Tag Archive: Rameshwaram


 

1024px-Sri_Ramanatha_swamy_Temple_Carridor

 

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.

 

Ravana

 

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.

 

521px-Rameswaram_temple_(1)

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

521px-Rameswaram_temple_(1)

One of the temple gates.

 

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.

 

One of India’s holiest sites, the island of Rameshwaram is where the ancient King Rama journeyed on his way to Lanka to rescue his kidnapped wife Sita. Rameshwaram lies off the coast of mainland India on the way to Sri Lanka.

 

Thousands of years ago, during the course of rescuing Sita, 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.

 

Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka.

Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka.

 

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 3,000 BCE. 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, 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.

 

1024px-Sri_Ramanatha_swamy_Temple_Carridor

The longest temple corridor in the world.

 

On a visit to the temple in the early years of the twentieth century, the Hindu saint, Swami Vivekananda, gave an address, saying: “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, Ramaneshwaram 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: 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.

 

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. / Ravana.

 

Third photo: Purshi /  Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. /  Te longest temple corridor in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boats seen from Pamban Bridge

Boats seen from Pamban Bridge

 

A narrow bridge, the Pamban bridge, which opened in 1914, goes from mainland India to Rameshwaram, the long narrow island, off the Indian coast, across from Sri Lanka. Standing at the bridge railing one can see the waters of the Bay of Bengal on either side, and watch the fishing boats.

 

One of the most sacred pilgrimage destinations in India, Rameshwaram is visited every day by thousands of pilgrims who come to retrace the footsteps of Rama, the ancient divine king, who came to Rameshwaram thousands of years ago, on his way to Lanka (Sri Lanka) to take back his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the demon-king, Ravana.

 

Rameshwaram is filled with sacred sites, where Rama passed by so long ago.

 

A walkway leads out into the sea, where pilgrims go to visit the site of the Nine Planets, or Navagraha.

 

The Nine Planets are a representation of the planets that is found in most Shaiva temples in south India. Inside temples, they are always set in three rows of three icons each, in precisely geometrical alignment – the visible celestial bodies; the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn, and also Rahu and Ketu, which are the lunar nodes, the two points where the path of the moon crosses the path of the sun.

 

Encircled by pillars and by a walkway that surrounds them, the Navagrahi consists of nine weathered stones standing in the water, in the same arrangement of three statues in three rows, as in the temples. From the encircling walkway, one can go down a few steps to touch the water to receive the blessing of the Nine Planets, or to wade into the water, as some people do.

 

It is said that the nine stone statutes are the petrified wood remains of nine trees that originally grew in that formation. Perhaps the sea rose over the centuries and partly covered them with water. How the trees grew in that formation or how long it took them to become petrified wood remain unanswered questions.

 

Rama visited this site, Devipattinam, after Devi, the Goddess, came to him in a dream and told him that he needed to pay homage to the nine planets to remove the affliction of adverse conditions of his horoscope.

 

So the site must be much older than the time of Rama, which may be around 3,000 BC, according to some sources.

 

It is said that circumambulating this Navagrahi will take away any adverse conditions in the stars of a pilgrim who visits them.

 

A tree at Rameshwaram.

A tree at Rameshwaram.

 

Also in the sea, at another location, is a well. About 25 feet deep, it is encircled in concrete. Peering down into the well, one can see water at the bottom, where seawater would normally be. However the water is not salt water, but fresh water.

 

The story goes that after Rama had rescued Sita, on their way back from Lanka, Sita became very thirsty. There was no water to drink, and they were surrounded by the sea. Rama shot an arrow into the sand, and at that point, a spring came up, bubbling fresh water, so that Sita could have a drink. As the sea level rose over time, a well was built around the spring to protect it. Now it is a concrete well, with fresh water in the bottom, in the middle of the sea.

 

© 2014, text and photos, Sharon St Joan

 

 

 

 

the shore of rameshwaramIMG_7508

 

A passage retold from the Ramayana, by Valmiki

 

In despair, Rama looked out over the sea.

 

The day was beautiful, filled with sunlight, and gentle waves rolled onto the shore, with their white froth. Herons, pelicans and cormorants fished in the waves, elegant, standing on one foot or walking with long strides through the shallow waters. In the waves little white shells, empty and incredibly delicate, rolled up onto the yellow sands.

 

Rama looked out over the vast, vast sea, which seemed to him vaster than any sea had ever been, and there was no way to cross it.

 

He stood on the shores of the island now called Rameswaram, and looked across to where the kingdom of Lanka (now known as Sri Lanka) lay, encircled by the sea, thirty miles (fifty kilometers) away. A few months before, the demon-king of Lanka, Ravana, had stolen Rama’s wife Sita, kidnapping her at a moment when Rama and his brother were off in the forest, and she was alone. She had been spirited away in the airship of Ravana and now was held captive somewhere in the island country of Lanka.

 

It had taken Rama a long time and much effort to find out where Sita was, to discover who had captured her, and then to journey here, with his faithful brother Lakshmana at his side. And now there was no way to cross the sea.

 

For three days, on the shores of the sea, Rama fasted and meditated, praying to the God of the sea, Varuna, to appear and to help him find a way to cross to Lanka.

 

Rama prayed and meditated, and the waves washed along the shore, but there was no reply from Varuna. There was no response, nothing but the endless, repetitive sound of the waves.

 

On the morning of the fourth day, Rama stood up, enraged at his misfortune and this most unfair obstacle that stood in his way; he shouted at Varuna, the God of the sea, demanding that he appear at once. His voice echoed over the water, “Varuna! Varuna!” The God Varuna was probably none too pleased to be spoken to in this way, and he did not answer.

 

Rama, infuriated by this unbearable silence picked up his bow and began to shoot arrows into the sea. These were no ordinary arrows, and Rama was no ordinary hero. Years before he had been taught the secrets of celestial weapons by his teacher, Vishwamitra, and now he unleashed weapons with the power of supernatural force. The creatures of the sea began to die, and the waters began to burn.

 

The army of monkeys who had come to Rama’s aid and had traveled with him in the quest for Sita stood not far off, aghast and alarmed at this display of violence against the sea and her innocent creatures. Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, entreated him to stop this senseless onslaught.

 

Just as Rama was about to unleash the cosmic force of the all-powerful weapon, the Brahmastra, which might have destroyed all of creation, Varuna appeared out of the waves.

 

640px-Rama-Varuna

 

He bowed to Rama, who was, in fact, the avatar of Lord Vishnu, and calmly explained that there was nothing to be so upset about, that he would ensure that the waves would remain still while a way was found for Rama’s forces to cross the sea, and that they would remain calm until they had completed their crossing.

 

Then, Hanuman, the Monkey God, the ever devoted and loyal friend of Rama, as he did time and again throughout the long adventure, came up with a solution. There was nothing to worry about. Yes, the sea seemed vast, but the army of monkeys would build a bridge from Rameshwaram to Lanka. The dilemma would be easily solved, and the sea could be crossed.

 

The monkey army set to work, and after a time, the bridge (which still exists today) stretched all the way from Rameshwaram to Lanka, enabling Rama with his armies of monkeys and bears to cross to Lanka.

 

More to follow…

 

 

Top photo: Sharon St Joan / The shore of Rameshwaram

 

Second photo: Painting by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)./ Wikimedia Commons/ “This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.” / “Varuna the Lord of ocean, pacifying Sri Rama, angered at the intransigence of the sea to give way to enter Lanka.”

 

© Sharon St Joan, 2014

Boats off the coast of Rameshwaram

Boats off the coast of Rameshwaram

 

Near the great temple of Rameshwaram, crowds of worshippers bathe in the blue sea waters.

 

One of the holiest sites in India, Rameshwaram, an island in south India across from Sri Lanka, is visited by around a million pilgrims every year. It was through here that the hero king, the God Rama, traveled, thousands of years ago, on his journey to rescue his beloved wife, Sita, who had been abducted to Sri Lanka by the ten-headed demon, Ravana. As well as the great Rameshwaram temple, there are many other sacred sites on the island, such as the high hill where Rama stood and left his footprints as he planned his war strategy.

 

India is a land of sacred sites, and every year millions of pilgrims visit these sites to worship.  There are far more pilgrims in India than in any other country in the world.

 

Unfortunately, not every pilgrim is environmentally conscious.

 

Like other pilgrimage destinations, the great temple of Rameshwaram, its environs, and the island’s other sacred sites, in their current state, leave a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness.

 

Launch of the Rameshwaram Green Pilgrimage Initiative

 

On February 18, 2014, at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai, CPREEC (C.P. Ramaswami Environmental Education Centre), partnering with the Green Pilgrimage Network, launched the Rameshwaram Green Pilgrimage Initiative.

 

This is intended to be the first of a number of expansive projects designed to restore pilgrimage sites of India to a state of cleanliness and beauty befitting the sacredness of the sites.

 

CPREEC set up a beautiful Exhibit at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation for Hindu Environment Week, the third week of February, which was open from February 18 to March 1st.

The banner for Hindu Environment Week, part of the Green Pilgrimage Exhibit

Left to right: Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Ms. Kausalya Santhanam, and Mrs. K. Shanta, with the banner for Hindu Environment Week, part of the Green Pilgrimage Exhibit

 

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Honorary Director of CPREEC, introduced the Exhibit, which highlights the green pilgrimage concept and outlines some of the aspects of the renovation to be undertaken, including some of the considerable work already done by the organization Vivekananda Kendra.

 

Restoring the natural environment

 

As well as cleaning built-up areas and structures, the surrounding natural environment, along with the wild plants, animals, and birds, which are also sacred, all need to be protected from the unintended effects of multitudes of pilgrims.

 

Unfortunately, the prosopis plant, an invasive species, has taken over mile upon mile of land in south Tamil Nadu, crowding out all native plant species. It needs to be removed, and the native plants, upon which the birds and other wildlife depend, need to be replanted. CPREEC is uniquely qualified to do this restoration at Rameswaram; CPREEC botanists and other scientists have already restored 52 sacred groves in southern India over the past twenty-five years, creating living forests once again where there were recently only barren lands. Expert attention is given to replanting precisely the species that are native to each specific area.

 

A complex undertaking

 

The Green Pilgrimage Initiative at Rameshwaram will be a complex undertaking and is expected to take around two years – cleaning the environs, putting into place the means to assure that they will stay clean, and motivating both pilgrims and local residents, especially businesses, to adopt this as their own project. It will involve eliminating plastic bags, which are lethal to cows and other animals, creating self-help programs for women to make cloth bags that they can sell, setting up an ABC (spay-neuter) program for community animals – and a goshala for cows, who are now strolling in the streets.

 

When completed, this promises to be a major step forward in the ongoing struggle to turn back the tide of the deterioration of sacred sites in India.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna and Mr. Gopal Patel at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai

Dr. Nanditha Krishna and Mr. Gopal Patel, in front of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai

 

A long history of environmental awareness

 

Mr. Gopal Patel spoke on behalf of the Green Pilgrimage Network, which is based in the UK, hosted by ARC, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and supported by the Bhumi Project of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He is the Director of their program for Hindu sites in India and other countries.

 

The Bhumi Project already has in place agreements with several cities in India to undertake Green Pilgrimage Projects.

 

Puri, Varanasi, Kolkata, Rishikesh, Vrindavan, Ujjain, and Dwarka all held lively events for Hindu Environment Week, and he planned to visit several of them in the following days. The Hindu sites they work with are not just in India. In the U.S. they are partnering with twelve Hindu temples, ensuring that they are green and clean. They work in the UK, raising awareness, and also in Africa with one of the oldest Hindu diasporas that left India 100 or 200 years ago.

 

Hindu culture has a very long history of environmental awareness. Chanakya, born around 300 BCE, known as the Father of Medicine, for his role as one of the originators of the ayurvedic system of medicine, taught that pollution causes disease – a lesson we might well heed today.

 

In India all rivers are Goddesses who are to be protected from degradation. Chanakya also taught that we are to look upon all animals as children. If we go on a pilgrimage we should be frugal, eating only one meal a day and leaving nothing behind.

 

Mr. Gopal Patel, in his work with Hindu sacred sites in many countries, encourages them to be green and clean. He made the point that pilgrimage is important to every major faith, and the Green Pilgrimage Network works with other religious traditions too, for example, in Jerusalem and Assisi, Italy.

Mr. G. Vasudeo

Mr. G. Vasudeo

 

Mr. G. Vasudeo, Secretary of the Vivekananda Kendra, Kenyakumari, spoke enthusiastically about some of the work they have been doing renovating the teerthams  (sacred tanks or pools) in Rameshwaram.  Showing dramatic before and after photos, he explained how the run-down, polluted teerthams had been completely restored and are now clean and sparkling.  All that remains to do is replanting the original vegetation native to each site, which will be carried out by CPREEC. Restoring the foundations of several of the teerthams is already a remarkable achievement.

One of the teerthams renovated by the Vivekananda Kendra, Kenyakumari

One of the teerthams renovated by the Vivekananda Kendra, Kenyakumari

 

Rameshwaram – a key sacred site

 

Rameshwaram is one of the sacred pilgrimage sites that ring India in the four directions – Puri to the West, Varanasi to the North, Kolkata to the East, and Rameshwaram to the South. There are, of course, many thousands of other sacred places in India. It is said that pilgrims who visit the holy site of Varanasi, along the Ganges, will not fully receive the blessing of their pilgrimage until they have also visited Rameshwaram in the South. It is, if you like, the second half of their sacred journey.

 

The significance of the Rameshwaram Green Pilgrimage Initiative would be hard to overstate.  With success, it will demonstrate that it is really possible to have clean, eco-friendly pilgrimages in India, in which millions of pilgrims play an active role in maintaining the cleanliness and purity of their sacred sites. It will serve as a shining example, a green pilgrimage site that will inspire environmental awareness and cleanliness in so many other sacred sites throughout India.

 

To read more about CPREEC, click here.

 

 To read more about the Green Pilgrimage Network, click here.


 To read more about Vivekananda Kendra, click here.


 © 2014, Text and photos, Sharon St Joan

Invitation Green Pilgrimage 2014-page-001