For devout Hindus, a pilgrimage is considered incomplete without visits to sacred cities and sites at cardinal points in the country—Badrinath in the north, Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west, and Varanasi and Mathura in the center, for example. And while Rameswaram in the south, along with Kanyakumari, would complete the journey of devotion, its out-of-the-way location deters many a worshipper; certainly it is not on the tourist circuit even for those following India’s trail of temples. It is far simpler to conclude the southern temple journey at spectacular Kanchipuram, Chidambaram, or Madurai.
When I reached Madurai, my take-off point for Rameswaram, both my escort-guide and the head of the local tour agency immediately tried to talk me out of the pre-arranged excursion. Arguments ranged from “Tanjore is better …” to “It’s a 12-hour trip,” (it’s actually three hours each way) “… not architecturally interesting.” These were excuses for not making an out-of-the-way trip: One goes to Rameswaram expressly to view what is called the longest pillared and cloistered corridor in the world.
We arranged to depart early the next morning. In the meantime I made the acquaintance of an American who had been stranded at our hotel because of some snag in her own tour, and I invited her to join me on what had now begun to sound like an interesting adventure.
Madurai itself is the very heart of Tamil culture. Nine tall and ornate gopurams (pyramidal gates) of the renowned Meenakshi Temple—“The Great Temple”—soar over a dusty, unpretty city where film posters slather most buildings, and where the brown Nagar River rages during monsoon season. But the Dravidian temple is spectacular, even baroque in its carved lavishness: its Hall of a Thousand Pillars (technically 997); its “musical” pillars outside that produce musical notes when struck; its twin Shiva and Meenakshi sanctuaries. There is fine ongoing restoration and an attached museum with stunning bronzes. More than the amazingly elaborate structures of the complex—a city within a city that includes a teeming bazaar—is the throbbing life that never ceases. In a nightly procession, the gods are put to sleep. Indeed, Meenakshi Temple has been called the best example of temple life in all of India. Just outside the entrance gopurams stands the Tirumala Nayak Palace, built in Indo-Saracenic style with graceful arches and huge pillars and a gallery filled with marvelous sculpture.
The 100-mile drive from Madurai to Rameswaram is over a national highway that cuts through a landscape where backwaters of the Bay of Bengal flow into grassy wetlands. The countryside is dotted with animals: buffalo and donkeys grazing, goats wandering onto the road, herds of pretty tan sheep glimpsed here and there. We pass lakes and tiny villages where buildings are fenced with palm leaves. In one village we purchase lunch fruit. Rice farmers—men, women, and children—resourcefully place their harvest on large cloths right in the middle of the road so passing wheels can aid in the threshing; again and again we drive over this bounty, one of three yearly crops. We stop to photograph what is a watercolor come to life: colorfully clad workers stooped and swinging mini scythes in the green and gold rice fields that seem to glitter under the blinding Indian sky.
The weather is hot, dry, and windless, and our car feels like an oven. There is no escaping the dust that sifts imperceptibly through the open windows, so we tie scarves over our noses and suck eucalyptus drops (lubricating the nostrils helps in these situations). My companion from California and I share experiences of India: She tells me about her stay at a Bombay ashram; I recount how I bumped into a friend at the Hyderabad airport, and how, as a rare American tourist to Bhubaneswar, I enjoyed a VIP seat at the Republic Day celebration there. Our driver-guide sometimes joins in the conversation; he often appears amused, by his female American charges smitten by his country.
At Mandapam we cross the Pamban Channel to the sacred island of Rameswaram via the second largest bridge in India. The suspension bridge, named for Indira Gandhi, is nearly a mile-and-a-half long and took fifteen years to complete because of cyclones and labor problems. Until the bridge’s inauguration in 1988, the Pamban Railroad (via a parallel bridge to ours) was the only access to the island from the mainland. The South Indian Railway’s steamer service connects Rameswaram with Talaimanaar in Sri Lanka, 22 miles and 90 minutes away. From the bridge we see thatched-roof houses, fishing boats, and naked children splashing on the Pamban shore. On the sandy island, which has 12,000 inhabitants, we pass more tan goats, thorn trees, a frame Catholic church looking vaguely Victorian.
The great Sanskrit epic poem, The Ramayana, has exerted a deep influence on India’s religious and cultural life. Rich in anecdotes, this most popular of Indian epics is the intricate story of the noble prince Rama, Lord Vishnu’s seventh incarnation, and his struggle to overcome Ravana, the 10-headed demon king of Lanka. Much of the action takes place in and around Rameswaram, a tiny 14-mile-long by 5-mile-wide island in a narrow sea (the Palk Straits in the Gulf of Mannar) in the Indian Ocean, between Tamil Nadu in southern India and Sri Lanka.
According to the Ramayana, when young Rama sought to rescue his beautiful wife Sita (the incarnation of Lakshmi, Lord Vishnu’s wife) from the evil Ravana who kidnapped her, he enlisted the aid of Hanuman, the monkey general. Hanuman built a land bridge—a string of seven islands of which Rameswaram was the first stepping stone—connecting the Indian mainland to conch-shaped Rameswaram (shaped like Vishnu’s conch, it is said) thence to Lanka. It was over this land bridge—known variously as Rama’s Bridge, Adam’s Footsteps, Adam’s Causeway and Adam’s Bridge—that Hanuman led his army of monkeys and bears to Lanka against Ravana, and over which a victorious Rama returned to Rameswaram with Sita. (Note that biblical references don’t end here: Near the railroad station are two tombs said to be those of Cain and Abel.) A line of rock islets, remnants of the ancient causeway, remain to this day. Pilgrims pay tribute to the beloved Rama who founded Ramanathaswamy Temple—one of the most venerable shrines in India and the equal of Varanasi—as his tribute to Lord Shiva to absolve himself for killing Ravana.
The lofty Ramanathaswamy temple dominates the small village of Rameswaram and is dedicated to Shiva, although both followers of Shiva and Vishnu worship here. I imagined what is documented as the largest pillared and cloistered corridor in the world to be a single straight hall lined with continuous columns. Instead, it’s a vast limestone and granite rectangle, approximately 1,000 feet long by 650 feet wide, containing three corridors that measure a total distance of 4,000 feet. Twelve-hundred giant pillars line the corridors and support the mandapam (pavilion) of this temple that was built over a 300-year period (12th to 15th centuries) in characteristic late Dravidian style.
We enter a 130-foot gopuram and walk around the outer rectangle. Like other Dravidian temples, Ramanathaswamy Temple, with its 30-foot-high roof, is semi-dark; strips of light enter the dark limestone through occasional openings. It is dank as well.
This is very much a “living temple” as Meenakshmi Temple is, but it is considered even more evolved. Colorful crowds fill the place from dawn to dusk. A constant stream of humanity moves, swirls in every direction, through the inner and outer pillared halls, through doorways and under ceilings constructed of massive stone slabs. Visitors move from shrine to shrine with offerings of flowers and fruit, and of course money. Brahmin holy men dispense blessings. The din of mantras being chanted is constant, at every step and turn. There are more than 20 sacred wells (theerthams) throughout the temple which we are told is built over a lake; this and the constant tossing of liquid offerings over various deities make the stone floors in some of the corridors wet and filthy under bare feet. It’s difficult to adopt a serene Indian attitude while sloshing in near darkness; certainly it’s not for the squeamish.
In the dim light we pause at beautiful paintings on the walls that lead to the Shiva sanctuary. From a distance we are permitted glimpses of the sacred linga placed at this site, according to the Ramayana, by Rama and Hanuman. Out in the open, painstaking purification rites are taking place at the large theertham. Believers are immersed several times, instructions are given, sacred words are repeated. The contrasts are dizzying: the texture of heavy carved stone … the brilliance of flowers, fruit, and saris … the austerity of shaven heads of priests and white-clad widows …
My companion is in seventh heaven and wants to do puja. At the entrance she bought a garland of marigolds and we were “blessed” with dots of red powder on our foreheads. Now at the Parvati shrine she gets her wish, her true ecumenical service, as she offers her flowers and receives more forehead markings—this time two white horizontal lines denoting Shiva worship. The priest puts her flowers on a deity, mumbles something and switches the flowers, giving her a dying lei in return. Then he instructs us to pass our hands over a fire he keeps swishing and stoking in a black bowl. Though our guide is a Christian, a member of the Protestant Church of South India, he is very knowledgeable about the complex Hindu temple rituals, and not only directs my companion in her puja but participates as well and leaves some rupee offerings. Later as we’re leaving this shrine, one of the temple personnel starts yelling at him, and it looks as if there’ll be a fistfight. At first we think the angry man had closed an entrance we were heading towards and that he is saying we’d stayed too long (a drummer and a trumpeter had made their rounds announcing mid-day closing).
But the guide says that the man is furious because he brought a tourist into the shrine: The employee said he always tells him not to bring non-Hindus in there and he always does! This time, though, our guide says he finally told him that the priests encouraged the entry. This was certainly true. My companion attributes this to their “liking” to bless non-Hindus if the visitors are “sincere”—perhaps invoking Gandhi as she does, that no one should ever be excluded. My interpretation is less kindly: Many aspects of temple worship appear lucrative, big business actually. But even with all the hustling, it would be interesting to witness the big celebration that takes place here each Friday, or better yet the 10-day Maha Sivarathri festival each February.
We head for a nearby beach where we wade in the surf. Predictably, we tall, fair-skinned foreigners are subjects of curiosity. No one really swims in the ocean except for a few young children; older children and adults wade to their waists fully clothed. We’re told there’s a strong undertow, also coral reefs. Potsherds make lovely souvenirs, and my companion considers it a good omen that I find two pieces that fit together. Behind us is a shrine/temple, closed for midday, to Shankaracharya, the ninth century sage whose teachings have been passed down to modern schools of Eastern study (I myself have studied his teachings).
At the shabby Hotel Tamil Nadu (pilgrims stay here or at rest houses or bungalows), we stop to rest, planning to eat our bananas and oranges; but my companion thinks that in exchange for using the facilities now and earlier, we’re expected to have lunch. So we three dine on tiny, very fresh, grilled prawns with fiery sambar, rice, nan, dal with tiny cubes of squash, and a surprise dish of spicy green beans that the owner thinks we’ll enjoy (we do). The total bill comes to less than $3. South Indian food is largely vegetarian although meat is available and, of course, fish prepared in a variety of ways. The culinary high point of my own day while traveling in India is breakfast: all sorts of pancakes, patties, crepes and dumplings imaginatively prepared from grains and served with zesty accompaniments and glorious Indian tea.
We stop on the bridge for some last photos, a last look at Rameswam. We haven’t seen another non-Indian tourist all day. It is evening when we arrive back at the hotel in Madurai, tired and dusty but happy. Our guide looks happiest of all. Perhaps it was the generous tip but I rather think he enjoyed himself as well: The “dreaded” excursion wasn’t so bad after all!