S. Balakrishnan

Rameshwaram is a must visit pilgrimage destination for devout Hindus, as much as Varanasi is. It is a unique symbol of religious unity among Hinduism’s Vaishnavaite and Saivaite sects, the two major sects. The Vaishnavaite Lord Ram had worshipped the Saivaite Lord Shiva here and hence the name Rameshwaram. While in Hindi the word ‘Eashwar’ denotes ‘god’ in general, in Tamil the word ‘Eashwar / Easwaran’ indicates only Maheswaran, the Lord of all Lords. However, to pacify the Vaishnavaite devotees and to emphasise religious unity, it is rhythmically said that “Hari and Siva are ‘onnu’ (one and the same), the ignorant’s mouth has ‘mannu’ (soil).  Thus, Rameshwaram strongly stands for unity among these two main sects of Hinduism since ages.

Rameshwaram shrine is one of the 12 sacred jyothirlingam shrines of India. It is also one of the most important Chardham (Four) shrines in four cardinal directions, Badrinath (North), Dwaraka (West), Puri (East) and Rameswaram (South).  It is praised for moorthy (the deity), the sthal (place) and theerth (holy water). The deity (Lingam) is the one installed by Lord Ram himself; the sthal is where Lord Ram got himself absolved of the sin of slaying Ravana and others in the war to redeem Sita; and the theerth is Agni Theertha that absolves one of all sins. Hence Rameswaram is as important as Kashi (Benaras/ Varanasi) for a devout Hindu.  Pilgrims flock to this island-shrine from all parts of India and Nepal. There are two versions – some say one should visit Rameswaram after visiting Kashi, while others say it is the other way around. Well, at the end, what matters is pure devotion.  Ceremonies for the departed soul and ancestors are performed here for them to rest in peace and for us to live in peace.

Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple is located near the sea on the eastern side of the island. It is world-renowned for the architectural beauty of its magnificent Prakaras or circumambulatory corridors with massive sculptured pillars on either side. The 197-meter-long East-West corridor is believed to be the longest in any shrine, while the South-North corridor is 133 meters long. This temple has been patronized by various kings, the most prominent of recent times being the Sethupathy dynasty of Ramnad in Tamil Nadu, in which district the temple is now situated. Even the Kings of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) have been its devotees. Special Pooja is performed every day to the Spatikalingam [crystal lingam] installed by Adi Sankara in this temple. The sanctum sanctorum has two Shivlings – the one brought by Hanuman from Kailash called Vishwalingam and  the other created out of sea sand by Sita, called Ramalingam, as it was getting late for pooja and Hanuman was yet to arrive. As instructed by Rama, it is Vishwalingam that gets priority in daily rituals so that Hanuman, Lord Ram’s greatest devotee, will not get offended.

Sri Ramanathasamy temple faces the sacred Agni Theertham ghat of the sea on the eastern side. The shore is only about 100 mts from the temple. The sea is very calm and peaceful. A hillock situated 3 kms away is called Gandamadana Parvatam which is the highest point in the island, from where one could get a bird’s eye view of the whole Island. Imprint of Lord Rama’s feet is found here. Many sacred theerthams (wells) are found inside the temple premises in which devotees take bath and then have darshan of Ramanathaswamy.   Though so close to the sea, water of some wells is sweet!  More are being discovered. The temple’s wooden car / rath has wonderful carvings. It is from this island that Lord Ram built a sethu (bridge) to Sri Lanka. Hence the controversy over constructing SethuSamudram Canal Project. The floating stones used for constructing the Ram Sethu are found in one of the temples here.

Due to high security, even mobiles are not allowed inside the temple. No photography either. Rameswaram is well connected by road and rail. Nearest airports are Madurai (165 km) and Tuticorin (185 km). There is always a high floating population of devotees from far and near. Hence avoid weekends, new moon days and religiously important days if you want to have a crowd-free darshan. Lodging of all types, including choultries, is available. Pre-booking is advised. Better to avoid the monsoon season of Oct.-Dec. period when cyclone threats are a possibility.  

I visited Rameswaram as a curious kid in 1963-64, before the deadly cyclone that washed away the Dhanushkodi part of the Rameswaram (Pamban) Island. After that it was more than 40 years later that the divine call came to have a darshan of Ramanathaswamy! During my childhood days, we lived in Madurai just by the side of the Rameswaram rail line; I used to watch wonderously at the devotion of people from far off places travelling in that train with multi-coloured turban and attire that was entirely different (devotees from Gujarat and Rajasthan, now I know). Those days the rail route was the only way in and out of Rameswaram Island. The road bridge from Mandapam in mainland to Pamban village in Rameswaram Island was opened in 1988. The Pamban railway bridge that opens up for ships to pass through is a must see. The Indira Gandhi road bridge over Palk Straits (more than 2 kms. long) is also worth visiting for a stroll and for a close-up view of trains passing on the unique 2 km. long rail bridge. There are a few more temples in Rameshwaram that are associated with epic Ramayana, like Satchi Hanuman temple, Sugreevar temple, Kothandaramar temple, etc. Of course, now we have Dr. Abdul Kalam’s memorial also.

When the sky is clear, people say one could see Mannar area of Sri Lanka from Rameswaram, but we were not lucky.  Shell and conch items are abundantly available here to buy as mementoes of one’s dream visit to the sacred Island of Rameshwaram.

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