The seaside town of Rameshwaram, in Tamil Nadu, is noteworthy for being the place in India that's closest to neighboring Sri Lanka. It sits on Pamban Island in the Gulf of Munnar, just off the Indian mainland at the tip of the Indian Peninsula. Rameshwaram is also a popular pilgrimage destination. The town has special significance to Hindus as one of the holy Char Dham—the four sacred abodes associated with incarnations of Lord Vishnu. According to mythology, Lord Ram (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu) built a bridge from Rameshwaram to Sri Lanka to rescue his wife Sita from the evil clutches of demon king Ravan. Hindus believe that visiting all the Char Dham will help them achieve moksha (liberation from rebirth). Read on to discover the top things to do in Rameshwaram.
What makes Rameshwaram unusual is that although the town is predominantly associated with Lord Ram, its main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Why? Lord Ram is said to have worshiped Lord Shiva, the destroyer, there to be cleared of sin for killing Ravan. Ramanathaswamy Temple is also remarkable because it has two lingams (symbols of Lord Shiva). One was brought from the Himalayas by Lord Hanuman upon Ram's request, and the other was created out of sand by Sita when the arrival of that lingam was delayed. The temple was built by various rulers from the 12th century onward. Those who aren't Hindu will be most interested in its magnificent hall of more than 1,200 carved sandstone pillars, which forms the outer corridor. The ceiling is covered in colorful kamalam lotus art. Unfortunately, photography is no longer allowed due to increased security. All electronic devices, including cell phones and cameras, must be left at the storage counter before entering the temple. The temple is open from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Ideally, Hindus who are on a pilgrimage should get an early start. The Spatika lingam darshan (cost: 50 rupees) from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., is particularly auspicious. Mahashivratri, in February or March, is one of the temple's biggest festivals.
Wash Away Your Sins at Agnitheertham
Taking a dip in the 23 theerthams (holy water bodies) in and around Ramanathaswamy Temple is an integral part of washing away sins. All are inside the temple premises except for Agnitheertham, which is located at the sea a few hundred meters before the temple's east gate. It's customary to bathe in all the theerthams (cost: 25 rupees and bookable online here) before worshiping the deity, although this is not compulsory. Bathing must be done in a set order, as directed by signs, starting at Agnitheertham first. It's believed that Sita bathed in the sea at that spot and offered prayers to Lord Shiva. Lord Agni (the fire god) also appeared there to convince Ram that Sita had been faithful to him while held captive by Ravan. Do note that you'll be required to change out of your wet clothes after bathing in the theerthams at the temple in order to enter the inner sanctum where the deity is. Facilities are provided.
Gawk at the Eerie Ghost Town of Dhanushkodi
In 1964, a cyclone hit the flourishing trade town of Dhanushkodi, near Rameshwaram, at about 280 kilometers per hour (170 miles per hour), wiping most of it and a passenger train out. It's estimated that nearly 2,000 people were killed in the storm. The town, which sat on a thin strip of land that juts towards Sri Lanka, was submerged under meters of sea water. The government declared it a ghost town, unfit for habitation. All that's left are the fragmented windswept remains of a few buildings such as the church, post office, and railway station. There are also railway tracks under the sand. The railway line used to end at a pier at Dhanushkodi, from where Sri Lanka was connected by ferry. Up until mid-2017, the only way to reach Dhanushkodi was to drive across the sand. However, a scenic new road now goes through Dhanushkodi to the land's end at Arichal Munai (Erosion Point), where the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal meet. Travel time is about 30 minutes from Rameshwaram.
Stand at the Edge of India
Arichal Munai, just beyond Dhanushkodi, is technically the border between India and Sri Lanka. Since the distance between the two countries is only 18 nautical miles, it doesn't fulfill international laws for a feasible boundary line. Hence, the governments decided on an imaginary one. A chain of limestone shoals, known as Adam's Bridge, extends all the way to the coast of Sri Lanka. Hindus call it Ram Setu and regard it as remnants of the bridge that Lord Ram built. Some even say it was possible to walk on the bridge until it was destroyed by a cyclone in 1480.
Take the Train Over Pamban Bridge
Pamban Island is joined to the Indian mainland by two noteworthy bridges. One is Pamban Rail Bridge, the oldest sea bridge in India. It was completed in 1914. The other is Annai Indira Gandhi Road Bridge, which opened in 1988 and runs parallel to the rail bridge. Spanning 2.35 kilometers (1.46 miles), it's the second longest sea bridge in India (the Bandra-Worli Sealink in Mumbai is the longest). A train ride over the rail bridge is particularly exhilarating as it sits quite close to the sea—so low in fact, that the central part of the bridge opens to allow boats to pass. Here are the Indian Railways trains that depart from Rameshwaram and arrive in Rameshwaram.
Learn How to Kite Surf
It may come as a surprise that Rameshwaram, which is prominently known for temple tourism, is one of the best kite surfing destinations in India! Quest Expeditions has a kite surfing school and two boutique places to stay—Kathadi North and Kathadi South—on Pamban Island. Kathadi North is more upmarket, with cottages that have open-air bathrooms and gardens. Kathadi South is more rustic, with beach huts and tents. Packages, including accommodations and lessons, are offered. The kite-surfing season follows the wind flow of the monsoon. The summer season runs from April to September at Kathadi South, while the winter season is from December to March at Kathadi North. If you're not interested in kite-surfing, you can still enjoy other water sports such as snorkeling, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding.
Spot Flamingos and other Migratory Birds
Nature-lovers will be delighted to find a number of bird sanctuaries that can be visited on day trips from Rameshwaram. Arichamunai Bird Sanctuary, near Dhanushkodi, is closest to Rameshwaram. Go from December to March, and you may be lucky enough to see flamingos that have flown all the way from Australia. They stand together in the sea looking for food. Chitrangudi and Kanjirankulam sanctuaries are also worth visiting on the mainland. They're both situated near Mudukulathur in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, a couple of hours from Rameshwaram. Another option is the relatively new Sakkarakottai Bird Sanctuary, only an hour from Rameshwaram on the mainland. Most of the birds are there between October and March. They include plentiful painted storks, pelicans, egrets and ibis.
The childhood home of India's 11th president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is in Rameshwaram and has been converted into a museum that's maintained by his elder brother. As well as being a popular president who served from 2002 to 2007, Kalam was a respected scientist who specialized in aerospace engineering. The museum's exhibits narrate the story of his life and achievements. It's located on Mosque Street and is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.