The Ram Setu, or the Adam’s Bridge, a limestone trail connecting Pamban island off the coast of Tamil Nadu to the Mannar island off the coast of Sri Lanka has been the focal point of political, religious and ecological controversies for decades. Present-day politics around the nature of the ‘bridge’ stems from the Hindu mythological belief that the structure was built by an army of monkeys, led by Lord Hanuman on behalf of Lord Ram whose army was marching towards Lanka to rescue his wife Sita, held captive by Ravan. The structure is also said to be of importance in Abrahamic religions for it is believed to be Adam’s footprints from the time he was expelled from paradise, thereby giving it the name ‘Adam’s Bridge’.
But its location is also of strategic interest. As early as the 19th century, the British had planned to dredge this channel to enable big ships to navigate along the Indian coast or to travel between the east and west coasts. While the British plans never succeeded, the project was revived in Independent India as the Sethusamudram Project. The proposal, however, has been continuously opposed by groups who believe in the connection between the structure and the Ramayana. Consequently, there emerged in the political scene of independent India, a debate over whether the Ram Setu was indeed built by Lord Ram or not.
It is worth noting that contrary to the colonial practice of denigrating Indian religious beliefs, when it came to the Ram Setu, the European attitude, in fact, subtly reinforced the mythology surrounding the structure in their writings. “They had a very cautious policy of epistemic humility,” explains Professor Arup K. Chatterjee, the author of two forthcoming books — Adam’s Bridge (Routledge 2023) and Ram Setu (Rupa 2023). “Colonial geologists did not take any position on the veracity of the myth surrounding the Ram Setu. They were absolutely confident that they did not need to explain whether Ram was a real person or not, but rather looked at the mythography with a great deal of respect simply because they did not have a better explanation,” says Chatterjee.
He cites the example of the writings of Johannes Walther, a German geologist who had undertaken the research on Ram Setu in 1891. His work has also been cited by sceptics of the myth — particularly those belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the political party in Tamil Nadu — to suggest that the bridge was not man made. “Actually Walther did not believe nor disbelieve in the myth. He was confident that an ancient route existed between India and Sri Lanka, that the geological origins of the route were inexplicable by ordinary geology and he also recognised that these corals were not native to the place in which the bridge is situated,” says Chatterjee.
Ram Setu had, in fact, become a matter of great interest among colonial cartographers and geologists long before Walther came to India. Chatterjee, in his upcoming research paper, Do believe in Ram Setu? Adam’s Bridge, Epistemic Plurality and Colonial Legacy to be published by the journal ‘Island Studies’, suggests that the oldest known British colonial surveyor of the Adam’s Bridge was the father of Oceanography, the geographer James Rennel. Rennel published a legendary map of India in 1782 and the following year published ‘Memoir of a map of Hindoostan’ in which, for the first time, the suggestion was made of the possibility of deepening the Adam’s Bridge to reduce navigational challenges between India and Ceylon.
During the same time the mythology surrounding the Ram Setu had become a matter of great fascination for European historians. For instance, the oriental scholar and historian Thomas Maurice, in his work The history of Hindostan: Its Arts and its Sciences (1798), was convinced of the historical plausibility of the myth around Adam’s Bridge. “Maurice thought it was 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,” writes Chatterjee in his paper.
Further, the Geological Survey of India published several articles combining scientific reports with Hindu mythology. While they did not say that Ram was a real person, they emphasised that one cannot also dismiss the mythology. “Reporting on the submarine shoal bridge, it remarked 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,” cites Chatterjee in his 2021 paper, “Lord Ram’s own Sethu: Adam’s Bridge envisaged as an aquapelago.”
The British attitude of caution towards the structure was combined with the interest in building a canal through the Palk Strait. Everytime they did a survey of the area for this purpose they were faced with two or three unchanging conclusions. “First of all they concluded if the Adam’s Bridge is canalised, six months of the year it will not last there,” explains Chatterjee. “The second conclusion was that it would be tremendously costly to dredge the Adam’s Bridge. Thirdly, there was something fuzzy about the waters, which we today recognise as the existence of a river flowing in the opposite direction towards the sea. Consequently, the surveyors who had no interest in religion, continuously advised against the dredging of the Adam’s Bridge,” he adds.
Due to these ecological conclusions and because even the Geological Survey of India had no better explanation other than the myth of Lord Ram, they continued to put off proposals to dredge the Adam’s Bridge. As Chatterjee explains, for the British, the mythology around Ram Setu served another purpose.
It was the perfect antecedent they needed for building the Pamban Bridge in 1914. “The legend of the Sethu was nearly materialised in the two-kilometre long railway bridge, an extended signifier of India, across the Indian Ocean, into Rameshwaram, en route to Ceylon,” he writes. The Pamban Bridge was built 30 kilometres ahead of the Ram Setu. It was India’s first sea bridge and the longest one till Bandra-Worli-Sea Link was inaugurated in 2010.
The plan of dredging the channel where the Ram Setu is located, though dropped
by the British, was once again mooted by Independent India’s first government in 1955. The Sethusamudram Project Committee was formed for this purpose, with A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar as its chairperson. The committee recommended that the canal project be linked with the Tuticorin Harbour Project. The supporters of the Sethusamudram Project argued that it would help develop the backward districts of Tamil Nadu, such as Tiruneveli and Ramanathapuram. In 1963, the government of India sanctioned the Tuticorin Harbour Project to transform the deep sea port into a major maritime hub. The Sethusamudram Project, however, was not taken up any further.
“Keeping in mind the ecological problems and economic costs of dredging the Adam’s Bridge, the Mudaliar committee had advised against canaling this area and had suggested building an overland bridge instead,” says Chatterjee. The suggestion of the committee was indeed accepted but the project was eventually dropped.
However, interest in the project was revived once again in 1983 and, yet again, in 1994 when the Tamil Nadu government updated and detailed the project. By then the Sethusamudram Project had turned into a motif, increasingly used in electoral campaigns. In 1999, the BJP-led government under the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took up the project under pressure from its local ally, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
In a research paper published in 2008, political scientist Christoffe Jaffrelot notes that in the “2000-2001 budget, Yashwant Sinha, the then Union Finance Minister, allocated 4.8 crore rupees for the feasibility of the Sethusamudran project. The project then began in 2004, under the NDA regime, when the Vajpayee government approved a 3500 crore rupees budget to create a shipping channel.”
At the same time, members of the BJP’s ideological parent — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — staged several protests against the project in outrage against the feared destruction of the Setu. It is to be noted that these protests were staged only after Vajpayee exited from the government and were targeted towards the DMK rather than the central government.
The first concrete step in reviving the project though was taken by the Congress-led UPA regime which came to power in 2004. The then prime minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the project on June 2, 2004 and dredging began in July 2006.
Several among those who identified as Hindu nationalists immediately denounced an attack on what they believed was a sacred site. Chief among them was Subramanian Swamy who filed a petition in the Supreme Court. To this the government filed a counter affidavit questioning the very existence of the Ram Setu, which according to them was purely a product of mythology.
In the ensuing months and years, a campaign was carried out by Hindu nationalists opposing the project. Jaffrelot in his paper writes about how the RSS’ mouthpiece, The Organiser devoted its 2007 Diwali special issue to the Ram Setu controversy. “The dredging of the Ram Setu channel on the grounds that there was neither Ram nor any historic bridge is simply outrageous. It is the equivalent of orphaning an entire civilisation by denying the well-springs of its foundation,” wrote Gautam Sen, a political economist and RSS leader based in England.
In an article in The Organiser, Sunita Vakil, emphasised, “by denying the existence of Lord Ram armed with a non descript affidavit in the apex court, the Congress leaders have dealt a heavy blow to the collective Hindu psyche besides reducing a sacred epic that defined Hindu identity and nationhood for ages, to a mere work of fiction.”
Further, the RSS created the Rameshwaram Ram Setu Raksha Manch — a new organisation devoted exclusively to the defence of the Ram Setu. The organisation started an agitation campaign in Tamil Nadu in August 2007 and organised a huge rally in Delhi’s Rohini in December 2007, which was attended by leaders of the VHP, BJP and RSS.
Those against the Sethusamudram Project also mobilised scientific proof in the form of archaeological findings to substantiate the historicity of Lord Ram. In 1997, for instance, Chamanlal of the RSS referred to a set of pictures taken by NASA to claim the Sethu’s existence as a chain of shoal stones. The pictures were reproduced as part of petitions filed in the courts to back the claim that not only was the Ram Setu man-made, it was also 1.75 million years old, the period of the Ramayana. Later, NASA clarified on record that the pictures, though taken by them, were being misrepresented. “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 of these shoals had never resulted in any scientific discovery in the area,” stated Mark Hess, a NASA official in 2002, as cited by Jaffrelot.
In 2007, a report from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) stated that the Ram Setu was nothing more than a natural formation. The government of India, with the support of the ASI filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that there was no historical proof of the structure being built by Lord Ram.
In January 2021, the Narendra Modi government announced a three-year long scientific expedition to ascertain whether the Ram Setu is a man-made structure or not and whether its dates corroborate with that of the Ramayana.
Interestingly, the debate on Ram Setu has now become a tussle between political parties over the veracity of the Ramayana epic. “In the process both sides have created new myths of their own,” says Chatterjee. He emphasises that those in support of the Sethusamudram Project overlook the fact that the Ram Setu cannot be dredged easily, is economically disastrous to India, and the fact that it would have huge environmental ramifications. Those opposing the project in fear of it destroying a Hindu sacred site, meanwhile, overlook many details in the Ramayana epic that are of key importance in understanding the Ram Setu.
Nilesh Nilkanth Oak, author of ‘The Historic Rama: Indian Civilisation at the End of Pleistocene’, says that while we do not know the exact location of the Ram Setu, if description of the route as given in Valmiki’s Ramayana is to be believed, then it is not located between India and Sri Lanka as is popularly believed. “As per the descriptions in Valmiki’s writings, the Vanar Sena went through the Western Ghats to reach where Kerala is today. After that, Hanuman is believed to have gone to Mahendra Parvat which is near the Kerala and Tamil Nadu border and from there he jumped towards Lanka,” he explains. “The plausible location of Lanka by that logic would be somewhere in the south west region of Kerala, close to where Male is located today,” he adds.
Speaking about how the location of the Ram Setu between India and Sri Lanka acquired popularity, Oak says it seems to have found references in the Puranas, which though of ancient origins were frequently updated as newer versions of the epics were written across the subcontinent.
Oak also says that the original name of the Ram Setu was Nala Setu, after Nala, the vanara who is known to have engineered the bridge to Lanka. That is how it is mentioned both in Valmiki’s Ramayana and in the Ramopakhyana of the Mahabharata. “It is in reverence to Lord Ram that the name ‘Ram Setu’ acquired popularity later,” he says.
Despite the details of the epic contradicting the popular imagination of the Ram Setu, Oak believes that one cannot disregard the popular faith of a community either. He emphasises, “regardless of whether I agree or not with the claim that the structure between India and Sri Lanka is Ram Setu, the value of its assumption by those who believe and revere it is the same as what Jerusalem would be for Jews or Mecca for Muslims.”
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Adrija RoychowdhuryAdrija writes long, researched features on history, world and national… read more


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