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In the footsteps of Ram
Sethukarai: Myth, mystery and magic in
the land of the Ramayana


Along Tamil Nadu's east coast lies a stretch of land known as Sethukarai or the bank of the bridge. Travelling through this 70-km-long coastal stretch between Ramanathapuram and Rameswaram is almost like walking through the pages of the Ramayana. Along the Sethukarai, myth and history combine seamlessly to give legend new dimensions through its ancient shrines, mystic bathing spots and majestic temples, which attract thousands of pilgrims.

My journey began at the huge Tirupullani temple, 10 km from Ramanathapuram. It is a Vaishnavite temple; its antiquity is authenticated in the songs of the Alwars, poet-saints of Tamil Nadu who lived between the 7th and 9th centuries. The ancient Tamil Sangam work Akanaanooru also refers to it.

According to legend, Pullaranyam (grass forest) was a marshy land full of the sacred dharba grass. Under a peepul tree here, Vishnu appeared before Pula Maharishi in the form of Adi Jagannatha and told him he would be reborn as Ram to cleanse the land of evil. Many years later, when Ram arrived here in search of Sita, he came upon a seemingly impassable barrier: the ocean. Tired, Ram lay down on a bed of dharba and sank into deep meditation for three days. Adi Jagannatha reappeared and blessed him. Inspired by this, Ram requested Varuna, the sea god, to make a path for him. 

The Tirupullani temple has a mysterious grandeur about it. Thousands of childless couples do nagaprathishta (installing statues of the snake god) at the peepul grove where Adi Jagannatha is supposed to have first appeared. They also flock to the temple to drink the payasam (sweet dish), which is believed to have the same magical properties as the one which Ram's father, King Dasaratha, gave his barren wives. The most striking shrine in this huge temple is the one with the exquisitely carved figure of Ram lying on a bed of dharba.

Adi Sethu, the primary sacred bathing spot along this coast, lies about 3 km from here. Ram is believed to have bathed here before starting work on the bridge and again on his return. Legend also says Ram and Sita paused over the temple while returning in the pushpaka vimanam (aerial chariot).

Devipatnam is another little coastal town close to Ramanathapuram linked by the legend of Ram. Just off the coast, and 1 km into the sea, is an unusual shrine of navagrahas, which are nine huge ancient stones representing celestial bodies sacred to Hindus. They are supposed to have been installed by Ram when he prayed to Shiva and Ganesha before embarking on his expedition to Lanka. Until recently, this rather unique shrine could only be reached by boat or by wading through the water. Now a small walkway connects it to the shore.

Along the coast to Rameswaram are many other small shrines. On a remote beach near Ramanathapuram, an ancient and meditative Hanuman stands in a dilapidated shrine gazing at the placid bay. The priest here said that the waters of the bay never rise beyond a certain point even during a cyclone.

Closer to Ramanathapuram, right on the highway, is a recently-built small temple called Midhakum Parai (floating stone). The priest here demonstrated the property of the stone that Ram is believed to have used to build his bridge. In a big vessel, a huge chunk of coral floats on water while another piece, which the priest throws in, sinks to the bottom.

Legend says Neela, the architect monkey who built the bridge, was cursed in his youth by a sage for throwing his things into the water: nothing Neela threw into water would ever sink again. The curse proved to be a boon. Bits of the floating stone were brought to this spot a couple of years ago and enshrined in the temple. Sadly, the priest dispelled some of the magic when he offered to sell me a piece. "There is plenty where it comes from," he said nonchalantly when asked what would happen if he sold off such a valuable thing.

But it is at Dhanushkodi, a point 18 km from Rameswaram, that all the elements of myth, legend and fact combine to form a truly mysterious amalgam. At this point the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean. Hanuman took his famous leap from here to Lanka. And it is the point from which the monkey army built the bridge to Lanka. It is called Dhanushkodi because at the request of Ravana's brother Vibheeshana, Ram broke off the bridge with his bow.

The most intriguing element here is the ancient underwater sandbank known as Adam's Bridge, which connects India to Sri Lanka. Geological evidence shows that an isthmus, which, according to temple records was breached by a violent storm in 1480, once bridged the gap. Some new pictures taken by a NASA satellite show this "bridge" in all its glory. The 30-km-long connection, which stretches across the Palk Strait, is actually a narrow and shallow ridge of sand and rocks connecting Mannar Island in Sri Lanka to Pamban Island in India. The Sri Lankan archaeology department has said the connection could be two million years old.

But is it natural or manmade? A cyclone, which devastated the area in 1964, has compounded the confusion by washing away many ancient landmarks in the area. In fact, today Dhanushkodi is almost inaccessible.
About 8 km from here stands the Kodandaramaswamy temple-the only one which survived the havoc. It was here that the final chapter of the Ramayana was played out. When Vibheeshana surrendered before Ram and asked his forgiveness, Ram crowned him king of Lanka at this place. Close by is another little temple known as Gandhamadhana Parvadham. Devotees believe this rocktop temple enshrines the footprints of Ram.
My final destination was the Ramanathar temple at Rameswaram, which contains a lingam believed to have been made by Sita out of sand. According to legend, Ram came here to wash away his sins and perform a puja to Shiva after killing Ravana who was a Brahmin. Ram asked Hanuman to bring him a lingam from Mount Kailash at an auspicious time. When he did not return, Sita quickly made a lingam and Ram installed it.

When Hanuman returned, Ram told him he could remove the other lingam if he wished and replace it with the one he had brought. Hanuman tried in vain to dislodge it with his tail. Even today, the lingam bears marks believed to be left by Hanuman's tail. Finally, when he gave up, Ram installed the one Hanuman brought beside the main lingam.

Temple records show that Parakrama Bahu, the king of Ceylon, constructed the sanctum sanctorum in the 12th century. Over the years, the temple expanded into its present size. There are 22 tanks within the temple, each with its own legend. A little further away is the Jatayu theertham (bathing spot), where the bird Jatayu fell fighting Ravana. Another important bathing spot is the Jatta theertham where Ram washed his hair before he commenced his prayers. And so the legend of Ram lives on in this ancient coastal region: intriguing, mysterious and magical.






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