There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Rameswaram: Part 9 of India's Deep South

It took a while to disentangle ourselves from Madurai's urban sprawl. Once free, we drove southwest along a straight, flat road through palm fringed farmland with golden straw stacked in the harvested rice fields.

Lynne slept for a while, but woke at coconut time.

A refreshing morning coconut south of Madurai
Nothing is more refreshing than coconut water on a hot day but Indian coconut vendors can be frightening. In Sri Lanka they sensibly hold the coconut on a chopping block or tree stump and whack it with a machete, in India they hold the nut in their left hand, knife in their right and strike with all the vigour of their Sri Lankan neighbours. I habitually count the fingers of Indian coconut vendors; so far they have all had ten, but there must be some with fewer, and I really do not want to be the person who scrabbles in the dust to reclaim a severed digit or two.

Please mind those fingers
We continued through Paramakudi and Ramanathapuram.The scrub became more stunted and the palms more windblown as we headed out onto a sandy peninsula which eventually tapered to a point just beyond the small town of Mandapam.

The 2km Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge seems almost a natural extension of the land. Built in 1988 it crosses the Pamban Channel to Pamban Island, often called Rameswaram after its main town.

The start of the Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge to Pamban Island 

From Pamban, Adams’s Bridge, a 50km string of limestone shoals leads to the Sri Lankan island of Mannar which is connected to its mainland by a causeway. Some of the shoals are above water, others a metre or two below. Temple records suggest it was possible to walk from India to Sri Lanka as recently as the fifteenth century but storms gradually deepened the channel and the reef was finally broken by a cyclone in 1480. The India-Sri Lanka border follows the median line through the strait, reputedly crossing an exposed part of the shoal. Those few metres form the world's shortest land border between two countries.

The name Adam's Bridge which appears on most maps is presumably of Muslim origin though it first appeared in print on a British naval chart of 1805. Hindus, the overwhelming majority in Rameswaram, call it Rama’s Bridge.

We head from Madurai to Rameswaram
Signs suggest drivers should not stop on the bridge but in India human nature always trumps official signs. A dozens cars and buses were parked at the windy spot where the view was best; the police hovered around, not moving anyone on, just ensuring everyone behaved.

A windy spot on the Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge to Pamdan Island

Some fishing boats bobbed at anchor off Pamban Island, which gave a good impression of a tropical paradise,… 

Fishing boats off the tip of Pamban Island

 …while others fished beside the bridge.

Fishing beside the Annai Indira Gandhi Bridge to Pamdan Island

Alongside the road bridge is The Pamban Railway Bridge, built by the British and opened in1914. From above it looks alarmingly close to the water, but although it is actually 12.5m above sea level a storm surge in 1964 did overturn a train killing all 150 passengers.

The Pamban Rail Bridge

Rameswaram town is in the far side of the island, but low density urban sprawl starts from the end of the bridge. Rameswaram is a holy place and a Hindu pilgrimage centre, but receives few western visitors – we saw no other Europeans on the island - and our accommodation on the town’s edge was not an international class hotel. The welcome, though, was warm and the room clean and comfortable so we forgave the television for working just long enough to prove it had no channels in any language we understood, and the WiFi for declining to connect.

The hotel restaurant was the only lunch option; it described itself as 'Pure Veg' but in a temple town we expected to go without meat (and beer). Most Hindus are vegetarians; ‘non-veg’ food is available in international hotels and establishments run by Muslims or Christians - in practice Muslims, as few Christians own restaurants. We had not had a thali on this trip yet so that was what we ordered. A thali consists of a number, in this case 9, dishes of curried vegetables or condiments, a poppadum and unlimited rice. They served a particularly fine thali, though you cannot tell the quality by looking at it, nor by the price – that varies mainly with the restaurant d├ęcor. The vegetables themselves are secondary; a thali maker’s skill is in the spicing. Each bowl should be different but all should be complementary producing a tinkling arpeggio of spices, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Lynne and a vegetarian thali, Rameswaram

After lunch Thomas drove us to the Ramanathaswamy (or Ramalingeshwara) Temple, in the heart of the town.

The car park was some way from the temple. Leaving bags and cameras in the car, we walked with Thomas through the narrow streets, dropped our shoes off with a minder and finished the journey barefoot – not a particularly comfortable experience.

Rameswaram, rivals Varanasi as the most important pilgrimage site in India, partly because it features in the Sanskrit allegorical epic, the Ramayana. Rama, (an avatar of Vishnu) was married to Sita (an avatar of Lakshmi). Sita was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana and taken to the island of Lanka. Rama followed Ravana and with the aid of the monkey god Hanuman and his simian army built the Rama Bridge, crossed to Lanka, killed Ravana and rescued Sita.

On their way home Rama and Sita visited Rameswaram to worship Lord Shiva and seek forgiveness for killing a Brahmin during their battles with Ravana.

Unlike the Madurai gopuram those at Rameswaram are not gaudily painted.

One of the gopuram, Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram

European faces are so unusual here we soon attracted the attention of a white robed Brahmin who introduced himself as the Temple Secretary and offered to show us round.

The temple’s 16-18th century outer section - all that is officially open to non-Hindus – consist of 'a spacious closed ambulatory flanked… by continuous platforms with massive pillars’ (Rough Guide to South India). The corridors are 205m long and there are 1212 pillars all brightly painted and topped with yalis (mythical beasts). I had no camera, but later, in the streets, we found a stall selling laminated photographs of the ambulatory - pity the focus is not quite as sharp as I would like.

The ambulatory, Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram (commercial photograph)

As guests of the Temple Secretary we found ourselves ushered into the much older Hindus-only section. After visiting the shrine of Ganesh where the priest smeared ash on our foreheads we approached the first of the temple’s two most sacred Shiva lingams. People were queuing with their offerings by a lingam allegedly brought from the Himalayas by Hanuman. The priest held up the holy flame and, for a donation, devotees could pass their hands through it and take the blessing upon themselves. Nobody seemed to mind our presence though we were careful not to intrude.

The second lingam was fashioned from sand by Sita herself as Rama could not wait for Hanuman’s return from the north, and we saw it being bathed with milk in the inner sanctum. Lynne was given a piece of coconut as a blessing from Lord Shiva.

At another shrine a priest marked our foreheads with a red tilak and after being purified with a splash of holy water we were allowed to touch the base of the main gopura.

Outside we paid off the Temple Secretary.  His fee was steep and he was reluctant to bargain -whether or not he donated the money to the temple I have no idea.

Thomas returned to the car to fetch bags and cameras while we watched two men building a temple chariot for a forthcoming procession.

Building a temple chariot, Rameswaram
Thomas is a devout Christian, like a quarter of all Keralans he is a member of a church that claims to have been founded in the first century by the apostle St Thomas. We felt privileged and honoured to have been allowed into the very heart of the temple, but Thomas was less comfortable inside the inner sanctum. No great fan of the way Hinduism is practised, he dislikes seeing poor people giving money to priests that would be better spent feeding their families. People rely too much on the gods, he said, and make too little effort to help themselves. He might describe himself as a 'Catholic' but he has a robust understanding of the ‘protestant work ethic’.

When he returned we strolled towards the sea following a distinctive group of brightly clad pilgrims.

Pilgrims, Rameswaram
The beach is marked by a decorative archway populated by the usual array of calves and goats.

Archway by the beach, Rameswaram
By now our group of pilgrims might have been thinking we were stalking them.
Are we stalking them? Rameswaram
 We watched people bathing – the women as always inching carefully into the water while fully dressed…

Bathing, Rameswaram
…photographed a cute kid….

Cute kid, Rameswaram
…and had a paddle in the luke warm sea…

Paddling in the warm water, Rameswaram
…by which time the saffron robed pilgrim was stalking us.

Now is he stalking us? Rameswaram
The Gandhamadana Parvatam, 2km north of the temple and just outside the town, was built around the footprint Rama made when he landed on his return from Lanka.

It sits on a low sandy hill, the approach surrounded by stalls. The stallholders might be cheerfully optimistic….

The approach to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, Rameswaram
 …but the shrine itself looked sad and neglected.
Gandhamadana Parvatam, Rameswaram
 We climbing the stairs….
Gandhamadana Parvatam, Rameswaram
 …and then onto the roof to look down onto the footprint. No photos were permitted, but I can report it was as convincing as Buddha’s footprint at Wat Phabat Phonsan in Laos, which was not at all. The temple gopuram looked good from here, though…
Looking back at the Ramanathaswamy Temple from Gandhamadana Parvatam
….as did the north end of Pamban Island so here are pictures of them instead.
The north end of Pamban Island from the Gandhamadana Parvatam
Driving back towards our hotel we stopped at the temple and tank of Rama Tirtham Gandamadana. Tanks, as they are always called, are important to Hindus, providing both spiritual and physical cleansing. It was here that Rama rested on his journey to Lanka and it looked particularly attractive in the rays of a sun that was beginning to set.
The Tank at Rama Tirtham Gandamadana
Back at the hotel Lynne ordered vegetable soup and rotis claiming she did not really want to eat, but that did not stop her sharing my vegetable biryani and aloo gobi.

Later we had a nightcap from our diminishing stock of Dubai airport duty free. We will need to seek replenishment tomorrow, or at least before we return to semi-dry Kerala.

We would leave Rameswaram in the morning, it may have been a short stay it had undoubtedly been a highlight.

I have enjoyed visiting places like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat, but you know that on the day you will be one of several thousand tourists.

But there are places still within the ‘tourist envelope’ where you are not one of thousands. In a post on Kashgar, the city, nearer to Beirut than Beijing at China’s extreme western tip I wrote ‘Surrounded by Uigher buildings and several hundred people, none of whom were in western dress, we felt that we had finally arrived somewhere foreign and very alien to our normal experience.’  and elsewhereany European who can stand in Kashgar’s Id Kah Square and not feel the thrill of being somewhere totally foreign and utterly remote should probably have stayed at home.

Madurai, whilst not as remote as Kashgar, provided the same thrill. Rameswaram, however, is a step beyond, an island outside the tourist envelope and it was spine-tingling just to be there.

I felt the same in the market at Upal a village 50km outside Kashgar, but it is bittersweet tingle. Of that experience I wrote ‘Tourism is forever doomed to kill the things it loves: the fishing village in a secluded cove becomes a five mile stretch of high rise hotels as slices of paradise are packaged, denatured and sanitised to suit the tastes of the rich. Kashgar is hardly Benidorm, but we were not the only foreigners at the Sunday market and it sits inside the horizon of tourism. At Upal we had slipped over that horizon, but human beings, like sub-atomic particles, are changed merely by being observed. Mixed with the exhilaration of just being there was the fear that we were the latest link in a chain of foreigners relentlessly dragging that horizon behind us.’

For ‘Kashgar’ read ‘Madurai’ for ‘Upal’ ‘Rameswaram.’

I apologise for the preachy bit, but thank you for reading to the end.

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