The temple town of Rameswaram in the state of Tamil Nadu is an island in the Gulf of Mannar. Literally a stone’s throw away from Sri Lanka, it is India’s most revered pilgrimages as it houses one of 12 Jyotirlingams.
This is indeed hallowed land - the Hindu epic Ramayana tells the story of Rama, Prince of Ayodhya and living incarnation of Lord Vishnu. According to the Ramayana, Ravana abducted Sita, Rama’s wife and held her captive on his island kingdom, Lanka. Lord Rama marshalled his rag-tag army of monkeys and bears on this very spot, prior to his legendary battle with Ravana, demon-king of Lanka. This is also the place where Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu asked forgiveness from Shiva for killing his follower Ravana. And so, Rameswaram is sacred for both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects of Hinduism.
The Ramanathaswamy Temple marks the sanctified place where Rama offered thanks to Shiva on his victorious return from Lanka. Despatched to fetch a lingam, Rama’s trusted lieutenant Hanuman flew off to Mt Kailasa, abode of Shiva. Mt. Kailasa being a long way off in the Himalayas, Hanuman took his time. In the meantime Rama offered prayers to a lingam of sand, built by Sita. When Hanuman returned, there were two lingams and an obviously unhappy monkey god!
Rama decreed that henceforth both lingams would be worshipped; Hanuman’s taking precedence over Sita’s. The Ramanathaswamy Temple is thus dedicated to lingams, Vishwalingam, the one brought by Hanuman and Ramalingam, the one put together by Sita. The 17th century temple is truly another magnificent example of Dravidian temple architecture with a gopuram that soars to an impressive 53.6m. Especially noteworthy is its incredible 1200m long corridor flanked by exquisitely carved pillars. Construction work on the temple began in the 12th century AD; successive dynasties added their own contributions to this remarkable temple complex that spreads across 52,800sq m.
Devotees offer prayers to the lingams after first bathing in the waters of the temple tanks- there are estimated to be 22 sweet water wells, each with a different taste! Shiva’s consort Parvati has her own temple on the right side of the main shrine; several smaller shrines house other deities including Hanuman, Vishnu, Krishna and Shiva’s sons Ganesha and Subramanya.
Rama was not only grateful to Shiva; he also wished to atone for the sin committed when he slew the demon king. Agneetheertham, 100m east of the temple is the sacred tank in whose waters Rama washed away his sins. People still bathe in its sanctified waters and hopefully return home cleansed off their misdeeds!
A short walk from the temple is the highest point in the island, Gandhamadana Parvatam, a tiered mandapam housing a chakra with the imprint of Rama’s foot. Built on the highest natural elevation (hence ‘parvatam’ or mountain) on the island, the mandapam can be seen well before you actually arrive at it.
Of the major festivals in the temple are Amavasya Festival, celebrated in the month of January, the Sivaratri Festival, celebrated for a span of 15 days during the months of February to March, Thirukalyanam Festival in the months of July and August and the Mahalaya Amavasya Festival which is celebrated in the month of September. The Arudhra Festival is also celebrated on a full moon day in the month of December.
Legend has it that to get to Lanka (20 minutes across the sea), Rama needed a bridge, and each time one was built, Ravana would destroy it! Now, Ravana was an ardent devotee of Shiva who had granted him many a special boon and it was obvious that Rama needed Shiva’s blessings if he were to succeed in his mission. So Rama built a temple to Shiva at the foot of the bridge, knowing fully well that Ravana would not destroy a temple to his master. It was a masterstroke of planning; in one fell swoop Shiva’s blessings were obtained and the bridge saved! In due course of time, Rama vanquished Ravana’s armies, killed the demon king and released Sita from her confinement.