To worship Lord Ramanatha or Ramalinga, the hallowed sand Linga made by Sita and installed by Sri Rama, pilgrims enter through the eastern gopuram. They offer prayers to Lord Anjaneya smeared with sindhoor. Then comes the Nandi Mandapa, which houses the flag staff and the Nandi. The stuccoed massive image of the bull is made of lime stone, measuring 17.5 feet high, 23 feet long and 12 feet wide. On either side of the Nandi, one finds interesting sculptural representations of the ocean gods Mahodathi and Ratnakara.
The sanctum is flanked on either side by shrines of Vinayaka and Subramanya. Inside the sanctum, we worship Sri Ramanathaswamy. It is said this Linga contains marks of Hanuman’s tail, with which he tried to uproot it in a fit of anger. The Linga is decorated with silver kavacha. It is customary to offer abhisheka to the Lord with holy Ganga water.
In the front mandapa, there is a canopy, carved under which are images of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman with the two Lingas brought from Kailas, and Sugriva, appearing to be informing Rama about Hanuman’s return. In three other canopies in the front hall, we find exquisitely-carved figures of Hanuman, Gandhamadhana Linga and Agastya Linga.
She is the consort of Lord Ramanatha and is enshrined separately to His right. There is a Sri Chakra installed inside. Special significance is attached to a Devi shrine situated on the right of the Lord’s shrine. In Madurai, too, the shrine of Meenakshi is situated to the right of Lord Sundareshwara. On Fridays, an especially decorated image of Parvathavardhini is taken round the temple corridor in a golden palanquin.
Vishwanatha & Visalakshi
To the north of Ramalinga shrine, Lord Vishwanatha or Vishwalinga has a separate shrine. This is one of the two Lingas brought from Kailas by Hanuman. As per tradition, pujas are first performed to Vishwalinga and then to Ramalinga. In the first inner corridor, Visalakshi, consort of Vishwanatha, is enshrined.
This is in the north-eastern corner of the corridor around the Visalakshi shrine. The gold image of the Lord is ceremoniously brought here every night from the main shrine and placed in the Oonjal (swing) by the side of the Devi’s golden idol. The Sayana puja and the early morning puja, when the Lord is taken back in a procession to the sanctum, are worth witnessing.
In the first inner corridor, devotees offer worship to the venerated Spatika Linga, installed by Vibhishana. This Linga is the southernmost among the 12 famous Jyothirlingas in the country.
There is a legend associated with this shrine. Once there ruled a Pandya king by name Punyanithi. As he had no issues, he along with his queen undertook a Sethu Theertha Yatra. Soon he found a baby girl in the palace garden and adopted her as his daughter. As years passed, the princess reached marriageable age. One day an old Brahmin from Kashi, holding Ganga water, appeared in the palace garden and sought her hand in marriage. The king got angry and ordered the old Brahmin to be kept chained in the temple corridor. That night the king had a dream in which he realized that the old man in chain was none other than Lord Vishnu with his daughter, Goddes Lakshmi, by his side. He fell at the Lord’s feet and sought forgiveness. He gave his daughter in marriage to Lord Vishnu at Rameswaram. He is known as Sethu Madhava or Shwetha Madhava (as his image is made of white marble). In Kashi, Lord Vishnu is worshipped as Bindu Madhava.