Ram Sethu: Faith afloat on the ocean
By Sandhya Jain
Early European travellers have recorded that a few hundred years ago, at low tide, the Ram Sethu still served as a land bridge to Sri Lanka.
For those of us who heard the Ramayana as children and witnessed the annual lilas by amateur or professional actors, the Ram Sethu lacked its current dimensions in the popular imagination.
When Ramanand Sagar made his epochal Ramayana serial in technicolour, he did justice to the episode of the planning and execution of the stone link to Sri Lanka, particularly the rounded rocks that floated with ‘Sri Ram’ inscribed upon them. The astonished disbelief of Ravana to learn that a bridge was forming over the ocean to carry Sugriva’s army across was impressive.
Amazingly, for all the attention the television serial Ramayana generated, most of us even then did not know what every fisherman and pilgrim to Rameswaram must have known all this time, viz., that there are to this day heavy rocks that float in the ocean in that area! Toss an ordinary pebble in a pond, it does not float for even a second; yet rocks as heavy as a tonne are floating merrily in the stormy waters at Rameswaram.
This reality has now been captured on celluloid by media crews visiting the region in the wake of the controversy rising out of a plan to dredge a shipping canal by destroying a part of the legendary bridge. In an attempt to preserve its ‘secular’ image, the television crew investigating the traces of the historical Ram, joked that the rocks were floating without the legendary ‘Sri Ram’ written upon them. But there is no doubting the impact the floating rocks are having upon believers after some pieces (that came ashore after the tsunami) were taken to different parts of the country and shown to believers.
VHP leader Ashok Singhal showed me a piece he was taking probably to the Patna Mahavir temple; it weighed at least 15 kg and was difficult to lift. Yet it floated effortlessly in a large tub in the temple, to the awe and delight of devotees.
A group of investigators, including a secular historian who said scholars accepted the Ramayana as literature but did not accord it historical sanctity, also visited sites associated with the story across the Sethu, in Sri Lanka. It bears mentioning here that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country and neither the political nor religious elites there have any interest in perpetuating the historicity or cultural legacy of Sri Ram. The country has, however, left the sites and stories associated with the god untouched, and these are now being rediscovered by interested Indians after so many centuries.
The investigators revisited the geographical features of Lanka’s ‘Sita Eliya’ as mentioned in the epic. The local residents maintain that this was the original Ashok Vatika, where Sita lived in captivity. It is a ruin now, but there is now a temple to mark the Ashok Vatika, which has many ancient statues.
A team member reported that they found a fresh water stream descending from the mountains to the left of the temple and falling in a pond at the base of the temple. Nearby is a flat rock with the imprint of a huge foot, which is said to be the foot of Hanuman, who is believed to have visited Sita in the form of a giant. The soil left of the stream is visibly different from neighbouring soil, being black as opposed to the light brown soil on the right side of the stream. This coincides with Valmiki’s assertion that Hanuman burnt Ravana’s Lanka to ashes, and incredible as it seems, there is so far no other explanation for this phenomenon.
Equally inexplicable is a mountain on the beach near Ruma Sulla, 150 km north of Colombo, standing upright amidst the ocean and sandy beaches, and looking as thought an unknown hand had manually picked it up from somewhere else and placed it here. The mountains are home to a rich variety of herbs and medicinal plants and the soil here is completely distinct from the other soils found all over the island nation. Yet these details fit in remarkably well with the statements in Valmiki’s Ramayana, and are certainly compelling enough to make an honest modern scholar pause and wonder about the deep truths hidden in the epic.
There must be some rational explanation for specific temples associated with the route Sri Ram took from Ayodhya to the forests of Madhya Pradesh and on to the south and up to Sri Lanka. Certain sites are still associated with the rishi ashrams that the exiles met on the way as also the kings and kingdoms encountered en route. Even today in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, there is in Devipathanam a Navgraha Mandir to mark the spot where Ram worshipped the nine celestial planets before building the Ram Sethu. Ram is supposed to have built the original temple himself.
For Hindus in India, Sri Lanka, and indeed, all over the world, the Ram Sethu is an object of veneration and the attitude of dismissing it as superstition is most unfortunate. The Union Government’s Committee of Eminent Persons on Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project is truly astonishing for its absence of a mariner and naval or coastguard to examine the security aspect of the project. Concerned citizens rightly lack confidence in such a committee, as most members are selected for political or personal affiliations and even experts in geology and oceanography are missing from the panel.
This is a mockery of the Supreme Court order that experts examine the feasibility of the canal, and the cultural heritage of Ram Sethu. Moreover, saturation TV has amply demonstrated that the Ram Sethu is a geological structure inside the ocean, which links India with Sri Lanka. The bridge is made of calcareous sandstones and corals, which are less dense than normal hard rock. Early European travellers have recorded that a few hundred years ago, at low tide, the Ram Sethu still served as a land bridge to Sri Lanka. Temple epigraphs and travelogues recorded in the Madras Presidency Gazetteer of 1893 state that this was possible up to 1799, after which the choppy waters and changing tide patterns may have rendered this difficult.
It is pertinent that a shipping channel should be ecologically and economically viable, but the SSCP is both uneconomical and environmentally unsound. As time passes, even the shipping industry is having second thoughts about its economic benefits. The large shipping lines operating ocean services believe that the proposed draught of 10 metres is inadequate for the movement of vessels of 50,000 DWT, and the international trend is to build vessels of 60,000 DWT, which will make the canal redundant and wasteful.
Many shipping analysts have questioned the traffic projections on the canal. The Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd view that 3,055 ships would use the canal annually which is excessive, and coastal ship operators are explicit that such traffic is unlikely over the next decade. The canal may benefit coastal shipping in terms of fuel and time costs, but this will be offset by 12 per cent service tax and the constant risk to the canal from heavy sedimentation by the choppy seas, which may make it unfeasible over time.
One of the sticky points is the status of fishermen in the region, who are stiffly opposing the project. So far, the government has refused to clarify if fishing will be permitted to continue in the area or not, because if fishing continues, then there can simply be no shipping. Another important point is that for security reasons ships must keep a distance of 200 miles from the Sri Lankan coast, and the channel does not address this concern. Finally, the lack of finances as revealed by Axis Bank (the project banker), seems to de facto rule out completion of the project, which makes continuing expenditure on dredging or maintaining offices and staff a criminal waste of taxpayers’ money.
(The writer is a senior journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)