How Dhanushkodi is a land of promise for Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing the economic crisis 

The ghost town of Dhanushkodi is the first point of refuge for Sri Lankan Tamils leaving the island for better economic prospects

Updated - May 27, 2022 10:05 pm IST

Published - May 27, 2022 04:41 pm IST

Local tourists visit the ruins of Dhanushkodi, once a bustling town that got submerged in a cyclone in 1964. From here, Talaimannar in Sri Lanka is just 27 kms away.

Local tourists visit the ruins of Dhanushkodi, once a bustling town that got submerged in a cyclone in 1964. From here, Talaimannar in Sri Lanka is just 27 kms away. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

A sliver of a moon casts a feeble light on the heaving Indian Ocean. The only sound is of breakers on the shore. A flimsy boat rides these waves edging slowly towards a place that many now call the ghost town. But for the family of four clinging to the sides of the rocking boat, Dhanushkodi is a land of promise. The choice was stark: it was either death by starvation in Sri Lanka or a perilous ride across the Indian Ocean. They had chosen the latter.

Watch | How Dhanushkodi is a land of promise for Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing the economic crisis 

Skirting the sand bars, the boat inches to the shore. Cradling a two-month-old, a young woman clad in nightdress steps into the cool water. Clutching onto her husband, who has a three-year-old in his arm, and a backpack strapped onto his back, she wades to the shore. In no time, the boat fades away into the night and they are left alone on a beach where the moonlight reveals torn garlands and strewn clothes, a requiem for the dead. They don’t know that on a clear day, from where they stand, people can see the windmills in Talaimannar in Sri Lanka through a telescope. It is just 27 km away.

ALSO READ Sri Lanka crisis: Refugees in Tamil Nadu were dreaming of returning to the island nation

Land’s end

 The migration route

The migration route | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For this Sri Lankan Tamil family, the nightmare is behind them. But as they sit on the shore, anxiety grips them about their life ahead. Dawn breaks at Arichalmunai in Dhanushkodi, the land’s tip where the Bay of Bengal melts into the Indian Ocean. From where they wait, the family can see the high restraining walls built across the coast and an Ashoka Pillar standing tall.

Ruins of the old town.

Ruins of the old town. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

Their journey from Jaffna had begun the day before. At 11 in the morning, they had clambered into a bus after locking their house that contained the precious little they had. They were not the first from the region to do so. They were among 22 families who had made the journey to India recently fearing the economic crisis that had engulfed the island.

New horizons: From 2005, a camp in Tamil Nadu has been a refuge for Sri Lankan Tamils
The families fleeing the economic crisis will join those who have made Mandapam camp their home since 2005. Strange as it may seem, this camp was originally set up by the Sri Lankan government in 1917. It was a quarantine camp for labourers from different parts of Tamil Nadu, who were taken by the British government to work in tea estates in Sri Lanka. Later, the camp became home for those who wanted to return and then a refuge for those fleeing the Eelam movement. The Mandapam camp is seen as a high-security area as this is the first stop for those coming from Sri Lanka. Once inside, they are allocated a house to stay in, and the families are usually quarantined for a week. During this period, intelligence officials verify the documents. If the papers are all clear, the family can move freely inside the camp. Every morning the camp gates open at six in the morning and a semblance of normal life begins. First, to exit are children carrying school bags, followed by their parents who have small jobs in Ramanathapuram. In the afternoon, the women come out to do some shopping. By evening, these people trickle back to the camp as the gates close at 6 p.m. As night falls, a stillness envelopes the camp. Though at peace and far from the turmoil that their country is facing, these Sri Lankan Tamils still make their beds on what remains a foreign shore.

To leave home had been a heart-wrenching decision and it was taken only when their baby developed a fever. The father had gone to get medicine and was forced to cough up ₹440 for a syrup when his daily wage was just ₹500. The next day, they packed and with the sleeping baby boarded the bus that would take them to Talaimannar about 105 km away. Their contact had told them to reach the shore from where they would be picked up by a boatman. Paying ₹20,000 per head, the family along with the boatman waited for nightfall. At midnight, they had embarked on a journey clutching the two hungry children. At around three in the morning they reached the destination and in the first flush of light, a group of fishermen sighted them.

ALSO READ Economic crisis | 19 more Sri Lankans reach Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu

Giving them a helping hand, they brought them up to the parapet wall. There they waited for a police van as the quiet of the morning was broken by shouts of local fishermen and vendors coming up the road to set up their stalls. Once in the van, the relieved family sat back and watched the pristine white shore, rimmed with an endless water in varied shades of blue.

Ruins of a city

Sri Lankan nationals being taken to Mandapam camp in a police van.

Sri Lankan nationals being taken to Mandapam camp in a police van. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

Beneath this sheet of water lies the remains of a city submerged on December 22, 1964. A history so near that the scars still remain; this land is in a state of flux. Till the day before the giant tidal wave struck, Dhanushkodi was a bustling town. There were ferry services between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar, transporting travellers and goods across the sea. During the British regime, it was from here that boats carried indentured labourers to work in tea estates in erstwhile Ceylon. The ferry service that linked Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar was part of the Indo-Ceylon Railway service. One could buy a railway ticket from Chennai to Colombo, then travel by rail from Chennai to Pamban island, take a ferry to Talaimannar, and then take a train to Colombo.

But after the cyclone, sand and surf have started to reclaim the land. The church is now just a broken facade with crumbling walls. The railway station is overgrown with shrubs and the railway line is lost underground. Merely a skeletal outline of a temple stands alongside what now looks like a heap of rubble but was once a hospital. Every year, one little piece of history gets erased by the shifting sand. Until a road was laid to Dhanushkodi, tourists would drive from Mukuntharayar Chathiram and see these crumbling ruins.

A makeshift food stall in Dhanushkodi.

A makeshift food stall in Dhanushkodi. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

But now, on a smooth tar road, these Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing poverty see on to their left a foaming sea and on the right a big expanse of placid water with a little strip of land that stretches like an elegant finger dividing the sea to form a backwater. From September to January, this backwater is filled with pirouetting flamingoes. A sandy stretch forks off from the road to a fishing hamlet, Kambi Patu, that lies on the strip. Even this sleepy village has now become the pit stop for many Sri Lankan Tamils.

Solid earth

Stone walls have been built on the roadside to contain the sand that seems to have a life of its own. Yet, it still bleeds through nicks and crevices in the boulders and spills onto the carriageway. The region is highly dynamic because of the confluence of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal and the strong sea currents modify the coastal landforms. When gusty winds pound the region, new sand dunes appear and disappear on the shores. Juxtaposed with these ruins are shacks that sell trinkets made of shells and some enterprising fishermen who cook piping hot fish curry, the fresh catch enticing tourists.

A group that was rescued by Tamil fishermen.

A group that was rescued by Tamil fishermen. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

For fishermen, who make up the vast majority of the population, development in this ‘ghost town’ is welcome. But there is the niggling fear that they may be overlooked. Fishermen association leader S.R. Sesu Raja says, “Our fishermen should be considered as one of the stakeholders. It is only then that gains of development will reach all.”

In some stretches, tall casuarina trees are so tightly packed that in the damp undergrowth moss and lichen thrive. It is here that from December to March Olive Ridley turtles make their way to the shore to lay eggs; in May, the hatchlings make their floppy way back to the sea. During the Tamil Eelam struggle, this became the hiding spot for many Eelam sympathisers when they were being persecuted in Sri Lanka. Even now, ammunition buried by these men resurfaces on the shore, revealing another tumultuous chapter in the history of this land.

In transit: life feels secure at the camp, but finding a job isn’t easy
For young men like Pratap, who is in his thirties, the camp seems like a stopover. He works as an accountant in a fish export company in Rameswaram and had come to India as a three­year­old. His family landed in Rameswaram at 4 a.m., he recounts. It is nice here, he says but adds that the only problem youngsters like him face is that though they are able to get a good education, finding a job in other cities is difficult. If they get a job in Coimbatore, Chennai or Madurai, for instance, they have to come back every month to Mandapam and report to the officials. That means taking leave at least for two or three days a month, which creates problems at the workplace. Pratap aspires to go abroad and talks of his friends who made the journey to England and France. Ayyapan, who works as a painter in and around Mandapam, says he gets about ₹700 daily. “Though we do not lack anything. The problem we face is linked to the tag we carry: ‘Sri Lankan refugees’. Even if I want to start a business, in order to get a GST number, I need proper documents, which many of us lack. With all of them possessing Sri Lankan passports, the only way to move abroad is to go back either legally or illegally to Sri Lanka and then make the jump for a better life.

The scenery shifts and the family reaches Mandapam town in the Ramanathapuram district where they will settle. The sea lies about a kilometre away and the earth is solid. After the usual interrogation by the police, they are given their basic necessities and they make their way into the camp and a new life begins.

But in Dhanushkodi, as dusk slowly creeps in, the shacks become empty. The wind howls as the unrelenting waves beat against the shore. By 6 p.m., at the Marine Police Station from where the road to Dhanushkodi begins, the barricades come up. Silence descends and the ruins reconciled to their fate await their slow annihilation. And on the other shore, a group waits to board a boat that will bring them to this land that, for them, signifies hope.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.