Updated: Sep 7
One of the most sacred sites of Hindu pilgrimage, Rameswaram is home to the Jyotirlinga of Shiva that was installed and worshipped by Lord Rama himself. A holy place for devotees of Vishnu and Shiva, it is one of the four major pilgrimages in Hinduism. Read the Rameswaram Story of devotion that established this Jyotirlinga.
Rameswaram, located on a small island between peninsular India and Sri Lanka, finds mention in many ancient epics of India. A part of Tamil Nadu, Rameswaram is home to Ramanathaswamy Temple, the shrine of the Rameswaram Jyotirlinga. The current structure of the temple was built in the 17th century by kings of India, with important contributions from the kings of Sri Lanka. The temple is said to have the longest corridor among all Hindu temples in India. Some parts of the temple are more than a thousand years old, but the mythological references to Rameswaram place it at the times of Ramayana. Rameswaram is one of the Hindu Char Dham (four sacred sites) places, the other three being Badrinath, Dwarka and Puri.
Lord Rama’s wife - Sita had been captured by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, and taken to his palace. Rama was helped by Sugriva, the vanara (monkey) king, in his quest to find and rescue Sita. When Hanuman informed them that Sita was being held captive in Lanka, Rama and his brother Lakshmana, accompanied by Sugriva and a huge army of vanaras, came to the shores of the ocean. Lanka was across the ocean, which seemed impossible to cross for all of them. Aware of the might of Ravana and his powerful brothers and son, Rama was thoughtful about how he could reach Lanka to fight this big battle that lay ahead.
Then Rama felt thirsty and requested Lakshmana to ask the vanaras to bring him some water. The vanaras quickly brought him water that was pure and refreshing. As Rama started to drink it, he stopped, remembering that he had not worshipped Lord Shiva yet. Rama built a shivalinga with sand and started an intense worship of Lord Shiva, carrying out all the prescribed rituals. He sang eulogies, chanted mantras, meditated and danced with devotion to Lord Shiva. Rama prayed, “O Supreme Lord, the protector and saviour of devotees, I seek refuge in you. King Ravana is a mighty warrior, the conqueror of the three worlds and your devotee. He is blessed by your boons which have made him arrogant. How will I cross this deep ocean and win the war with just an army of vanaras? I am also your devotee, please take my side and bless me.” Lord Shiva was delighted with Rama’s devotion and appeared in front of Rama with Devi Parvati and his ganas (companions of Shiva). Rama and others prayed to the luminous form of Lord Shiva with devotion. Pleased, Lord Shiva proclaimed with love, “O great king Rama, I bless you, may you be victorious”.
With these words, Rama received both the blessing of Lord Shiva for his victory and the permission for the battle against the great King Ravana. Rama requested Shiva with great reverence, “Lord, please stay here for the benefit of people and to make the world pure.” Shiva agreed to Rama’s request and took the form of the Jyotirlinga which became famous all over the world as Rameswaram.
An important aspect of the pilgrimage to Rameswaram is to take bath in the 64 teerthas (holy water bodies) that are strewn in and around the island. The Rameswaram Temple itself is home to 22 of the holy teerthas, each having pure, divine water of unique taste and different temperatures. The water of each teertha is supposed to have healing powers. Recent scientific studies have shown that these waters have no bacterial content despite many people using them every day. There is a belief that the number 22 symbolizes the 22 arrows of Rama’s quiver. Taking a bath in these 22 holy tanks is an essential part of the pilgrimage at Rameswaram.
The ritual baths begin with Mani Darshanam, which is held at 4 a.m. every day. The “Mani” or jewel is a Sphatik Lingam made of crystal. After Mani Darshanam, one takes bath in the first and the major teertha, called Agni Teertham, located at a beach on the Bay of Bengal. The legend of Agni Teertham is related to the return journey of Rama with Sita after his victory over Ravana. The killing of Ravana, who was a brahman and an ardent devotee of Shiva, had led to the sin of “Brahmahatya’ for which Rama atoned by worshipping Lord Shiva at Agni Teertham. Rama took bath in the sea water at Agni Teertham and it is believed that taking a bath there releases one from past sins. It is also believed to be the place where Sita underwent her ordeal by fire, or agnipareeksha.
In another version of the story of Rameshwaram, it is said that since there was no Shiva temple there, Rama sent Hanuman to Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva’s abode, to bring the linga. However, Hanuman could not return by the auspicious time of worship, so Devi Sita made a shivalinga out of sand, the Ramalingam, which Rama worshipped. On returning, Hanuman was dismayed to see that the worship has already begun. To placate him, Lord Rama installed the shivalinga brought by him as Vishwalingam and instructed devotees to worship the Vishwalingam before the Ramalingam. Both these lingas are inside the Rameshwaram temple.
There is a town called Dhanushkodi on the southernmost tip of the Rameswaram island, where Ravana’s brother Vibhishana is believed to have sought refuge from Rama. Unfortunately, the population of the whole Dhanushkodi town died in a devastating cyclone in 1964, known as the “1964 Rameswaram cyclone”, or “the Dhanushkodi cyclone”. A Rama temple, Kothandaramaswamy Temple, also known as Vibhishan Temple, in Dhanushkodi, is the only structure that survived the destruction wreaked by the cyclone. After Rama defeated and slayed Ravana, he crowned Vibhishana as King of Lanka at this place. The Jyotirlinga story is depicted in the form of paintings on the inner walls of this temple.