SS Ramdas: Mumbai’s Titanic Revisited

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    On the morning of July 17, 1947, the Bombay Harbour witnessed a grisly sight as dead bodies started washing up on its rocky shore. About the same time, fishermen in trawlers bringing the day’s catch to Bombay from the nearby ports of Rewas and Mandwa in coastal Raigad district saw what appeared to be a scene from a zombie movie – the sea seemed to be littered with corpses. There were some people still alive, exhausted but desperately trying to stay afloat.

    An hour or so earlier, a passenger ferry, the SS Ramdas, had sunk in stormy seas after being hit by a violent swell on its starboard side. The passengers instinctively rushed to the port side, causing the ferry to list dangerously and then capsize. There were more than 700 passengers on board, of which more than 690 drowned.

    The SS Ramdas went down near a small rocky protrusion in the sea called Kashyacha Khadak or ‘Gull Island’. It had sailed from Ferry Wharf in Mazgaon, Bombay, and was heading south to the small port of Rewas, 24 km away,when tragedy struck 30 minutes into the journey.

    In terms of casualties, it is one of the worst-ever shipwrecks in the Mumbai Harbour and has gone down in local lore as ‘Mumbai’s Titanic’.

    Mumbai’s Link To The Konkan

    Mumbai has always been closely linked by sea to villages and towns like Rewas and Alibaug in the North Konkan. While the land route to these places is long and arduous, the sea route is short and quick. Situated only a few kilometres south of Mumbai, locals have been regularly sailing back and forth between these towns and the big city, for work and to visit family and friends. Gradually, these sleepy, coastal towns with pristine beaches became tourist hotspots, and a daily ferry service began to take boatloads of locals and tourists to and fro, all year round.

    Far from the massive catamarans and other high-speed craft that carry passengers between Mumbai and Mandwa near Rewas in under an hour today, the SS Ramdas was a steamer, and it took a good 6 hours to cover the same distance.

    The tragedy took place on Gatari Amavasya, the new moon day before Shravan, a month that is marked by austerity. On this occasion, people eat, drink and make merry before heading into a long period of abstinence.

    Would the loss of lives have been less had it not been a festive occasion? Probably.

    Many of the passengers on the SS Ramdas were from towns such as Pen, Roha and Alibaug, and were in a celebratory mood as they were looking forward to being home, with family and friends, to celebrate Gatari Amavasya. Most of them never made it.

    The tragedy of the SS Ramdas reminds us of another shipwreck on the same coast, this one north of Mumbai, more than a half century earlier. The year was 1888 and a steamship named the SS Vaitarna disappeared off the coast of Gujarat, taking down more than 700 passengers with her. The wreck was never found, nor were any bodies recovered.

    Just like the SS Vaitarna, the story of the ill-fated SS Ramdas too has passed into local lore, with a popular Marathi folk song narrating the events of July 17, 1948. Titled Rewasla Nighali Ramdas Boat (The Ramdas Has Left For Rewas), its oddly lively rhythm and simple lyrics have forever imprinted the tragedy in the memory of the people of Rewas.

    It didn’t end there. In an indication of just how long a shadow the tragedy cast on Mumbai, this side of the harbour, when debris washed up at Ballard Pier in Mumbai 10 years later, it was said to be that of the SS Ramdas. The truth is, no remains of the ship were ever officially recovered.

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