Monday, 11 February 2013

Rameswaram - The Temple Island

Apart from religious, geographical and political reasons draw attention to Rameswaram. Being the easiest way to reach Sri Lanka, it is present in epics, travelogues and news. Rameswaram stretches to Sri Lanka with tiny uninhabited sand banks in Gulf of Mannar. At an average elevation of 32m, this tiny island is connected by Pamban road-rail bridge across the sea (Pamban Strait) to main land India. The rail bridge was constructed in 1913 and vying for heritage status from UNESCO. After the devastating cyclone in 1964 the meter gauge rail from Rameswaram to Dhanushkodi was abandoned. You could buy a train ticket to Dhanushkodi and cross to Sri Lanka by boat. I had met Terry, an adventurous backpacker from Hawaii who swam across this sea in 1973. The 2.06km long road bridge was opened in 1988 -the first sea bridge in India and heavily endorsed by Sankar Cements in their ads circa 90s.

Rameswaram is easily reachable from Madurai by bus (Rs 100, 173km, 4hrs). There are three bus stands in Madurai, you need to ride bus number C4 to Mattu Thavani bus terminal from Periyar bus stand to get long distance buses. Tamil Nadu buses and roads offer comfortable trips sans the fierce stench of urine at the bus stations. Once you reach the Rameswaram bus station, a shuttle bus (No. 1 or 2, Rs 9) drops you on the streets around Ramanathaswamy Temple - where Rama worshipped Vishnu- both Shivaites and Vaishnavites visit this temple. Being a amavasi (new moon) weekend, there were large crowds. We managed to get bed at one of the cheapies -Hotel Sethu Maharaja, Middle St (T 9894621271/ 04753 221271,, d/tr Rs 524/715). The next door Saravana Bhavan dishes up dosa and vegetarian meals.

Visiting the temple's expansive corridors decorated with stone sculptures and pillars need at least two hours. The 22 theerthams (ponds) around the temple offer devotees an opportunity to shower in holy waters (Rs 25). Only one of the theertham is really large and tranquil if seminude men are not drying their clothes there. There are enclosed cabins to change to dry clothes before you enter inner sanctums for darshan- off limits to non Hindus.
You can rent a bicycle for Rs 10/hr for a ride to the light house through the least crowded road passing the Agnitheertham (devotees perform the rituals for  forefathers here) on your right side. Light house is around 5km away and this road along the beach being deserted, plan to return before it gets dark. Check the rattling old cycles thoroughly before you sign-up. There is a jolly boat ride for Rs 60 for the tourists at the sea notable for the absence of waves.  Buy the tickets from the counter near Hotel TamilNadu.

Dhanushkodi is 20km away, bus number 3 and 6 (Rs 10, 30min) frequently run after 8am from the eastern entrance. The railway station is on this route and after tiny villages the road seems to be endlessly straight. There are a few fishing hamlets with thatched houses at Dhanushkodi. The bus stops where the motorable road ends. You need to take a chaotic ride aboard a sand eating, rusty Mahindra van - Rs 100 for a round trip until the remains of the old railway station. Try to board the van with seats rather than the goods carrier with wooden seats. They start when they get 20 passengers or Rs 2000 and the service stops at dusk. The ride through sand and sea is enjoyable while the driver maneuvering using the after market 4wheel drive. The remains of the railway station, church, temples  and other buildings are visible when you walk around after the 30min ride. The bluish green sea on either sides -Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal - has strong waves and warning signs keep you away from swimming. Not much rebuilding happened at highly corrosive Dhanushkodi after the cyclone sans a school, maybe it was not accessible during the LTTE days. Until the cyclone this was the administrative as well as commercial hub which shifted to Rameswaram later. Mani Ratnam captured the beauty of this island in his Tamil flick 'Kannathil Muthamittal' song - Nenjil- story of civil war in Sri Lanka.

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