Rameswaram for me is a bridge. A bridge between history and the present; between myths and facts. Rameswaram is about blue skies and the calm ocean. Rameswaram is about temples and faith. Rameswaram is one of those towns that speaks the Ramayana lore – practically, at every turn. And Rameswaram is the town where the late former president APJ Abdul Kalam was born, grew up and finds his eternal rest. No tour to Rameswaram is complete without speaking about these two illustrious people - one mythical, the Lord worshipped as Sri Rama, and Kalam, a man as real and down-to-earth as you can get.
Rameswaram is an island connected to the mainland by the Pamban Bridge. You can reach Rameswaram by rail and by road. If you are driving, it takes about four hours to Rameswaram from Madurai. A trip across the Pamban bridge is an experiance in itself. The train that plys across the bridge literally crawls at a snail's pace; make sure you have a window seat to enjoy the waves lashing at the bridge. It is but normal to park on road bridge and take in the sight of the cantilevered rail bridge which can be lifted in the middle to let a ship pass by. On to Rameswaram
Rameswaram and the Ramayana connect
The myth does not explain how Rama crossed the Pamban channel. It starts from the time Lord Rama and his army reached Rameswaram on their way to Ravana's Lanka in search of Sita. Rameswaram was where the land ended and the sea divided the two countries. A bridge, the mythical Rama Setu was built across the ocean, transporting Lord Rama's army to Lanka. It was here that he returned, triumphant, with his wife Sita after vanquishing Ravana. And it was here that he built a temple dedicated to Lord Siva and worshiped him to absolve himself of any sins he might have incurred during the battle at Lanka.
This connect with the myth makes Rameswaram a very popular pilgrim center. It also is one of the famous temple towns on the Char Dham circuit (four abodes of the Lord). There are around 64 theerthas or holy water bodies splattered across Rameswaram; 22 of them are within the Ramanathaswamy Temple. No pilgrimage to Rameswaram is complete without a dip in the main 24 theerthams.
We begin with a dip at the Agni Theertham, which is the sea east of the Ramanathaswamy temple. And then, we enter the Ramanathaswamy Temple which houses the 22 theerthas – or holy water wells – spread across the temple. If it is your first time to Rameswaram, it is ideal to get the help of one of the many guides who will surround you when you are near the temple. The good part is, they will draw out the water from the many theerthas for you and some even take time out to explain what each of the theerthams stand for and what is special about them. The water from some theertha have a distinct flavor or fragrance. It is surprising that despite its proximity to the sea the water in some theertha are actually not saline in nature - and there is one where you can feel the fragrance of camphor.
You are not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Ramanathaswamy temple in your wet clothes, so it's ideal to pack some dry clothes if you do not want to trudge back to your hotel, change into dry clothes and return to finish the tour of Ramanathaswamy temple. There are places near the last theertha to change. The sanctum sanctorum houses two Siva lingas – one said to have been hand sculpted by Sita Devi out of mud and a bigger one which was believed to have been brought by Lord Hanuman. The temple corridor at the Ramanathaswamy temple is very impressive – it is one of the longest in South India and decked up with statues.
Outside the Ramanathaswamy temple which forms the centre of the town are other sights and sounds that you can take in. But we decide to give the market and other places in the town a miss and continue on the pilgrim path. Our next destination is the Rama Padam. Situated about 3 kms north of the temple is a small hillock called the Gandhamadhana Mountain. There is a two storied building atop the hill from where you can see all around. Rama is supposed to have stood on this hillock and scrutinized the area before he decided to build the bridge to Lanka. The building houses Rama's feet placed on a chakra and it is called the Ramar Padam. This is where you relax. Sit down and take in the vast areas of land stretched out before you. Where you find the blue skies merging with the emerald green ocean just a little way away. And then we are off again – in search of the other theerthams and the places associated with other Ramayana lore.
The 'Jada theertham' which is situated a little away on the road to Dhanushkodi has two stories associated with it. One is that Lord Rama washed his hair here after his return from Lanka while the other says that it was where the great bird Jadayu breathed his last. There is a small shrine here. And off we go to the last of the main theerthams – the Villondi Teertham which is a little way inside the sea. There is a small bridge which will take you to the theertha. The water here is sweet – the myth being that Sita was thirsty and Rama pierced the sea with his arrow so that she could have a drink.
Rameswaram: The land of Kalam too
We head back to the town. Our next destination is the crowded market place near the Ramanathaswamy temple. The small makeshift shops sell curios, trinkets, small plastic and wooden toys, and keepsakes you could pick up. The guide told us a very interesting story. The story of the late former president APJ Abdul Kalam's link with the Ramanathaswamy temple and the shops. It is said that Kalam's family owned a small shop that sells curios and it was the planes and rockets that he saw in these shops when he was a child that inspired him to fly high. Kalam used to worship at the Ramanathaswamy Temple. It is said that the Maraykar community from which Kalam hailed has close ties with the Temple. They were believed to have the rights to keep the keys of the temple before the temple came under the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Board in 1960. The community is allowed to take part in the festival during the Tamil month of 'Thai' (mid January to mid February)
Inspired, we head out to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam's house. There is a museum dedicated to the achievements of this humble human being – his life's story which will fill you with awe. There is an entry fee to the museum. There is a curio shop too in the premises.
In and around
Normally, The beaches at Rameswaram are calm and it is safe to wade in. Near the temples, however, they tend to get a bit dirty with all the religious offerings. There is a unique feature which will surprise you. There are some rocks that really float if you place them on water. The faithfuls believe that it was these stones which were used to build the Rama Setu.
Dhanushkodi, now a ghost town is another unforgettable experience. Situated about 20kms away from Rameswaram, it was devastated by a cyclone in 1964. The Kothandarama Temple at Dhanushkodi forms part of the pilgrimage. It is advisable to visit Dhanushkodi during the day and head back to Rameswaram for the night. If you are a bit adventurous you can head out to the Arichumunai .
Rameswaram leaves lasting impressions in your mind. And for me, it is a place I love to go back to. For the lore, for following the footprints of Lord Ram and placing those floating stones on the beach.
Where to stay
There are a lot of lodges and a couple of hotels where you can stay while you are at Rameswaram.
Rameswaram is well connected by bus and there are a couple of trains too from Chennai and Madurai.