One must walk barefoot on the grounds of a Hindu Temple. At the Ramanathaswamy Temple, the approach to the temple begins several streets away, and all this ground is sacred and belongs to the temple; walking barefoot over the cobbled stones and occasional debris can be a bit of a challenge.
Inside the temple, it is cool and dark. Through large windows, one can see through to the outside, where the temple is surrounded by 22 theerthas. These are huge sacred tanks; pilgrims are blessed by immersion in the water. This is generally accomplished by people filing by as a priest pours an entire bucket of water over each of their heads.
Still dripping, the pilgrims then enter the main part of the temple. In the floor near the entranceway, are shallow channels which carry away the water.
Thousands of years ago, during the course of rescuing his wife Sita, the ancient King Rama killed her abductor, the demon-king Ravana. The problem that arose, however, was that Ravana, even though he was not a very nice fellow, was a Brahmin – and this meant that by killing him, Rama was guilty of the sin of Brahmahatya, or killing a Brahmin – a sin that had to be expiated.
So Rama, on his return from Lanka with the rescued Sita, stopped at the site, where today the Rameshwaram temple stands, to worship Shiva and to be cleansed from his sin. The very ancient site was sacred to Shiva even then. Rama sent his trusted friend the monkey God Hanuman to go to Mount Kailash to bring back a shivalingam, a representation of Shiva, to install in the temple. Mount Kailash is in the Himalayas, thousands of miles north of Rameshwaram which is in the far south of India, so, even though Hanuman could fly, it took him a while. It took so long that in the meantime, Sita had built a small lingam out of mud and placed it in the temple.
When Hanuman returned with the large stone lingam he had brought from the far north, Rama decreed that both lingams would always remain in the temple, where they are today.
Like other ancient south Indian temples, the Ramanathaswamy Temple is surrounded by a high rectangular wall which runs 865 feet from east to west and 657 feet from north to south.
The temple is at least as old as the time of the Ramayana, which may be around 1,000 BCE or maybe older. In the beginning, it was a simple shed in the charge of a hermit. The building of the temple in its current form was begun during the Pandyan Dynasty of south India.
Other kings added structures from the twelfth through the seventeenth centuries CE, gradually expanding the temple to the huge complex it is today.
The temple contains the longest temple corridor to be found anywhere in the world; the outer wing of the third corridor goes 690 feet east and west, as well as 435 feet north and south. Standing at the corner where they meet in a right angle, one can look a very long way down one way and then down the other. On either side of the corridor, 1212 carved columns rise from five foot high platforms and stretch 27 feet up to the ceiling. There are also inner corridors.
On a visit to the temple in the early years of the twentieth century, the Hindu saint, Swami Vivekananda, said: “Let me tell you again that you must be pure and help anyone who comes to you as much as lies in your power. And this is good Karma. By the power of this, the heart becomes pure and then Shiva who is residing in everyone, will become manifest.”
Rameswaram is one of the four holiest places of pilgrimage in India; these lie in the four directions. They are Varanasi (Benares) in the north, Puri in the east in Odisha, Rameshwaram in the south, and Dwarka in the west. Rameswaram is sacred to both Vaishnavites and Shaivites, both those who worship Vishnu and those who worship Shiva.
© Sharon St Joan, 2014
Top photo: Purshi / Wikimedai Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / One of the long corridors.
Second photo: Painting by an unknown artist around 1920. /Wikimedia Commons. / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / A depiction of the ten-headed demon-king of Lanka, Ravana.
Third photo: Vinayaraj / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / One of the gopurams or gates of the Temple.