Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while laying the foundation stone for the restoration of the 17.2-km railway line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi on Friday, claimed that the rail route has been neglected for over five decades after it was damaged in a cyclone in 1964.
“Today, we have inaugurated many development projects in Tamil Nadu, like laying the foundation stone for extension of the railway line from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi, which was neglected for five decades, and a new bridge replacing the old Pamban bridge,” said Modi.
What the Prime Minister did not mention was why the rail line was never rebuilt: Dhanushkodi has been declared uninhabitable by the Tamil Nadu government. Tourists make a day trip there from Rameswaram to see the ruins of the town, take a dip in the pristine sea, and are told that Sri Lanka is only a short boat ride across. Like the town that once was, many — and the PM has indicated he is among those — believe that Dhanushkodi brings them closer to the vestiges of a bridge once built by Lord Rama.
The restoration of the railway between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi means that Rama Sethu is on the map of the Ramayana pilgrimage circuit that the Modi-led BJP government has been attempting to connect in the past few years.
While Modi did not mention it this time, he had on earlier occasions invoked Rameswaram’s Ramayana connection: the town is an important Hindu pilgrim centre. According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, Lord Ram crossed a bridge called Rama Sethu to rescue his wife, Sita, from Ravana in the present-day Sri Lanka.
The Rama Sethu, also known as the Adam’s bridge, is a continuous stretch of limestone shoals that runs from Pamban Island near Rameswaram to Mannar Island off the northern coast of Sri Lanka, and has remained in the midst of political controversy in Tamil Nadu.
Dhanushkodi, in Ramanathapuram district, barely 29 km from Sri Lanka’s Talaimannar, is as important a Hindu pilgrimage site as the nearby Rameswaram town, which houses the Ramanathaswamy temple. When the entire town of Dhanushkodi, on the southern tip of mainland India, was devastated in the cyclone, the railway line, too, was washed away. Until the cyclone hit, Dhanushkodi was the only land border connecting India with Sri Lanka. A year after the cyclone, the then Madras government declared Dhanushkodi, once a sprawling trade centre, as an uninhabitable place.
What remains today along the stretch of the beach — where according to Hindu mythology, a bridge once stood — are the ruins of a temple, a church and a railway station. A few villagers brave the odds and continue to live there. The proposed Rameswaram-Dhanushkodi rail line is among the many slated projects that will be a part of the Ramayana pilgrimage.
In 2017, after flagging off the Shraddha Sethu Express, Modi said, “Rameswaram is connected with Lord Ram. And I am happy that a train connecting to Ram’s birth place of Ayodhya, in the name of Shraddha Sethu, has been dedicated to the public.” On the same day (in 2017), Modi inaugurated a 9.5-km stretch of the national highway 49 (now, NH-87) that will link the sacred spot of Dhanushkodi to Rameswaram.
Last year, the Indian Railways introduced a special tourist train, ‘Shri Ramayana Express’, to cover places from Delhi to Colombo, via Ayodhya and Rameswaram, on the Ramayana circuit. Passengers can choose to travel to Colombo from Chennai by flight.
The Rama Sethu controversy
A multi-crore rupee proposal — the Sethusamudram shipping canal project— was planned. The 83 km-long deep water channel would link Mannar with Palk Strait and provide a shorter sea route to Sri Lanka. It was hugely debated since the early 2000’s, with the BJP opposing the project citing religious beliefs.
The then chief minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi’s infamous statement, “Was Rama a civil engineer? At which engineering college did he study?”, aggravated the situation and it was challenged in courts. In March 2018, the current government informed the apex court that it intends to explore an alternative to ‘the earlier alignment of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project without affecting/damaging the Adam’s bridge/Ram Sethu in the interest of the nation’.