Stepping into the vast stretches of sand grayed by the scorching mid noon sun, a whistle swiftly grazed past the ear. It must be the phantom train, lost to the sea, howling away. It might be steaming in and out the station at noon and on pitch dark nights. Over swamps grazed upon by wild horses, amidst thorny bushes crept over by leaves that taste of brine, through skeletons of granite walls and roofs submerged in sand…
Shaking my head to shirk off the wind, I saw unfold before me a foamy cape of sand. Surrounding the white sand bank on three sides stood the sea — the sea which was blue and green, raging masculine and tranquilly feminine at the same time. The sea breeze that came whistling in the water surface that rippled and shone resplendent like a silk towel of blue. Tiny schools of fish were getting washed ashore in the gentle waves. A patch of blue sky was littered with frosty cotton clouds. Beyond the emerald sea lay Lanka, somewhere. All this transforms Arichal Munai into a third sea of solitude. It is an unseen sea where even memories taste saline and froth with wonderment and dread.
This, however, was not what the jeep driver Kumar kept saying while embarking on the journey three hours before.
Boarding the red jeep from the western street of Ramanatha temple in Rameswaram — that smelt of rust, driver Kumar said in half disgust: “We can go up to Dhanushkodi beach, sir. There is nothing to see beyond that. Arichal Munia is just sea. It is a waste of time.” Kumar’s displeasure at my repartee that, 'never mind, I need to see just that nothingness' suffused in an ancient Tamil ditty that rang out in the jeep. A salt wind tinged with the smell of sea glided into the jeep which had by now thundered out of the market. As I sat watching the wild that lined the straight-line roads and the blue of the water making intermittent appearances, my mind raced to the old man’s utterances in half Malayalam, “Arichal Munai is a weird place, brother. However, big our company, we are all alone there.”
Accompanying him at the famous granite corridor of Ramanathaswamy temple were a pale white girl with flowing copper hued tresses and an old woman gently chanting hymns to Siva. He must have overheard us talking behind him about Arichal Munai, for he turned to look. ‘Why are you headed to Arichal Munai?’ his question popped out without any preamble. A slight silence greeted my reply, ‘for no reason’. He let out a laugh that reverberated in the granite and continued in quashed Malayalam, ‘Arichal Munai is a weird place, brother. However big our company, we are all alone there. The place is haunted by the ghost of that train. Now and then it comes hooting. But nowhere else can you see such a nice sea. If you are here to see it, it then go on, see it’. I did not feel like asking anything further of the man who turned and slowly walked away.
The jeep cruised along the straight line of the road. Every now and then massive tourist buses awash in dust resoundingly sped past us. ‘Nobody in their senses goes to Arichal Munai,’ Kumar spoke again in chaste Tamil, ‘Not even water will be available thanks to the hot sun.’ I pretended not to hear that and asked about the jeep’s vintage and mileage. He raised the song’s volume.
Twenty two kilometers later, Kumar pointed to beyond the severed edge of the tarred road that simmered ahead and said, ‘Dhanushkodi Beach’. People thronged the sea. Beyond the parked vehicles on the shore were miniature models of shop rooms made of stone, thatch and plastic. In between an asbestos-roofed room or two were to be seen. Adjoining the shop that served freshly caught and fried fish stood the huts vending biscuit, water and ice cream. It was a gateway to the dead city. From there it is minivans and four wheel drive jeeps all the way. Having sought approval from the check post, Kumar’s red jeep swam down into the sea of sand; into the magnificent infinity visible from just eight kilometers ahead.
The jeep ambles along like a red tortoise swamped in the soil, stirring and stretching, surging ahead and rising up to be thrown off balance. Heads popped up occasionally, cameras jutting from the sides and behind. Kumar drove the jeep, at times following in the tire marks of preceding vehicles, at times finding the way on his own. Thorn bushes, puddles, sea, sand hills, the odd travel vehicle… solitude begins to seep in like a sea wave to kiss the feet.
As the jeep mounted a sand hill, something like a whale’s fossil appeared in the distant bushes. It got clearer as we neared it — a grey stone wall that had risen from the sand. Welcome to a city under siege by the sea. Skulls and skeletal stacks of buildings spring from the sand as we proceed. A jeep and its passengers trapped in the horrendous frame of some zombie movie. The stereo has stopped singing. A salt-munching stillness brewed inside the jeep.
The jeep passed a puddle crisscrossing a thorn bush and screeched to a halt. To the right stood a stone monster – the water tank of the railway station devoured by the sea. The remains of the tank lay over granite walls that had seen the mania of the sea. Graffiti in English and Tamil adorned the wild creeper-infested granite walls. On its opposite side were the relics of the railway station building. The wind murmured, ruffling the thickets of green.
The murmur of the sea wind held a strange wildness that day; that morning of December 1964. It drizzled all day over the beauteous seaside town of Dhanushkodi. Fishermen did not venture out to the sea. The feminine sea, normally tranquil, seemed terribly disturbed. It was dusk. One of the whirls unleashed by the sea suddenly hissed ashore. It engulfed everything in its path and then gifted to the sea in hot pursuit. Railway station, church, Post Office, houses, shops, boats and countless human beings became playthings for the wind and the sea. The sea then was like an infant obdurately erasing the sketches on the slate. The ‘Boat Mail’ passenger train heading from Madras to Dhanushkodi and its more than a hundred passengers became wiped out sketches. The date was December 22nd.
Even now the old train’s rail can be seen on the seashore where the wind hums. The rail which was submerged in the sand for long had surfaced while digging pits for road widening. Stepping on the rail one sensed the wind’s train-frolic brush past one’s ears.
Not far off from the water tank is the church. Its roof and adornments robbed by the sea, its blackened walls like a ghastly dream remaindered by the saline wind. Named etched by someone’s chalk marks are seen where once the altar stood. Some tourists pose for pictures sitting in the dilapidated window sill. How splendid must have been the cathedral that stood looking at itself in the sea. No wonder this is today a sought after location for movie song shootings.
A thatched shed erected over four sticks of woods is seen on the side of the church. It is a shop selling garlands beaded with seashells and tiny conches washed ashore by the sea. A dusky middle aged woman by name Kanaka offered to sell the seashell garlands for an attractive price. These are supposedly the same ones sold for a steep price in bigger shops. But tourists frequent just the bigger shops. The old man squatting by the shop kept saying something to the infant girl at play all around him.
The jeep has started crawling again. A canoe with decayed planks lay half-sunk in the sand beside some trapped water. It resembled a gigantic fishbone. Accessing one side of a swamp through the bushes, we encountered the sight of a herd of horses. These were wild horses according to Kumar. On the way was a roof that had risen up in the sand amid desiccated trees. Between walls that fell off from decay were booze bottles. The sand stretch held grass as sharp as iron nail and bound to pierce the feet of the barefooted. Adjoining the coast were the fishermen’s huts and between them the grounded boats. In the backdrop of the sea it provided a serene calendar setting.
The jeep, moving past the ruins of a building overrun by wild, suddenly entered an open space. Bushes, creepers and fossils of buildings were now behind us. Lying ahead was the sheer vastness of white sand. Beyond that in the distance was a mark of blue. The blue gained in intensity as the journey progressed. The cape of sand spreading into the sapphire that was fast spreading to the sides: Arichal Munai. Dhanushkodi’s sight is all about Arichal Munai and Arichal Munai alone.
Surrounding the white sand bank on three sides stood the sea -- the sea which was blue and green, raging masculine and tranquilly feminine at the same time. Dhanushkodi folks call the blue hued sea on the right as the male sea. It is a simmering sea given to the occasional rage of fury, the Indian Ocean. In not many places does the sea have such an intense sapphire tint. It lies undulating like a silken towel in the sun. The green sea on the left is a tranquil maiden. She is the female sea, the Bay of Bengal. Tiny fishes frolic in the velvety waves of the female sea. Lanka is only 18 kilometers afar. Dhanushkodi got its name from the legend that Lord Rama pegged the tip of his Dhanus (bow) in the land here before embarking on Sethubandhanam (Building of the Bridge). Kodi means cape. Ablution in the sea here, it is believed, will bring about wish fulfillment.
A person is lying close to the sea on the sand stretch and talking. Two youth stretch their legs to the sea and sit silently. Visitors usually return after seeing the sights of the ruined city. Rare are those who head for Arichal Munai. And those who do are instantly gulped by a supreme solitude. The varied synonyms of the word infinity begin to scintillate in the soul.
The seas thus far seen and the sea breeze experienced turn to vapour in that very moment.