Pilgrimage to Ramanathapuram

Pilgrimage to Ramanathapuram

by Swami Atmashraddhananda[1]

Towards Ramnad

From Rameswaram, we reached Ramnad town (also called Ramanathapuram), the district headquarters of Ramnad district. Ramnad town is some 70 kms from Rameshwaram. The road to Ramnad has a sea-side view at the beginning and a rural setting later. After crossing the Pambanbridge, we passed through Mandapam. It is a small village, almost at the edge of the mainland. Mandapam means a canopy. It could also mean a temporary shelter or an inn (dharmshala/choultry). Over the centuries, the Sethupathy Rajas have built a number of such Mandapams in many parts of Tamilnadu for the pilgrims coming from various parts of India to Rameshwaram. In these Mandapams there used to be facilities for providing accommodation and cooked food or provisions for cooking for the pilgrims. A good part of coastal Tamilnadu around Rameshwaram is traditionally called as SethuBhumi or Sethunadu.

After an hour’s drive, we reached Ramnad town. Despite a bumpy drive in some places, it was a pleasant experience. We had our host, Sri GokulKannan, awaiting us with a better vehicle for visiting various places in and around Ramnad. He and his friend happily accompanied us to all places.

Visit to the Ramnad Palace

Our first destination in Ramnad town was Ramnad Palace, the palace belonging to Sethupathis, the dynasty that ruled Rameshwaram area for centuries. Ramalinga Vilas Palace, as it is called, is located in a rather busy stretch of the Ramnad town. According to an old tradition, pilgrims to Rameshwaram would consider their pilgrimage incomplete unless they visited the RamalingaVilasam Palace—a kind of tribute paid to the kings who looked after the Rameshwaram temple.

At the Palace, we first met, as planned earlier, Sri Raja KumaranSethupathi, the scion the Sethupathis. We had fixed an appointment with him a week before we started our journey. Rani Lakshmi Nachiar, wife of Sri KumaranSethupathi, had invited us to join them for lunch. We met Sri KumaranSethupathi in the big hall in their living quarters. He received us cordially and recalled his family’s association with Swami Vivekananda. During the course of our conversations, he told us that as he is associated with the Rameshwaram Temple Trust, he had tried to locate the golden leaves with which the Holy Mother had worshipped in the Rameshwaram Temple but could not find them. It is quite difficult to say anything, he opined, about their where abouts now. Sri KumaranSethupathi then sent a person with us to show us around the adjacent RamalingaVilasam Palace, or the old Durbar hall.

Built some three centuries ago, during the reign of KizhavanSethupathi, RamalingaVilasam Palace consists of a Durbar Hall and an impressive dwelling area (where the present royal family resides). The murals found in the building reflect the times of the Sethupathi Kings, scenes depicting their battles with the Maratha kings of Thanjavur, and their European contacts are quite exquisite.

Swami Vivekananda visited the Palace in 1897, and also, perhaps, earlier in 1892/3 [there is no record of it, though]. While passing by Rameshwaram in June 1899 in a ship, Swami Vivekananda wrote in his Memoirs of European Travels:

‘In front of us is Colombo. Here we have Sinhal— Lanka. ShriRamachandra crossed over to Lanka by building a bridge across and conquered Ravana, her King. Well, I have seen the bridge, and also, in the palace of the Setupati Maharaja of Ramnad, the stone slab on which BhagavanRamachandra installed his ancestor as Setupati for the first time. But the Buddhist Ceylonese of these sophisticated times will not admit They say that in their country there is not even a tradition to indicate it. But what matters their denial? Are not our old books’ authorities enough?’

As to ‘the stone slab’ which Swamijirefers to, we saw it, throne- like, in a corner of the Palace. We were told that the slab is used during the coronation and other important events connected with the royal family.

The Ramnad Palace is a two-storied building, with a large courtyard in the front. The Durbar Hall has a row of circular pillars in the centre. On either side are displayed the portraits and photographs of Sethupathi Kings, their weapons and other memorabilia. After the main hall, one gets into a small hall like place where the Rajas used to sit. Beneath the royal canopy, now are placed small figurines of Lord Rama, Sita, Laxmana and Hanuman. On the walls of the Palace are many paintings and colourful murals, with a generous use of red colour. The same can be seen on the first floor of the Palace. The Sethupatis were great lovers of art and music, and, it is believed that they tried to replicate the Konark art in their Palace paintings. The entrance arch of the Palace is a huge structure, big enough for elephants and chariots to enter freely. The Palace is under the care of Archaeological Survey of India who carried out extensive repairs and restoration work after taking it over in 1970s.

In passing we may recall an interesting anecdote connected with Holy Mother’s visit to Rameshwaram in 1911:

‘We went to Rameswar. Shashi [Swami Ramakrishnananda] had made all arrange¬ments for the puja—he had made one hundred and eight golden bilva leaves for me to worship. I did puja with those leaves. The Raja of Ramnad had sent a wire: “The Guru of Gurus, Parama Guru, is coming, make all arrangements. Open the treasury and show.” What a wonderful thing it was! A dim light was there. The whole room was shining. The Raja had given instructions to the effect that if Mother needed anything from the Treasury, it should be given to her immediately as a present.  Mother was embarrassed at this. Lest the Raja or his people feel offended, she told, “I don’t need anything. If Radhu[2]wants, she can take.” Looking at everything, Radhu said, “What can I take? I have lost my pencil, please get me one!” Mother had prayed to Thakur[3]that no desire should arise in Radhu’s mind.’

 Three Important Places

As we were to board the train to Chennai in the evening, we rushed back to Ramanathapuram town, in order to visit three more places connected with Swami Vivekananda.

  1. We first visited Shankar Vilasam, the guest house of the Raja of Ramnad, located behind the Palace, where Swami Vivekananda stayed for three days. Swami Vivekananda wrote one letter to Mary Hale from this place which can be found in the 6th volume of the Complete Works [p.387]. The guesthouse is now under a private organisation that has acquired and rebuilt the whole structure. Renamed as Vivekananda Ashramam, it consists of a shrine, some living quarters and provision for conducting some service activities.

 

  1. Next was the shore of the large tank located behind the Palace, where Swami Vivekananda was accorded a public welcome.

Now let us look at the vivid description of the event which Swami Vivekananda’s Life gives:

‘Thus the reception at Ramnad took place on the shore of a lake, heightening the dramatic effect of the occasion. The Raja, it goes without saying, took the leading part in the ceremony of welcome, and introduced the Swami to the elite of Ramnad.

 The firing of cannon announced to the waiting thousands the arrival of the Swami. At the time of landing, and during the procession, rockets shot into the air. There was rejoicing everywhere. The Swami was driven in the state-carriage, accompanied by a bodyguard commanded by the Raja’s brother, while the Raja himself, on foot, directed the procession. Torches flared on either side of the road. Both Indian and European music added life to the already lively proceedings. ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ was played on landing, and as the Swami approached the state capital proper. When half the distance had been covered, he alighted at the request of the Raja and took his seat in the state-palanquin. Attended with all pomp, he reached the Shankara Villa.

 After a short rest, he was led into the audience hall where many had gathered to hear his reply to their welcome. As he entered, the hall resounded with shouts of triumph and joy. The Raja opened the meeting with a speech in high praise of the Swami. His brother, Raja DinakaraSethupathi, then read the address of welcome, which was presented in a massive, gold casket of exquisite workmanship.

 The Swami began his reply with words that have taken their place in the history of India. To hear them spoken in his thrilling voice is not given to us, but even to read them, they have a thrilling quality:

 “The longest night seems to be passing away, the sorest trouble seems to be coming to an end at last, the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us—away back where history and even tradi¬tion fails to peep into the gloom of the past, coming down from there, reflected as it were from peak to peak of the infinite Himalaya of knowledge, and of love, and of work, India, this motherland of ours—a voice is coming unto us, gentle, firm, and yet unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by, and behold, the sleeper is awakening! Like a breeze from the Himalayas, it is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is passing away, and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not see, that she is awakening, this moth¬erland of ours, from her deep long sleep. None can resist her anymore; never is she going to sleep anymore; no outward powers can hold her back any more; for the infinite giant is rising to her feet.

Your Highness, and gentlemen of Ramnad, accept my heartfelt thanks….”

Each nation, he said, has its own part to play in the harmony of nations. Spirituality is the special strength of India. Let her be true to that, and a glorious future lies before her.’

In closing the proceedings, the Raja announced that the Swami’s visit would be commemorated by a public subscription to the Madras Famine Relief Fund.

About the Pamban, Rameswaram, and Ramnad receptions, J.J. Goodwin wrote to Mrs. Bull on January 31 as follows:

“At Ramnad the rejoicing was tremendous…. The cheering and shouting of ‘Hara HaraMahadev’ was terrific. It made us very proud of our Swami, and we realized what he is to India. Everyone says that his work in the West has caused a tremen¬dous spiritual revival….”

At Ramnad there were, as usual, many who came to meet the Swami personally. In the Christian Missionary School, lent for the purpose, he gave a lecture. And he attended a durbar at the palace held in his honour. The durbar hall was brilliantly lighted, and the Raja’s own band playing. Here he received further addresses in Tamil and Sanskrit to which he replied. During the course of the function he conferred on the Raja the title ‘Rajarshi’, meaning that the Raja was both a ruler (Raja) and a sage (Rishi). At the latter’s request the Swami gave a short address into a phonograph on the need of Shakti-worship in India.

Presently, the lake mentioned in the above account is surrounded by numerous constructions and houses. It is covered with lilies and other water plants, and needs greater attention. There is no memorial of any kind to commemorate the great event that took place on its shores. How we wish some devotees of Swami Vivekananda take some initiative to do this!

  1. Our last visit was to the Commemorative Lamp Post in the Ramnad town. Situated in the Raja Veedhi (‘the Royal Road’), the Lamp Post is fenced on all four sides by iron railings. It is located in an open space between the road and the wall of a burial ground. Presently the Lamp Post is under the care of Municipal Corporation of Ramanathapuram City. The Lamp Post is painted red and is some eight feet tall. Raja Veedhi is a busy street, with many shops lined on the opposite side and has a constant flow of traffic.

 

Following is a free translation of the plaque in Tamil that has been put near the Lamp Post:

Swami Vivekanandar

Soon after Swamiji returned from Chicago Conferences, he first arrived at Mughavai. This is the spot where he was accorded public reception on 25 January 1897.

This Commemorative Lamp Post having been renovated by the local Municipal Corporation.

RamanathaSethupati lighted the Commemorative Lamp Post on 5-11 -1968.

Sitaraman, Commissioner, S Bhupati, Municipal Chairman.

 

Departure to Chennai

As we boarded our train to Chennai, in that twilight hour when the sun was setting, we pondered over the significance of the places we visited. How many temples and historic places we visited! Though the last leg of our trip was rather hurried, we were glad that we could see, at least once, these places. As is clear, the story of Ramayana is a tangible part of the Ramnad area. May be there are many more places about which we do not know. Nor did we have even the faintest idea that we would be visiting the places about which we had only read or heard. It was so educative and enriching to visit these ancient temples and Ramayana spots. Away from the heat and speed of a city life, it was indeed a refreshing experience.

 

Reliving Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Ramnad was the greatest reward of our pilgrimage.

 

[1] From a travelogue of Swami Atmashraddhananda, former Editor, Vedanta Kesari, Chennai

[2]A niece of Holy Mother

[3]Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna