Dhanushkodi: stuck between science and religion

The Sethusamudram canal might aid shipping traffic in the area but how will it impact the fisherfolk who totally depend on the sea and the island for their livelihoods?
The fisherfolk of Dhanushkodi The fisherfolk of Dhanushkodi

Dhanushkodi, bordered by the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other, was a major point of entry to India until 1964, when a cyclone devastated the entire town [1]. Now, only a few fisherfolk remain. 

In the recent past, the town has made headlines for other reasons. The Indian government has proposed building a shipping channel called the Sethusamudram Canal through the narrow and shallow body of water at Palk Strait that separates this island from Sri Lanka. This canal is expected to reduce the distance that the ships currently travel; they will no longer have to go around the island of Srilanka and can instead use the proposed shorter and more economical route. [2].


However, there has been increasing resistance from groups within India to this proposed project because of the historical, cultural and religious significance of the location for the proposed canal. According to Indian mythology, this is the site of the Ram Sethu (bridge) built by Lord Hanuman and his army, which extends from the tip of Dhanushkodi to the island of Sri lanka passing through Palk Strait. Even though the Ram Sethu, was supposed to have been destroyed by Lord Ram, many Hindus believe that a chain of limestone shoals in the Palk Strait connecting India and Sri Lanka are the remains of Hanuman’s construction [2].

Environmental groups are concerned about the serious damage that the project could cause since the shallow waters of the Palk Strait are known to support a great diversity of marine life including sea turtles, sharks, dugongs and dolphins. The construction activities and increased ship traffic could disrupt the natural ecosystem, endanger marine life in the area and also threaten the communities who depend on this marine biodiversity for their livelihoods. Many people living in the area are known to make a living by fishing, oystering or pearling [2]. Besides this, many scientists have also claimed that this project could lead to an ecological disaster and increase the risk of tsunamis in the region [3].

The issue has already assumed political undertones at the national level and is being portrayed as a fight between scientific objectivity and religious fundamentalism. Current news indicates that the government is pressing on with its original plan in spite of the opposition. Amidst all this controversy, the future of the island of Dhanushkodi, the Ram Sethu and the fishing communities who inhabit the island still remains undecided.

Dhanushkodi, somDhanushkodi, some 20 kilometres away and located at the southern tip of Rameshwaram island, flaunts one of the most spectacular stretches of the sea coast in India. It is flanked on two sides by the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka is just 31 kilometres away from this narrow stretch of land where the two oceans meet.e 20 kilometres away and located at the southern tip of Rameshwaram island, flaunts one of the most spectacular stretches of the sea coast in India. It is flanked on two sides by the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka is just 31 kilometres away from this narrow stretch of land where the two oceans meet.

 

The 1964 cyclone destroyed the whole town of Dhanushkodi. One can still see the ruins of the railway station, the old church, the school, the post office.

 

Within the ruins at Dhanushkodi is the temple of Lord Rama. Legend says that this is the land where Lord Rama set foot on and built a sethu (bridge) with the help of the monkey King Hanuman and his army. After Rama won the war, he crowned Ravana's brother Vibhishana as the new king of Lanka. Vibhishana requested Rama to destroy the bridge. Rama broke the bridge with one end of his bow. Hence, the name Dhanushkodi or "end of the bow" (dhanush meaning bow and kodi meaning end).

 

There are around 300 to 350 fisherfolk dwellings in the town. The fisherfolk seem to have recently come to live on the island after the cyclone. The dwellings are distributed in three different locations on the island in the form of hutments of 50, 100 and around 150 households. One of the villages is located near the coast near the ruins while the other two are located in different parts of the island.

 

The dwellings of the fisherfolk are temperory kaccha settlements with thatched walls and roofs. The houses lack basic facilities like electricity, water and toilets

 There are very few amenities in the fisherfolk houses such as utensils, earthern pots or aluminium vessels that are used for cooking food on the adappa or mud chulhas. Wood is used as fuel for cooking.

 The bathroom includes a temperory structure having thatched walls on the sides. The water source in the bathrooms is made by creating temperory water pits in the sand. The bathroom is mainly used for washing and bathing.

  The fishermen here practice fishing using their traditional boats. They usually venture out into the sea at night and the fish are hauled out of their nets early in the morning. There is a flurry of activity early in the morning on the beach when the catch is sorted and hurridly sold to traders and sent out to the market after which the activities are much more relaxed . Fisherwomen go out to the boats carrying with them tea and breakfast for the men.

 Women also participate in the sorting and the drying of fish after the catch of the day is hauled on the beach.

 The fish are laid out on the beach for drying. Huge nets are laid out on the beach like tents supported by sticks that cover and protect the drying fish from crows and other birds.

  Dhanushkodi has been declared as a ghost town and it has no basic amenities such as water, electricity and toilets. Amidst the controversy around the Sethusamudram canal, what does the future hold for Dhanushkodi, the Ram Sethu and these fishing communities?

 References

1. Dhanushkodi: The Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Downloaded from the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhanushkodi on the 14th of March 2013.

2. The National Geographic (2013) Geography in the news - A new international canal? Downloaded from the site: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/02/geography-in-the-news-a-new-international-canal/ on the 20th September 2013.

3. International Business Times (2013) The saga of Ram Sethu - Indian government plan to develop shipping lanes to Sri Lanka angers hindus and environmentalists. Downloaded from the site: http://www.ibtimes.com/saga-ram-sethu-indian-government-plan-develop-shipping-lanes-sri-lanka-angers-hindus-1106142 on the 20th September 2013.

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