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27 September, 2007

Rama’s Bridge and the political Rama

Valmiki’s Ramayana says, in Thretha Yuga (the second aeon according to Hindu mythology), Prince Rama of Ayodhya built a bridge across the sea to move into Lanka with an army of monkeys to rescue his consort, Sita, who had been abducted by the demon king, Ravana. Many legends based on this ancient tale have gained currency in India. Even a squirrel helped in the construction of the bridge. Thus the Malayalam saying, “Even the squirrel contributes its mite”. Pleased with the squirrel’s labour, Rama stroked it. Thus came the three lines on a squirrel’s back which we can see even today.

According to the epics, the second of the four aeons was 1,296,000 years long. It was followed by Dwaapara Yuga, which lasted 864,000 years. Then came Kali Yuga, which runs for 432,000 years. We have so far put behind us about 5,000 years of it. Thus, even if Rama had lived at the end of Thretha Yuga the bridge across the sea was built about 900,000 years ago. Going by current scientific knowledge, at that period this region was still inhabited.

Europeans roaming the world, looking for colonies, noticed a sandbank under the sea in the strait between the Indian mainland and Ceylon. In the 18th century, the British named the strait after Robert Palk, Governor of Madras. Earlier, the Portuguese had named a peak in Ceylon after Adam, the first man of Jewish-Christian lore. The Europeans called the sandbank Adam’s Bridge. There is a giant footprint, five and a half feet long and two and a half feet wide, on Adam’s Peak. Men of different faiths have linked it to their religions through legends. To the Buddhists, it is the footprint of Gautama the Buddha. They call it Sreepaadam (Holy Footprint). To the Hindus, it is Aadipaadam (First Footprint), created when Lord Siva danced. The Portuguese claimed it was the footprint of St. Thomas the Apostle. In an Arab tale, it is Adam’s footprint. According to this story, God put Adam on this peak when He turned him out of the Garden of Eden. Adam did penance for a thousand years, standing on one foot. After leaving his footprint there, he set out for Arabia. Even before these religions reached the island, the mountain was considered sacred by local tribes. In their legends, that is where god Saman lives.

There is no evidence to prove that the Buddha, St. Thomas or Adam set foot on the island. Sreepaadam developed as a pilgrim centre without any problem. Now the sandbank known variously as Rama’s Bridge and Adam’s Bridge is at the centre of a controversy. It all started with a Press Trust of India report from Washington, DC, on October 9, 2002.

The report said, “The NASA Shuttle has imaged a mysterious ancient bridge between India and Sri Lanka, as mentioned in the Ramayana.

“The evidence, say experts matter-of-factly, is in the Digital Image Collection.

“The recently discovered bridge, currently named as Adam's Bridge and made of a chain of shoals, 30 km long, in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, reveals a mystery behind it.”

The report, which cited no authority, continued, “The bridge's unique curvature and composition by age reveals that it is man-made. Legend as well as archaeological studies reveal that the first signs of human inhabitants in Sri Lanka date back to the primitive age, about 1,750,000 years ago and the bridge's age is also almost equivalent.”

Free Republic, which describes itself as the premier online gathering place that champion causes which further conservatism in America and has fun doing it, displayed the patently absurd news agency report at its website the very next day. The report also found its way into Hindutva sites. When NASA found that wrong information was being circulated in its name, it tried to set the record right. "Remote sensing images or photographs from orbit cannot provide direct information about the origin or age of a chain of islands, and certainly cannot determine whether humans were involved in producing any of the patterns seen," NASA official Mark Hess said. He added, "The mysterious bridge was nothing more than a 30 km long, naturally-occurring chain of sandbanks called Adam's bridge. NASA had been taking pictures of these shoals for years. Its images had never resulted in any scientific discovery in the area.”

The Hindutva brigade, which ignored the NASA clarification, demands that the Government of India abandon the Sethusamudram canal project, which aims at deepening the Palk Strait, as it will damage the bridge that Rama had built. The project was first proposed by Fred Taylor, an Englishman, a century ago. He said deepening the strait and cutting a new 50-mile channel will make it possible for ships to move from India’s west coast to east coast without circumnavigating Ceylon. The British rulers did not pursue the idea. After Independence, a committee under Dr. A. Ramaswami Mudaliar was set up to examine the feasibility of the project. The committee found the project viable but the government did not take it up due to financial constraints. When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was in power, the project again came up for consideration. After the United Progressive Alliance took office, at the instance of its constituent, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the government decided in 2005 to take up the project.

The Sethusamudram project envisages an expenditure of Rs. 24.27 billion. The authorities claim that the fees paid by ships using the new channel will make the project profitable from the very first year. However, shipping transport experts question the claim. According to them, ships from Europe and Africa will not use the canal as the fees proposed are too high for saving eight hours. The DMK’s keen interest in the project stems from the belief that it will benefit Tamil Nadu. It is said that, besides Thoothukudi, 13 minor ports of the State, from Ennore, near Chennai to Kolachel on the Kanyakumari coast, will benefit by it. The State government has already drawn up schemes for the development of these ports. But J. Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna DMK has endorsed the Hindutva argument and opposed the project.

The Sangh Parivar has been agitating for more than two decades for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya, said to be Rama’s birthplace, with a view to creating a Pan Hindu vote bank. It was partial success in this effort that enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party to come to power in several States on its own and at the Centre in alliance with some other parties. Even as the appeal of the Ram temple slogan has diminished, the Sethusamudram project has provided a new opportunity to fan Hindu sentiments. The temple slogan had yielded the most benefit to the BJP in the northern States. The party probably expects the bridge slogan to help in the southern States. The South has a historical background that differs from the North’s. While the impact of the social reform movements that swept the southern region in the last century remains, the BJP’s hope may not materialize.

The Supreme Court has before it a petition pleading for preservation of Rama’s bridge. The Centre must be able to convince the court that what lies under the water is not a manmade bridge, as claimed by the petitioner, but a sandbank that formed naturally over the millennia. Factual data needed for the purpose is available. Scientists and historians are agreed that there is no evidence to conclude that the subcontinent was inhabited 200,000 or 300,000 years ago. Three shipping canals have been cut through the sand bar already. Instead of confining itself to law, science and history, the Centre provided grist to the Sangh Parivar mill by intruding into the realm of faith. The Parivar has said that the affidavit in which the Centre said there was no evidence to prove that Rama had lived questions the faith of the Hindus.

Experts believe Valmiki’s Ramayana was written between the fifth and first centuries BCE. Sanskritic tradition holds that Valmiki was the first poet and the Ramayana the first poetic work. But the Rama story was known to many tribes of India even before Valmiki’s time. Buddhist literature provides a version of the story that is different from Valmiki’s. Other versions of the Rama story have been in circulation in foreign lands like Thailand and Indonesia too. Valmiki’s work itself contains interpolations made at different times. It cannot thus be accepted as a work of history. At the same, it is reasonable to assume that the Rama story contains historical elements. It is not possible to state with certainty what are actual happenings and what are additions made by imaginative narrators from time to time. According to those who have determined the time-frame of the Bible stories, only about 5,000 years have elapsed from the time of the first man to the present. Science tells us that this is not correct. Yet there are Christians who believe that the Bible gives a literal account of man’s history. Likewise, devotees of Rama have the right to believe that the Ramayana story is literally true. But they must realize that others have the freedom to view these tales and their heroes differently. While they may hope that others will share their faith, they cannot impose it on others.

The Hindus consider theirs the oldest religion. But no ancient work mentions such a religion. There is no reference to the Hindu religion even in the works of Sankaracharya, who is credited with having vanquished Buddhism and Jainism and re-established Hindu supremacy. Al that we can gather from ancient texts is that different schools of thought existed in the subcontinent and their votaries were engaged in mutual discourses. It was foreigners who gave the common name of ‘Hindu religion’ for the many beliefs prevalent here. Not being familiar with plural societies, they assumed that the people of the subcontinent have a common faith. In course of time, the gods, heroes and traditions of the different tribes of the subcontinent came to be integrated under the name they had given. The furious production of epics that took place at one time speeded up the process of integration. While it was going on, a minority established hegemony over the majority. Although during foreign rule some beneficial measures were taken there were only stray attempts to eliminate the injustice within the system. After Independence, the Constitution proclaimed equality and promised equal opportunities. The promise remains unfulfilled as those who dominated the old order still hold sway at the top. Since politically-driven Hindu consolidation will perpetuate this situation, it must not be allowed to succeed.

While politically motivated objections to the Sethusamudram project are unjustified, warnings about its likely environmental consequences merit serious consideration.

This is an English rendering of an article in Malayalam appearing in the Madhyamam weekly’s issue dated October 1, 2007


Anonymous said...

Well written article. hats off to Bhaskar

Anonymous said...

Reading too many articles, though authored by eminent personalities, regarding the bridge between India and ceylon, constructed by sri Rama, the lay men is totally confused- hether to believe ramayana is mythology or a story written by Valmiki. But Hindus throughout India believes that Ramayana is the narration based upon the actual facts and hence Rama lived as an avathar of lord Vishnu and this belie3f cannot be changed by any number of articles. Again, it is a controversy, started for political gains by each political party to show their strength. None would gain out of such controverssies and they cannot take the people for granted with their arguments. Belief traditionally formed in one's mind cannot be erased by any political party.