Forgotten photographs of Hindu pilgrims.
When I was twenty years old, I visited the holy city of Rameshwaram. The southeastern most point of India, it stretches out into the sea, just a stone’s throw from Sri Lanka. Though at that time the civil war in Sri Lanka was raging and the only people who regularly made the trek across the strait were Lankan Tamil refugees escaping into the safety of India… and perhaps some patrol boats and nefarious smugglers.
I found the old photographs above in a small-town antique shop in another region of the South. A father and son pose amidst different stops in a Hindu pilgrimage. I believe they’re visiting Rameshwaram. The temple tower, or gopuram, in the top left photo looks that of the Ramanathaswamy Temple. Though as anyone familiar with South India knows, these towers are the quintessential mark of a kovil, a South Indian Hindu temple, and identifying a temple by the tower alone can take a very skilled eye.
Rameshwaram (also spelled Rameswaram) attracts Hindus from across the nation; it’s one of the holiest pilgrimage sites of the Subcontinent. It’s here that Rama built a linga to honor Lord Shiva in a rite to absolve himself of killing a Brahmin. The Brahmin was the demon-king Ravana, but he was a Brahmin nonetheless. While Hanuman the monkey god flew to the Himalayas to retrieve a linga, Rama’s wife Sita built one herself. Both lingas are worshipped at the seaside temple.
Another key part of any pilgrimage here are the sacred baths. Pilgrims make a circuit of 22 tirthas, or sacred bathing wells, to absolve themselves of their sins in preparation for worshipping Shiva at the main shrine. The middle left photo is another clue suggesting to me this is indeed Rameshwaram. The thread across the father’s chest is the sacred thread worn by the high caste “twice-born” Hindus.
The train number today is that of a route a world away — Delhi to Panipat. But perhaps once upon a time it plied the path to Rameshwaram or some intermediary southern stop along the way?