With many striking features Rameswaram is still the most sought after place for both the pilgrims as well as tourists.
A devout Hindu makes it a vow to visit Kasi (Banaras) at least once in his life-time as taking a dip in the Ganges and worshipping Lord Viswanatha and His consort Visalalakshi are believed to confer immense religious merit. A visit to Kasi becomes complete and wholesome when it is immediately followed by a visit to Rameswaram to worship Lord Ramanathaswamy. Therefore visitors from various Sates (and even foreigners) come here (through the year) not only to complete Kasi yatra, but also for performing ‘pithru tharpanam' and special puja to beget progeny. Tourists and school children who come here marvel at the Pamban bridge (2.2 kms long) laid over sea and the cantilever bridge that opens when trains and ships pass through. They also visit Dhanushkodi at the eastern end of the island to witness the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean and the ruins of post-office and railway station battered by the cyclone of 1963.
During the author's first visit to Rameswaram in September, 1963, Dhanushkodi was in tact and trains plied between Pamban Junction and Dhanushkodi. It was during the cyclone, at the fag end of 1963, that Dhanushkodi was completely wiped off. Incidentally during the tsunami in 2004, Rameswaram remained unaffected.
The Ramayana connection
According to legend, by using the conch-shaped Rameswaram island as his launch pad to attack Lanka to retrieve Sita from Ravana, Lord Rama has sanctified this place. And on His return from Lanka, he stopped here to worship Lord Siva for absolving his sin (brahmahatti dosha) in killing the brahmin, Ravana.
Legend has it that Rama asked Anjaneya to get a Viswa lingam from Kasi to perform puja. Anjaneya, on his way back from Kasi, was intercepted by Sage Narada who insisted Anjaneya also do the puja with a separate lingam as he had also killed many in the battle with Ravana. Hence he flew back to Kasi to get one more lingam. Since Anjaneya did not turn up on time and as the auspicious time was running out, Sita made a lingam out of sand, and the puja was performed in time. Much to his dismay, when Anjaneya returned with the lingams, he noticed that the puja had already been performed. However, he implored Rama to substitute the lingam made out of sand with his Viswa lingam. Rama readily agreed and asked Anjaneya to remove it. With all his might Anjaneya tried to lift it but was unsuccessful and fainted. When he regained consciousness, Rama assured him that the Viswanatha lingam would be installed north of the one that was consecrated by Him.
The one first installed by Rama goes by the appellation Ramanatha Swamy and the other as Viswanathar. Further Rama enjoined that the first puja henceforth be performed to Viswanathaswamy and then to Ramanathaswamy which is followed till date. And the second one was installed at the Anjaneya temple here.
On entering the temple through the eastern rajagopuram, one meets the stupendous Nandi in stucco work. On turning to the left, one lands at the third prakaram of the temple, which has been eulogised as the longest corridor in the world. One is awe-struck by its marvellous decorative floral paintings on its ceiling and the massive stone pillars in the southern and western corridors. There are 1,212 pillars in this prakaram. The corridor measures 690 ft east to west and 435 feet north to south. It is nearly 23 ft. in height. It is ascribed to Muthuramalinga Sethupathi (1740-1770 A.D.) who ruled over Ramanathapuram. His statue and those of his two Ministers are found at the western entrance of the third corridor. Resting on the cornices of the pillars are yalis and down below the images of birds and leaves have been embossed.
The temple tank
As one we proceeds to the western portion of the third prakaram, one can witness (on the right side) the 4,000 ft. long-pillared corridor (second) on a raised platform (1.5 metre high) with hundreds of pillars, which have been beautifully carved. Beyond this is the Madhava theertham. Taking a bath in this theertham is said to confer the benefits of bathing in the Ganges. Out of 36 theerthams in Rameswaram, 22 are located inside the temple. Of these, Lakshmi theertham is located centrally at the eastern entrance. Koti theertham is located in the first prakaram near Visalakshi sannadhi in the form of a well. The first theertham that strikes the attention of a visitor before entering the temple is Agni theertham which is just 100 yards away from the eastern entrance. On the way to this theertham is the Sankara mantapam. Beyond this is the Agni theertham, where pilgrims do ‘sankalpa srardham.'
Out of the 52 ‘padal petra sthalams,' sung exclusively by the duo – Thirugnana Sambandar and Thirunavukkarasar – Rameswaram ranks the seventh, and the presiding deity is one of the 12 jyothir lingams. Originally the temple was said to be in a thatched hut and the first masonry structures for the garbha grahas of Ramanathaswamy, Parvadhavardini, Viswanathar, Visalakshi and Vairava swamy were built by Parakrama Bahu I (1153-1186 A.D), ruler of Sri Lanka by transporting stones in boats from Talaimannar. The Sethupathi Rajas of Ramnad played a major role in developing the temple to the present structure. In the 15th century Udayar Sethupathi and a Vysya of Nagore constructed five storeys, of the western tower, which is 78 ft. tall, and the compound wall in the 16th century respectively. Tirumalai Sethupathi built a portion of the southern second corridor. His statue and that of his son Ragunatha Sethupathi are found by the side of the southern entrance to the goddess shrine. In 1649 A.D. Dalavai Sethupathi built a portion of the main eastern gopuram which was completed between 1897 and 1904 by the ALAR family of Devakottai. This family of Nagarathar did extensive renovation of the innermost prakaram (corridor) and also arranged for ashtabandana kumbabishekam in 1925, again in 1947 and the third one in 1975.
Early in the 18th century Ravi Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathi built the ‘palli arai' and the mantapam in front of the Goddess shrine. His ‘pradhani' (minister) Muthiralappa Pillai did lot of renovation work for this temple. The rulers of Travancore, Mysore, Madurai, Thanjavur and Pudukottai provided royal patronage to this temple.
A visit to Rameswaram stands incomplete without visiting Rama Paduka atop the Gandamadanam hill, which lies at a distance of about two kilometers to the north of Ramanathaswamy temple. Climbing a flight of steps leads one to the Rama Paduka which is housed in a mantap. Over the mantapam there is a sikara. The footprints of Rama have been embossed on a circular stone and people worship the feet. From here one can witness the grand spectacle of Rameswaram island being surrounded by sea on all the four sides. Rama is said to have built the floating bridge from Sethukarai 22 kms ahead of Rameswaram and then Rama Sethu (Adam's bridge) from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar.
There is a separate temple for Sri Kothandarama on the way to Dhanushkodi. It is said to be the place where Vibishana surrendered to Sri Rama.
In Rameswaram temple, all the festivals centre around new-moon day unlike other temples. There are two annual brahmotsavams celebrated in the Tamil months of Aani and Masi which attract many visitors. Likewise the vasanta utsavam in the month of Vaikasi and the utsavam in Aani to celebrate Rama's installation of linga are observed with great éclat.
There are a number of choultries for the pilgrims where accommodation is either free or available at a nominal charge.