The Ramayana tells us that after vanquishing Ravan, the demon king of Sri Lanka, Ram, Lakshman and Sita crossed the bridge and came to Rameswaram on the Indian coast.

Everyone was rejoicing, but Ram felt a nagging sense of guilt. The reason was that Ravan, although a demon, was a Brahmin by descent. By killing him Ram had committed a great sin and he ought to absolve himself of it. To that end, he decided to perform a special worship of Lord Shiva at the very spot, but where to get a proper image of Shiva? Ram, therefore, ordered his ardent devotee and assistant, Hanuman, to get him a stone image (Linga) of the Lord from Kailas in the Himalayas. Hanuman left for the Himalayas without any delay.

All arrangements for the worship were made and everyone awaited Hanuman’s arrival. However, he was taking too long to bring the idol, while the auspicious time for puja was passing fast. Meanwhile, Sita, instead of sitting idle, made a beautiful shiva lingam using the sand available on the seashore. When Hanuman did not appear and the auspicious time was almost over, Sita asked Ram to worship the idol made by her. Ram started the rituals, and just then Hanuman appeared with a nice shiva lingam. He was a bit upset that Ram had started the rituals without waiting for him. Ram sensed Hanuman’s disappointment and told him that from that day not only would both the lingams be worshipped but the lingam that Hanuman brought would be worshipped first. Since then, this is the practice followed at the Ramanathaswamy temple at Rameswaram.

The Bridge over the sea at Rameswaram
Fishing Boats at Rameswaram

It took us three hours to cover the distance of 175 km by car from Madurai. Just before Rameswaram, we crossed the famous Pamban bridge over the sea connecting the mainland with the Pamban island in which Rameswaram is located. Running parallel to the road bridge, at a slightly lower elevation is the rail bridge of Pamban that appears to be almost touching the sea.

As the Pongal festival was being celebrated, the temple was full of pilgrims and visitors. However, the advantage of coming on this day was that the temple was open throughout the day. The temple is the chief attraction of the small town of Rameswaram. As it is associated with Sri Ramachandra and with Sankaracharya, who set up one of his four Mutts in four corners of India, the Ramanathaswamy temple has a special significance for devotees, and it attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every day. There are sixty-four sacred wells and waterbodies here, of which twenty-two are inside the temple itself. Pilgrims have their ablutions in them before visiting the shrines to worship Ramanathaswamy and other gods and goddesses.

The legend aside, historians put the antiquity of the existing temple not more than the 11th or 12th century C.E. Even if there was any temple or shrine at or around the place older than that there is no trace of it today. Whatever the age of the temple, besides its religious significance its architectural beauty, its tall gateways (gopurams), long balconies with exquisitely carved figurines and ceilings decorated with frescoes attract many admirers from all over the world.

Gopuram of the Rameswaram Temple
Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s House (as at present)

From the temple, we went to see the birthplace of the late President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. This great son of India, coming from a humble background and rising to the highest office of the land, is a beacon to many young men and women who aspire to serve the country. House of Kalam is a small building. On its first floor, there is an exhibition titled “Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam – Mission of Life”. The privately managed gallery, although small, is quite educative.

Our next destination was Dhonushkodi – the south-eastern tip of the Pamban island some 19 km from Rameswaram. It is the last point up to which there is a motorable road. The north-western tip of Sri Lanka is a distance of only 20 km from Dhanushkodi. The road ends at a large semi-circular area protected by railings. On three sides of this viewpoint is nothing but waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Palk Strait separating Sri Lanka from India, and further to the south the Indian Ocean.

Hundreds of tourists were enjoying the view. The wind was strong and so the scorching heat of the mid-day sun could be tolerated somewhat. There was a virtual fair at the place. Ice cream sellers were making a brisk business, some road performers were entertaining the assembly with acrobatics and one fellow was allowing people to have a glimpse of the horizon through his monocular at two rupees for half a minute. I have no idea if anything at all could be seen in that vast emptiness. But no one was complaining. People loosen their purse strings quite a bit at tourist spots!

On the way to Dhanushkodi
A view of the beach near Dhanushkodi

It was well past our usual lunchtime and the aroma of fish being fried in roadside eateries worked better than any fancy appetiser. We had a lovely lunch comprising rice and plenty of fresh fish cleaned and fried with some spices right in front of us.

Fish-fry restaurants at Dhanushkodi
A dish of fried fish

Before 1964 Dhanushkodi was like any other seaside town. A branch rail line from Pamban Junction ran up to Dhanushkodi station. A huge cyclone destroyed everything in Dhanushkodi. The railway lines, rail station and related infrastructure as well as all the houses were washed away by the tidal wave and the storm. The railway line up to Rameswaram was quickly rebuilt, along with the road bridge, but Dhanushkodi lies abandoned. A few brick walls of what looks like a church and skeletons of a few houses are all that remain at Dhanushkodi today. It turns into a ghost town after sunset when everyone must vacate the town.

Ruins of buildings at Dhanushkodi
Bivison’s Temple on the way to Dhanushkodi

I shudder to imagine how quiet and unearthly it would be when night descends at Dhanushkodi. Everything would be pitch dark except for the moving beacon of the lighthouse that will flicker on the white foam of the waves ceaselessly breaking on the shores of Dhanushkodi. An eery silence will reign except for the roar of the waves and the moaning of the gale.

As the sun filled the western sky with a wonderful shade of crimson before disappearing in the rippling waters of the Indian ocean we started on our journey back to Madurai.

As the sun called it a day…..

Madurai is a combination of a historic as well as a modern city. Originally, the city grew on the banks of the Vaigai river, but over the years it has spread across the river. In fact, the new residential areas of Madurai are coming up on the other side of the river. But, the main attraction of Madurai has always been and still remains the famous Meenakshi Temple.

The word ‘Meenakshi’ literally means fish eye. Women who have such eyes are supposed to be beautiful. So, the temple is of the goddess who has eyes as beautiful as those of a fish. And all goddesses, according to the Hindu faith, are but different manifestations of the same feminine aspect of the Supreme Power.

Like most such religious places in India, there is a mythological tale about the origin of the deity Meenakshi Devi. A power lineage of kings – Pandiyas – ruled a large part of peninsular India. King Malaydhwaj and queen Kanchanmalai of this lineage performed special worship so that they would get a son. However, a girl came out from within the sacrificial flame.

Strangely, the girl had three breasts. As the royal couple were quite depressed at all this, Lord Shiva appeared and asked them to treat the girl as a son and also assured them that when the girl would find her husband, her extra breast would disappear. The king and queen did as they were told and they even enthroned the girl.

The girl sought Lord Shiva for her husband who duly married the girl, and her additional breast disappeared. After that, the girl revealed her true form – Meenakshi. Since then, she is worshipped at this temple as Meenakshi. Lord Shiva is known here as Sundareswar.

It is estimated that the Meenakshi Temple as we see it was constructed somewhere between 1190 to 1205 CE. In 1311 CE Malik Kafur, the famous general of Alahuddin Khilji, Sultan of Delhi, attacked and plundered this temple among many other temples of the Deccan. For some years, the temple remained closed. Then, the Vijayanagar empire came to possess the temple and threw it open once again after some renovation. It was at this time that the peripheral walls around the temple were built. Later, during the rule of the Nayaka kings (1529-1736 CE), the temple was thoroughly renovated and expanded. The temple’s huge, tall, ornamented gopurams (gates) were also built at this time.

The huge South Gate of Meenakshi Temple
Another view of the South Gopuram

The main gopuram of the temple is the 170 ft tall southern gopuram. This pyramid-like structure is fully covered by sculptures of various gods and goddesses, as well as other legendary figures. Inside, the temples of Meenakshi and Sundareswar have triangular roofs called Shikharas, which are covered by sheaths made of gold. The sanctum sanctorum of the Meenakshi shrine is located at the end of a long corridor lined by pillars exquisitely carved with various figures. The main deity, Meenakshi, is in a standing posture with a slight bend in one knee. In her right hand, which is lifted up, there is a lotus on which there is a parrot. Sundareswar shiva lingam has a large snake with its hood like an umbrella on the deity.

There are many pavilions, big and small, inside the temple. Of these, the “pavilion with a thousand pillars” is really wonderful. It is a pity that photography is not allowed.

After visiting the temple and seeing the deity with a little difficulty due to the large crowd, we also wanted to visit the king’s palace. However, it was closed due to the Pongal festival and this was our last day in Madurai.

Our train for Kanyakumari – our next destination – left Madurai a little before midnight.