We reached outskirts of Madurai by 7 pm and after a brief coffee break, we took the Kochi Dhanushkodi highway to Rameshwaram. The road is not NH4 but very decent. There are absolutely no potholes or speed breakers anywhere. It's a double lane where opposing vehicles comfortably cross. It can be a bit difficult to drive in the night, with the opposing traffic usually sporting high beams. This is somewhat insensitive to especially the bikers who come in the opposite direction. If you are a bit sleep deprived and tired, it can be a bit more taxing! Of course, the prospect of witnessing the crystal lingam (sphatika lingam) and sun rise in Rameshwaram kept me going.
We reached Ramnad around 9 pm and broke for dinner. This was a good idea as Rameshwaram is a small place that sleeps somewhat early. Rameshwaram is about 50 km away and one hour drive from Ramnad. After about half an hour of drive from Ramnad, we were stopped for toll collection on the Pamban bridge. This 3 km bridge is built on the sea and connects the island of Rameshwaram with main land India. I must admit to being a bit nervous driving on the sea! :-) There is no feeling as assuring as terra firma! By the stroke of midnight I rested having negotiated 600 km to reach the southern island that is part of the legend of the epic Ramayana. Lord Rama is said to have installed the cosmic Siva lingam after conquering Ravana in Lanka. The same lord Siva is worshiped now as Lord Ramanatha Swamy. The two aspects of divinity Lord Siva and Rama have a lot of appeal to me personally and so I hit the sack in eager anticipation of the day to follow.
By 4 am, the wake up song of the Lord Ramanatha Swamy rendered by the inimitable MS rent the air. It was divine as the chants merged in the sounds produced by the gentle waves of the sea. The practice to be followed at Rameshwaram is to have the darshan of the sphatika lingam (crystal lingam) before taking bath. This idol is kept for darshan only in the wee hours starting 4 am. It is a sight for the Gods to behold the crystal deity shining in the middle of many lamps. He reflects the light unto our eye and gives us absolute delight. After this wonderful darshan, we waited for the Sun to emerge from the eastern seas. This illusion of Sun emerging from seas or mountains or from distant horizon is always a spectacle to behold as it starts a new day in our lives. The soft rays of the rising Sun fell on the gopuram of the Rameshwaram temple and prodded us further.
We took a brief bath in the subdued sea adjoining the temple. Eons ago, Lord Rama stood with his bow and arrow to dry the sea that didn't provide Him a path to Lanka. The presiding deity of the seas is said to have emerged in utter scare and pleaded with Him to not dry him up. It is the deity of the seas that gave the idea of building of the Ram Setu.
Then starts the lovely experience of taking bath in 22 sacred wells (known as theerthams, meaning holy water) that were dug around the temple. These wells have normal water if not sweet at a distance of just a few meters from the sea! There was a longish queue and after paying Rs. 25/- per person we went through the queue to well after well where designated employees would draw water in a bucket and pour on all assembled there. Who doesn't like getting drenched! We all thoroughly enjoyed this experience. This was akin to the rain dance that is found in many modern day resorts! Then it was time to go for the darshan of Lord Ramanathaswamy. The lingam here is one of the twelve jyothirlingas that are found in India and Nepal. It was quite crowded and we spent a good one hour in the queue before having the darshan of the Lord in the form of the jyothirlingam. After that we hastened for the darshan of Mother Parvatavardhini (the consort of Lord Ramanathaswamy).
Lunch followed darshan and after a brief rest, it was time to start from Rameshwaram. There are other points of interest to be covered here. However, due to paucity of time and to reach Thanjavur by night, we had to start. The bridge across the sea was crowded as lot of people pulled over to have a glimpse of the collapsible Pamban railway bridge and enjoy the beauty of sea.
Since Rameswaram is a peninsula you can find sea on either sides for sometime as you drive. And so on this east coast of India we can find the Sun setting into the sea as well. The picture below shows the waters rendered golden by the setting Sun.
Daughter was unhappy that we didn't spend enough time at the beach! Not to leave a bad taste, I pulled over after the Pamban bridge and spent some good time at the beach in which the major work was shell collection. There is wide variety of conches and shells we picked up in the few minutes we were there. It just made me wonder what else the mighty sea has in it!
As the Sun was about to set, we resumed our journey to Thanjavur, the town that has the big temple. Driving on the East Coast Road was a pleasure. Occasional bridges across rivers and a light house on the way reminded me that we are driving along the coast. After a dinner break at Pattukottai, Thanjavur was reached at 11 pm.