Rameshwaram is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for any self-respecting Hindu. It is on par with Varanasi of the north. It is part of the famous Char Dham Yatra that includes Badrinath, Dwarka and Puri. The town at the edge of India’s far south has lots of interesting places to see, most of them associated with stories from the Ramayana.
I board a bus from Madurai early in the morning. It is a direct bus to Rameshwaram but the journey is slow. There is a political gathering en route and our bus is diverted through another route. We arrive later than expected into Ramanathapuram, which is locally shortened to Ramnad. I quite like the sound of this shortform than waste precious breath on its longer alias. After a brief stop at Ramnad, we push off to Rameshwaram, 55 kms away.
Rameshwaram lies on an island that can be reached by the Pamban Bridge. As we drive across the Gulf of Mannar, I notice that there is also a parallel railway track. I wonder if it is operational. Coming to Rameshwaram is indeed special. Sometimes the road runs on a narrow spit of land. I feel that we heading into the center of the seas. To the left is the boundless sea. To the right is the boundless sea. The sands on both sides of the road give way to the waters. Palms dot this open featureless landscape. It is truly a unique place in all of India.
The problem for me at Rameshwaram is finding a room. In such a place of popular pilgrimage, accommodation is in short supply. No one wants to rent their rooms to singles. After many unsuccessful enquiries, I give up the idea of staying here for the night. This also means that I would have to take a quick peek of important spots and skip many others. Worse still, there is not a cloak room near the famous Ramanathaswamy Temple.
I settle down at a restaurant for lunch. It is past noon when I arrive at the temple. The streets around the temple are crowded. Even from a distance the temple’s gopuram is stunning. Looking at it from its outer walls, it looks even more magnificent. It’s a pity that the temple will not open till 3 pm. I have hours to kill and the midday sun is hot.
What is interesting here are the pilgrims dripping wet at every street and corner. It so happens that there are 22 theerthams or places of holy wells or springs within the temple. It is customary for pilgrims to take dips in all these places. Perhaps they don’t really take a dip because in one case I see a priest sprinkling or dousing pilgrims with pails of water. It is a strange comical sight to see these pilgrims, dripping wet, get into rickshaws and head to the next theertham. If you don’t know what this is all about, you may wonder why they are wet when the day is so freaking hot.
After lunch, I am not really sure what to do next. I walk to the railway station some distance away. The station is an indication that the railway track across the Gulf of Mannar is really operational. I have had a bad week in Tamil Nadu. At places, people have been rude. People talk loudly and play loud music on the streets. Hygiene has been wanting at hotels and restaurants. I have not enjoyed my stay at Madurai. I am really suffering from travel fatigue. Is this the end of the road?
There are no trains today bound for Bangalore. On impulse, I buy a ticket to Trichy, although it was never on my itinerary. I dump my backpack at the station’s cloak room, apparently the only one in town. This is in stark contrast to Shirdi which has cloak rooms by the dozen. I walk around town by the same roads that are by now familiar to me. This town is not really big and can be walked in a few hours.
Ganesh Chaturthi is just round the corner, or is it already over? I don’t really know. What I do know is that painted idols of the Elephant God are still on sale and the poor people of Rameshwaram are buying them. I see a couple of men making these idols out of wet clay. They have a basic mould from which little Ganeshas quickly take their shapes. It is a simple clay idol. It is not baked, fired or sun-dried.
‘Last year we had three sacks of clay unused,’ explains one of them. A crowd has gathered around. This is not a workshop. We are standing in the open by a narrow road. The vendor continues, ‘This year business has been better but we are running short of clay.’
Poverty here is stark. Many of them eke out a living from whatever the sea provides. Probably nothing grows on this soil. I see no paddy fields, orchards or coconut palms. The palms that do grow are isolated ones that have managed to survive this landscape.
When I come back to the temple it is only quarter to two. I don’t want to hang around for darshan and I don’t have to. The famous cloisters of the temple are open even at this hour. I go in. Everything is quiet. Not a soul is to be seen along the entire length of what is the longest cloister in the country. I don’t know how long but they seem to be in excess of 150 meters. The perspective is spectacular. Pillars stand in neat lines converging to a point in the far distance. Painted patterns on the ceiling colourfully lead the eye into the distance. Walking these cloisters is a journey in itself, a contemplation in each step. The only problem here is that the pillars are painted. They hide many of the reliefs. They hide the texture and natural beauty of granite. It is restoration done with bad taste. The temple has suffered a great deal of damage and pillars lie scattered in many places. I wonder why they haven’t been properly removed. Concrete supports have taken the place of fallen ones. When the North East monsoons hit Rameshwaram, this great temple takes the brunt of it.
As I come out of the temple, I overhear a priest complaining to a stall vendor, ‘Many rats around here. The cats are not doing anything.’
‘Yes,’ acknowledges the vendor. ‘Why will the cats go after rats when they are feeding on fish?’
If you ever happen to come by to Rameshwaram, look out for these Garfields.
I make my way to the station, pick up my stuff and board the train to Trichy. Someone tells me the train will reach Trichy long past 10 pm. I wonder where I am going to sleep tonight. Perhaps, if I get a train to Bangalore I will take it and skip the rest of Tamil Nadu.