I will begin this piece by recounting the story of Rama building a bridge with the help of a Vanara Sena (monkey army) as described by Valmiki, the first, and to my mind the best story teller of ancient times. My story refers to two Sargas (Chapters) of “Yuddha Kandam” by Valmiki, occasionally touching on Sundara Kandam, the previous section. I am hoping that no one would deny that Valmiki’s version is the most authentic of the Ramayana story. Here I have taken the Sanskrit rendition as is universally accepted as Valmiki’s. I have not stuck to the verses as a word-to-word translation, except where necessary, but have made sure that none of the verses is misinterpreted. Wherever in doubt, I have taken the help of Shri K.M.K. Murthy’ translation available on the net . Mr. Murthy is a banker by profession, but a thorough-bred Brahmin well-versed in Sanskrit, a respected interpreter of epics, and by no reckoning a rebel against Hindu beliefs and their religious literature.
Yuddha Kandam, Sarga 21:
The negotiation between Ravana’s emissary and Rama’s side failed. Thereafter Rama, the annihilator of enemies, spreading sacred grass on the sea shore, and after saluting (by joining his palms) the great ocean with his face turned eastward, lay down with his muscular and sinewy arm, where Sita’s head once used to rest, for a pillow. He waited for three days.
The impertinent lord of the sea failed to appear before him. What arrogance, that this king of the sea has not appeared before me even after I had paid him due honours and waited for three days, Rama said to Lakshmana and demanded that the latter fetch his bow and serpentine arrows. I will make this ocean suffocate with all its crocodiles, snakes, shells (etc.), he said, and picked up the arrow that was stronger than Brahma’s rod. He threatened to shoot the ocean and render it barren. Huge terrible waves began to rise in fear; sea serpents and monsters shuddered with fright. Lakshmana, who knew the calamity that was imminent, persuaded Rama against the use of the terrible missile.
Yuddha Kandam, Sarga 22:
Unrelented, Rama threatened the Ocean that if he shot the arrow it would swallow the water and clear a stretch of sand , destroying all the sea animals. You don’t know my valour, he said, and fixed the arrow to the bow.
The earth and the heaven appeared to split; darkness set in; moon and stars lost their ways, even gods shuddered. A huge wind swept away the clouds and tore up the trees. Large chunks of stones broke away from mountain tops and smashed into each other; sparks flew like terrible flashes of light. The sea over-ran the shores, sea animals helplessly moved around in terror. None of these moved the resolute Rama.
That is when the king of the ocean appeared before him in full regalia, like the sun rising from behind Mount Meru, accompanied by Rivers Sindhu and Ganges and smaller minions. (If the lord of the sea was also frightened by the threatening posture of Rama, Valmiki doesn’t mention it).
The sea-lord said : “My dear Rama, Earth, wind, ether, water and light remain fixed in their own nature, resorting to their eternal path (exactly what Stephen Hawking said many centuries later: Laws of nature do not change to suit the whims of gods). I am sorry, neither from desire nor ambition nor fear nor from affection, am I able to coagulate my waters inhabited by alligators. However, I shall make it possible to see that you are able to cross over. I will arrange a place for the monkeys to cross me. As long as the army crosses me, the crocodiles will not attack it”.
Rama said: “”All right, but this great arrow cannot go in vain. Where should I now land it?”
“Towards my northern side, there is a holy place. It is famous, just as you are famous, and known as Drumatulya,. Lot of terrible robbers, under their evil chief Abhiras, drink my water there. I cannot even bear those wicked people touch my water. Rama! Please dispatch your arrows right over there.”
Rama obliged; The place where the arrow, whose splendor was akin to that of a thunder bolt, dispatched by Rama turned into a desert, is now known as Maru. Where the arrow landed with a terrible sound, a large fissure formed, sea water gushing out of it. Rama blessed it and the water dried up, and the place became a desert. By his blessings, then the desert of Maru became a place suitable for breeding cattle, a place “with little of disease, producing tasty fruits and roots, with a lot of clarified butter, a lot of milk and various kinds of sweet- smelling herbs”. Thus it became an auspicious and suitable move, bestowing these merits.” Since Rama watched the arrow landing and blessed the place when it turned into a desert and then fertile, the place could not have been beyond the line of sight. (Mr. Murthy, undoubtedly under religious authority, says that the place where the arrow fell is Maru Malwar in Rajasthan. I couldn’t locate such a place in Rajasthan, and if indeed it does exist or existed, Rama, in his human avatar, had to have a vision that stretches 2000 to 3000 kilometres. However, I am digressing).
Then the king of ocean pointed at Nala, a distinguished monkey, and recommended him as one capable of building a fine bridge, since he was the son of Vishwakarma, the architect and engineer of the world.
The Lord of ocean then returned, and the distinguished monkey came forward and told Rama that he was indeed the biological son (born of his loins) of the great architect of the world, Vishwakarma. “I am capable of constructing a bridge across the ocean with the help of these noble monkeys”, he said.
If Lanka, the island-country to which the bridge was to be built is the Srilanka of our times, and Rama was poised to cross the sea from this side in India, then the ‘monkey’s were the ancestors of South Indians (which includes me) of our times. People of Karnataka in South india still swell with pride in the thought that their land is the Kishkinda, the kingdom of monkeys and that Hanuman was their ancestor. Evidently, some North Indians have not changed their view of those of the South till today.
The part of the sea where Rama’s army of monkeys was invited to build a bridge by the lord of the sea was unfathomably deep.
The bridge was designed and constructed under the direction of this qualified (by birth) architect, Nala. Hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic monkeys were employed in the venture.
The construction materials included trees of various kinds and solid rocks, (not calcareous shells nor soft limestones). Huge logs came from trees plucked by their roots from the forest; elephant-sized rocks were wrenched out of great rocky mountains. Thus the bridge was built by a progressive construction plan that took five days for completion.
As the distance to the point of construction increased, the monkeys used machines (यन्त्रैः) for transporting the construction materials. Poles were used for measuring the height of the bridge (presumably for the purpose of leveling) and a hundred-yojana string was spun and strung up in a straight line to ensure that the bridge was made in perfect straight line. Reeds and logs were used to fasten the bridge together. (A primitive technique of fastening rural bridges across narrow canals with logs and reeds exist even today).
We notice that there was specialized allocation for each work: some skilled monkeys for measuring, others yet for tying and bonding (the logs and rocks) and some for ensuring level height (using poles) and straight-line length (with string) and the rest (worker monkeys or mere privates?) for the manual labour of carrying rocks and trees and laying them. Note the poet’s eyes for details.
As the work progressed, the monkey-workers became progressively more productive, as happens in any well-managed construction process. Rama merely supervised the bonding of the side logs with reeds. The total construction work of five days amounted to that of 100 yojanas (14,+20+21+22 +23). When completed, the bridge was 100 yojanas long and 10 yojanas wide, as stated in verse 22:74. This feat was achieved in a sea that was abode of alligators or crocodiles (मकरआलये).
As we notice, the Ram Setu was not constructed by some stray untrained monkeys who threw floating stone bricks into the sea as depicted in our movies, It was an engineering feat, albeit by people of extraordinary size, incredible swiftness and colossal strength, using the locally available construction materials – solid rocks, logs of wood and reeds.
Now we come to some interesting points. The Contention of the Hindutwa people, which include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, RSS (both of whom see themselves as the appropriate answer to Al-Qaida and Taliban) and BJP (self-styled political Hindu alternative to Pakistan’s Muslim League) is that the marvelous bridge thus described in great detail by Valmiki is the 30 kilometre long, limestone shoal formation dotted by sixteen sand islands (8 on Indian side and 8 on Srilankan side), conveniently named Ram Setu. If you try and burrow a canal in the middle of it and make a shorter shipping line between the East coast and the West of India, there will be trouble, said the Hindu Taliban. Not from Rama, the builder of the bridge, but from the combined Hindu equivalent of Al-Qaida-Taliban-Pakistan Muslim League. To start with, and to demonstrate what would follow, they blocked the roads and trains across the Country and burnt effigies.
There were environmental objections against the proposed canal, which have never bothered any oil guzzling government, let alone Indian government, anywhere in the world. On the other hand, Al-Qaeda and Taliban – known by whatever other name – frightens the hell out of any government. That is how the ‘Setu Samudram Canal Project’ got dropped. I am no expert on the financial viability or environmental impact of such a project; if it got shelved or dropped (which is the same thing) on those grounds, there would be no blog such as this. What inspires my fury is religious superstition getting in the way of a Country’s attempt at economic progress.
Now let us examine the facts.
The sandy ridge between Pamban (Indian side) and Mannar (Srilankan side) islands that we call Ram Setu is made up of limestone shoals, not huge wooden logs and massive rocks. Logs might rot in the 9000 year period that is supposed to have passed since Ramayana; but rocks won’t. There are no limestone hills or mountains near Rameswaram, one would have to go to Karnataka’s West coast to find limestone hills
How long is a yojana when measured in contemporary unit of length? The great ancient scientist, astronomer and mathematician, Aryabhata (not Aryabhatta, as some would like to spell his name. Bhata means soldier, Aryabhata = Aryan Soldier born in Kodungallur on the South-West Coast), predicted the circumference of the earth in yojanas. If you take a yojana to be equal to about 8 miles, (13 Kms) you’d find that his prediction of earth’s diameter to be 1050 Yojanas is precise to a fraction of a percent. This has to be so; it was Aryabhata’s calculation that enabled the future writers of Panchang (Hindu almanac) to predict sunset and sunrise, eclipses and other astronomical data correctly. A hundred-yojana bridge is eight hundred miles or 1300 kilometres long. This also agrees with Bhaktivedanata’s interpretation of Mahabhagavatam. (Mr. Murthy’s translation also states at one point that a yojana is 8 miles). Note that: these 800 miles length of the Setu is in a straight line, not an arched shape as in the sand ridge referred to as Ram Setu. Sea waves form arch-shaped beaches on their shores. So does this natural formation, but the bridge that the monkeys constructed under the supervision of skilled Nala (son of Vishwakarma, who engineered the world) was a perfect straight line – the straightness ensured by a 100-yojana string ,
As regards Ganges and Sindhu escorting the Lord of the Sea at the point of his meeting with Rama, it could be a figure of speech by a poet who took extreme liberties in giving laudatory ornamentations to everything and every character in the story. Ganges and Sindhu are extremely unlikely to come together anywhere; certainly not near Rameswaram in deep South.
The sea around the so-called bridge is shallow – 1 metre to 10 metres deep. There are no crocodiles anywhere around; in fact, even the salt-water crocodiles you find in Southern India do not venture into sea. Any biologist will tell you that crocodiles confine themselves to swamps and rivers. How can a sea that is fathomless (as stated by the lord of the sea) at the time of Rama 9000 years ago become so shallow? The 9000-year age of Ramayana is not my idea; it was computed by astrologers taking into account the position of the planets and constellations at the time of Rama’s birth.
As stated before, the ridge named ‘Ram Setu’ consists of limestone shoals- formations of sands that usually happen due to the process called shoaling in shallow waters. Lime comes from dead sea animals and fossils. Rameswaram, where Lord Rama is supposed to have launched his bridge, is a low-lying area of 32 feet mean elevation. Vindhya Range stops far short of the mainland leading to this island. Where did the monkeys find huge mountains near Rameswaram to wrench out huge rocks to build the bridge? I shall not question the presence of so many varieties of trees, maybe there was a huge forest around the place those 9000 years ago (see ‘Shri Rama’s Date of Birth’ in the link).
How does the 18-mile (30 Km) Setu (If you include Pamban Island and Mannar Peninsula at the point touching Srilanka, it could be as much as 39 miles (62 kms) compare with an eight-hundred mile (1280 Km) monkey-made bridge of Valmiki’s Ramayana?
Aryabhata does mention a Lanka. Like Valmiki, he calls it Lanka , never Srilanka. Nor do the Divu chronicles and Buddhist literature mention Srilanka. Many of his calculations and derivations are based on the assumption that this Lanka is situated on the equator on the same latitude as Ujjain (Ujjaini) This points towards a large island in the string of islands called Maldives. This is reasonably consistent with the 100-yojana (800 miles or 1300 hundred kilometres) calculation from any South Indian West coast which was possibly what Valmiki had in mind. Valmiki was a poet and not a mathematician or surveyor, and perhaps his approximation was somewhat off the mark, but he certainly could not have mistaken 30 (or even 62) kilometers for a 100 yojanas or about 1300 kilometres.
Aryabhata was a mathematician-astronomer who made precise calculations his forte, so Lanka is most probably a far-off island in Maldives, nearly 800 miles (100 yojanas as per the 14+20+21+22+23 calculation in Sarga 22) and just a couple of degrees off the infinitely thin equatorial line, (as against 9.3 degrees at the point in Srilanka where the supposed Ram Setu ends) and only a couple of degrees towards the East of the meridian of Ujjain (whereas it is about 6.5 degrees East from Mannar island). The sea is mostly several kilometers deep as stated by the Lord of the ocean, and infested with large sea animals – dolphins, large sharks and whales, if not exactly crocodiles or alligators. It is quite possible that the word Makarah meant a lot many large and fierce sea animals in Sanskrit during Valmiki’s time.
One might ask how anybody could build a bridge 1300 kms long in five days from crude raw materials like trees pulled out of the ground and rocks shorn from mountains. That is a valid question. My answer would be that if they could be presumed able to build a bridge 30 (or 62, take your pick) kilometres long including the task of pulling out trees off the ground and breaking away rocks shorn the mountains in 5 days, they could just as well do a 1300-km length. I doubt if our highly trained military engineers would be able to build an 30 (or 62) km bridge in five days with their pre-fabricated materials. Once you bring in the concept of superhuman strength and abilities to your story, there is no bench mark to it; if 30 or 62 kilometres is possible in 5 days, so is 1300 kilometres. (When I mention 62 Kms, I am including Pamban and Mannar as part of the Setu). The number of hundreds of thousand monkeys employed in the task are not precisely stated, so you can’t even compute the man-hours.
How many days did Vishwamitra take to build the whole world? Less than the six days that Jehova (YHWH) the Abrahamic god took, or was it more? You can’t devise a benchmark for superstitious timing of labour.
Supposing the government was to dig a canal to make way for a shipping line (Setu Samudram Project) in the middle of this ridge. How would Rama himself react to the idea? In December 1964, a huge heretofore unheard of cyclone destroyed the railway line and much of the Dhanushkodi, drowning more than a hundred pilgrims on the spot, taking more than 1800 human toll in all. Lord Rama didn’t appear to have cared, the authorities were not even alerted about the extent of the calamity for 48 hours. The damage met with no divine compensation; lives lost were cruelly lost . Then is it likely that he would be much perturbed by someone scooping out a canal in the middle of the bridge he is supposed to have got built by monkeys so many millennia ago?
Mr. LK Advani said that Hindu feelings were hurt with the findings of Archaeological Survey of India that there is no proof that the so-called Rama Setu is a man-made (precisely, monkey-made) bridge. Now, the geography of Southern India (Deccan Region) is indeed consistent with Valmiki’s description of the regions of forests beyond the Vindhyas where Rama and Lakshmana roamed in search of Sita. The pious say, and many Kannadigas believe, that Kishkinda is the State of Karnataka. Hanuman is the most popular deity in that region. However, it is conceivable that the ASI found no proof – fossils, pieces of bone, human-simian teeth, whatever they and anthropologists look for as proof – to believe that the population of Karnataka have descended from giant ape-men capable of communicating with human speech, showing off (रराज) bright red buttocks (स्फिग्देशेनाभिताम्रेण)– Sundara Kandam, 1:63) and long tails. Evidently, Valmiki was not describing a different race of humans, but real man-monkeys. How hurt would Advaniji be if they were state that no such race of ape-men ever existed? In all probability that was one of the reasons why ASI researchers stated conclusively that Ramayana has no historical basis.
Sundara Kandam describes a huge mountain, Mainaka, normally submerged but capable of rising many yojanas above sea level, its base at the mouth of Patala, the underworld, its pinnacle covered in shining gold, on Hanuman’s flight path from India to Lanka (Sundara Kandam, 1:91). Where is that mountain between India and Srilanka, even assuming that Hanuman took a different flight path than where the bridge was built over the sea later?
Isn’t it evident that Valmiki was writing of a Lanka, as also known to Aryabhata, several hundred miles away from our west coast, somewhere near the equator and in line with Ujjain, that was widely known or believed to be in existence in the puranic period? Southern Indians of the time, particularly where Aryabhata came from, were adept at ocean navigation and there were fishing folk among them who either found the Maldives (or even Mauritius) or traded with its native inhabitants (or had been met by those inhabitants in a recurrent state of hostility) and were hence considered to be demons? Isn’t it perfectly possible that they resembled the forest-dwelling, hunting (and possibily cannibalistic) races 14,000 of whom Rama annihilated to please the forest-intruding rishis during his sojourn in the Dandaka forests, as mentioned in Aaranya Kandam, and that is why their chiefs were considered Ravana’s brothers and Shurpanaka his sister? On the other hand, the population of Srilanka is barely different in appearance from the largely Dravidian population of South India
Isn’t it perfectly clear that present Srilanka was either a part of the subcontinent or connected with a land ridge that got eroded over the years to become the Ram Setu of today? Isn’t the incredibly low depth of the ocean (1 metre to 10 metres!) a proof of this erosion?
Expectedly, there were riots and court cases when ASI submitted its honest affidavit. A cowardly government, on the recommendation of the Director General of ASI (some scientist!) immediately suspended two scientists – both Hindus – for stating the fact that the so-called Ram Setu is a natural formation, and that there is no evidence that Ramayana is a historical event in an affidavit submitted to court. The suspension of the ASI staff was akin to what Pope Urban did to Galileo Galilee after a relatively merciful inquisition (house arrest for life instead of a blazing stake). In the 20th century, Cardinal Ratzinger (later the disgraced Pope Benedict) pronounced that Pope Urban was right in punishing Galilee; that the current acceptance of his theory by the church is only politically correct! That is Christian Taliban for you. Despite the advancement of science, superstitions appear to have only worsened over the centuries.
If the ASI finding had hurt Hindu feelings, the first person to be suspended for that crime should have been Aryabhata posthumously; at least his Aryabhatiya (his only known work) should have been banned and all the translations of his original work pulped. Why? As against what our Vedas and Puranas (Maha Bhagavatam, for instance) say with certainty that the Sun is a god who rides seven divine horses from the East to West in the sky and occasionally comes down to seduce young girls (Mahabharatam) and beget children – like Karna – wherein our ancient faith rests, Aryabhata said that the Sun is a sphere of fire that stands stationery and earth revolves around it. He said: “In the same way that someone in a boat going forward sees an unmoving object going backward, the apparent movement of the sun is because of the rotation of the earth”. Isn’t that a blasphemy about our religion, any religion for that matter? Books on modern science should be burnt. We should revert to Gurukula, teaching only three Vedas (The fourth one, Atharva Veda reserved for higher studies), a couple of epics, Bhagvat Gita and Surya Namaskar. If you think that is a weird suggestion, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh ministers (both of the BJP party at the time) had mooted a similar idea. That would be a perfect answer to Pakistani Madrasas and their Taliban training centres.
The natural limestone shoal formation between Dhanushkodi and Mannar gives the Hindutwa extremists another sacred cause apart from the mosque in Ayodhya; for Srilankans the newly invented “Rama Trail” (with built-and-painted-to-look-ancient signs and images of Ravana’s supposed period) means a huge income from religious tourism by gullible Indians. It is another matter that Srilankans do not look like invincible demons (except on the cricket field). A Srilankan blog says : “Thank God the Indians have dropped the idea of digging the canal”. He has a sound reason to be thankful. Even Tamil Nadu in India should be grateful, it earns money from religious tourism despite occasional tragedies.
There are so many Christians in the West who still cling to the Creation theory. I actually met one – a British teacher in a missionary school in Dhaka – who tore up my six-year old grandson’s attempt at a ‘project’ on dinosaurs on the ground that there were no dinosaurs in the 6000 years that have passed since Creation. Fortunately, Indians but for the few rabble rousers have learnt to adapt to the findings of science. Scientists like Chandrasekhar and Narilkar have put forth path-breaking theories that have guided the scientific world. I do not notice anyone I know – certainly not a Hindu – feeling hurt by the theory of evolution (as against the Manu theory that an egg broke into two shells –one sky and the other earth) and blocking roads and trains to subvert text books.
Conclusion? Ram Setu got its name in the fifteenth century CE when the ridge was still above water (as per some temple records in Rameswaram, which got the name for the same reason) and reached up to the island named Sinhala – Lion Country – which came to be vulgarized as Ceylon by Europeans, and later nationalized as Srilanka the same way as Bombay became Mumbai. The name has nothing to do with Rama of Ramayana fame, just as Mahatma Gandhi Roads in many cities and town across India are not roads that Mahatma Gandhi ever built or traversed; Indira Gandhi Markets are not places where Mrs. Indira Gandhi sold or shopped; Rajiv Gandhi had nothing to do with Rajiv Gandhi Arogya Yojna.