The sacred island of RAMESHWARAM, 163km southeast of Madurai and less than 20km from Sri Lanka across the Gulf of Mannar, is, along with Madurai, south India’s most important pilgrimage site. Rameshwaram is mentioned in the Ramayana as the place where the god Rama, as an incarnation of Vishnu, worshipped Shiva, and consequently attracts followers of both Vishnu and Shiva. The Ramalingeshwara Temple complex, with its magnificent pillared walkways, is the most famous on the island, but there are several other small temples of interest, such as the Gandhamadana Parvatam, sheltering Rama’s footprints, and the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, frequented for its curative properties. Danushkodi (Rama’s Bow) at the eastern end is where Rama is said to have bathed. The boulders peppering the sea between here and Sri Lanka, making “Rama’s bridge” (Rama Sethu), were strategically placed by Hanuman’s monkey army so they could cross to Lanka in their search for Rama’s wife Sita, after her abduction by the demon king Ravana. The town offers uncommercialized beaches (not India’s most stunning) where you can unwind, bathe and do ablutions.
Rameshwaram, whose streets radiate out from the vast block enclosing the Ramalingeshwara, is always crowded with day-trippers and ragged mendicants who camp outside the Ramalingeshwara and the Ujainimahamariamman, the small goddess shore temple. An important part of their pilgrimage is to bathe in the main temple’s sacred tanks and in the sea; the narrow strip of beach is shared by groups of bathers, relaxing cows and mantra-reciting swamis sitting next to sand lingams. As well as fishing – prawns and lobsters for packaging and export to Japan – shells are a big source of income in the coastal villages.