There is not a state in India that does not have a connection to the Ramayana. The scenes from the epic have covered virtually every land in the country. A forest lends a sacred touch, a river has a holy spring, and even the waves of the seas narrate the Lord’s name. Little shrines tell you legends of Rama’s presence. And his footprints are etched in the sands of time.
Following Rama’s footsteps, I land in Rameshwaram, one of the most spiritual and mystical lands in South India, the setting of the legendary epic. This is where Rama and his army built a bridge across the oceans to defeat Ravana. This is also where he returned after a victorious battle and prayed to Lord Shiva to absolve him of any sin accrued during the war.
Every shrine here brings the Ramayana alive. But it is the ocean that fascinates me. The first view that one gets of Rameshwaram is the Pamban Bridge, which fan out across the ocean. Located at the tip of the Indian peninsula in the Gulf of Mannar, Rameshwaram is locked in an island connected to the mainland by the bridge. The waters change colours from emerald to sapphire blue. There is also geological evidence that there might have been a land connection across the sea to Sri Lanka. There is a mild flutter, a gentle vibration, as a few vehicles rush past me, oblivious to the grandeur of nature. I gaze at the sea as the many shades of blue merge with the foam and every wave takes on a different hue. These oceans take me on a trail of the Ramayana, where tanks and temples built on their shores fill you with tales.
It is afternoon and the blue skies look grey and the sea is choppy. The ocean parts ways as the road takes us to a small temple which seems to have been renovated. We climb some steps and look out through the arches at the sea. Another flight of steps takes me to the terrace. It is the highest point in Rameshwaram. I look out to see the sea stretching out in the horizon bordered by greenery and somewhere in the distance is the washed-away town of Dhanushkodi and even beyond that is Sri Lanka. It takes a moment to sink in. This is where I am told Rama surveyed the sea in front of him and his enemy on the other shore. I have followed his footsteps as I am standing in the temple where Rama’s “padam” or footprints are placed on a chakra.
The RamanathaswamyTemple stands tall inside the town as devotees make their way to cleanse themselves with a sacred bath at the 22 wells or teerthams that surround it. Rameshwaram, I am told, has close to 64 theerthams and the holy water is stored in wells, ponds, tanks and one of them, the Agni Theertham, is the sea itself. Even today, it is believed that the tanks around the temple have a perennial source of water.
The temple, which has the longest corridor in the world, stretches as stories from Ramayana are painted on every wall. There are many legends here, but the one that is most often reinforced is how Rama prayed to Lord Shiva to absolve him of any sins committed during the war. Rama asked Hanuman to get him a lingam from the Himalayas but as the monkey god took time, Sita carved a small lingam, which is placed in the sanctum here.
It is not just the temples that tell stories. Every drop of water here has a story to narrate. I journey around the forests to locate some of the temples and wells. On my way to Dhanushkodi I stop in the middle of a dry forest scattered with thorny shrubs. The path cuts through the wilderness and we walk through the trees until we see a board for ‘Jada Theertham’. Surrounded by dense trees is a tank under a peepal tree with a temple close by. A priest tells us that this is where Rama washed his hair (Jada) after he killed Ravana and he had installed a lingam here. Another fascinating legend says that this is where Jatayu, the king of birds, fell after his fight against Ravana.
Legends follow me wherever I go. I am headed to Villondi Teertham, right in the middle of the ocean. The sea looks pristine blue and the azure waters sparkle in the sunlight. A bridge appears in the middle of nowhere taking me right into the ocean. A small well here is filled with water. You are allowed a sip and the water is absolutely sweet. “This is where Rama pierced his arrow to ensure sweet water flowed to quench Sita’s thirst,” says the caretaker. I am also told that Rama’s bow and arrow are buried here. Hence the name Villondi Teertham.
Rameshwaram is many things to many people, as devotees all over the world visit the Dakshin Kasi. To me however it is the stories from the Ramayana that pervade the landscape here. I sit by the oceans and as the waves lash, I can imagine the army of birds, squirrels, monkeys and bears getting ready to fight the war against Ravana. The sea has many moods and colours here. At some places it looks deceptively calm, luring you with its blue-green shades, but in other places, it purges your mind and body. And as it changes colours yet again, I am completely lost in the world of epics and legends where good prevails over evil.
JOURNEY IN PICTURES: EXPLORE THE GHOST TOWN OF DHANUSHKODI