VISAKHAPATNAM: A confluence of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, Rama Theerthalu or Ramatheertham, a small village, about 15 kms away from Vizianagaram in Nellimarla mandal of the district, is a unique pilgrimage centre where pilgrims and locals alike worship the Tirthankaras, Buddha and Lord Rama.
The Ramula Swami temple, as it is popularly known in local parlance, is 1,000 years old and has idols of Lord Ram, Sita Devi and Lord Lakshmana plated in silver. Spread out on three bare granite hills, Bodhikonda, Durgakonda and Gurubhakunta Konda are remains of an ancient Jain temple and an extensive Buddhist monastery that dates back to 3rd century BC.
Explaining the significance of the place, chief priest Guruvugaru observed, "Rama Theerthalu signifies the essence of Sanathana Dharma. It is a place where people who believed in different schools of thought interacted with each other, co-existed and learnt from one another. It is a place where the agnostic, atheist and the believer come together in harmony."
Stressing on this point, Duvvuri Varahalu, a resident of Vizianagaram ( Oruganti Vaari Veedhi) said, "Though it is popular for the Buddhist and Jain remnants and the Rama Temple, there is also an ancient Shiva temple in the vicinity. The beauty of Rama Theerthalu lies in the fact that it is a unique collage of different traditions - smarthic and non-smarthic. Of course there are skeptics, who believe that Hindu tradition came into existence much later. It could not have been possible because Jainism and Buddhism never really replaced the Vedic way of life."
However, there are a few who believe that the entire place was a massive Jain and Buddhist centre, and hence the Vaishnavite connect. The site is surprisingly well-maintained and unlike other Buddhist and Jain monuments in the region, is not dead.
"One should come here during Ramanavami and Vaikuntha Ekadasi. All the three hills teem with life and are lit up with lamps. Thousands of pilgrims also come here during the Shivaratri fest. At the end of the day, the pilgrims worship at the Buddhist relics, the Jain temple (dedicated to one of the Tirthankaras) and the Rama temple, how does it matter if they call themselves Hindus today?" queried one of the priests at the temple, laughing at the notion of Hinduism poaching on what was once a Buddhist and Jain centre.
Pointing out that Buddha himself is still worshipped as a Hindu god, an avatar of Vishnu, he said that Buddhism never really died in India, especially in Rama Theerthalu.
The temple is now under the control of the Devasthanam board and the trustees are the scions of the Vizianagaram family. Though Rama Theerthalu never earned the fame that Simhachalam did, it is a pilgrimage centre that holds a charm of its own and draws many non-believers too.
Emani Uttam Prasad, an avid trekker and a keen photographer observed, "I may not be interested in the temple but the place is enchanting and above all a great spot to trek."
Overlooking the Nellimarla valley, Rama Theerthalu could be considered the most scenic pilgrimage centre in Vizianagaram district. Archeological Survey of India officials in charge of the site said, "We have done a lot of work on the site as we believe that the place has more to offer. The Buddhist site, according to our senior archeologists, is probably much bigger than what we think it is today."