Rameswaram is one of the holiest cities in India. It is considered by Hindus as one of the four dhams, with Dwarka in the west, Puri in the east, and Badrinath in the north being the other three. According to folklore and Hindu mythology, Rameswaram is the place from where Lord Rama constructed a bridge (Ram Setu, sometimes also referred to, incorrectly, as Adam's Bridge) over the ocean to cross over to Lanka (Sri Lanka) to fight Ravana, who had abducted Lord Rama's wife, Sita.
The Rameswar temple at Rameswaram is where Lord Rama propitiated Lord Siva to atone for the sin of killing Ravana, a brahman. Though Ravana is considered a villain for having abducted Sita, he is also worshipped by many because he was a devotee of Lord Siva and also an accomplished scholar in his own right. The Shiva Tandav Stotra, in praise of Lord Siva's power and beauty, is said to have been composed by Ravana. Like so many other characters in Hindu mythology, good or bad, Ravana is also a character with shades of gray. There are no clear-cut good or outright evil people. Good or evil is defined by our actions. Ravana, an otherwise devoted husband, loving brother, accomplished scholar, and an ardent Shiva devotee, also was power-hungry, delusional with power, and coveted another man's wife. Lord Rama's slaying of Ravana, while justified by dharma, was still a sin, in that Rama had killed a brahman, and a devotee of Lord Siva. For this 'brahma-hatya', Rama had to atone. It was suggested by Sage Agastya that Lord Rama propitiate Lord Siva. It is at this place that Lord Rama performed the puja of Lord Siva after bathing in the waters of the 22 Agni Teerthams. There is also a longer story that describes how Hanuman was sent to fetch a Sivalinga from the Kailash mountain in the Himalayas, but that is for another post.
Pilgrims congregate here, at the Agni Teerthan, to take a dip in the holy waters of the Bay of Bengal, before heading out to the Rameswar Temple to be bathed in the holy waters from the 22 wells of fresh water in the temple, and then finally perform puja in front of Lord Siva.
Yes - even though the temple town is referred to as Rameswaram, it is actually Lord Siva that is worshipped at the "Rameswar" temple. Lord Rama had worshipped Lord Siva (Rama's eeshwar - lord). This place is thus considered holy by both Vaishnavites and Saivites, the Hindu sects that worship Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva, respectively.
Some excerpts from the Outlook Traveller pages on Rameswaram:
In keeping with the dimensions of this grand temple, the Nandi (approx 16 ft in height and 10 ft wide) here is magnificently huge, marred somewhat by the grilled enclo¬sure within which it now appears trapped. The sanctum is embel¬lished by beautifully carved granite pillars and guarded by handsome dwarapalakas. The lingam that Sita made is worshipped in the main altar. To the right is the Viswa-lingam brought by Hanuman, which is worshipped first every day. Goddess Parvatavardhini is the consort to Ramanathaswamy and her shrine is to the left. One of the most important ancil¬lary shrines is dedicated to Lord Vishnu as Sethu Madhava. The sannidhi to Nataraja is surrounded by offerings of Naga images and is splendidly decorated entirely with rudraksha seeds. This most sacred pilgrimage is considered complete if Ganga jal from Kashi is brought to Rameswaram for an abhishekam of the lingam.
A bath in the 22 holy tirthams at the Ramanathaswamy Temple is an enjoyable ritual. Guide-helpers will lead you in chrono¬logical order to waters that are variable — small and large, warm and cool, sweet and salty. Soon enough, you lose track of the details and surrender to the undiluted joy of having buckets of water splashed down in a manner that has kids and adults squealing alike. Bliss.
Only Hindus are allowed beyond the third prakaram. Coloured lungis are not allowed but trousers are. Carry dry clothes to change into; entry to the main sanctum in wet clothes is denied. Changing rooms (not very clean) are available near the last tirtham
From this place to the temple is a two-minute walk, the temple some 200m or so away.
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