Top 5 Places to Visit in Rameswaram, South India
Most overseas travellers visiting India are not followers of the Hindu faith, but many like to visit pilgrimage places to learn more about the religious culture and heritage of the country. Pilgrimage destinations usually have a certain peace and feel of spirituality about them, which makes them a relaxing place to spend some time, especially for older travellers who may find the hustle and bustle of Indian cities and towns somewhat overpowering.
One of the most holy pilgrimage destinations in India - second only to Varanasi - is Rameswaram, a Hindu pilgrim town situated in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. It is located on Pamban Island in the Palk Strait between southern India and northern Sri Lanka. It is mainly known for its magnificent temples and white beaches, but there are also many small fishing villages and other attractions that will appeal to nature lovers.
For visitors with at least 2-3 weeks to spare, Rameswaram can be easily incorporated into a South India tour itinerary being one of a dozen or so destinations, along with the Kerala backwaters, Pondicherry and Munnar that are most often recommended as the ‘must see’ places for first-time visitors to South India.
Although Rameswaram can become very busy with Hindu pilgrims, it’s also a very tourist-friendly town with many tea shops, cafes and other eating spots offering cheap and fresh seafood.
So if you are heading to Rameswaram (also spelled as Rameshwaram), here are five places that you should definitely include on your itinerary, however short or long your stay might be:
1. Ramanathaswamy Temple
There are many beautiful temples in Rameswaram that international visitors will find interesting to visit, but the Ramanathaswamy Temple in the middle of the city is the most popular. This temple is a part of the Char Dham pilgrimage places of the Hindus and one of the very few temples in Indiaÿthat were ever built in the Dravidian style of architecture. It is also known simply as the Rameswaram temple.
There is a beautiful hallway in this temple that is 1220 metres long with brilliantly carved pillars, which should not be missed on any visit to Rameswaram. It’s an awe-inspiring feeling to walk the length of this impressive hallway. Another highlight of this temple is its 22 wells spread through the complex.
Further away from the city is the Kothandaramaswamy Temple located at Dhanushkodi Beach towards the southern tip of Pamban Island. The walls of this temple have beautiful paintings that tell the story of the epic Indian poem of Ramayana. Located inside the grounds of the temple is a fig tree, known locally as Athi Maram, which is reputed to be one of the oldest trees in the world.
2. Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu
Rameswaram has another significant connection with Ramayana. It is the place where the monkey army of Sugriva (one of the kings of Kishkindha and ruler of Vanara) and Lord Rama supposedly built a bridge of floating stones to reach Sri Lanka. This bridge is today known as Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu.
Although scientists have determined that the ‘bridge’ is of geological origin and not man-made, it is nevertheless an interesting natural phenomenon that comprises a chain of limestone reefs that were was once above sea-level and could have indeed been used to cross from the sub-continent to Sri Lanka over 500 years ago.
Visitors who want to see Adam’s Bridge close up can join motorboat tours that take tourists out to the reefs and sandbars that comprise those parts of the ‘bridge’ that still exist above the water line. From the shore, not much can be seen these days, but it’s a very pleasant drive down to the Dhanushkodi Beach Point from where Adam’s Bridge commences, with the ocean on both sides of the road.
3. Agni Teertham
Located directly east of the Ramanathaswamy temple, and within walking distance, Agni Teertham (also spelled Agni Theertham) is another important holy place for Hindus. It is a beach from which devotees swim, with the belief that taking a dip in the ocean here will mitigate them of sins. It is one of 64 sacred bathing places of the Hindu religion in India, and receives a large number of domestic tourists each day.
For international visitors it can be fascinating to watch the crowds in the water, many of whom are fully dressed. However, this is not a beach for sunbathing and relaxing. Parts of the beach can be quite dirty and you may find you’ll be sharing the beach with a few cows and goats too.
For those looking for a more ‘holiday-type’ experience, Ariyamaan Beach back on the mainland, about 45 mins drive from Rameswaram, is much cleaner than any of the ‘holy’ beaches on Pamban Island. There are some nice resorts here, good seafood eating places, and a beach that is very safe for swimming due to its very gradual gradient.
4. Water Bird Sanctuary
Rameswaram is not only about temples and beaches but is also known for its picture-perfect landscape and a large waterbird sanctuary that makes it a hotspot for nature lovers. There are more than 450 water tanks and migratory birds flock here in huge numbers. Some of the most popular which can be seen here are ibis, storks, pelicans, herons and egrets.
If you are a bird watcher or bird photographer, you'll definitely want to include the bird sanctuary on your itinerary. Bring binoculars too, as well as a camera, to get the most out of your visit.
The Rameswaram bird sanctuary is best visited during the northeast monsoon season between October and January when the number of migratory birds is at its maximum.
5. Pamban Bridge
This last 'attraction' will automatically be on your itinerary because you will have to cross the Pamban Bridge to reach Rameswaram. There are actually two Pamban bridges over 2km long. One is the low-level Pamban Railway Bridge, which is over 100 years old, and the other is the high-level Pamban Road Bridge that opened in 1988 and took nearly 14 years to build. They join Pamban Island to the mainland and are both engineering marvels in their own right.
The Pamban Railway Bridge has an iconic steel girder section that opens up to let ships pass through. It can be photographed from the road bridge, but make sure you park your car prior to driving onto the bridge because the traffic police will impose large fines on drivers who stop their cars on the road bridge.
It might seem strange to list a road and rail bridge as a tourist attraction, but many visitors to Rameswaram say that the bridges were one of the most memorable places on their trip especially around sunrise or sunset when the sight of these great engineering achievements are viewed against a coloured sky.
How to reach Rameswaram
Rameswaram does not have its own airport. The nearest airport is at Madurai, about 150 km away. Frequent bus services are available down to Rameswaram, as well as from other major cities of Tamil Nadu. Hiring a car with a driver is a good idea because then you will have the flexibility to visit those attractions in and around Rameswaram that are not to well served by public transport (such as Adam’s Bridge).
Rameswaram is also well connected with the major cities of India by train. Arriving by train is a great way to see and photograph the Pamban Road Bridge from a unique angle.
Best time to visit Rameswaram
Although Rameswaram has a tropical climate and can be visited at any time of the year, the best time to visit is from October to April when temperatures are cooler - low 30s (°C) during the day and low to mid 20s during the night. At other times of the year visitors from temperate climates may find the tropical heat and humidity somewhat uncomfortable.
During the first part of this period there may be quite a lot of rain some afternoons, so do remember to bring an umbrella.
Where to stay in Rameswaram
On Pamban Island itself there is a wide range of accommodation available at very reasonable prices. More than 40 two to four-star hotels and resorts have rooms for between US$20 and US$60 per night for a couple.
On the mainland there are a number of three-star beach resorts along the Mandurai-Rameswaram Road that offer comfortable cabins for only US$20-30 per night, and air-conditioned rooms for around US$40-50 including breakfast.
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Header image: Dhanushkodi Beach, Rameswaram