It was in December 1964 a cyclone wiped out the town of Dhanushkodi and swept a train off the Pamban Bridge.

When you stand on Pamban road bridge that connects Palk Straits (Rameswaram) to the rest of India, you admire the engineering marvel of this first sea bridge in India. Even more is the admiration for the nearby cantilever railway bridge, an awesome structure that seems suspended midair, weathering gusty winds. The bridge is a marvel that bespeaks the attention engineers paid to minor details. Built a century ago and thrown open to traffic in 1914, the cantilever bridge is the pride of the Indian Railways.

The bridge sways ever so gently as the coaches trundle and below the bridge the bluish green sea flows quietly.

It takes 10 minutes to cross the 2.3 km long bridge. From inside the train it appears as if you are travelling over a large river slowly. But this bridge is very special, for, once upon a time the bridge opened up, giving way to large ships to pass through.

Far beyond this bridge is a strip of land which today is just pristine sand, but until 1964 was connected by rail service. A bustling town called Dhanushkodi, had a full-fledged post office, railway station, temple and church.

Everything was wiped out when a cyclone struck the town in December 1964. The Bay of Bengal on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other form Dhanushkodi's boundaries.

Tidal waves

Reports of the cyclone and the devastation trickled in two days after the tidal waves had swallowed the town and its residents. A report in The Hindu on December 25, 1964, three days after the incident, stated that as Pamban Bridge was washed away nearly 3,000 persons were stranded. A day later Congress President K. Kamaraj, after his survey by air, said no building was intact in Dhanushkodi.

A beautiful town, an entire train with reportedly 115 passengers besides people were washed away by tidal waves 45 years ago. What is left today are the white sands, salt-eaten ruins and a handful of fisher families who have made the barren land their home. The children of the fishermen approach the pilgrims, who come to Dhanushkodi to perform last rites to their dear ones, to buy seashells. Time and again there is talk of reviving the town but little effort has been made, for such was the scale of devastation. Casuarina groves have sprung around the twisted train tracks.

Though people in Rameswaram and Railway engineers speak about the bridge and the life that has gone, nature has left its indelible mark here.

Braving dangers (from The Hindu)

Four wireless operators continued to provide details of the situation despite danger to their life. The four persons were stationed in Dhanushkodi by the government. Two Railway employees, a winchman and bridge inspector of the Pamban bridge who were on patrol duty on the day of the cyclone survived by clinging to the frame of the suspension bridge for 12 hours. They were rescued by a boat on the afternoon of Dec. 23, a day after the cyclone had passed. All the four employees were later rewarded and honoured by the Central government for their dedication to duty.

Eye witness account

An advocate who was waiting at the Rameswaram station for his train around 11 a.m., on the day of the cyclone 45 years ago, says the winds howled around the station and by 2 p.m. he took shelter in a train compartment like several other passengers. The peak of the storm was around 3 p.m. when the powerful winds tilted the compartment by 30 degrees. Several people jumped out fearing for their life. But the storm abated by 4 p.m. and when people stepped out of the compartment they saw a large crowd of people rushing into the station. The fisher families had lost their homes. While the first gale brought water from the sea, the second gale from the opposite direction took the water back with it. The night was terrible with howling winds. The next morning, the sky was clear and though the huts were blown away, the buildings had survived.

Great repair

In the days that followed the tidal waves, reconstruction of the Pamban Bridge was given importance as it was a lifeline that connected Rameswaram to the mainland. After initial doubts and several rounds of discussion the government embarked on repairing the bridge. The job was given to E. Sreedharan, a young engineer, who completed the cantilever bridge in 45 days though he was given six months for the challenging job. Then followed talks of building a road bridge. Today Rameswaram is connected by road, sea and rail. Dr. Sreedharan retired on December 29, 2011 after successfully introducing the metro rail system in Calcutta, Delhi and Bangalore.

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R. SujathaJune 28, 2012