Monday, October 3, 2011

A Big Slice of Ramayana

Travelogue entry of Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu, India

About Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi: Rameshwaram is a town in Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu, India; an island separated from the main land by Pamban Channel. Situated in Gulf of Mannar, just 50 km away from Sri Lankan main land, the town housing the famous Ramanathaswamy temple is a bustling and prominent centre of pilgrimage. Considered tantamount to Kashi/Varanasi in religious and spiritual significance, this town enshrines stories from the famous epic Ramayana in every quarter. Dhanushkodi is a town located in the southernmost tip of Rameshwaram island. Devastated completely in a 1964 cyclone, the ghost town declared unfit for living since then, projects a topography seen nowehere in South India - saline sand flats, barren without vegetation spread over distances indefinite till it meets the confluence of Mahodadi (Bay of Bengal) and Ratnakara (Indian Ocean).   

Rameshwaram is closest to Madurai, a major city in Tamil Nadu, only about 150 km away. There are plenty of buses, passenger trains that commute between Madurai and Rameshwaram. Trains from Chennai ply daily to Rameshwaram via Trichy (223 km away from Rameshwaram), another major city in Tamil Nadu.

Travel mode and duration of stay: Section 1 By Mysore-Mayiladuthurai Express, departed from Bangalore (7.20 pm) to Trichy/Tiruchirapally on Sat, Sep 24, 2011. Section 2 Chennai- Rameshwaram Express - boarded at Trichy to Rameshwaram on Sun, Sep 25, 2011. Reached Rameshwaram at 11 am.
Left Rameshwaram on Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 8.45 pm to Kanyakumari by Rameshwaram Cape Express.

Hotel details: Hotel Sethu Maharaj - Ph contact – 04573 221271, close to West Tower of Ramanathaswamy temple - budget hotel with Non AC room at Rs 475 per day for two. Very basic room, proximity to temple is the highlight, not to expect any WOW factors in the hotel as Rameshwaram is primarily a pilgrimage centre.

Places to eat: Hotel Ananda Bhavan on Middle street, close to West tower of Ramanathaswamy temple - superb, south Indian vegetarian fare/breakfast comprising dosas, idli, vada and puris. We had wholesome and simple Gujarati meals at Gujarat Bhavan, few metres away from the East Tower (main entrance) of the temple. We loved the dal chaawal, roti-sabjis served there and not to forget Srikandh and Puran Poli for desserts.

Tourist's itinerary:

Ramanathaswamy temple: This temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and stands close to the sea - Agnitheertham beach. The main deity is Ramanathasway, a Shiva lingam better known as Rama lingam juxtaposed with Shri Viswanath, another Shiva lingam. Tales puport that Rama suffered from a sense of guilt after killing Ravana in Lanka and was advised by Sage Agasthiya to worship Lord Shiva at Rameshwaram to remove all sins (Brahmahati vimochana) and overcome the sense of guilt. Hanuman was sent to bring back a Shiva lingam but he got late in his journey from the Kailash mountain. Meantime, Sita made a lingam from sand and prayers were offered to this deity - Rama lingam during the proposed auspicious time. Upon Hanuman's arrival with his lingam, to avoid any dejection, it was ordained by Rama that prayers be first offered to Viswanath - the lingam/idol brought back by Hanuman.

The right procedure to enter the temple includes first a dip in Agnitheertham beach in front of the main entrance to the temple, then a bath in water from each one of the 22 wells/theerthams inside the temple complex, changing the wet clothes and then visits to the sanctum. Looking beyond the protocol part, this practice to enter the temple, quite interestingly, offers a chance to hear many tales of the 22 wells inside the temple complex and a highly refreshing dip in the sea. It is also a wonder that each well's water has a unique taste to it.

There are deities of Parvathavadhini, Perumal, Mahalakshmi, Hanuman, Ganesha, Subramanya and Sethumadhava inside the huge temple complex which has some structural jewels like the long 1000 pillared corridors and a 3-dimensional effect Nandi painting on the ceiling close to west tower. From memory, the names of theerthams/wells inside the temple complex are provided below - Mahalakshmi Theertham, Gayathri, Savitri, Saraswati, Sanku, Chakra, Gavaya, Gavacha, Gandamadhana, Sethumadhava, Surya, Chandra, Sarva, Siva, Brahmahati Vimochana Theertham, Nala, Neela, Ganga, Yamuna, Gaya and Koti theertham. Urghh!! I guess I cannot recollect the 22nd theertha's name. One can completes his/her dip in Agnitheertham (sea side) and take help from temple guides who willfully offer services of a tour inside the temple complex and pour water from 22 theerthams for a fee of Rs 150 per person.

Boating: The Tamil Nadu state tourism department arranges for a boat cruise on the Bay of Bengal sea lasting 30 minutes for Rs 40 per person in motor boats. The boats leave from a point close to Agni theertham. Listen to the boating announcement carefully (a recording played in continuum) -the Hindi segment is highly hilarious !

Rameshwaram has a slice of the epic tale - Ramayana in every corner. There are many important tourist sites and many a tale cocooned in them. These sites can be covered in an auto for hire. 
1) Ganda madana Parvatham - the highest point in Rameshwaram, originally a sand dune, now a hillock with a temple bearing the impression of Rama's foot steps. It is believed that Rama looked out for Sita in the direction of Lanka from this point/hillock. Climb onto the terrace of the temple for a breathtaking view of the island - Dhanushkodi, Pamban bridge and the tranquil, blue-green Bay of Bengal. The Ramanathaswamy temple gopurams (towers) and the tall, imposing TV tower mark the azure sky line vividly.
2) Bhadrakali Amman temple - en route Dhanushkodi, favorite deity among locals.
3) Sugriva Theertham en route Gandamadhana Parvatham
4) Saakshi Hanuman temple - apparently the point where Hanuman conveyed to Rama that he saw Sita devi in Lanka.
5) Rama Theertham and Ram Sita temple- a big tank, with the temple adjacent to it. Displayed here is a limestone shoal purportedly used by army of monkeys (the Vaanar sena) to construct Ram sethu (Adam's bridge) to go from Rameshwaram to Lanka.
6) Pancha Mukha Hanuman temple - deity is a five headed Hanuman. There are many samples of the light weight limestone shoals that Nala and Neela - the chief architects used to construct the Ram Sethu that figures in Ramayana.
7) Lakshman Theertham - big tank (quite similar to Rama Theertham)
8) Sita Theertham - a medium sized tank.
9)Kodanda Rama temple, Dhanushkodi - this temple marks the point where Rama conducted the coronation ceremony of Vibheeshana, king of Lanka and brother of Ravana. The temple was completely destroyed in a cyclonic storm in1964 and was re-built in 1978. The surroundings of this temple astound a  commoner wearing the look of barren, tree less, sand flats for distances that eye can see and even beyond,  much like the Rann of Kutch in miniature laid in front of you.
10) Dhanushkodi, visit to Land's end and destroyed town remains - The road ahead from Kodanda Rama temple, 8 km from Rameshwaram to Dhanushkodi speaks of a forlorn town that crumbled completely to the fury of nature on a fateful night in Dec 1964. The road, all along, is flanked by highly saline, white sand flats that gleam under the mid day sun. The flat lands are mostly devoid of vegetation, barring a few thorny shrubs at places. The road ends at Mukundarayar Chattiram which has a few drinks/snacks stalls, a thin beach strip, a check post and a Mahindra van/truck stand. These Mahindra jeeps are modified to ride adeptly over the sand flats which are wet at points but largely silken and slippery. Only these modified vehicles can ply to the Land's end at Dhanushkodi, no autos or private vehicles can ply on this terrain. Passengers are packed to full capacity in these modified trucks/jeeps, photography enthusiasts prefer sitting on the top. The 1 hour 30 minutes journey reveals a landscape that can be best captured and registered by the human eye. It would be a sin to even attempt to describe the scene in words. A trip to Dhanushkodi - land's end can render one speechless and is a must in the itinerary of a person who visits Rameshwaram.

At the lands' end - a thin strip of land in the shape of a bow is flanked by timid and shallow blue green waters of the Mahodadi on one side and fierce, frothy waves of Ratnkara on the other. On the way back, the trucks stop at old Dhanushkodi town, declared unliveable post 1964 cyclone. Remains of destroyed water tank, church, post office, railway station - abandoned and sunk in deep sands against the background of roaring sea waves reiterate the most important lesson - that man cannot conquer or overpower nature. So fierce was the cyclone of 1964 that it battered the town completely, swallowed a train with its passengers causing a death toll of over 1500. Man, truly is inconspicuous before the mighty nature.

The auto that leaves one at Mukundaraya Chattiram waits till you get back from the Land's end. The trip in the modified jeep/truck costs Rs 80 per person and the auto fare for a tour of all places inclusive of waiting charges stands at Rs 400.

Pamban Sea Bridge: 
The rail-road bridge pair connects the island of Rameshwaram to mainland Ramanathapuram. The section of sea begins with Mandapam station and ends with Pamban via duct/Pamban station. It is an experience of a lifetime when the train precariously chugs along the rail bridge that has no embankments. Pamban bridge, at a length of 2.3 km, is the second longest sea bridge in India, after Bandra Worli Sea Link. The rail bridge has a still functional double leaf bascule section that can open and let ships pass through and this bridge stands adjacent to the road bridge.

1) Rameshwaram is oppressively hot, your body burns even when you cover your head with a cap. It is advised that you always carry water.
2) Resort to tender coconut water - lot better than bottled drinks. Best means to beat the heat!
3) If you care for your complexion, carry a bottle of sunscreen without fail.
4) Rameshwaram is one (probably the only) town in Tamil Nadu that has openly and heartily embraced Hindi as a language. From auto rickshaw fellows to priests in temple, all speak fluent Hindi and put sincere efforts to make people from North India feel at home.

Picture Gallery: 

View of Pamban Road Bridge from the rail bridge

View of Agnitheertham beach with Gopuram (tower) of Ramanathaswamy temple

View from Ganda Madana Parvath 

En route Land's end, Dhanushkodi

At Land's end 

All that remains of Dhanushkodi town