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 Temple, 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.
Accommodation in Rameshwaram comprises a mixture of basic old lodges in the streets around the temple and newer hotels, mostly in the direction of the transit points. The temple authorities also provide pilgrim rooms; ask at the Devasthanam Office, East Car St. During holidays and festivals, rooms are like gold dust and just as pricey.
The core of the Ramalingeshwara (or Ramanathaswamy) Temple was built by the Cholas in the twelfth century to house two much-venerated shivalingams 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 made it back bearing a 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, but can only by viewed by Hindus. Much of what can be visited dates from the 1600s, when the temple received generous endowments from the Sethupathi rajas of Ramanathapuram.
The 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 on 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 tank to tank, to be soaked by bucket-wielding temple attendants. 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.
Top image: Image of the Pamban rail Bridge connecting the island of Rameshwaram to the mainland of Tamil Nadu situated on the confluence of Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in India © Rince.P. F/Shutterstock