Rama Setu: sacred geography

Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2007

India’s Debate Over Sacred Geography

By Madhur Singh/New Delhi (Time Magazine)

A 30-mile chain of limestone shoals called Adam’s Bridge connecting India with Sri Lanka has become the unlikely centerpiece of a political drama. Devout Hindus believe that the Ram Sethu, as they call it, was constructed by a monkey-army led by Lord Hanumana to enable Lord Rama to cross over to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the Lankan king, Ravana. Scientists, however, say it is a natural structure that joined Sri Lanka to the Asian continent during the last Ice Age.

When the government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court last week saying “mythological texts” could not “incontrovertibly prove” the existence of Lord Rama or the simian construction of the Ram Sethu, all hell broke loose. Opposition Hindu hardliners held spirited demonstrations accusing the government of “hurting Hindu sentiments” by suggesting the gods were mythological figures. The government was forced into damage-control mode — two senior officials were immediately suspended, an inquiry was ordered, and the affidavit was withdrawn. The controversy reached such heights that NASA was obliged to declare it had nothing to do with the use of its photos by some Hindu groups to imply that Adam’s Bridge was 1,750,000 years old and hence synchronous with “Ramrajya” — the golden period of Lord Rama’s rule.

This latest episode in the Indian equivalent of the creationism/evolution debate began with a case in the Supreme Court against the $560 million Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, which aims to create a navigable sea route around the Indian peninsula so ships can avoid going around Sri Lanka, thus saving time and money. Arguing that the planned route would cause damage to the Ram Sethu, pious petitioners wanted the government to forge an alternative route. Furthermore, they wanted the Ram Sethu declared a “national archaeological monument.” The government’s response has led to controversy, with the entire range of arguments for and against religion in politics being tossed about.

The government’s strategy has been hard-headed and inconsistent. Abhishek Singhvi, spokesperson of the Congress party which leads the ruling coalition, said last Friday: “The question about the existence of Ram is not relevant here or in the court of law. It is unnecessary for adjudicating on legal proceedings.” However, his party colleague and Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj declared: “The existence of Ram cannot be doubted. As Himalaya is Himalaya, Ganga is Ganga, Ram is Ram.” In the meantime, M. Karunanidhi, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu whose ports will benefit if the project goes ahead, has warned the central government against paying heed to “religious fundamentalist forces.”

This is not the first time sacred geography has become a fiery political issue. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which dominated Indian politics with its Hindu revivalist ideology in the 1990s, shot to power after adherents of Ram sought to demolish a 16th century mosque in the central Indian City of Ayodhya. The mosque, Babri Masjid, was supposed to have been constructed on the orders of Babur, the first Mughal ruler in South Asia, after destroying a temple that marked the birthplace of Lord Rama. Historians and archaeologists had vociferously argued that there was scant scientific evidence of the existence of Lord Rama and of the fact that he was born in Ayodhya. Nevertheless, in spite of government edicts, the Babri Masjid was taken apart, stone by stone, by the Hindu fundamentalists. The BJP lost control of the government in 2004 but the Ram Sethu controversy may now rekindle old controversies.

The issue could not have come at a worse time for the ruling United Progressive Alliance government, with mid-term elections looking more and more likely and the country already debating a nuclear deal between New Delhi and Washington. “After a very long time, an issue has re-energized the larger political-cultural fraternity to which the BJP belongs,” says political commentator Mahesh Rangarajan. The added wrinkle, he says, is the government’s need to keep the state of Tamil Nadu — and its desire to open the lucrative waterway — on its side. “Since 1991, no one has formed a government in New Delhi without winning Tamil Nadu. The chief minister’s stance has put the UPA government in a spot.” The Ram Sethu will be a major issue if elections are called soon. However, it will be an ironic that a country with famously bad infrastructure should have its future dependent on a mythological bridge.



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