Sailing up the coast from Kanya Kumari, we enter the Gulf of Mannar.
At the entrance to the Gulf of Mannar, on the mainland, is the seaside town of Tiruchendur. A huge temple of Lord Subrahmanya, or Muruga, stands facing the shore. It is one of the six abodes of Subrahmanya and the only one built on unelevated land. The original temple, constructed over a thousand years ago, was replaced three centuries back by a massive nine-storeyed structure.
Pilgrims come to the temple with 'kavadis' containing offerings for the lord.
Some kilometres to the north of Tiruchendur is Tutukudi or Tuticorin. It was declared India's 10th major port on July 11, 1974. Thus Tamil Nadu became the only state in the country with two major ports. The harbour here is man-made and can function in all weather. To its north and south are two breakwaters - walls built out into the sea to protect the harbour from the force of the waves. The breakwater in the north (4096 m) is the second-longest in the world.
Pearls from India were valued from ancient times. Most of the pearls that were sent out to Rome and other distant countries in the 2nd century were obtained from the Gulf of Mannar. Tuticorin is still a pearl trading centre. It is better known, though, for its salt factories, fertilizer, heavy water and thermal plants.
The sacred island city of Rameswaram lies north of the Gulf of Mannar. It is one of the four 'dhams' of Hindu pilgrimage (Badrinath, Dwaraka and Jagannath Puri being the other three). All devout Hindus cherish the hope of being able to see Rameswaram atleast once in their lifetime. The island is associated with events and episodes of the Ramayana.
Rameswaram was named after Sri Rama, who is said to have consecrated a linga here to atone for the sin of having killed Ravana, who was of Brahmin descent. To worship Siva, Rama asked Hanuman to fetch a linga from Kailas. Hanuman sped away and was gone for a long time. The auspicious hour for performing the rites drew near and there was no sign of Hanuman. Finally Sita decided they could wait no longer and made a linga out of sand. Hanuman was terribly upset to find this when he returned.
Rama told him to remove the consecrated linga and replace it with the one he had brought. But however hard he tried to pull it out, the linga just wouldn't budge. Rama then suggested to Hanuman that he place the linga that he had brought by the side of the consecrated one, promising him that all pujas would be offered to it first. Even today pilgrims worship the 'Kasi Viswanatha Ramanathaswamy linga', the one installed by Hanuman, before the 'Rama linga'.
In the 15th century, King Udayana, belonging to the Sethupati royal family, built the Ramanathaswamy temple at the place where Rama is believed to have worshipped Siva.
The temple has a 1,200 m long corridor with a thousand elaborately carved pillars. It is the longest single corridor in India.
Besides Hindus, Sikhs also regard Rameswaram as a holy place as it was visited by their 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh. Besides being a place of pilgrimage, Rameswaram is of great interest to marine biologists, who come here to study the fascinating creatures living in the coral reefs that surround the island.
At the southeast tip of Rameswaram, lies Dhanushkodi. It is hardly a stone's throw from Sri Lanka. Dhanushkodi means 'Rama's bow'. The gently curving shape of the shoreline here does indeed suggest a bow. The Kodhandaramasvami temple, dedicated to Rama, has idols of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Ravana's brother Vibhishana. It stands at the place where Vibhishana is said to have surrendered to Rama.
Close to the island of Rameswaram is a chain of sandbanks known as Adam's Bridge. It is believed to be the bridge that Rama built to cross over to Lanka. Geological evidence suggests that this is all that remains of a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. This causeway, more than 30 m long, is a serious hindrance to navigation. From Rameswaram, we sail across Palk Bay and finally cross the Palk Strait to emerge into the Bay of Bengal. Flamingos flap across the sky as one approaches Kodikkarai or Point Calimere. A variety of birds can be seen at the bird sanctuary here.
Vedaranyam, a coastal town close to Kodikkarai, gained historical importance after C. Rajagopalachari, who later became the Governor General of independent India, led the salt satyagraha here during the country's struggle for freedom.
Vedaranyam is also known for its Siva temple, where the idols of Siva and Parvati are clad in their wedding attire. It was here that Siva is said to have appeared to Sage Agastya in the form in which he married Parvati at Kailas. Hence Vedaranyam is also called 'Dakshina Kailasam'.