The core of the Ramalingeshwara (or Ramanathaswamy) Temple was built by the Cholas in the twelfth century to house two much-venerated shiva-lingams associated with the Ramayana. After rescuing his wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana, Rama was advised to atone for the killing of the demon king – a brahmin – by worshipping Shiva. Rama’s monkey lieutenant, Hanuman, was despatched to the Himalayas to fetch a shivalingam, but when he failed to return by the appointed day, Sita fashioned a lingam from sand (the Ramanathalingam) so the ceremony could proceed. Hanuman eventually showed up with his lingam and in order to assuage the monkey’s guilt Rama decreed that in future, of the two, Hanuman’s should be worshipped first. The lingams are now housed in the inner section of the Ramalingeshwara, not usually open to non-Hindus. Much of what can be visited dates from the 1600s, when the temple received generous endowments from the Sethupathi rajas of Ramanathapuram.
Ramalingeshwara temple is enclosed by high walls which form a rectangle with huge pyramidal gopura entrances on each side. Each gateway leads to a spacious closed ambulatory, flanked to either side by continuous platforms with massive pillars set on their edges. These corridors are the most famous attribute of the temple, their extreme length – 205m, with 1212 pillars on the north and south sides – giving a remarkable impression of receding perspective. Before entering the inner sections of the temple, pilgrims are expected to bathe at each of the 22 temple tirthas (tanks) in the temple – hence the groups of dripping-wet pilgrims, most of them fully clothed, making their way from one tank to the next to be doused in a bucket of water by a temple attendant. Monday is Rama’s auspicious day, when the Padilingam puja takes place. Festivals of particular importance at the temple include Mahashivaratri (ten days during Feb/March), Brahmotsavam (ten days during March/April) and Thirukalyanam (July/Aug), celebrating the marriage of Shiva to Parvati.