Rameswaram. And nostalgia.

This documentary film on the plight of the fishermen of Rameswaram (who are being fired at by the Sri Lankan navy) triggered memories of a trip to Rameswaram 10 years ago.  It was a trip to Madurai and Rameswaram actually, undertaken primarily because the spouse’s parents had been to Kaasi earlier in the year and needed to complete the cycle, i.e., holy water procured from the Ganga in Kaasi was to be ceremoniously let into the sea at Rameswaram. To appease the ancestors’ spirits or some such spooky beings. (All this water-mixing sounds mighty dubious and polluting, yes, but no matter. We held our tongues and stashed away the good karma.)

I’ve always loved train journeys, never tire of the charm, but this journey was particularly memorable because the train goes over a bridge (the Pamban bridge) across a brief stretch of the sea (Bay of Bengal)  en route to the conch-shaped island of Rameswaram from the mainland.  Being atop that bridge and staring down at the sea was both scary and breath-taking. (The Bandra-Worli sea-link just pales by comparison.)  Of course the other outstanding memory I have of that trip is that, as we left Rameswaram, everything — our bags, hair, clothes, we — stank of fish! Which can be difficult to stomach even for the fish-eating, I should think.

There is a keen atmosphere of nostalgia about Rameswaram, which anyone who’s been there has probably felt.  Maybe because of its mythological past. The place is a kind of museum for the Ramayana— the Rama Setu bridge; (there’s a Hanuman temple where you can see the stones supposedly used for this bridge; heavy stones that, inexplicably, float in water);  the Ramar Padam temple which contains stone imprints of Rama’s feet (supposedly) on the knoll atop which he is supposed to have sat and gazed across at Lanka.  And of course the Ramanathaswamy temple itself, which interestingly brings together Shaiva and Vaishnava devotees. An architectural marvel this, especially the pillared corridor, which is still etched in my memory. Then there’s the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, at the edge of the island, whose ruins eerily conjure up images of the bustling fishing hamlet that it was before the tragic cyclone of 1964.

I attribute the nostalgia to another reason as well.  For me Rameswaram is a place whose inhabitants have somehow been left behind in (or have chosen stay out of ) the inexorable march of time. These are people still eking out a livelihood through one of the oldest occupations of human civilization— fishing. Everything in Rameswaram has the air of a people caught in a time warp— the sand, the smell, the fishing, the friendly fisherfolk gawking at outsiders, the fishing nets and boats, the shops that sell just about every little trinket and curiosity rescued from the sea…One is sort of transported back in time…

Which makes the Sri Lankan navy seem that much more cruel.  As also the lack of protection from the mighty, modern Indian state. 

There’s a wizened old woman in the film I mentioned above, speaking of the cruelty of the Lankan navy, tears running down her weather-beaten face. She reminds me of Maurya, the indomitable protagonist of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Like her, this woman too must have seen men lost at sea, to the fury of Nature. Like her, she too must have learned to weather such losses. It’s the price they pay for the profession they choose to be in.  But her tragedy is greater than Maurya’s. Because the Sri Lankan navy is not Fate. Nor can stoicism be a virtue here.

Perhaps the story of the fishermen of Rameswaram is not of national importance. Perhaps it’s much more than that… the right to life?



  1. gaddeswarup said

    I wonder whether this started with suspicions of smuggling to aid Tamil fighters in Sri Lanka. It is surprising that Tamil Nadu government is not taking a more active role in the conflict. I also wonder whether some of the fishing is done in disputed areas.

  2. Swarup garu:

    True. Anything related to the Sri Lankan-Tamil conflict cannot be viewed only one way. And yes, from what I’ve read, there is the issue of poaching. By Indian trawlers, especially, which adversely affects Sri Lankan fishermen. However, I also understand that the UN Law treats poaching on the seas as a civilian offence.

    The TN govt…it is and is not an issue for them I guess. Perhaps because bilateral ties are at stake; and maybe also because of the charge of Indian poaching affecting primarily Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen…

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