Legend says, Rama prayed to Shiva at Rameswaram to absolve him of any sins he might have committed during his war against Ravana

The ocean parts ways as the road takes us to a small temple. It is a cloudy day and the seas look grey and a bit wild. The road ends at a temple which seems renovated. We climb some steps and look out through the arches at the sea. I am standing in the temple where Rama’s “padam” or footprints are placed on a chakra and it is the highest point in Rameswaram.

Another flight of steps takes me to the terrace. Standing atop the shrine, I look around at the entire scenery around me. It takes a moment to sink in. I am in one of the most spiritual and mystical lands in South India, the setting of a legendary epic. This is where Rama and his army built a bridge across the oceans to Sri Lanka to defeat Ravana.

I look out to see the sea stretching out in the horizon bordered by the greenery. Somewhere in the distance lies the washed away town of Dhanushkodi and even beyond that is Sri Lanka. A tree filled with egrets distracts me.

Adam’s Bridge, between Rameswaram and Mannar Island, connected India and Sri Lanka

Rameswaram is many things to many people. A mystical destination, it is the setting of the grand epic, Ramayana which pervades the entire landscape. The gods and their stories come alive in every corner of the town. And I am not just referring to the temple, but to the many tanks or wells here, referred to as Theerthams that surround the town. It is like following in the footsteps of Rama’s journey as every drop of water here has a story to narrate.

But it is the ocean that fascinates me. The first view that one gets of Rameswaram is the Pamban bridge that fans out across the ocean. Located at the tip of the Indian peninsula in the Gulf of Mannar, Rameswaram is situated on an island connected to the mainland by the bridge. There is a mild flutter, a gentle vibration as few vehicles rush past me, oblivious to the grandeur of nature. I gaze at the sea as the many shades of blue merge with the foam and every wave takes on a different hue.

The Ranganatha temple stands tall as devotees make their way to cleanse themselves with a sacred bath at the 22 wells or Teerthams that surround it. The long corridor stretches as stories from Ramayana are painted in every wall here. There are many legends here, but the one that is most often reinforced is how Rama prayed to his Lord, Shiva to absolve him of any sins committed during the war. Even today, it is believed that the tanks around the temple have a perennial source of water.

The spirit of Ramayana pervades the entire landscape in Rameswaram

Rameswaram, I am told, has close to 64 theerthams and while some of them are in the form of wells, others are like ponds, tanks and one of them, the Agni Theertham is the sea itself. I journey around forests to locate some of the temples and wells.

I am on my way to Dhanushkodi and the scenery gives way to dense undergrowth and the road leads to paths that cut through the wilderness. We stop the car in front of thorny shrubs and walk through the trees until we see a board that says “Jada Theertham”.

Surrounded by dense trees, it is a tank under a peepal tree with a temple close by. A priest tells us that this is where Rama washed his hair (Jada) after he killed Ravana and he had installed a lingam here. Another fascinating legend says that this is where Jatayu, the king of birds fell after his battle with Ravana.

Legends seem to follow me wherever I go. I am headed to Villondi Teertham, right in the middle of the ocean. The sea looks pristine blue and the azure water sparkles in the sunlight. A bridge appears in the middle of nowhere taking me right into the ocean. I stand at the edge and look out into the blue green waters. A small well here is filled with water. You are allowed a sip and the water is absolutely sweet.

Rameswaram is significant for many Hindus as a pilgrimage to Varanasi is considered to be incomplete without a pilgrimage to Rameswaram

“This is where Rama shot an arrow to ensure sweet water flowed to quench Sita’s thirst”,  says the caretaker. I am also told that Rama’s bow and arrow are buried here and hence, the name Villondi Teertham.

But it is not just the wells or tanks here that speak of Rama. I sit by the oceans and as the waves lash, I can imagine the army of birds, squirrels, monkeys and bears getting ready to fight the war against Ravana.  And as the oceans change colours yet again, I am completely lost in the world of epics and legends where good prevails over evil.