Rameswaram, India

Photo: rajaraman sundaram [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s one of the holiest places in India. Millions of Hindus flock to a temple that’s dedicated to the god Shiva. The pilgrims walk down a long corridor lined with 1,000 huge sculpted pillars. They ask for penance as pails of holy water are poured over their heads. Then they bathe in the calm, turquoise sea off the white-sand beaches. But they’re not in Varanasi as expected.

Varanasi is one of the two holiest places in India. The other is Rameswaram. Ramanathaswamy Temple stands in the center of the small town. According to Hindu legend, the god Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue his wife from an abductor at this site. It became one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines where Shiva worshipped. The Pandya dynasty built the current temple in the 12th century. A high madil (compound wall) surrounds it. Its columned corridor is the longest of all the Hindu temples in the country. Plus 22 theerthams (temple tanks), each with a different type of holy water, allow the faithful to cleanse before paying a visit to the deity.

It’s not easy to reach Ramanathaswamy Temple. Rameswaram is on an island in the Gulf of Mannar in between India and Sri Lanka. A two-kilometer-long bridge connects Pamban Island to Tamil Nadu on the southern tip of India’s mainland. The Pamban Bridge, built in 1914 as India’s first sea bridge, runs between 143 concrete piers; some of them rise to allow boats to pass through the channel. Though a gorgeous ride, it’s also a nerve-wracking one, especially as the high winds pick up close to cyclone season. Eventually, the train deposits you in Pamban, a small fishing village on the island’s west coast.

Upon first glance, Pamban Island doesn’t look like one of the holiest places in India. Most of the conch-shaped island lies below sea level. It’s covered in white sand, in which only coconut, palm, and a few fig trees can grow. There are a couple of hills. Another temple stands on Gandhamadana Parvatham, the highest point on the island. While the town on the southeastern tip, Dhanushkodi, was destroyed and abandoned during a 1964 cyclone. It will be the perfect spot to watch the sun rise tomorrow morning. By that point, you’ll surely be a believer, or at least be enchanted, by this little Indian island.

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