Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Far South

Our last destination in India’s south was the Gulf of Mannar biosphere reserve.  This reserve, the first marine biosphere reserve in all of south and central Asia, encompasses 10,500 sq km of coastal waters stretching 300 km along the south-east coastline of the state of Tamil Nadu just opposite from the western coast of Sri Lanka.  Within the biosphere reserve are 21 small uninhabited islands scattered in a line parallel to the coast.  The water within 500 meters of these islands comprises the Gulf of Mannar marine national park, as well as the core area of the biosphere reserve. 
From the town of Ramanathapuram on the Indian mainland we travelled south-east down the length of a sandy peninsula which soon broke into a series of sand bar islands linked with bridges stretching towards Sri Lanka. At the south-eastern end of the last island is the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rameswaram, visited by worshipers of both Vishna and Shiva.  Home of both the Ramanathaswamy Temple and ghats for ocean bathing, Rameswaram is considered one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus in India and is sometimes called the “Varanasi of the south”.  

South of Rameswaram stretches a narrow spit of sand known as Adam’s Bridge.  About 10 km from town the spit disappears underwater to form a series of partially submerged limestone shoals connecting India and Sri Lanka.  Geological evidence and temple records indicate that Adam’s Bridge may have been passable on foot as recently as 1480, when it was destroyed by a cyclone.   The first mention of the bridge was by its other name, Rama’s Bridge, in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic Ramayana, which refers to a bridge built by Lord Rama’s army of ape-men to allow Rama to reach the kingdom of Lanka (Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife, Sita, from a demon king. This compelling story notwithstanding, geological evidence tells us that the bridge is a natural geological formation, not man- (or monkey) made.

A 19th century painting depicting a scene from Ramayana in which monkeys and bears are shown building a bridge to Lanka. This painting is currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

The small town of Rameswaram is full of guest house accommodation for Indian religious tourists and every day in the early morning hundreds of pilgrims make their way down to the ocean-side bathing ghat.  The low morning sun picks out bright saris in a hundred hues as women wade into the sea fully dressed to perform their ablutions. On the shore vendors sell puja offerings – coconuts and marigolds in baskets made of woven leaves. Young men point their cell phone cameras at us as we try but fail to blend into the crowd.  Down the beach a pig roots in a rotting pile of sea flotsam and beyond a rocky seawall several men defecate on the beach.  Hundreds of moored fishing boats line the horizon, inactive due to the strictly enforced fishing ban observed in Tamil Nadu and Kerala from April 15th to June 1st.  During this time, changing water current patters result in a nutrient bloom that feeds young fish and is critical in ensuring continuing fish stocks.  Because of the seasonal ban, the beaches and wharfs are crowded with men, either engaged in repairs of nets and boats or resting under the shade of their boats drawn up onto the beach. 

We wander the shore, speaking with fishermen, admiring the catch of small boats not affected by the ban. Eventually we are driven by hunger and the heat of the rising sun into a small dhaba in search of breakfast.  South Indian parottas were on the menu – flaky flatbread beaten just a little bit to separate the layers. Sitting right next to the cooking station, every few minutes our table shook with a bang bang bang as the cook slammed his fist down repeatedly on a pile of fresh parottas. Waving away the flies, we consumed parottas and omelets from broad banana leaf plates, and then staggered home to nap during the heat of the south Indian afternoon. 

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