Rameshwaram Ramanatha Swamy is dedicated to the god Shiva located on Rameswaram island. Ramanathaswamy temple is one of the 12 jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva, the holiest of holy shrines of Lord Shiva.
The main sanctum enshrines Linga of Sri Ranganatha, which was made by Goddess Sita herself and was instituted by Lord Rama. However, there is another Linga of Vishvanatha, which was said to be made by Hanuman and was blessed to be worshipped first to pacify his anger on getting on with the ceremony without waiting for him.
Rameshwaram is one of the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage centres in India, second only to Varanasi itself. However, a pilgrimage to Varanasi too is not considered complete without a trip to the temple of Sri Ramanatha in the island of Rameshwaram, where Lord Rama worshipped Lord Shiva on his way back from his triumphant expedition to Lanka.
A magnificent railway bridge connects the island to the mainland. One can see Sethu here, the bridge said to be built by Sri Rama and his army to cross over to Lanka and the Sethupathis of Ramanathapuram (ancient name of Rameshwarm) were called the 'guardians of the Sethu'.
The nearest airport is at Madurai, about 174 km from Rameswaram. The Rameswaram railway station is the major railhead.
Rameswaram temple is a huge structure. The temple is shaped like a conch, this colossal temple was originally built by Lord Rama himself. The Ramanatha tample sports three Prakaras, four Gopurams (two of which are incomplete) and two Lingas under worship along with twenty-two 'Tirthas' or sacred bathing places in its complex. One of the colossal Gopuram has about four thousand pillars and looks like a methodically set-up forest. There is a huge Nandi measuring 12 feet in length and 9 feet in height., with the idols of Viswanatha Naicker and Krishnama Naicker. The lingams are housed in the inner section of the Ramalingeshwara.
High walls enclose the temple, forming a rectangle with huge pyramidal gopura entrances on each side. The temple has the longest corridor among all Hindu temples in India. The gateways lead to the spacious closed ambulatory, flanked to either side by continuous platforms with massive pillars set on their edges. These corridors are the most famous attribute of the temple, their extreme - 205 metres, with 1212 pillars on the north and south sides - giving a remarkable impression of receding perspective. Delicate scrollwork and brackets of pendant lotuses supported by yalis, mythical lion-like beasts, adorn the pillars. There are shrines for Ganapathi and Subramanya. To the right of the Lord’s shrine is the shrine for Parvathi. To its North is the Kasi Viswanathars shrine.
The iconic temple has 64 holy water bodies all around it, and bathing here in these holy water bodies is an important part of the pilgrimage.
Other highlights of Rameshwaram are Gandamadhana Parvata, Sri Kodandarama temple at Dhanushkodi, temple at Tiruppullani where the Lord obtained divine bow and arrows from its presiding Deity and the temple of Sri Anjaneya at Sethu.
The greatness of Rameswaram became wonderful and unequalled in the world. It yields worldly pleasures and salvation and bestows all desires on the devotees always. He who performs the ablution of Shiva with the waters of the divine Ganga and worships Rameswaram with great devotion becomes a living liberated soul indeed. After enjoying all pleasures here, rare even to the gods and deriving perfect knowledge in the end he will certainly attain salvation.
Legend as per Shiva Purana:
Vishnu took his incarnation as Rama on the earth. Rama’s wife Sita, the daughter of Janaka, was kidnapped by Ravaṇa the wielder of great Maya and taken to his abode in Lanka. Searching for her, Rama went to the city called Kiṣkindha. He had alliance with Sugriva and for his benefit he killed Bali. After staying there for some time, he held consultations with Lakshmana, Sugriva and others eager to find her out. Hanuman and other vanras were sent to various directions in order to find her out. On getting the crest-jewel of Sita and on knowing from the Hanuman that she was in Lanka, Rama prepared for getting her. Accompanied by Hanuman the chief of Vanaras, Lakshmana, Sugriva and other chiefs of great might and a vast army of Vanaras, eighteen thousand billion in number, Rama reached the shores of the Southern Ocean. Reaching there, Rama the favourite of Shiva stationed himself on the shore, being served by the vanaras and his brother Lakshmana.
Rama desired to have water. hearing it the Vanaras ran in all directions. They brought sweet, cool & refreshing water. When Rama, the devotee of Shiva, took the water and was about to drink it, it occurred to him that He have not yet had the sight of Shiva, the bestower of all bliss. How can the water be taken in? After saying this, he drank water and then performed the worship of Shiva’s earthen image. He worshipped Shiva performing all the sixteen ancillary services like invocation etc. with devotion according to the rules obtaining. After propitiating him with obeisance, divine eulogies etc. strenuously, Rama joyously prayed to Shiva with great devotion. Rama said: — “O lord Shiva, always favourably disposed towards your devotees, save me your devotee, dejected in the mind and seeking refuge in you. O Bhavataraṇa (one who takes devotees across the ocean of worldly existence), this ocean is very deep. The Rakshasa Ravana is heroic and mighty. The army of Vanaras is a very fickle instrument of war. How can my task be achieved resulting in pleasing acquisition? O lord, without your help my purpose is difficult to be achieved. Ravana is your devotee. He is invincible in every respect to everyone. He is haughty due to the boons granted by you. He is a great hero who has conquered the three worlds. O Sadashiv, I too am your slave, in every respect subservient to you. Considering this, you shall be partial to me.”
After praying and bowing to the lord again and again, he repeated loudly, “O Shiva, Jai ho Jai ho” and eulogised Shiva. Repeating the mantras and meditating, he performed the worship again and danced before the lord. With the heart drenched with devotional love he produced the throat-sound. Lord Shiva was much delighted. Assuming the pure form as mentioned and accompanied by all his attendants, lord Shiva of brilliant form appeared before him immediately. Then, satisfied in his heart with Rama’s devotion lord Śiva said— “O Rama, may there be welfare to you. Mention the boon you wish to have.” On seeing that form, they became sanctified. Rama himself, interested in Saiva cult, performed the worship. Eulogising in diverse ways and bowing to Shiva joyously he requested for his victory in the imminent fight with Ravaṇa. Delighted in his heart at Rama’s devotion, lord Shiva said lovingly— “O great king, may you be victorious”. Securing the blessing of victory granted by Shiva and receiving the permission of the lord he prayed again with palms joined in reverence and head bent down.
Rama said: — “O Shiva, if you are pleased, you shall stay here, O lord, to sanctify the worlds and to render help to the people.” Thus, implored Shiva took up the phallic image named Rameswaram. It is now famous on the surface of the world.
It was by Shiva’s favour that Rama crossed the ocean soon, killed Ravana and other Rakshasas and regained his beloved.
Reference: Shiva Purana, Koṭirudra Saṃhita, Chapters - 31