Location: Island Of Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu
Deity Worshipped: Linga Of Sri Ranganatha
Famous Tradition: A Pilgrimage To Kashi Is Not Considered Complete Without A Pilgrimage To Rameshwaram
Significance: One of the 12 Jyotirlingas of India
Rameshwaram (also spelt as Rameswaram) is a pilgrimage center of nationwide importance, as Rama is said to have worshipped Shiva here on his way back from SriLanka. The temple is in the island of Rameshwaram, the Banares of the South, connected to the mainland by a bridge. The deity here constitutes one of the 12 Jyotirlingas of India.
The Sacred Pilgrimage To Rameshwaram: A pilgrimage to Rameshwaram is among the important injunctions laid on the Hindu from time immemorial. The great temple of Sri Ramanatha is connected by tradition with Kashi. A pilgrimage to Kashi is not considered complete without a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram. In olden days groups of pilgrims, many of them quite old, walked huge distances to the two temples, taking months and years, and some failing to survive the rigours and dangers of such incredibly long journeys. Men and women knew this cost might be exacted of them, but they repaid it cheerfully.
The Rameshwaram pilgrimage has long been a tradition in South India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and has passed into folklore. Many kings of old prided themselves on having planted columns of victory in Rameshwaram-Krishna III the Rashtrakuta, in the 10th century; the Hoysala, Vishnuvardhana, in the 12th century.
Everything in and near Rameshwaram is traditionally connected with incidents in the "Ramayana". The Kashi pilgrimage is considered complete not only after worship in the Sri Ramanatha temple but also after a bath in Dhanushkodi, a tip of the island where the Bay of Bengal, called the "Mahodadhi" in ancient times, joins the Indian Ocean, or Ratnakaram, its beautiful old name "Dhanushkodi", in Tamil the "end of the bow", takes its name from a tradition that Sri Rama, at the request of Vibishana, his friend, destroyed the bridge to Sri Lanka with the end of His bow. Dhanushkodi was affected in a cyclone a few years ago.
The Great Temple Of Sri Ramanatha: The temple of Sri Ramanatha, which has over the centuries grown into its present gigantic dimensions, stands on the eastern shore of an island, which is shaped like a conch, which Lord Vishnu bears in one of His hands. No field is ploughed or oil presses anywhere in the island. A magnificent railway bridge, over a kilometre long and constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century, connects it with the mainland.
Grimes walking incredible distances, philanthropists used to construct rest houses at intervals along the way. The last of them before Rameshwaram was Thangachimadam, a few kilometers away on the island. Modern means of transport have made these rest houses superfluous. But in their time they were most useful, even vital. The Sethupathis of Ramanathapuram, of which the district Rameshwaram is an administrative part, were called the "guardians of the Sethu", the bridge which, according to tradition, was built for Sri Rama to cross over into Sri Lanka when He set out to recover Sita.
About The Temple: Since it was Sri Rama Himself who, in time honored tradition, built the temple, it is held in particular reverence. After killing Ravana, He returned to India and, in Rameshwaram, offered worship to Lord Shiva to expiate the sin incurred in destroying him. Intending to set up a Linga, He directed Hanuman to bring one from Kailasa within a certain time. Hanuman was delayed. Meanwhile, the propitious hour for the installation having arrived, Sita Herself prepared one of sand, and offered it worship. This is the Linga of Sri Ramanatha in the temple.
When Hanuman returned with a Linga, He found that it was too late. He was angry and attempted to uproot the Ramalinga. But He failed. To pacify Him Sri Rama directed that his Linga, the "Visvalinga", should also be set up and that worship should first be offered to it. This is the second Linga under worship in the temple.
Temple Architecture: the temple 264m easts to west and 200m norths to south, and with three Prakaras, two big Gopuras and two more unfinished ones, faces east, a few meters from the sea. It contains two Lingas under worship. There are innumerable other shrines and twenty-two "Tirthas" (also spelt as Teerthas), or sacred bathing places.
At the main eastern entrance stands a huge Gopura of nine storeys and 38.4m high. The outermost, or third, corridor, 196m long and 120.4 wide, is one of the achievements of the Hindu artist down the ages. There are about four thousand pillars, each 3.7m high. All are located on a platform 1.5m high. They look like an orderly, Petrified Forest.
What is truly remarkable, apart from the sheer artistry of it which has so magnificently conquered problems of proportions, height and such like, is that all these stones must have been transported here over long distances and across the sea by a causeway. In Nayak times there was a kind of ford. How the huge stones could have been carried across a turbulent sea is a question the answer to which proves that old Indian engineers were quite advanced in technology.
A huge Nandi, 6.7m long and 5m high, stands beyond the second Prakara. It is made of 'Sudai', a material used for sculptures on Gopuras. On either side of it there are portraits of two of the Nayaks, Visvanatha and Krishnappa.
The western Gopura is smaller than the eastern, but still impressive, being 24m high. On the northern and southern sides there are unfinished Gopuras.
Shrines Within The Temple: In the principal sanctum there is the Linga of Sri Ranganatha. This is the one, which Sita made and Sri Rama sanctified. There is much delicate artistry in many parts of the sanctum. The Vimana, of three storeys, contains images of Hanuman, the Gandhamadhana Linga, and the Agastya Linga. The Linga of Visvanatha (also spelt as Vishvanatha), which Hanuman brought, is enshrined in another sanctum to the north. Worship is offered to it first.
In yet another shrine there is an image of Visalakshi, the Consort of Visvanatha, Ramanatha's Consort, Parvathavardhani, is enshrined in a sanctum to the right of His. Usually, in Shiva temples, the Goddess is enshrined to the left of the Lord. But here, as in Madurai, this location has not been followed.
Behind the Sri Ramanatha shrine, and between the second and third prakaras, there is a sanctum for Lord Vishnu as "Sethumadhava". Strictly speaking, the name should be "Svetha Madhava". The first word is Sanskrit for "white". The name derives from the fact that the image is of white marble.
An Interesting Story Is Told Of The Origin Of The Shrine: A Pandya of Madurai, Punyanadhi, once came to Rameshwaram on pilgrimage and performed a sacrifice to propitiate Lord Vishnu. The Lord, in order to test his faith, sent Goddess Lakshmi as an orphan girl.
The Pandya, having no daughter of his own, adopted her and lavished affection on her. One day Lord Vishnu, in the guise of an old ascetic, made his way into her apartment. When the king heard of this, he loaded him with chains and had him imprisoned in the Rameshwaram temple. That night he dreamt that the old man appeared as Lord Vishnu and the girl as Goddess Lakshmi. When he went to the princess apartment, he saw the same sight. On coming to the Rameshwaram temple, he found an image of Vishnu in shackles. Then he realised the enormity of what he had done. But the Lord consoled him and said that He, with Goddess Lakshmi would remain in the temple in shackles. The tradition is that he who bathes in a tank near the shrine and offers worship in that shrine will receive all the benefits of the Kashi pilgrimage.
Thirthas Within The Temple: There are no less than twenty-two "thirthas" (also spelt as Teertha or Tirtha), or bathing places, mainly within, but a few also outside, the temple. According to time-honoured tradition, the pilgrim bathes first in Agni Tirtha (also spelt Theertham), as the sea to the east of the temple is called (nearby there is a Shankara Matha), and finally in the Kodi tirtha, which is within the temple. The importance of bathing in these "thirthas" derives from the tradition that Sri Krishna Himself did so.
SACRED SITES OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE
Gandamadhana Parvata: Outside the temple, on the island, there are a few sites also held sacred. About 2.5-km west of the temple, on a hillock, stands the Gandamadhana Parvata. In this Mandapa footprints of Sri Rama are enshrined. From the top of the Mandapa there is a fine view of parts of the island. 8-km from the temple, on the way to Dhanushkodi, there is a beautiful temple of Sri Kodandarama where, tradition says, Vibishana was crowned when he joined Sri Rama.
Tiruppullani: Outside the island, there are three other sites traditionally connected with Sri Rama's expedition to Sri Lanka. A big temple in Tiruppullani commemorates the tradition that there the Lord obtained a bow and arrows to use in the impending war from its presiding Deity and also that the Lord of the Ocean who had refused to help Him finally submitted.
Sethu: 5-km south of the temple is Sethu, where there is a celebrated temple of Sri Anjaneya, and where, tradition holds, Sri Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka. In Devipatnam, or Navapashanam, also by the sea, there are nine stones visible at low tide. It is believed that they were set up by Sri Rama to represent the nine planets, the Navagrahas.
Uttarakosamangai: 16-km southwest of Ramanathapuram stands the renowed Shiva temple of Uttarakosamangai. Manikkavachagar has sung of it. The Lord is Mangaleshvara and the Goddess Mangalesvari. The temple has inspired many Tamil works of devotion. So, of course, has the Ramanatha temple in Rameshwaram.
To the making, expansion and preservation of these and many other temples in the district, the Setupathis of Ramanathapuram contributed magnificently. Originally a ruling power in these parts, the British made them Zamindars. The Sethupathi's proud boast was that he was the guardian of the Sethu. The family is closely connected with the temples in Rameshwaram, Tiruppullani, and Uttarakosamangai.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air: The nearest airport is at Madurai, at a distance of 154-km.
Rail: Rameshwaram is well connected by trains from all the major cities of India.
Road: State transport buses are available from the railway station to the various places in and around Rameshwaram. For local transportation taxis, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and tongas are available. Also city bus service is available in the island.