The Rameshwaram Island is renowned as the place where the army of Ram built the bridge over the sea to reach Sri Lanka and rescue Sita. The most important part of this legacy is the road to Dhanushkoti built over the existing sandbar, supported by rocks and intermittent sandbars in the sea, all the way up to the SriLankan mainland.
Temple History and Significance
The Ramnathaswamy temple is the main temple where Ram prayed to Shiva after his victory over Ravana, to atone for the sin of killing him as he was a learned Brahmin. This temple is amongst one of the twelve Jyotirlingas and is famous for its pillared corridors all around the sanctum sanctorum. Beautifully carved and adorned with vibrant paintings on the roof, it transports the pilgrims to a level of spiritual bliss seldom matched by any other location.
The exquisitely carved pillars adorn the third corridor which is said to be the largest temple corridor in the world. This temple is unique among the major temples in Tamilnadu, as the fab four dynasties in Tamilnadu’s history, Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas played no major part in its development. This corridor was constructed by the Sethupathis of Ramnad and the older sanctum sanctorum area was renovated by the Kings of Jaffna. This association is a mute testimony to the shared historicity which connects this venerated corner of India to Sri Lanka.
It is believed that the location of the Ramnathaswamy temple is the exact place where Sita created the Shivlinga out of sand. As with most accounts in Indian epics, there is an interesting back story to this event. After the war, Ram needed a Shivlinga to worship, so he asked Hanuman and he proceeded to Mt. Kailash to bring the Shivlinga. As Hanuman couldn’t return in time and the auspicious period for the puja drew near, Sita created a Shivlinga out of sand to which Ram offered puja. Lord Hanuman was very disappointed, so Sita asked him to shift the sand Shivlinga and replace it with the one he brought from Mt.Kailash. Despite Hanuman’s extraordinary power, he could not do so and had to bow to divine will. At this point Ram intervened and told him that due importance will be given to the Shivlinga brought by him. This Shivlinga is established at the Kashi Vishwanath shrine on the right side of the sanctum sanctorum.
In the second corridor, in one of the corners, is a shrine with a Nataraja idol. Many visitors skip this area but it holds one of the most intriguing aspects of this temple. Here lies the Samadhi of Patanjali, the venerated guru of Yoga, and it is believed that his remains are within the walls of this shrine.
There are 22 Teerthams (wells within the temple complex) where a person is encouraged to take a ritual bath to attain spiritual and religious merit. These wells are associated with water sources referring to different aspects of religious linkages. Water has always been of prime importance for religious rituals in Indic religions as the presence or absence of adequate water decided whether a civilization flourished or perished.
The names of the Teerthams cover a large pantheon of significant Gods and Goddesses, prominent rivers, mountains, sun, moon, individuals, Rameswaram is away from a river based civilization and it is important to note the geological oddity of having such a copious source of fresh water in this small island. The mainland in the adjoining areas of Ramnathpuram district does not have any fresh water underground source near the sea coast.
Dhanushkoti and the Ram Sethu
The distance between the Rameshwaram Island and the nearest part of Sri Lanka is around 35 km and the road to the end of Dhanushkoti’s land mass covers approximately half of this gap. This sandbar is considered as part of the bridge constructed by the Vanara army for Ram. After the war, Ram destroyed the bridge (on request of Vibhishana) using one end of the bow, giving the place its name – Dhanush (Bow) and koti (end). Dhanushkoti was a flourishing town till 1964 when a few hours of cyclonic fury destroyed the area and left it in ruins. The cyclone was so sudden and furious that it swept away a train full of passengers. The land’s end today is a sandbar with waterbodies on 3 sides and Sri Lanka tantalizingly over the horizon on the eastern side. The roadtrip towards Dhanushkoti is very scenic with different hues of the sea and ocean on both sides of the road. At lands’ end, one can walk on the sand bars and into the sea for a considerable distance, as the underwater sandbars are clearly visible in the shallow waters. It is an amazing experience.
Beyond these two major attractions, every part of the island is associated with some aspect of the Ramayana story. One can visualize the intense activities of the long bygone era, through the timeless associations maintained by these small locations, usually represented by a small temple or a small structure tucked away from the main pilgrim path. Tracing the footsteps through these locations brings the ancient history very close to the visitors.
The temple darshan starts with a dip in the sea as the beach is just near the temple. It is said that a dip at this holy place will wash away the devotee’s sins.
There is a set of sacred water tanks (Teertham) associated with Ram, Lakshman and Sita around 1 to 2 km away from the main temple.
Close to the Lakshman Teertham and Sita Teertham, the Ram Teertham has a big tank with myriad hues of water where Lord Ram is said to have taken bath. Opposite this tank is an ancient temple with idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman.
Located just a kilometer away from the main temple, this is the place where Lakshman worshipped Shiva and took a holy bath in the adjoining tank to atone for his sin of stealthily killing Meghnad, Ravana’s son.
The calm and serene waters of the temple tank with the peaceful environs of the temple gives spiritual strength to the soul. What a life it must have been for Lakshman at this point in the Ramayana. When the whole army must be rejoicing at the win and success of getting back Devi Sita, could we picture Lakshman sitting here contemplating the long awaited return home to his wife, Urmila, who must have been the real epitome of loneliness for all the 14 years of exile. The temple at this site has idols of Ram, Sita and Lakshman. Shiva is worshipped in this temple as Lakshmaneswar.
This is a small water tank within the town. It is said that Sita took bath here after returning from Lanka and rested. This is in a dilapidated state and hardly anyone notices it anymore. There are houses and hotels adjoining it and it looks totally lonely and forlorn, as if predicting Sita’s future status.
This temple is on the way to Dhanushkoti, the land’s end. Situated off the main road, surrounded by water on all sides, it is a quaint little temple representing the location where Vibhishan was proclaimed king of Lanka by Ram. The story of surrender of Vibhishan and help to Ram is shown through various paintings. Interestingly, a similar episode occurs earlier in The Ramayana, where an estranged brother’s kingdom was restored by Ram. This event happened in Kishkindha, modern day Hampi, where Sugriva was coronated after the death of his brother Bali. The temple commemorating this event within the forest of sylvan Tungabhadra valley at Hampi is called, what else, Kothandaramar Temple.
Ekant Ramar temple
This is a small temple around 4 km away from the main temple. It is said that at this location Lord Ram rested on the night before launching the attack on Lanka. Standing in the peaceful environs, away from the bustling throngs of pilgrims of the main temple, one can almost visualize the anxiety, eagerness, and longing of that long night for Ram. The idols of Ram, Lakshman and Sita adorn the sanctum sanctorum and the ever alert Hanuman is standing guard on the side. The idols are shown holding the upper garments in their hands as if protecting it from a strong sea breeze and the Hanuman murti has its hand covering the mouth as if to maintain silence while Ram is resting.
Away from the main road leading to Dhanushkoti, along sandy landscape, lies a small water tank. This is the place where Ram washed his matted hair (Jata) after returning from Lanka, earning it the sobriquet of Jata (Jada) Teertham. In the silent surroundings of this off beat place, it is easy to imagine how Ram must have washed all the accumulated grime off his matted hairs (both literally and metaphorically). Adjoining the tank there was an ancient Peepul tree and the legend goes that Ram, Sita and Lakshman rested below this tree on their return from Lanka. A temple stands at this location where Lord Shiv is worshipped as Lord Kapadiswara.
This is the highest point on the island. It was the strategic discussion point for earmarking a short direct route to Lanka by Ram’s army. It is a hillock, 3 km away from the main temple. A stone has the footprints of Ram at this location.
Saakshi Hanuman Temple
This is a small obscure shrine dedicated to Hanuman on the way to the Gandhamadan Hill. It is at this site that Hanuman informed Ram as to the whereabouts of Sita and showed her chudamani as evidence that she had been kept captive in Sri Lanka.
This is a mysterious fresh water well that must be visited. It is on the way to the Pamban Bridge (the scenic rail and road bridge that connects the island to the mainland at Ramnathpuram district). The well is located at the end of a pier that is surrounded by sea water. This Teertham is dedicated to Ram. It is said that Ram had dipped his arrow into the sea to procure water for Sita, who was thirsty on return from Sri Lanka. Thereafter Ram had buried his bow and arrow at the site and thus the name Villondi was given to the place, which means buried bow. Right in the middle of the sea, this well has water with much lesser salinity. It is part of the recurring theme of water structures associated with Ram on this island.
Panchmukhi (Five-faced) Hanuman Temple
According to one of the lesser known episodes of the Ramayana, the king of Patala Lok(the realm located under the Earth), Mahiravana, had kidnapped Goddess Sita, Lord Ram and Lord Lakshman in the guise of Vibhishana. When Hanuman reached the place where they were hidden, he was required to turn off five lamps which were kept in different directions, at the same time, to vanquish the demon. Hanuman took the form of Panchmukhi Hanuman with five faces of Varaha, Narasimha, Garuda, Hanuman and Lord Hayagriva. Right in the center of the city, there is an idol of Hanuman showing this feature.
Rameshwaram is bustling with devotees, who come from far and wide to be blessed with the energy of the Jyotirlinga and to feel connected with the events that happened in the life of Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. It is no wonder that this island is a magnet for the pilgrims from all over India. The numerous events identified with the passage of Ram’s army through this island are preserved in the social memory through these non-descript locations. One can only imagine all that happened thousands of years ago as a result of the epochal war between Dharma and Adharma. These places continue to evoke reverence in the visitors till today.
This article of mine was first published by Pragyata.com