Written by Adrija Roychowdhury
Those that support the theory that the Ram Setu is related to the Ramayana have consistently fought plans to dig the river channel where it is situated. As a result, the question of whether the vanar sena mentioned in the Ramayana really did build Ram Setu is up for debate in India’s political arena.
The Ram Setu, also known as the Adam’s Bridge, is a limestone path that connects the Mannar island off the coast of Sri Lanka to Pamban island off the coast of Tamil Nadu. It has long been the centre of political, religious, and ecological conflicts.
The Hindu mythology that the “bridge” was erected by a monkey army led by Lord Hanuman on behalf of Lord Ram, whose army was advancing towards Lanka to free his wife Sita who was being kept captive by Ravan, is the source of today’s politics surrounding the bridge’s nature. The building is also supposed to be significant in Abrahamic religions because it bears the moniker “Adam’s Bridge” and is thought to be Adam’s footsteps from the moment he was expelled from paradise.
Yet its location is equally important from a strategic one. The British had planned to dredge this waterway as early as the 19th century to allow large ships to transit between the east and west coastlines or along the Indian coast. Notwithstanding the failure of the British objectives, the Sethusamudram Project was restarted in Independent India.
Nonetheless, organisations that think there is a relationship between the structure and the Ramayana have consistently rejected the proposal. Hence, a controversy over whether or not Lord Ram actually erected the Ram Setu arose in the political landscape of independent India.
It is important to note that when it came to the Ram Setu, the European approach, in contrast to the colonial tradition of demeaning Indian religious beliefs, in fact discreetly promoted the mythology around the building in their writings.
Ram Setu (Routledge 2023) and Adam’s Bridge (Routledge 2023) author Professor Arup K. Chatterjee says, “They had a very cautious approach of epistemic humility” (Rupa 2023). “Colonial geologists took no stances on the truth or falsity of the Ram Setu story. They viewed the mythology with a great degree of reverence because they lacked a better explanation, but they were utterly certain that they did not need to explain whether Ram was a real person or not,” claims Chatterjee.
He uses the writings of German geologist Johannes Walther, who conducted study on Ram Setu in 1891, as an illustration. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a political organisation in Tamil Nadu, and other debunkers of the myth have cited his work as evidence that the bridge was not constructed by humans. Walther, in fact, held neither a belief in the tale nor a disbelief in it. He was certain that a prehistoric path connected India and Sri Lanka, that the geological origins of the passage could not be explained by conventional geology, and that these corals were not indigenous to the area where the bridge is located, according to Chatterjee.
In reality, long before Walther arrived in India, Ram Setu had attracted the attention of several colonial cartographers and geologists. Do you believe in Ram Setu?, Chatterjee’s future study report, will ask. The article Adam’s Bridge, Epistemic Plurality and Colonial Legacy, which will appear in the journal Island Studies, contends that James Rennel, the founder of oceanography, was the earliest known British colonial surveyor of the Adam’s Bridge.
In 1782, Rennel published a famous map of India. The following year, he published “Memoir of a map of Hindoostan,” in which he first raised the idea of extending the Adam’s Bridge as a potential solution to the navigational difficulties between India and Ceylon.
Around the same time, European historians had grown quite interested in the mythology surrounding the Ram Setu. For instance, Thomas Maurice, an orientalist and historian, was persuaded that the legend surrounding Adam’s Bridge was historically plausible when he wrote The history of Hindostan.
Its Arts and its Sciences (1798). According to Chatterjee in his paper, “Maurice thought it credible that ‘innumerable battalions of apes, or mountaineers, had constructed a bridge of rocks one hundred leagues in length and that this’miraculous bridge’ was then crossed by Lord Ram ‘at the head of no less formidable a body than 360,000 apes, commanded by eighteen kings, each having under him 20,000.'”
Moreover, the Geological Survey of India released several articles that combined data from scientific studies with mythology from Hinduism. They emphasised that one cannot simply discard the mythology, even though they did not claim that Ram was a genuine person.
According to Chatterjee’s 2021 paper, “Lord Ram’s own Sethu: Adam’s Bridge envisaged as an aquapelago,” a report on the submarine shoal bridge noted that its “series of large flat blocks which so strongly resemble a series of gigantic stepping stone that it is impossible to wonder at the imagination of the author…of the Ramayana that the rocky ridge was really an old causeway of human construction.”
The desire to construct a canal through the Palk Strait was mixed with the British attitude of caution concerning the structure. Every time they conducted an investigation for this purpose, they came to the same two or three conclusions. According to their findings, the Adam’s Bridge will not remain there for six months of the year if it is canalised, says Chatterjee. The second finding was that dredging the Adam’s Bridge would be extremely expensive.
Finally, there was something murky about the waters, which we now understand to be the existence of a river running away from the sea in the other direction. As a result, the surveyors—who were atheists—constantly recommended against digging the Adam’s Bridge, he continues.
They continued to delay preparations to dig the Adam’s Bridge due to these ecological results and the fact that even the Geological Survey of India had no better explanation than the tale of Lord Ram. As Chatterjee demonstrates, the mythology surrounding Ram Setu served another purpose for the British.
The Pamban Bridge was built in 1914, and this was the ideal precedent.
In the two-kilometer long railway bridge, an expanded symbol of India, across the Indian Ocean into Rameshwaram, en route to Ceylon, he adds, “the legend of the Sethu was practically materialised.” The Ram Setu was constructed thirty kilometres before the Pamban Bridge. It was the first sea bridge in India and, until the 2010 opening of the Bandra-Worli-Sea Link, the longest.
Controversies on Ram Setu
by the British, was brought up once more in 1955 by the first administration of Independent India. In order to do this, the Sethusamudram Project Committee was established, with A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar serving as its chairman. The group suggested tying the canal project and the Tuticorin Harbour Project together.
Supporters of the Sethusamudram Project contended that it would aid in the advancement of Tamil Nadu’s underdeveloped regions, including Tiruneveli and Ramanathapuram. The Tuticorin Harbour Project was approved by the Indian government in 1963 with the goal of turning the deep sea port into a significant maritime hub. But, the Sethusamudram Project was not pursued any further.
The Mudaliar group had recommended against canalising this area and had considered erecting an overland bridge in its place, according to Chatterjee, taking into account the ecological issues and financial expenses of dredging the Adam’s Bridge. Although the committee’s recommendation was adopted, the project was ultimately abandoned.
But when the Tamil Nadu government updated and clarified the project, enthusiasm was rekindled in 1983 and once more in 1994. The Sethusamudram Project was already a recurring theme in political campaigns by that point. Under pressure from its regional ally, the All India BJP, the BJP-led government of then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took up the project in 1999. Munnetra Kazhagam Anna Dravida.
Political scientist Christoffe Jaffrelot writes in a 2008 research study that “Yashwant Sinha, the then Union Finance Minister, earmarked 4.8 crore rupees for the feasibility of the Sethusamudran project” in the 2000–2001 budget. After that, the project got underway in 2004 when the NDA government’s Vajpayee administration granted a 3500 crore rupee budget to build a shipping channel.
In protest to the project’s expected destruction of the Setu, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, held a number of rallies at the same time. It should be underlined that these demonstrations, which were directed at the DMK rather than the national government, were held only after Vajpayee left office.
However, the UPA government, which was led by the Congress and took office in 2004, made the first significant move towards resurrecting the project. On June 2, 2004, the project was officially launched by the then-prime minister Manmohan Singh, and dredging got under way in July 2006.
Many of the individuals who described themselves as Hindu nationalists immediately protested such assault on what they considered to be a sacred location. Subramanian Swamy, one of them in particular, petitioned the Supreme Court. In response, the government filed a counter affidavit disputing the Ram Setu’s very existence, claiming that it was solely a creation of myth.
Hindu nationalists launched an oppositional campaign to the project during the next months and years. Jaffrelot describes how The Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, devoted its 2007 Diwali special issue to the Ram Setu controversy in his paper. “It is ridiculous that the Ram Setu waterway is being dug up on the pretext that there was no Ram and no historic bridge. By ignoring the sources of a civilisation’s foundation, it is the equivalent of orphaning the entire society, according to RSS leader and political economist Gautam Sen, who is based in England.
Sunita Vakil emphasised in an article in The Organiser that “the Congress leaders have dealt a heavy blow to the collective Hindu psyche by denying the existence of Lord Ram armed with a non descript affidavit in the apex court, reducing a sacred epic that defined Hindu identity and nationhood for ages, to a mere work of fiction.”
In addition, the RSS founded the Rameshwaram Ram Setu Raksha Manch, a brand-new group whose sole purpose is to defend the Ram Setu. The group launched an agitation campaign in Tamil Nadu in August 2007, and in December 2007 it had a sizable protest in Rohini, Delhi, which was attended by representatives from the VHP, BJP, and RSS.
In order to support the historicity of Lord Ram, those opposed to the Sethusamudram Project also mobilised scientific evidence in the form of archaeological discoveries. For instance, Chamanlal of the RSS asserted the Sethu’s existence as a chain of shoal stones in 1997 using a collection of photographs obtained by NASA. The images were included in court filings that were submitted to support the argument that the Ram Setu was both man-made and 1.75 million years old, or the time of the Ramayana. Eventually, NASA acknowledged publicly that the images were inaccurate despite being taken by them.
The enigmatic bridge was nothing more than a naturally occurring 30-km-long network of sandbanks known as “Adam’s bridge.” These shoals had been the subject of years of NASA photography. According to Mark Hess, a NASA official, in 2002, as described by Jaffrelot, “Its photos of these shoals had never led to any scientific discovery in the region.
The Ram Setu was merely a natural structure, according to a 2007 assessment from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). There is no historical evidence that Lord Ram erected the structure, according to an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court by the Indian government with the assistance of the ASI.
The Narendra Modi administration declared in January 2021 that a three-year scientific investigation will be conducted to determine whether the Ram Setu is a man-made building and whether its dates are consistent with those in the Ramayana.
It’s interesting to see that the argument about Ram Setu has evolved into a battle between political parties over the reliability of the Ramayana epic. Both sides have developed new myths as a result, claims Chatterjee. The Ram Setu cannot be easily dredged, it would be economically terrible for India, and it would have significant environmental consequences, he emphasises, yet those in favour of the Sethusamudram Project ignore these facts. While many aspects of the proposal are ignored by those opposed to it out of concern that it will ruin a Hindu sacred place.
While the actual location of the Ram Setu is unknown, according to Nilesh Nilkanth Oak, author of “The Historic Rama: Indian Civilization at the End of Pleistocene,” if Valmiki’s Ramayana’s account of the road is to be trusted, it is not between India and Sri Lanka as is often assumed. “According to Valmiki’s descriptions in his works, the Vanar Sena travelled over the Western Ghats to get to the location of present-day Kerala.
After that, Hanuman is thought to have travelled to Mahendra Parvat, which is close to the boundary between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and from there, he is said to have leapt into Lanka,” the author continues. “With that reasoning, someplace in the south-west of Kerala would be a logical location for Lanka.
While discussing how the Ram Setu’s location between India and Sri Lanka came to be known, Oak claims that allusions to it may be found in the Puranas, which, despite having ancient beginnings, were regularly revised as newer versions of the epics were published throughout the subcontinent.
Also, according to Oak, the Ram Setu’s original name was Nala Setu, in honour of Nala, a vanara who is credited with designing the bridge to Lanka. Both the Ramayana of Valmiki and the Ramopakhyana of the Mahabharata make reference to it in this way. “The name ‘Ram Setu’ eventually gained popularity because people revered Lord Ram,” he said.
Oak is of the opinion that one cannot ignore a community’s popular religion despite the epic’s facts contradicting popular belief of the Ram Setu. Notwithstanding my opinion on the assertion that the structure connecting India and Sri Lanka is Ram Setu, he emphasises, “the value of its assumption by people who believe and adore it is the same as what Jerusalem would be for Jews or Mecca for Muslims.”