Memories play a vital role in shaping a lot of what we do. Past remembrances often pop up in some form or the other in one’s work and daily life. This project, for me, started as a memory of two distinct waters on either side of me, merging into a frame where one is choppy and green, the other, blue and calm. It started with the tempo ride that took me on a roller coaster ride through these shallow waters, and ended up with fish curry and rice at a local fisherman’s house. It started by feeling the bricks and coral stones of the ruined church, and ended in walking past walls of bamboo, palm and thatch of the little coastal houses.
I was an intern in Sri Lanka looking for ferry services to come to India when I stumbled upon Dhanushkodi. When you type the same into Google, it shows you newspaper articles with headings like ‘Ghost town with real life haunted stories called Dhanushkodi’, ‘The town that disappeared’, ‘Road link new hope for Dhanushkodi?’ rather than any ferry details. I was hooked to the story, a unique tale of beauty and loss. I cannot claim to have discovered this place, for it was already done by the Hindu god Ram when he built the floating stones bridge to Lanka, on his quest to bring Sita back home. Neither can I claim the hauntingly beautiful stretches of golden sands dotted with wild shrubs and palms, I owe that to the cyclone of 1964.
Yes, this is how the story starts…with a giant tidal surge that gave shape to present day Dhanushkodi.
News of the Indonesian earthquake had just hit and was a hot topic around. The Chennai floods had not occurred long ago and just another month later, the Nepal earthquake shook the place. And here I was, soaking in a disaster struck place after 50 years of the original incident, abandoned and unchanged, with the scars still alive.
It is at this point, as an architecture student, one delves an inquiry about the factors that go into such circumstances, pre and post disaster.
History is witness to several natural traumas and blunt forces to have erupted and disrupted human survival, development, infrastructure and amenities required for basic sustenance of life on land. With nations of developing potential such as ours, and others like Nepal, Burma, Indonesia, China, Philippines and much of Europe, the impact of such calamities is amplified. Without adequate preparation, investment in solutions before the hazard occurs, vision and judgment to digress these, we endanger thousands of lives of men and children into the black hole of nothingness. We swallow years of hard work, economic stability and infrastructure advancements to not let us out of the loop of compromises that we have become so accustomed to live in.
Is human life a compromise too?
Japan, after the 2011 earthquake, rebuilt its entire infrastructure with minimum human casualties, for it had already predicted the disaster and used evacuative measures. On the other hand, Nepal built itself up bit-by-bit, with thousands of people still inhabiting refuge camps and awaiting shelter.
Both these cases present two very different approaches to ‘living’ in general – one distinct and chosen, the other replicated and mass-produced.
Housing has always played a very crucial role in forming our relationship with the environment – it 6000 years of noted history is proof of how every community formed their identity through their houses, an individual product of their lifestyle, beliefs and culture. It has also been a much-debated sector; design, always on the end of some or the other form of criticism for not having lived up to the core strengths of people – the result of which a lot of housing projects faced rejection and abandonment later.
On the other hand, mass housing – most with the idea of ‘ One solution fits all’ and the aim to stuff as many as possible, gets us failures on two ends, a living not honoring individuality and the need for identity – an unfettered need not escaping the inhabitants, forcing them to either find their own solutions or manage in what was provided as they seem fit.
This housing approach does not look to avoid disasters, or to provide relief centers and let the housing take the brunt of it all and crumble the dreams of the inhabitants.
The approach here, is to move forward with a coordinated development that takes into account the social, cultural, ecological and economic factors to provide safe ‘habitable’ habitat, retaining the natural scape and the very distinct character of the place. Dhanushkodi is no ordinary place, and should not be treated as one. Its beauty stretches across pages of history, mythology, ecology…but most importantly, across the lives of its 500 inhabitants who refuse to let go of their ‘ghost town’, of their birth place and the place they call ‘HOME’.
It is the story of a town that had long since been forgotten to waters that dissolved its light and life. It is now a part of newspaper articles, blogs and shooting destinations for movies. What was once a booming commercial and transportation hub has been lost to neglect, inadequate infrastructure and more importantly, lack of vision for sensitive areas such as these.
The idea is to not built a concrete jungle, but to provide disaster resilience through constructive use of the environment, with local materials available in a manner that speaks about the place, its rich history, tradition and preserves the culture of the people for generations to come, thus creating an ‘ I d e n t i t y ’.
This thesis aims to examine the life in Dhanushkodi, in past glory and the present, to determine its need for the future.
- Can we put it back on the map again?
- Can we provide the long awaited identity to the hundreds still inhabiting the town?
- Can we rise out of neglect to put its life back on track?