August 25, 2008

Ram Setu: Separating A Myth From Reality

(People's Democracy, August 17, 2008)

Ram Setu: A Myth Or Reality

by Suraj Bhan

THE traditional knowledge and values have been critically examined, rejected or transformed in the successive ages by the creative and developing societies. The Ram Setu controversy reflects that the reality behind the myth of the Ram Setu has not been grasped by a section of the elite and is being utilised by the regressive forces under the Ram Setu protection movement. The writ petition filed in court in 2007 and the withdrawal of the affidavit by the ASI on behalf of the central government are an evidence of this. The right wing political parties want the historians, scientists and the nation to believe, despite the scientific assertions to the contrary made by GSI and other institutions and scholars that the Ram Setu was man made. The present note aims at re-examining the literary, archaeological and geological data in brief to examine the falsity of this claim.

The Valmiki Ramayan in its present form aims at the objective of promoting the Vaisnava cult by employing myths and miracles. The story of Rama also emphasises the role he played in protecting the varna system and the patriarchic values of family in the Brahmanical culture. The propagation of Vaisnava and the Rama cults through precept and practice, creation of stupendous literature, religious institutions and depiction of the myths, legends and miracles for communicating the message through art and architectural forms made the cults popular among the believers engrossed in conditions of helplessness.

The earliest reference to Rama or Rama’s Bridge occurs in the Ramayana of Valmiki. Although the Brahmanical tradition pushes back the antiquity of Ramayana to remote past, the archaeological excavations at Ayodhya, the birth place of Rama, places the foundation of Ayodhya not earlier than the seventh century BC. The earliest Buddhist literature (Pali Tripitakas) having no reference to the story of Ram places Ramayana even later than the rise of Buddhism (c500 BC). The scientific historians generally date Ramayana in its present form between C 400 BC and CAD 200.

The story of Ramayana broadly moves around the birth of the hero at Ayodhya, his marriage with Sita, departure for exile and sojourn in the Vindhyan forests and abduction of Sita by Ravana, the king of Lanka, discovery of Sita with the help of Sugriva, Hanumana and their vanara followers, the construction of bridge over the sea with the help of Sea God (Varuna), Nala the son of Visvakarma, the divine architect, and the vanaras to cross over to Lanka to rescue Sita after defeating Ravana.

The Ram Setu in Hindu tradition is believed to be a bridge over the sea connecting Rameshvaram island in Tamilnadu with Mannar island (Ceylon or Sri Lanka). Ramayana only states that after the Sea God agreed to quite the waves in the sea, the vanaras filled the waters with tree trunks and stone slabs. Soon a hundred yojana long and ten yojana wide bridge came into existence for Rama’s armies to cross over to Lanka. The Ramayana gives no idea about the type of the bridge, nature and numbers of its pillars, the plan of the bridge, the cementing material, tools and technology in its construction. A construction of a floating bridge of stone slabs with a span of 30 kilometers over the sea is unmistakably a miracle performed by Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu.

Scientists do not accept miracles. O H K Spate (India and Pakistan, London,. Pp 727-728) opines on the basis of his scientific understanding that the Adam’s Bridge (Ram Setu) “is basically a coral reef killed by uplift and consolidated into coral rock”. The Encyclopedia Britannica, (Volume-1, 1766, p. 129) also suggests that “Adam’s Bridge (Rama’s bridge) is a chain of sand banks between the islands of Mannar near north-western cost and lying between the Gulf of Mannar on the south-west and Pak Strait on north-east”. The Gazettier of India (Indian Union Vol-1 pg 57) mentions that in the north of the Gulf “two narrow necks of land, one coming from the Indian side and the other from Ceylon are connected by sub-merged reef, Adam’s Bridge, hardly four metres below sea level. This is conclusive evidence of the rise of sea level since post glacial time which caused submergence of the connecting link between India and Ceylon.”

Professor H D Sankalia in his attempt to separate reality from myths in Ramayana came to the conclusion that Ramayana knew little about the geography of south India. It mentions no important features like river settlements and Megalithic monuments except mountains. He further questions the availability of Sal, Ashoka and other trees and stone slabs on the Tamil coast covered with sand dunes called Teris and growing very few palm trees near Rameshvaram.

He also notes that a lot of imagination was used to locate Lanka on Trikuta hill surrounded by sea and provided with golden pillars, fortification walls, iron gates and a moat. This has not been discovered so far. He locates Lanka near Bilaspur in eastern Vindhyas instead. Geologists and archaeologists found no evidence of manmade bridge between Rameshwarm and Mannar island (Sri Lanka) also.

The study of inscriptions from south India suggests that the legend of Rama reached south India not before the fifth century AD. The Talgunda inscription of fifth century attests it. The sculpture of ten headed Ravana is mentioned in the Mamalapuram inscription of 630 AD. The Adivaraha cave at Mamallapuram has an inscription of eighth century which refers to the Avataras of Vishnu. The Chola inscriptions mention several Ram shrines in Tamil land.

It appears from the art and architectural remains in south India that Buddhism had reached coast by Christian era. But there is no evidence of Vaishnava or Ram temples in south India about this time. Even the Sangam literature (300 BC-AD 300) makes no mention of Rameshvaram or Ram Setu. The earliest reference to Rameshvram temple occurs in Tevaramhymns of seventh century saints – Appar, Gnana Sambandar. The temple is described as a thatched shelter. A number of Hindu temples, both Saiva and Vaishnava were constructed in south India in the succeeding centuries. The present Rameshvaram temple was repaired and enlarged by Nayakas and Setupatis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It seems that Lanka and Ram Setu were names applied to the phenomena in south India only from the sixth or seventh centuries AD when the Brahmanical tradition reached there. Earlier these names might have been applied to some spots in the eastern Vindhyas near Bilaspur as suggested by Professor Sankalia.

The controversy between the mythological or historical character of Ram Setu were brought to fore by images taken by space shuttles and space capsules of NASA some years back. The images have created an illusion of a ribbon like cause-way below the sea level The data was misread and misinterpreted as the evidence for the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge and that it was manmade. Confusion thus created was cleared by NASA which termed the formation as a Tombolo or a deposition land form such as a land bar between the Island and the mainland shores and that this is a natural formation resulting from the wave action. Such Tombolos are reported to have been found at several places in the world. Thus the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge formation was explained as a series of barrier island caused by tidal action and sedimentation.

The confusion once created by NASA images was further sorted out by the scientific investigation undertaken by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) during December 2002-March 2003. After studying the data from the sea bed as well as the boreholes, the GSI concluded that the Rameshvaram island evolved 1,25,000 years BP. The sea bed rock between Rameswaram and Thalai Mannar remained exposed above sea level between 18000 and 7000 years BP and provided a land passage between Indian sub continent and Sri Lanka. The study further attested that there was no evidence of manmade structure on the present sea bed or on the surface level between Dhanush Koti tip and the islands in the sea, supposed to be part of Ram Setu.

The Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad reached the conclusion on the basis of a similar study that the Adam’s Bridge is not a manmade structure. It comprised of 103 small patch reefs in a linear pattern. It further established that the reef system is a ribbon reef type. An article published in the Journal of the Indian society of Remote Sensing stated that the Adam’s Bridge showed nothing other than coral sand and corroborated not only the views held by geologists and archaeologists but also explained the formation of the so called Ram Setu (Adam’s Bridge) and proved that it is not an ancient monument made by man.

the literary, archaeological and geological investigations have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge is not a manmade structure. Propaganda being indulged in by the right wing political parties and their ideologues is totally unscientific.

Scientific knowledge is essential to understand the historical context. It helps people to organise to build a knowledge-based society and to look forward to create a genuine democratic political and social culture ensuring equity and justice.