

Indian Ocean
Fishing boats by Indian Ocean as seen from Dhanushkodi

Where is Ram Setu? Or you call it Adam’s Bridge?

The Indian epic Ramayana indicates an existing bridge at Dhanushkodi, also called Ram Setu, over the sea using which Ram’s army went to conquer Lanka and bring Sita home.

It is hard to believe that an army of monkeys can actually help build a bridge, that too over a sea! However, the epic Ram Setu appears to be a reality by the end of Dhanushkodi island.

Hindu Rituals being performed at Dhanushkodi
A Hindu Bramhin performing rituals at Dhanushkodi

Temple documents of Rameswaram suggests the existence of a bridge, fit to be crossed by feet and existing above sea level connecting India with Sri Lanka, then Bharat and Lanka.  For the uninitiated, Rameswaram’s temple is one of the most prominent and oldest pilgrimage sites in India. Hints are pitted against another catastrophic cyclone from 14 hundred century which caused the bridge to go down under the sea.

However, nature is whimsical. Rameswaram cyclone gobbled up a substantial landmass but caused the Ram Setu to reappear. It is basically a series of limestone shoals, coral reefs and sandbanks. GSI has researched to find that the Ram Setu, also known as Adam’s bridge in the medieval western world is close to 125,000 years old!

Dhanushkodi, an aerial view. Photo credit CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia

I must disclose before you get your hopes very high, Ram Setu is hardly visible through bare eyes. Sattelite images so far have been able to capture many photos and confirmed its existence.

Besides, no matter how romantic it sounds, you cannot walk up to the tip of the sandy stretch, the area believed to be the starting point of Ram Setu. The sea is rough and may swell without prior notice. The area is heavily guarded by men in uniform.

Taking a dip in the sea is prohibited at Dhanushkodi, however some people manage to work their way around the guards
Taking a dip in the sea is prohibited at Dhanushkodi, however some people manage to work their way around the guards

Arichamunai: Is not it a Beautiful Name?

Despite Ram Setu being an almost mythical legacy, there was never any dearth of pilgrimage to Arichamunai, the easternmost point, where lands end.

Faithfuls visit this place to take a dip at the Bay of Bengal, considered a sacred ritual.  Before the construction of the national highway, a part of the Ramayana Circuit, many minivans would ply. There is a thrilling youtube video where the minivan seems to be sailing over the sea! Otherwise, a lot of them would earlier walk the miles as well.

The newly constructed road to Dhanushkodi has used the latest technology ensuring a robust stand against tidal waves.  You can easily bike around with your own vehicle until sunset.

Bus to Dhanushkodi from rameswaram
The epic Bus ride to Dhanushkodi
Mahodadhi (the Bay of Bengal) and Ratnakara (the Indian Ocean) on both sides

Dhanushkodi, as I saw it…

As the bus moved towards the salient land of Dhanushkodi leaving behind the bustle of Rameswaram temple town, I could not but gape at the beauty of abundant nature. School of flamingoes by the shore, mangroves standing still by the rugged terrain, lifeless arid land and not a soul to spot, what is not there to like?

Arichamunai is considerably busy with the plight of pilgrims, tourist vehicles and guards. Indian ocean looked rather dirty with plenty of roots and hyacinth floating around. The Bay of Bengal was crowded, like any other beach in India is. The hues of water are visibly different. While the Indian ocean retains its royal blue tone, Bay of Bengal is greenish blue and calmer.

Soon after, I left for the coral church

Dhanushkori Ruined Church made of coral
believe me or not, this church was made of corals 🙂

Whispers of the Lifeless Village

The church and surrounding area stand witness to the gruelling night of the cyclone, even after half a century. It is empty, devastated, broken into pieces and destroyed beyond any repair. Not just the church but a few buildings, apparently school, the office by the railway station are scattered lifeless. Three pillars stand like a skeleton as the remnant of the Dhanushkodi railway station.

Dhanushkodi Railway station
The erstwhile railway station of Dhanushkodi. A British made structure.

Tourist vehicles make a quick stop here. A few stalls serve fresh fish on banana leaves. Seashells make for perfect souvenirs.  Men and women buy, rest, drink tender coconut.

A few meters ahead of the stop, I had spotted a backwater area dotted with beautiful birds. I wanted to get close by and click a few pictures. Upon asking locals if I can go, I learnt that is where the Ghosts stay! “Bhoot”, said the Tamilzhan Da!

The Ghost of Dhanushkodi

South Indian Mask
This is typically used to ward of evil in South India

I am a brave girl until the Sun sets. I had to walk towards the forelorn livelihood of ghosts.

Behind the pillars of railway remains at Dhanushkodi, I found a backwater where a father and son were searching for fishes. A school of cranes were giving them company. I walked past the backwater, met a herd of goats, clicked a few abandoned ships until I found I am walking on a dicey, very dicey land.

Dhanushkodi Backwaters
Fishing, as a family business at Rameswaram

There were tiny conch shells lurking behind muddy earth. One absent-minded step may result in a bloodied toe. A stretch of white sands was lying at a distance with an alluring view of Bay of Bengal. Soaking my feet in the Indian ocean was out of the question. The roar reminded me of thunder! “I have to make it to the Bay of Bengal at least!”  I thought in my mind.

Dhanushkodi Backwaters

On the other hand, the clock reminded the backwater will welcome the tide in a while. I do not know swimming. There is no other way to make it back either!

It also stuck in my mind, I was walking on the land that buried an entire town! Suddenly the wind fell heavy. I felt tiny, minuscule and nervous in front of a profound presence of nature.

Dhanushkodi Backwaters

Far away, a man in a white mundu was walking with a fishnet in his hand. I followed his trail and finally made it to the shore.

Lifeless? I have my doubt. The land was filled with small glass bottles of alcohol. Cheap thrills, I laughed. Fishnets were left to dry, still bearing numerous conch shells inside.

Dhanushkodi Backwaters

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore – Andre Gide

Will I recommend this to you? For sudden adrenaline rush? May be. But check on weather and time. Upon my return, the Tamizhan Da again said “Ghost Ghost” with big eyes!

Goats of Tamilnadu
Just a kid in Yoga pose, not giving a damn for the world!

According to local fishermen’s testimony, the 2004 tsunami of the Indian Ocean, the sea receded about 500 meters and had uncovered the ruins of the forgotten habitat of Dhanushkodi.

Of life and death
Of life and death

Baitarini
A boat awaits her man by the sea…

The Tandav Nritya of Ratnakar and Mahadhadhi wiped away every trace of Dhanushkodi, leaving behind a barren stretch of salient land, one side stepping down to the deep of the ocean, the other side harbouring backwaters where migratory birds alight without a fear.

Seagrass by Bay of Bengal
Life finds a way…
Dried fish for sell. Eat a little or shop a little to support the local community.

How to reach Dhanushkodi?

You can either hire an auto or rent a jeep to reach Dhanushkodi, the tip of India’s far off land. Private jeep or auto will take anywhere between 600 to 2000 INR.

Public transport runs from as early as 7 am. the Tamilnadu state bus services run those massive yellow buses that ply the tourists and local fishermen with day’s stock to and fro. You will get a bus at every 30 min interval.

The bus also smells a lot like a moving fish bazar. My Bengali nose is well conditioned with all types of fish “perfume” and I did not have any issue. However, this may be a put off to some.

Do try some fish fry at Dhanushkodi

Everything you should remember before visiting Dhanushkodi

  • Reports suggest that the place being an abandoned one becomes a breeding ground of anti-social activities, especially during the dark of night. Do not think of camping at Dhanishkodi beach. Not just the smugglers, a potential hightide can also take no mercy for your life!

  • The best time to visit Dhanushkodi is anywhere between the relatively (and that’s the key word here) colder months of November to February. midday sun at Dhanushkodi is extremely punishing and may cause serious damage like sunstroke, migrane etc. Take necessary precautions like an umbrella, a cover/dupatta for your face, ample water in a recyclable bottle and sunscreen.

  • I suggest visiting Dhanushkodi after 2 PM since the heat gets bearable..

  • If you are off to explore the backwaters of your own, be responsible. There are quicksands. There is not a soul anywhere around. If you lose the way back (unlikely) or get stranded at a sandy shore behind backwaters fueled by hightide (very likely), you will not be in a position to access immediate help.
Dhanushkodi Hut
For those who survived, no harm in a bit of fun!
  • Dhanushkodi is accessible to visitors from 7 am till 6 pm. Sunrise or sunset is wishful thinking however can only be a profound experience if at all you can manage to stretch your time limit a bit. Dial the sun to set a bit early for one day? Just maybe?
Who lives in Dhanusjkodi
One of the many makeshift fishermen’s house at Dhanushkodi
  • Also not fit for habitat, as declared by the government of India, Dhanushkodi houses a few fishermen’s huts. They ideally leave early morning with their fishing vessel. the huts are makeshift as most of them have a home back in Pamban island.
Found this altar somewhere amid the village. Assuming this is to worship snake god. Which also suggests the area has snakes running free. Be careful during your solo adventures!
Offering hair to God is a very common practice in India and observed among the elderly women in South. This family looked like a Mother in Law and Daughter in Law duo 🙂

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