"Full many a ray of purest ray serenethe dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air." from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray
I had slept a really deep sleep after the previous evening's dinner. I woke up refreshed at midnight, and then stayed awake till the cabbie called at 5:30 am.
The cabbie spoke a lot. All I could understand was "taxi" - the rest was in Tamil. My Tamil is exhausted after vanakkam (welcome) and thaneer (water) - other than menu items like idli and dosai. I said in Hindi - neeche aa rahe hain (we are coming down), and he replied in Hindi - Hindi nahin aati (I do not know Hindi). I said in English this time - we are coming down. And he said - Courtyard. I assumed he was verifying the hotel name. I said - Yes, Courtyard Marriott, we are coming down in 5 minutes. He said - 5 minutes. And then he said something in Tamil that I could not understand. I called the cab office and they assured me the cabbie was waiting downstairs. Frantically pulling our bags, we trooped downstairs. No cabbie.
There was a group of extremely polite Courtyard Marriott employees ready to help at such an early hour, but there was no cab. They called back on the number from which the cabbie had been calling me. Apparently, he had been asking for directions all this time. Thanks to the collective effort of very courteous Marriott employees, everyone offering to lift bags, and Ashverya and I saying thank you and explaining over and over again that we could handle the bags ourselves, we were soon off to the airport where we were the first to arrive.
Swamiji had asked us to be standing outside the airport, at the entrance marked Departure, at 7 a.m. Ashverya and I reached there at 6:15, and waited for the rest to arrive. Amma was among the first to reach, it was wonderful to see her, she has the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager. After all the excited hugs as more Dallasites showed up, and meeting the Swamijis, and a surprise treat – Yoga would be coming to Rameshwaram with us, Swami Anantanandaji led us to a little restaurant outside the airport - idli and vada and sambhar and chatni first thing in the morning for the first time in my life. It took an hour or more for everyone to get served and fed, and another hour and a half for all of us to get through checking our bags in, and then the security check, and finally we were seated in the flight for Madurai.
The yatra - pilgrimage had begun.
Madurai is the closest airport to the temple at Rameshwaram, about 100 miles away. As we collected our bags at the Madurai airport, Swami Sarveshanandaji told us to keep a change of clothes in our backpacks. We would be dipping in the Indian Ocean before going into the temple. My mistaken understanding so far was that some water from wells at the temple would be sprinkled on us. Suddenly it was all hurry-scurry, pull out stuff and re-pack at the airport. Not the best decision in the morning to wear a new designer sari, no idea how the material would react to water.
There was a bus waiting for our group at the airport. We were scheduled to have a luxury air-conditioned Volvo bus, but it was a relief to actually have one with working air-conditioning for the 110-mile journey ahead, that would take slightly over 3 hours.
A couple of hours later, we stopped at a small hotel for lunch - nan, sabzi, dal, idli, vada, rasam, sambhar. And all I ate was dahi chawal - yogurt and rice, which was going to be my staple diet for the rest of the trip, to avoid falling sick. There was vanilla icecream at the end, and it was gratifying to see my chocaholic child try some, after some coaxing. She liked it, which was a good omen. It was not likely that Dheeraj would have planned for chocolate icecream as dessert anywhere. When planning for a large group, everything needs to be vanilla, and what is more vanilla than vanilla?
First glimpse of the Indian Ocean
Tired but no longer hungry, I dozed off in the bus. I woke up suddenly when I heard someone say they could see the ocean. It was actually the Gulf of Mannar that we saw. Excited about my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean, I took a few pictures, but taking photographs through glass windows of a bus did not get me a single good shot.
We passed through a sleepy hamlet next, where the laid-back rural life presented itself - people going about their day, with some fishing boats and many nets in the ocean. One of my revered heroes as I grew up in India and till today, nuclear scientist, diplomat and ultimately President Abdul Kalaam, belongs to this region. Crossing over the Pamban channel, in parallel with a rail bridge, we were on our way to the temple of Rameshwaram on Pamban island.
Leisurely rural scene
The bus stopped, and we had to get down with our backpacks, take a dip in the ocean, and walk drenched to the temple. We had reached the water too quickly, or may be I was still not fully awake, or it was just unease. Walking into a natural body of water will likely not come naturally to me in this lifetime.
The steps at the shore, which is more like a river bank, were slippery. I held at first to the rails, and then to the rope hanging from the rails. It took a while to get used to the heavy pressure of the water ripples, and to let go the rope. There were no waves, just a gigantic mass of water that shook like jello. Once I was waist-deep in the water, I dipped in the water with Aum Namaha Shivaaya on my lips. I came up instantly, my eyes stinging and my face burning. The water is unbelievably salty. Sitadevi was standing close by, and said - No, no, no, you did not go all the way in. She dunked me in, and then I repeated that twice more, and I was done - three dips in the Indian Ocean, with the name of Shiva on my lips.
Ashverya had handed her camcorder to Anantanandaji, and followed me into the ocean. This was very exciting for her – it was her first ritual dip, or three.
She held Vinayakji's hand and mine, and was a bit hesitant for the first dunking as I was getting ready to push her in. But then Vinayakji pushed her head down with force and speed, and she came up spluttering. This was pretty easy to get used to. She took the next two dips on her own, and went back to the shore. It is my experience that the ritual immersion puts the mind in a state where there is no thought, only the oneness with Shiva, a resonance with the vibrations of Aum Namaha Shivaaya.
Ashesh heading off for a dip
Dipping in natural waters is challenging enough, and I had learned to do it just a year ago. We were now doing the hitherto unimaginable - walking drenched through the street. Completely soaked to the skin, dripping wet, clothes clinging to the body, trying to muster some semblance of modesty, we walked to the temple among cows squatting on the street, dogs wandering around, and honking cars and motorcycles, with cyclists weaving their way through the traffic.
Walking to the temple
Drenched to the skin, walking to the temple
About half a million years and twenty milleniums ago, Vishnu's avatar - incarnation, Rama had installed a shivalingam here to atone for the sin of killing the king of Lanka, Ravana, who was a Brahmin by birth, being the son of the sage Vishrava and the demon princess Kaikeshi. Rama asked Hanuman to get a shivalingam to worship, but Hanumanji was delayed in returning. To avoid missing the scheduled time, Rama installed the shivalingam that Sita made with clay and sand on the seashore, which is now the main deity at Rameshwaram. The Shivalingam brought by Hanuman is also installed in an adjacent altar, and worshipped as the vishwalingam.
The Ramanathswamy temple or the temple of Rameshwaram as it is more popularly known, is recognized as one of the four dham – abodes of divinity. Rameshwaram is in the south, and the other three dham are the temple of Jagannath Puri in Orissa in the east, the temple of Dwarka in Gujarat in the west, and the temple of Badrinath in Uttarakhand in the north. The Rameshwaram temple complex is vast, spreading over 15 acres on a small island. It was built in the twelfth century around the shivalingam, and the construction continued for a few centuries to become the architectural specimen that we see today. The main gopuram – the temple tower is nine levels high, and intricately carved. The temple corridor of Rameshwaram is the longest temple corridor in India, about 4000 feet in length. There are tall granite pillars adding to the grandeur of the temple.
Dwarpal (doorkeeper) at the Rameshwaram temple
Hanuman temple on the right, as we enter the temple
As we entered the temple complex, we first visited the Hanuman temple on the right. We piled all our footwear and bags and cameras at one spot where Swami Sarveshananda-ji and Swami Anantananda-ji would wait, while the group was led by Swami Vinayak-ji to 22 wells. These wells are scattered around the temple complex, and need to be visited in a certain sequence. I had expected sprinkling of water on our heads, but so far nothing had gone as I had expected. We had dipped in the ocean, walked soaking wet to the temple, and now we were moving around in the temple corridors to different wells where our guide led us, and getting drenched with a bucketful of water at each well. These wells are believed to have been made by Rama shooting arrows of fire at each spot, and it is believed that the water of various holy rivers has been brought to these wells. We had a couple of persons at the temple assigned as our bucket fillers, who pulled and poured a bucketful of water at each well over each person, as our group slowly moved forward in line. Then we would scoot off in single file to the next well.
At each well, there would be a film of water over my eyes as I said Aum Namaha Shivaaya and received the bucketful of cold water over my body. The cool water was refreshing, the ritual is tailor-made for an Indian summer. The taste of the water is believed to be different in each well, I could not tell the difference each time but every now and then, the taste of some water would be sweeter than earlier. Peering down some of the wells, I could see fish swimming around. There must be abundant sweet water sources on the island for so many thousands of buckets of water to be used every day, and yet the wells maintain the same water levels needed to sustain life. The fresh and sweet water from the wells was a very different feel to the skin from the touch of the saline mass we had dipped in earlier.
After the sequential soaking and drenching and some air-drying, we walked dripping wet into a portion of the temple where there was a little bit of privacy so we could change clothes. Privacy is a relative term, there were 30 women in various stages of undress. We just needed a dry spot to get into dry clothes as a single gender group. My sari had stayed visually solid despite being drenched, and I hoped it would not shrink till its scheduled drycleaning in Dallas, two weeks away.
In dry clothes and quite cold now that it was evening and we were inside a gigiantic stone complex, we walked to the main temple to get a glimpse of the deity. As we walked through a maze of steel tubes that force a crowd to stand in serpentine lines, we could see the deity from afar. Even at the spot where we stood facing the sanctum sanctorum, the deity is quite far away. Not at all what I am used to with Shiva. We were not allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. The décor for the black shivalinga was with diya – earthen lamps, very understated and very beautiful. The ornate architecture of the temple, the grandeur of the granite pillars, the tall ceiling of the temple and knowledge of its rich history made it larger than life, but I was not blessed with experiencing the presence of Shiva in whose lap I put my tired head to sleep every night. Another time, another trip, Shiva's will...
After leaving this temple, Ashverya and I went to the adjacent temple of Parvati. Next, Swami Anantananda-ji led the group in the passage for prayers and chanting that evoked more oneness with Shiva for me than the temple itself. To me, listening to bhajans - hymns is relaxing, but chanting has a rousing effect. Not sure if I am explaining this well, but there is almost something mathematical about chanting. Different speeds, frequencies and pitch of chants raise the consciousness differently.
Now outside the temple, view from the street
It took more than an hour for some of the people to get darshan - viewing. Apparently the deity is not continuously available for viewing. Once everyone had seen the deity, we left the temple to get much needed tea and coffee in a café across the street. It was time for pictures.
3 dips in the ocean, 22 bucket baths, a change of clothes later
Filter coffee drinkers
Filter coffee drinkers
Filter coffee drinkers
The one picture with Yoga, and it is blurred... :(
Beautiful view of the temple by night
A more relaxed visit to Rameshwaram, in the future, would include a visit to Setukarai, about 12 miles away, from where Rama built the bridge through Dhanushkodi on the north-eastern part of the island to Talaimannar in SriLanka. The vanar sena - army of apes, helped Rama build a bridge with stones that floated on the river to go to Lanka and bring his kidnapped wife Sita back. For the non-believers, these episodes from ancient history are now being validated by scientists. Floating stones have been found at Rameshwaram and recorded in archaelogical findings, and the most awesome finding for me, is the satellite images of the Rama setu - Rama's bridge.
For dinner, we returned to the same hotel where we had had lunch. The Swamijis first gave a sound lecture on the importance of staying together. Good lord, it has been half a day yet… No idea who has inspired this lecture, but we sat there for a good half hour. Then off to dinner.
Lecture outside the hotel on the importance of group discipline
The bus journey from Rameshwaram back to Madurai is a blur. A shower, three dips and twenty-two baths, fatigue, jet lag, the movement of the bus and the droning noise – everything contributed to my not staying awake.
Hotel at Madurai
The hotel in Madurai was fantabulous. Ashverya was ecstatic. From the time she had planned to come to the yatra - piligrimage, her big concern was the room and board, and specifically the restrooms. The luxurious facility that we have reached put her mind to rest, and we had a bit of cheering before we eventually went to sleep.
Tomorrow, we have an early start to fly to Hyderabad.