I woke up early and Kannen picked me up for our walk to Sri Lanka. Not literally, of course, but we would be close enough – we would be walking to Dhanushkodi, on the most eastern tip of India, less than 20 miles from Sri Lanka. He asked if I wanted to ride in a truck out to the point, but of course I didn’t, I wanted to walk all the way. This woman of a certain age was going to walk along the Indian beach no matter how long it would take me to get there.
Rameswaram is an island in the Gulf of Mannar at the very tip of India. Rameswaram is the place from where Lord Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue his consort Sita from her abductor, Ravana, It is also where Rama worshiped Shiva to cleanse away the sin of killing Ravana. Dhanushkodi, named after Rama’s bow, is at the eastern end of the island about 8 kms from Rameswaram. The boulders around the sea between Sri Lanka and the place known as Adam’s Bridge are believed to be used by the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, to leap across the ocean to Lanka to rescue Sita.
Before we left for the beach, Kannen took me to the street market where I bought fruit for our trip. Everyone knew him – I’m sure I wasn’t the first westerner he brought there – and I sat with the fish sellers as they told me about their catches of the day. I was again glad about how different the Indians were here compared to the ones I had met in Kodaikanal only two days before.
We got to the place on the beach where we would start our walk, but before we left, Kannen took me to the fisherman
who would cook our lunch when we got back. The fisherman took us behind his hut and I picked out my fish that he had caught that morning. One couldn’t get a fresher lunch than that! I can tell you that I was so hungry when we returned that I would have eaten that fish raw.
We started walking and by this time it was close to noon. The sand was blazing hot and it kept getting into my shoes, the sun high in the sky beating down on us. Thank goodness I had plenty of water with me. Kannen and I had an easy conversation – as I said, he was a smooth operator. He kept asking me how I was. I asked him what he would do if I couldn’t walk any further. “Carry you,” he said.
We rested in the shade at the old ferry stop that stopped running ferries in 1964 when the area was hit by a cyclone. I had a thin cotton sarong with me that I used as a dupatta and Kannen tied it gently and carefully around my head so that my scalp and forehead would not get sunburned.
We came to a fishing village and Kannen introduced me to the “oldest man in Dhanushkodi” – I knew that I was not the first westerner he brought to him. Kannen told him where we had walked from, and the old man told Kannen that I was a “strong woman”. We sat in his hut for a long time, and his sons came in with the old man’s pet monkey, a baby that I wanted to hold, but I knew that would be a bad idea, as a bite would mean automatic rabies shots. Seeing that little monkey with a chain around its waist made me sad, but I suppose it had a better life on the island than in a cage in Chennai. We sat a while longer and a Shiva baba came into the hut, another old man who had walked even further than we did, all the way from Rameswaram proper. I gave him some of my water and he blessed me when I told him om namah shivaya, jai jai shiva shambo.
We came to another fishing village and Kannen and I walked around talking to people he knew. We sat for a long time with a family who spoke no English — the woman made me chai, and the man repaired his nets. Kannen did most of the talking and I stared out at the ocean. I couldn’t believe I had walked all this way, almost to Sri Lanka. I left him and walked along the beach, picking up shells that I had only seen pictures of in books. Those shells and a sea urchin are now on my altar in my yoga room.
I felt very lucky to be here, I was filled with gratitude and awe because I am always drawn to the ocean. Some people are drawn to mountains or forests, I am drawn to the ever changing face of the ocean. I feel the rhythm of the waves inside me. I’ve always felt like I can walk out into the ocean, dive beneath the waves, and survive, returning only when I feel like it.
Kannen told me that he brought two western women (“Swedish”) out where we were and they stayed for three days, that he had set them up with a beach hut and water. The family we had sat with cooked their meals, and it only cost them 500 rupees per day. He told me he would do the same for me, that I could wear a “swimming suit” and swim in the ocean. I looked at him and said that I thought women are supposed to stay covered up in this part of India. I told him that people told me to stay covered, that South India was conservative – I pulled out the strap of my camisole that I wore under my sleeveless kurti and I asked him, “you mean I could walk around with this top on, no problem?” He said, yes, no problem, no one would care. I asked him why that’s so, and I waved my hand to encompass the whole area. All he said was, “we have freedom here.”
He told me if I wanted to do the beach hut next time, to call him, that he would pick me up in Madurai and we would drive to Rameswaram. The idea was extremely tempting to me, but the thought of being alone on an almost deserted beach at night where drugs and people were trafficed gave me pause. Besides, my gut told me that I would not be alone in that hut for very long.