Pilgrimage in South India – A trip through Madurai, Kanyakumari and Rameshwaram

Pilgrimage in South India - A trip through Madurai, Kanyakumari and Rameshwaram

In the first week of February, 2017 I had the chance to visit three popular pilgrimage destinations in South India – Madurai, Kanyakumari & Rameshwaram. All of these towns are located in the state of Tamil Nadu and share similar cultural environments. Specifically, Tamil is the local language and the available food options are quite similar across the three destinations. As I navigated through all the travel requisites from finalizing travel plans to booking hotels to finding good eateries while traveling, I realized that documenting my experiences might be of great help to the thousands of other Hindus who might be planning to visit these places in the near future. In order to keep this article focused, I am going to keep any historical and cultural information on the places we visited to a minimum and focus more on how you should plan the logistics for a trip through these places. First, some background.

Background – Starting from Bangalore

Vidhana Soudha Bangalore

I am based out of Bangalore, so this was a trip that we started and ended in Bangalore. I was traveling with my family in a group of four (two men and two women – me, my sister and my parents). Since my parents and my sister are based in other parts of India, they had all traveled to Bangalore a few days before we started on our way to Madurai. As part of the planning, we had explored all the different route options we could take from Bangalore and arrived at the conclusion that going to Madurai, Kanyakumari and Rameshwaram in that order made the most sense. Taking that route allowed us to travel on overnight trains all through. This ensured that daytimes were spent in visiting temples and other points of interest instead of being spent locked up in a moving train in the middle of nowhere.

In addition to this, we had to make train reservation almost 1½ months before the date of travel in order to get confirmed seats. If you are planning to travel by train (which I prefer over traveling by road anyday), I’d suggest you make bookings well in advance. Similarly, you should ideally make hotel bookings at these places 15 days before your date of stay – this might apply more strongly during peak season when there is a flood of pilgrims and tourists headed there. You must also communicate any special requirements directly to the hotel over the phone even though you might have made your booking online. We had to face a problem with early check-in at a hotel in Kanyakumari but fortunately it did not cause us too much pain.

Part 1: Madurai

We left Bangalore for Madurai on the night of 31st January 2017 through Vivek Express. The train departed Bangalore from the Bangalore City Junction railway station at around 9:00 pm and got us to Madurai at around 7.30 am on the 1st of February. As you can tell, we had intentionally timed this journey overnight so we didn’t end up wasting a day on a train. This is something we did repeatedly with all the other trains too during this trip.

Once at the Madurai railway station, we did not really feel the need to rush out to the hotel. It is important to call out that Madurai has very well maintained and clean platforms. If you want, you even have access to an AC waiting room for a nominal price of Rs. 10/- per person per hour irrespective of which type of train ticket you have booked. If the place had been shabby, we would have definitely rushed out of there but thankfully there was no need for that.

An_aerial_view_of_Madurai_city_from_atop_of_Meenakshi_Amman_temple

We spent about half an hour at the station just freshening up before exiting through Platform 1. As is the scene at most railway station exits in India, we were welcomed by a group of auto-rickshaw drivers who were waiting to swarm anybody and everybody they identify as a potential customer. As is the normal practice, we were first quoted a price of Rs. 100/- to get to Hotel Kathir Palace (which I had booked in advance) and after some negotiation and expression of disinterest from my side we were offered a price of Rs. 60/-. However, we decided instead to take an Ola to the hotel at a similar price of Rs. 65/- (Thankfully Ola has services in Madurai! Uber didn’t as of the date of our visit.)

I had booked only one double room in Madurai even though we were a group of four as we were not planning to stay there overnight. The man at the reception of Hotel Kathir Palace (named Thankaraj, if I got his name right) was very helpful and had recommended over phone that I book a double AC or a triple AC room as the double non-AC room would have been too small for four people even if you just wanted to rest for a bit. He was equally helpful once we arrived and made arrangements for an early check-in promptly. While Hotel Kathir Palace can in no way live up to the standards of International Hotels, I thought it was quite clean and well-maintained. The room and hotel interiors were clean and both of the hotel employees we interacted with were helpful. On the downside, if you are a picky customer you might have issues with the width of the corridor (there is not enough space for two people to walk side-by-side there!) or the arrangement within the room or the washroom. Overall, I’d still recommend the hotel in case you are looking for a clean but cheap option in Madurai. Additionally, it is located within walking distance of the Meenakshi Temple which is Madurai’s prime destination and that makes it a great place for a stay. There are, however, many other options that you can find online or book directly once you are there. Cabbies and auto drivers might be able to help you find a hotel in case you haven’t already made a booking in advance.

Meenakshi Temple

We left the hotel at around 10 am and on asking the receptionist at Hotel Kathir Palace were told that cameras were not allowed inside the premises of the Meenakshi temple though you could carry a mobile phone with you and click pictures using that. I still haven’t been able to see the merit in a rule like that, so I won’t ponder on it. However, I did leave my DSLR back in the hotel before leaving for Meenakshi temple on foot.

Given that the temple was at a distance of 200 meters from the hotel, it hardly took us five minutes to get to one of the temple’s entrances (The Meenakshi temple has four entrances facing four directions).

A street leading to the West Tower of the Meenakshi Temple

As this was not one of those times when large crowds visited the temple, we did not have a long queue to get into. We started walking to one side to find an entry into the metallic walls that line the temple and are used to control the flow of queues just like at most other temples in India. As we tried to find our way, we were approached by different shopkeepers who offered to store our footwear for free while we visited the temple. We considered their offer since we could not spot the place where the temple administration provided space to store footwear. However, we were a bit suspicious so we kept walking till we came across the entrance to the metallic wall and the security check.

Thankfully, the temple administration had provided for a free footwear storage service right at the entrance so we submitted our shoes and slippers there. We would also find out later from a local that the offer by the shopkeepers was a kind of marketing ploy where they would try to lure you into their shops after you had exited the temple and went back to them for your footwear. It’s not like you can’t say no to them later but you can totally avoid that situation altogether (and any arguing that it might involve) by using the free services provided by the temple administration. I have to call out that my sister was forced to use the locker room anyways because she was carrying a power bank with her and it turns out they do not let you carry that in. In case, I had carried my camera with me, I would have been asked to leave it in the locker room as well.

I do not really have much to say about the visit inside the temple because I feel it is better to just leave it some beautiful pictures I was able to take using my mobile phone which I was allowed to carry in without any checks or fees. On the whole, all of us totally loved the intricate architecture of the temple that had been made by hand centuries in the past.Intricate decorative work in the Meenakshi Temple
A view inside the compound of the Meenakshi Temple
Paintings of Hindu Goddesses on the ceiling inside the Temple
Devotees inside the Meenakshi TempleA view of the main compound of the Meenakshi Temple
One of the entrances to the Meenakshi TempleWomen worshipping an image of Lord Shani inside the temple

St. Mary’s Cathedral

After Meenakshi Temple, we walked back to our hotel (which, as I said, was hardly 200 meters away) and I got my camera from our room. All other tourist spots in Madurai other than the Meenakshi temple allow you to carry a camera with you though one or two of them might charge you extra to let you carry it in.

Leaving the hotel once again, we called a cab to take us to St. Mary’s cathedral which was about 2-2.5 kilometers away. It took us a fifteen minute ride to get dropped off inside the gate of the Cathedral. It was about 1 pm at this time.

A view of the St. Mary's Church from inside the compound

However, much to our disappointment we found out that the Cathedral was closed during the afternoon and the Father who managed the church opened it only at 5 pm in the evening. The security guard at the gate of the church told us that we could try requesting the Father to open it temporarily as we were coming from a different city. He was quite helpful and took us to the Father’s resting room where we were able to get permission to enter the church.

Images of Mother Mary and Jesus Christ behind the altar at St Mary's Church Interiors of the St. Mary's Church

After that, we spent another 15-20 minutes inside the church and then left for lunch. The road right opposite the church seemed to have a few clean eateries so thankfully we did not have to walk a lot under the gaze of the burning sun.

Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace

Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace is located within 200-300 meters of St. Mary’s Cathedral. Hence, we had to turn back from the restaurant where we had our lunch and find our way to the Palace. If I remember correctly, we had to purchase tickets worth Rs. 10/- per adult and a ticket worth Rs. 20/- for my DSLR in order to enter the Palace premises. Those nominal charges are worth playing because the interiors of the Palace are very cleanly maintained. Note that these are charges for ‘Indian citizens’ only.

A front view of Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace taken from the entrance point A side view of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace in Madurai

In case you happen to visit the Palace in the evening, they also have a ‘dancing light event’ that you can watch in the open. Notice the rows of chairs in the pics below where this event takes place. In case you do not want to stay back for this, I’d recommend visiting the place before 5 pm in the evening. Account for about 1-2 hours that you’d want to spend walking around the open spaces of the Palace while observing the highly intricate and colorful architecture.

A view of the entrance inside the Palace that leads to a Museum of ancient art A throne placed in the main area of the Palace Wide pillars that hold the decorative ceiling at the Palace Sturdy pillars at the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace
Intricate architecture adorns the ceiling at the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace in Madurai

Another side view of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace One of the corridors at the PalaceDecorative sculpture and architecture on the ceiling of the Palace Decorative art on the ceiling of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace in Madurai Decorative art on the ceiling of the palace in Madurai Inside the museum of ancient art at the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace in MaduraiAncient art is on display at a musuem within the compound of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace in Madurai

The Palace is also a great place if you just want to spend some time sitting in the shade and the cool interiors. As a bonus, I personally felt that this was the most photogenic place of all the destinations we visited in Madurai. So come prepared to click hundreds of pictures.

Koodal Alagar Temple

At around 4 pm in the evening, we exited the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace, and left for the next destination on our list – Koodal Alagar Temple. We walked back to the St. Mary’s Cathedral before calling for the cab as it seemed like a good landmark to help the driver find us easily.

Another 15 minute ride and we were at the last destination for the day. Just like the Meenakshi temple, there were arrangements at the Koodal Alagar temple for visitors to store their footwear for free. However, this time there was no person manning the stall. We left the footwear there ourselves and entered the temple.

Koodal Alagar Temple in Madurai features intricate art on its rooftop Intricate artwork on the exteriors of the Koodal Alagar Temple Colorful artwork at the Koodal Alagar Temple in Madurai

The temple is divided into two distinct parts – one dedicated to the male deity (Vishnu) and another to the female deity (Lakshmi). While I did carry my camera into the temple premises, a couple security guards stationed at the entrance specifically mentioned that clicking pictures inside the temple was not allowed. I told them I would switch off my camera and would not click any pictures (and I didn’t). However, I did get a chance to take a couple pictures of the temple exteriors which you can see below.

Other Destinations in Madurai

We were aware of a couple other destinations in Madurai that are of interest to tourists – the Gandhi Memorial Museum and the Pazhamudir Solai Murugan temple. However, both of these were located quite far away from where we were so we decided not to include them in our plans. One important call out here is that Google Maps seems to locate Pazhamudir Solai within walking distance of the Koodal Alagar temple for some reason but the actual location is about 20-25 kilometers away. In case you do want to visit these two locations as well, you might have to add another half-a-day to your schedule in Madurai.

Part 2: Kanyakumari

We left Madurai on the night of 1st February. We boarded the Punalur Passenger (train no. 56700) that was scheduled to drop us at Nagercoil Junction Railway station at around 4:30 am on the 2nd of February. Nagercoil is located about 15-20 kilometers away from Kanyakumari and is the best alternative if you cannot find a direct train to Kanyakumari at a suitable time.

We were all quite tired from the day spent in Madurai and had fallen asleep in our seats within 15 minutes of boarding the train. We were so tired, in fact, that we almost did not de-board the train at Nagercoil! One of us woke up after the train had halted there – thanks to the noise of some tea-sellers – and then we all got down in a rush, half asleep.

We then spent an hour at Nagercoil Railway Station freshening up and trying to find ways to get to Kanyakumari from there. We identified two options – one was to take an auto-rickshaw that would get us there in Rs. 300/- and the other was to take a passenger train from Nagercoil to Kanyakumari railway station (Rs. 45/- per person in the General compartment). Since we had already waited there for an hour and it was only 5 am in the morning, we decided to wait some more and take the train as it was clearly the more convenient option. We bought tickets in the general compartment after being told that it would mostly be empty anyways as this was not the peak season for tourism in Kanyakumari. We boarded the train around 6:00 am and in twenty minutes the train had taken from Nagercoil to Kanyakumari.

In Kanyakumari, we had booked a couple rooms in Hotel New Cape which is located within 500 meters from the railway station. While we were once again greeted outside the station by a familiar group of auto-rickshaw drivers, we navigated our way past them and simply walked down to the hotel dragging our trolley bags behind us.

We checked into our rooms within thirty minutes and then went up to the terrace of the hotel to look at the rising sun. Witnessing the rising sun is, in fact, one of the most popular events that you must witness while in Kanyakumari. As you will see later, visiting the Sunrise point in the morning is the best way to be a part of this experience.

A very important thing to note is that pretty much all the destinations you might want to visit in Kanyakumari are within walking distance of each other and you won’t really need to hire an auto-rickshaw if you are comfortable walking 4-5 kilometers during the course of the day. Now let’s get to the various places that you should check-out while in Kanyakumari.

Gandhi Mandapam (Gandhi Memorial)

Gandhi Mandapam is a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi and is located along the seashore. We walked our hotel to Gandhi Mandapam at around 11 am in the morning. I have personally read Gandhi’s autobiography so I did not learn anything particularly new from my visit here. However, if you haven’t had the chance to learn about Gandhi from other sources, you might learn about some highlights of his life through the collection of pictures here. It’s a good place to visit with children to help them learn about the history and life of the Father of our nation.

The main floor of the Gandhi Mandapam in Kanyakumari

The entry to Gandhi Mandapam is free except for nominal charges you might have to pay to store your footwear. The premises are also well-maintained and you can get a clear and direct view of Kanyakumari’s main attractions – Vivekananda Rock and Thiruvalluvar Statue – from the upper floors of Gandhi Mandapam. This makes it particularly great to click pictures. There is also a blue-colored building located right next fo the Gandhi Mandapam – this is the Kamarajar Memorial. It is dedicated to K. Kamaraj, a former leader of the Indian National Congress.

A view of the seashore from the first floor of Gandhi Mandapam Thiruvalluvar Statue, Tsunami Memorial Park and Triveni Sangam as seen from the Gandhi Mandapam

Triveni Sangam

Triveni Sangam is a short walk from the Gandhi Mandapam. It is an edge on the shore with the floor made of stone. Getting to the Triveni Sangam involves walking through the local markets which mostly consist of small fancy, plastic and memorabilia stores and specialty food stalls. Triveni Sangam is a good place to sit quietly by the sea for a bit. Just like the Gandhi Memorial, it has a direct view of the Vivekananda Rock and the Tiruvalluvar Statue. While, we visited this spot in the afternoon initially, we did return to it in the evenings just to pass our free time.

A view of the Thiruvalluvar Statue from Triveni Sangam A view of the surroundings of Triveni Sangam in Kanyakumari A view of the sea from Triveni Sangam

Tsunami Memorial Park

Located right next to the Triveni Sangam is the Tsunami Memorial Park. The park has a sculpture located at its center representing the pain and destruction caused by the tsunami which hit the shores of Kanyakumari in December, 2004. I personally did not feel that the park was very well maintained. There is not much to do there except to pay a passing glance to the sculpture at the center.

Bhagavathy Amman Temple

By the time we were done visiting Gandhi Mandapam, Triveni Sangam and Tsunami Memorial Park it was around 1 pm in the afternoon. We considered visiting the Bhagavathy Amman Temple (located very close to Gandhi Mandapam and the other places we visited earlier) but were told that it was closed in the afternoon and would reopen around 4 pm. So we decided to return to the hotel to rest. We had lunch at a restaurant on the way back and were back at the hotel by 2 pm. We left the hotel in the evening at around 5 pm to visit the temple.

While the hotel staff told us that cameras were allowed inside the temple, we found out after getting inside that that was not the case. I had to hand-over my camera to a person from the staff who kept it in storage for a cost of Rs. 10/- while we went around the temple. There is, however, space to store footwear outside the temple for free.

One important practice in the temple is that men are only allowed to enter the main temple of Goddess Bhagavathy bare-chested. You are expected to hold your shirt in your hands or in a bag as you go inside the temple. Representatives of the temple administration will be present to remind you of this.

At the time of our visit, the crowd at the temple was quite thin so it hardly took us 30 minutes for the darshan. After that we spent some time in the local markets just checking out what was on offer from kitchen utensils to fashion accessories to spices. At around 6.30 pm we decided to visit ‘Our Lady of Ransom Shrine’ which is a church located close to our hotel. It is about 900 meters by walk from the Bhagavathy Amman temple.

Our Lady of Ransom Shrine

We arrived at the shrine around 7:00 pm in the evening when a prayer was taking place. As it was already dark, we did not really get a chance to click any pictures outside the church. We entered the church premises and observed the evening prayer ceremony for a few minutes before leaving for dinner.

A morning view from the terrace of Hotel New Cape in Kanyakumari

As we had not had a great experience with food during lunch, we decided to hunt for a better restaurant for dinner. We discovered a Punjabi dhaba off near Hotel Sea View where we had dinner for the day. Then we headed back to the hotel with small halts in between checking out the local shops.

Sunrise Point

On the second day of our stay in Kanyakumari (4th February 2017), we woke up early in the morning at around 6:00 am and headed out to the Sunrise point. Our hotel had a board at the reception where the daily expected sunrise time was mentioned but you can always find out the expected sunrise time through a quick search on Google. Alternatively, I believe most of the hotels would have similar arrangements to help you find the time of sunrise on a given day.

The sunrise point is located right next to the Bhagavathy Amman temple and was decently crowded at that time of day. While, some people were clearly visiting tourists, there were also locals who seemed busy doing Yoga (Surya-namaskar in specific). Thankfully, it was not very chilly at the time as otherwise the wind would have made it unbearably cold.

A large number of people gather in the mornings at the Sunrise Point in KanyakumariA view of the Vivekananda Rock and the Thiruvalluvar Statue from the Sunrise PointAn image of the rising Sun as seen from the Sunrise Point near the Bhagavathy Amman Temple in Kanyakumar

We spent some time clicking pics of the rising sun and generally watching what was happening around the place. Then we headed back to the hotel at 7:00 am and got ready for our visit to the two key destinations in Kanyakumari – Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiruvalluvar Statue.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial & Thiruvalluvar Statue

We left the hotel and walked to the boat jetty from where ferries leave at regular intervals taking tourists to Vivekananda Rock Memorial which is located on an island disconnected from the shore. There are two categories of tickets available and we took the cheaper option which was priced at Rs. 34/- per person for a trip back and forth between Vivekananda Rock and the mainland. Here’s a pic of the boat that we boarded. The trip by boat itself is not very long and takes hardly ten minutes in one direction. I would recommend that you visit the place in the earlier part of the day as it is relatively cooler at the time. The heat in the afternoon very likely makes it a relatively uncomfortable experience.

The ferry that takes tourists back and forth between the mainland and the Vivekanand Memorial

Once you alight the boat on the Vivekananda rock, you have to once again leave your footwear at a kiosk and purchase tickets to enter the premises of the memorial. The ticket are nominally priced at Rs. 20/- per head for Indian citizens. The Vivekananda Rock offers a wonderful view of the mainland with colorful houses lining the shore. You also get a close-up view of Thiruvallyvar statue though I did not see any arrangement to travel closer to the tall statue itself.

Most of the time here was spent walking through the 2-3 buildings which are part of the memorial. Photography is not allowed inside any of these buildings but you can click pictures outside them if you want. One of the buildings houses a giant statue of Vivekananda while another has a dark and quiet meditation room.

The main building of the Vivekananda Memorial taken from within the island Stairs leading to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial off the coast in Kanyakumari A view of the Thiruvalluvar Statue as seen from the Vivekananda Rock Memorial A view of the mainland from the Vivekananda Rock Memorial island A close-up view of the Vivekananda Rock MemorialA view of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiruvallvar Statue in the evening

Overall, we spent about 1.5-2 hours at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial as we did not have many other things to do for the rest of the day. Then we headed back to the long queue and waited for the ferry which took us back to the mainland.

After having lunch, we once again receded to our hotel and rested for a bit before starting to pack up for the next course of our trip in Rameshwaram. However, I did have enough time on my hands to visit one more place in Kanyakumari – Mayapuri Wonder Wax Musuem.

Mayapuri Wonder Wax Museum

Mayapuri Wonder Wax Musuem is located right across the road from the hotel where we were staying (Hotel New Cape). We purchased a couple tickets to the place at a price of Rs. 160/- per person. The museum is divided into three parts – a 9D movie theater, a Room with 3D paintings on the walls and a series of wax statues of a few popular personalities.

It took us about 45 minutes to go through the entire place. Cameras are allowed inside the premises and we were able to click some nice pictures with the wax statues and the 3D paintings. I personally thought that while some of the wax statues seemed realistic, a few others weren’t. Specifically, wax statues of western personalities (Johnny Depp in his Jack Sparrow avatar, Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Terminator avatar, Bruce Willis from Die Hard and others) seemed to be more accurate than their Indian counterparts (Amitabh Bachchan, APJ Abdul Kalam and Manmohan Singh). In total, the museum had about 12-15 wax statues. The staff at the museum also gave us a few props that we used to click pictures with the wax statues.

Images of APJ Abdul Kalam and Manmohan Singh at Mayapuri Wax Musuem in Kanyakumari A wax image of Bruce WillisA wax image of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan at Mayapuri Wander Wax Museum in Kanyakumari
Arnold Schwarzenegger's wax image at the Wax Musuem in Kanyakumari

Other destinations in Kanyakumari & Nagercoil

While we intentionally restricted ourselves to destinations near the Bhagavathy Amman Temple in Kanyakumari, there are a few other tourist spots closer to Nagercoil that you can also visit. These include but are not limited to Padmanabhapuram Palace, Thanumalayan Temple and Mathur Aqueduct. You might have to add one additional day to your travel plans in order to cover these places.

Overall 1½-3 days are sufficient to cover almost all the spots you might want to visit in and around Kanyakumari. Plan in advance if possible and adjust your travel plans based on the number of places you want to visit.

Part 3: Rameshwaram

We took an overnight train from Kanyakumari on the 3rd of February 2017 and arrived in Rameshwaram on the morning of 4th February (around 6:00 am). We spent an hour at the railway station once again freshening up and having breakfast before leaving for Hotel Blue Star which we had booked in advance. Unfortunately, rooms were not available at the hotel for early check-in so we had to wait at the reception for a bit. I believe that this was because the 4th of February was a Saturday and hence had a larger demand for hotel rooms. We were given a room by 10:00 am and spent a couple hours taking bath and getting ready to visit the Ramanathaswamy Temple which was located about 300-400 meters from our hotel. Neither mobile phones nor cameras are allowed inside the temple so we left all our electronics in the hotel room before leaving for the shrine.

Ramanathaswamy Temple

One of the main rituals in the Ramanathaswamy temple involves walking to 22 wells located around the temple where a priest pours a bucket of water on your head symbolizing a holy bath. We chose to skip this altogether and directly enter the main shrine for a darshan of Lord Shiva followed by a visit to the other key shrine in the temple that houses a representation of Goddess Parvathy.

In case you wish to participate in the holy bathing ritual, you have to purchase a ticket worth Rs. 25/- and representatives from the temple administration will help you navigate to the 22 points around the temple. After that you can get into the queue to the shrines of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathy respectively. In addition, there are other temples dedicated to the triad of Lord Rama, his wife Sita and his younger brother Lakshmana as well as temples dedicated to Lord Hanuman besides other deities.

View of the Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameshwaram from the surrounding streets The entrance to the Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameshwaram

Given we skipped the bathing ritual, we were able to complete all darshans in the Ramanathaswamy Temple in about an hour. Following that we headed out to visit the market near-by and also visited the Agni Teertham which is one of the many holy bathing spots in the vicinity of the main shrine.

Local markets in Rameshwaram sell unique accessories, sea shells and more

Villoondi Theertham Beach & Shiva Temple

By the time we got back from the Ramanathaswamy Temple, it was about 2 pm. We had lunch and then took a break from the tiring schedule in the comfort of our hotel rooms.

We stepped out again at around 4.30 pm with the intention of visiting the Villoondi Theertham Beach which is located about eight kilometers from the Ramanathaswamy Temple.

We enquired with a couple auto-drivers for a trip to the beach and one of them offered to take us there and also show us a couple other spots – a temple and India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam’s memorial on the way. In order to skip the inconvenience of having to hire auto-rickshaws at each spot separately we decided to go ahead with this offer for a price of Rs. 300/-. In hindsight, we overpaid the driver as the temple that he promised to take us to was closed by the time we got there and President Kalam’s memorial that he mentioned was under construction. The funny part was that at the latter site, he just stopped the vehicle on the side of the road for a couple seconds and pointed a finger in the direction of the construction site saying that was the under-construction memorial. It was obviously a bad deal for us, but we did learn a lesson that would help us with booking visits the following day.

That said, we spent a good 45 minutes to an hour at the Villoondi Theertham beach. The beach has a well which lies right at the sea-shore at the end of a wooden cantilever bridge. It is believed that Lord Rama had created the well when his wife Sita was thirsty. According to our auto driver (who was also our guide at the time), the well has sweet water to date even though it lies right next to the sea. He advised us to visit a small temple of Lord Shiva where the priest would give us a bucket and rope to extract water from the well which we were supposed to drink a bit and then sprinkle the remaining water on our head.

Villoondi Theetham Beach in Rameswaram

We visited the temple and as instructed extracted water from the well but found it to be salty. However, it has its own importance as a religious spot. The best part about visiting this beach was that there were hardly any people there so we had the entire beach to ourselves. Though the beach was dirty, we had ample time to collect sea-shells and wet our feet in sea water.

After an hour spent on the windy beach, we headed back to our hotel to rest and prepare for the next day which was also the last day of our trip.

Day 2 in Rameshwaram – Tour Packages for Dhanuskodi

The plan on the last day of our trip of South India was to visit the Dhanushkodi Beach in Rameshwaram. Some locals claimed that one can see the coastline of Sri Lanka from the edge of the beach but we also came across many skeptics who said that this was just a marketing ploy and there was not much to see there except for a narrow beach with water on both sides of a strip of sand.

We spoke to a couple men who helmed the ‘Tours & Travels’ shops near our hotel. They quoted an initial price of Rs. 1200 for a round trip to Dhanushkodi in a private cab (Omni). In addition, they mentioned that there were standard tempo services available at the beach where at a price of Rs. 150/- per head a tempo would take you to the edge of the beach and back. The travel agent also promised that the private cab would also take us to a few other spots in Rameshwaram that we had not visited yet – Vibhishan Temple (near Dhanushkodi), Ram Kund, Sita Kund and Lakshman Kund (near Ramanathaswamy Temple) etc. – within the quoted price of Rs. 1200/-.

After that, we also checked with a couple auto drivers who made similar round trip offers at a lower price of Rs. 800/- in addition to the Rs. 150/- per head that we would have to pay to the tempo at Dhanushkodi separately anyways. The price of Rs. 800/- included waiting at Dhanushkodi for an hour or so till we returned from the trip on the tempo.

As we tried to negotiate with a couple other auto-drivers, we came across one who very bluntly said that the tempo trip at Dhanushkodi was not worth the money. He offered to take us to Dhanuskodi and back in addition to all the other spots for a price of Rs. 600/- if we chose to skip taking the tempo trip. We could, however, walk around Dhanushkodi for some time. By this time, we had realized that everybody was offering pretty much the same package and it was just a matter of proper negotiation. Because we were not very interested in the tempo tour at Dhanushkodi anyways, we booked this auto for a price of Rs. 550/-. The deal was that he would take us to the twelve spots that you see in the picture below. However, while the pic identifies twelve spots the trip is more about stopping at 5-6 spots as some of the destinations are located right next to each other.

The list of spots in Rameshwaram that we visited in an auto

Ram Zaruka & Shakshi Hanuman

Personally, I would identify Ram Zaruka as one of the spots in Rameshwaram that you should definitely visit. It is a temple located on the top of a small hill and offers a view of the whole of Rameshwaram including the Ramanathaswamy temple. There is a small market on the entrance to the temple in case you want to purchase small and cheap accessories.

The Shakshi Hanuman temple is located on the road leading out of Ram Zaruka is rather inconspicuous. It is a very small temple that you would hardly notice unless somebody pointed it out to you! Visit it for its historical and religious importance but do not expect to be wowed by its construction or architecture.

Vibhishana Temple

After leaving from the Ram Zaruka temple, we headed towards Dhanuskodi. Some distance before Dhanuskodi, however, we took a detour to visit the beautiful Vibhishan Temple which is built in honor of Vibhishan – the brother of King Ravana who was defeated and killed by Lord Rama. The central deity of the temple is Lord Rama, but it is called the Vibhishan temple as it is believed that this is the spot where Vibhishan asked Lord Rama for his refuge. More than anything else, it is the scenic location of the temple that makes it a major tourist attraction in Rameshwaram. As you can see on any map of Rameshwaram below, it is almost located in the middle of the sea with a thin road leading to it.

The road leading to the Vibhishana Temple in Rameshwaram. It is also known as the Kothandaramaswamy Temple.

We spent about 30-45 minutes at the Vibhishan temple clicking beautiful pictures and hanging by the beach side before getting back on the road leading to Dhanuskodi.

Dhanuskodi

The Dhanuskodi beach is located about 19-20 kilometers away from the Ramanathaswamy temple. The extreme edge of the beach also known as the Dhanuskodi Point is the identified as the point where the distance between India and Sri Lanka is at its shortest.

A view at the Dhanushkodi Beach in Rameshwaram A tempo service is available at the Dhanushkodi Beach and shuttles people to the 'ruins of Dhanushkodi' and back A view from the pier at the Dhanushkodi Beach A view of the seashore from the pier in Dhanushkodi Dhanushkodi Beach in Rameshwaram People walk along the Dhnushkodi Beach as waves of the sea break on the shore

Near the Dhnuskodi Point, also lie the ruins of the village of Dhanuskodi which was abandoned after a cyclone in 1964 brought death and destruction to the place. The ‘ruins of the village’ have become a tourist spot themselves. Tempo buses are available from the drop off point at the beach at a price of Rs. 150/- per head as mentioned earlier. The tempo operators claim that they take you to the edge of the beach to Dhanuskodi point and also pass by the ruins of the Dhanuskodi village in the process. We chose to skip the tempo tour as some locals we spoke to told us that there was nothing exceptional to see.

The sea and the seashore at the Dhanushkodi Beach in Rameshwaram A distant view of a pier at the Dhanushkodi Beach A pier at the Dhanushkodi Beach in Rameshwaram

Instead, we just hung out in the exterior parts of the beach to click some of the pictures you see here.

Ram Kund, Ram Mandir & Radhakrishna Mandir

Having visited Dhanuskodi, we returned towards our hotel and the Ramanathaswamy temple to visit the remaining spots that were part of the tour. We realized that most of the remaining spots were located within walking distance of our hotel so we could visit them again by walk at a later point if we wanted.

Ram Kund, Ram Mandir and Radhakrishna Mandir are located right next to each other. None of the three places were particularly crowded at the time of our visit so we were able to visit them all within 20 minutes or so. They were the first set of temples we visited on the way back from Dhanuskodi.

Ram Kund in Rameshwaram An image of the Ram Mandir in Rameshwaram

Lakshman Kund

The Lakshman Kund is located next to a temple dedicated to Lakshmana – the brother of Lord Rama. A quick 10 minute stop is sufficient to visit the place.

An image of Lakshman Kund in Rameshwaram

Panchmukhi Hanuman / Jai Hanuman Temple

The Panchmukhi Hanuman temple is named thus after an idol of lord Hanuman that represents him with 5 heads – hence the name ‘Panch-mukhi’ meaning ‘five-headed’. A unique feature of the temple if the presence of a floating stone in the temple. From what I could understand, the ‘floating stone’ in this context was a piece of pumice rock suspended in water. Small pieces of pumice rock are also available for purchase from the temple.

The Panchmukhi Hanuman Temple features a unique black colored and five-faced idol of Lord Hanuman

After visiting the Panchmukhi Hanuman temple, we returned to our hotel to have lunch and take rest for a few hours. The auto driver we had hired was kind enough to show us directions to the ‘House of APJ Abdul Kalam’. It was only about 500 meters from our hotel so we decided to visit it in the evening.

House of Kalam & Kalam Arcade (The house of President APJ Abdul Kalam)

House of Kalam is a museum/gallery that recounts the various highlights of the life of India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam who rose from a poor background in Rameshwaram to the position of the President of the world’s most populous democracy. He was also a very eminent scientist who vision of India in 2020 has inspired millions in our country.

A view of the House of Kalam - a musuem dedicated to APJ Abdul Kalam - from the street

There is no entry fee to the gallery but you have the option of purchasing memorabilia from the shop on the top floor of the building in order to make a contribution. This is a good place to visit after 5 pm in the evening once the sun is down and the crowds have thinned.

Other spots in Rameshwaram

One of the other popular destinations in Rameshwaram is the Pamban bridge which connects Rameshwaram to mainland India. It consists of a road and railway bridge. While, you can always visit the bridge separately, our travel plans included taking a bus from Rameshwaram to Madurai which would take us along the bridge anyways so we intentionally skipped planning for it separately.

Here are some pictures I was able to take while passing the bridge in a bus.

A image of the sea from the Pamban Bridge in Rameshwaram Boats spread over the sea in an image taken from the Pamban Bridge in Rameshwaram

Part 4: Returning from Rameshwaram to Bangalore

I could not find any direct trains from Rameshwaram to Bangalore at the time of our trip. So we decided to take a bus to Madurai from Rameshwaram and then take a train from there.

Unfortunately, there are only standard non-AC buses operating between Rameshwaram to Madurai so that significantly limits the options available to you. You can always hire a cab but that will obviously be costlier. We took a bus in the evening in order to avoid the afternoon heat. It cost us Rs. 100/- per head to get to the new bus stand in Madurai which is located about 7-8 kilometers away from the railway station.

Finally, we had dinner near the Madurai Bus Stand and then took a bus to the railway station where we had to wait for a couple hours for our train back to Bangalore. At around 11:55 pm on the night of 6th February 2017 we boarded the Bangalore Express (Train no. 17236) at Madurai and arrived in Bangalore at 9 am the next day.

Overall, this was a quick trip that we could have squeezed down to one day lesser if we had wanted to but I am glad we didn’t. Our schedule gave us just about sufficient time to explore all the places we wanted to explore while at the same time allowing us sufficient rest so that we could all get back to life as usual on our return home.

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