Posted on 1-June-2007
Then the chief of the monkeys, Nala, came forward and said to the great warrior Rama:'My Lord, using the powers I have inherited from my father, I shall build this bridge over this vast sea. As I am the legitimate son of the divine builder Vishvakarma, I am his equal in accomplishments. I am capable of constructing this bridge over the sea. Therefore let all the monkeys start building straightaway.'
Then, instructed by Lord Rama, hundreds of thousands of large-bodied monkeys, full of joy and enthusiasm, set out in all directions, going into extensive forests. These superior, big-bodied monkeys broke down mountain tops and dragged them into the sea...Big and strong monkeys pulled out and brought down elephant-sized rocks and mountains using different implements. With the drop of rocks sea-water splashed high up into the sky as suddenly as it fell back. Some monkeys made the sea churn by dropping rocks into it while others held a hundred yojana long line of yarn(1 yojana is equal to eight miles or about thirteen kilometres).
Nala was building an enormous bridge in the middle of the sea, which is the lord of small and large rivers. With great effort the monkeys began the construction of the bridge. This one held a pole for taking measurements and the other collected material. Submitting themselves completely to the orders of Rama, hundreds of monkeys with mountain or cloud-like appearance busied themselves building different sections of the bridge, using wood, blades of grass, even trees in flower. These monkeys, running in all directions, carrying mountain-like rocks, looked like gigantic demons. Falling rocks made great noise when they dropped into the sea.
Elephant-bodied monkeys, working enthusiastically, rapidly and absorbedly completed fourteen yojanas of the bridge on the first day. On the second day these large fast working monkeys completed twenty yojanas, twenty-one on the third day and twenty-two on the fourth. And on the fifth day, those brave monkeys, keeping up the speed of their work, completed the remaining twenty-three yojanas of the bridge, taking it right up to Mount Subela. Thus the mighty, lustrous son of Vishvakarma, the best among monkeys, completed a hundred yojana bridge on the sea. In this achievement he was like his father...Thus that host of ten billion enthusiastic and powerful monkeys crossed over to the other side as they built the bridge which was extensive, level, beautiful and well-constructed and adorned the sea like a barrier.
When the bridge was ready, Vibhishana, mace in hand, accompanied by his ministers, took position on the other side, so that if enemy demons tried to damage the bridge, they could be punished. Thereafter Sugriva said to the truly heroic Rama: 'You climb on the shoulders of Hanumanta and let Lakshmana ride the back of Angada; these monkeys who can travel by air will carry the two of you; this sea is very vast'...
Other monkeys marched in the middle of the army or on the sides. Some jumped into the sea and swam. Yet others jumped into the sky and flew like garuda...In time the whole army of monkeys arrived on the other shore by that bridge built by Nala. King Sugriva, finding plentiful fruit, roots and water there pitched camp on the seashore.
Paraphrase of a section of Ramayana by Valmiki
Rameshvaram, located on an island off the Indian mainland on the Gulf of Mannar is a major Hindu pilgrim site. Its main temple is dedicated to Shiva. The road south of Rameshavaram stops after about twelve kilometres beyond which one can travel through rough tracks on flat, soft, wet sand, passing scattered, small and poor communities of fisherfolk, by four wheel drive vehicles or other rickety improvised motorised transport up to the last point of land some eight kilometres away. We stood at this point one warm April day, facing the first bank of sand across the waters. Straining my eyes a little I could see some rocky outcrops in the water beyond the first sandbank. If I had binoculars I could perhaps see more shoals and rocks in this chain stretching out into the sea. The place is called Sethusamudram or sea-bridge. I knew that that chain of rocks, sandbanks and islets stretched about fortyfive kilometres to the coast of Srilanka. I also knew that for hundreds of years generations of fishermen of the area would have known of this chain stretching all the way to Srilanka. Looking outwards towards the sea I thought the knowledge of the topography of this place would have been so widespread in India even two thousand years ago that it was possible for a man somewhere in the Indo-Gangetic plains composing his Ramayana poem to link this peculiar land formation to the mythical bridge Rama's monkeys built across the sea to convey his army to Lanka. Or, I thought, the explanation might be that the Ramayana story as we know it from Valmiki might in fact be an amalgam of a number of different local stories of which a story about a bridge across the sea at the point at which I stood. Standing there I thought no more of the bridge built by the monkeys than I did of Jason when someone told me at a place called Vani near Poti on the Black Sea coast of the Republic of Georgia that according to legend that was the place where Jason and his Argonauts came looking for the golden fleece or of Heracles when we went to a point, said to be the Northwestern extremity of the African continent, a little west of Tangiers, which according to the tourist literature was the locale of one of Heracles's labours.
In contrast to Rameshvaram or its main temple, full of people, priests, pilgrim shelters, shops selling what pilgrims needed and more, not many people seemed to go to Sethusamudram. There were no points of worship around, no priests nor temple touts who are such a common feature of major centres of Hindu pilgrimage. About twenty-five metres from where we stood one family which had brought its priest in its motor transport performed some religious ritual by the sea. Another twenty-five metres away there were a few fishermen's small craft lazily beached on the sand probably waiting to be taken out to sea by their owners when the water rose. About four kilometres to the north was the ruined railway station and town of Dhanushkodi. Remnants of the walls of the railway station building, those of the houses of railway and other officials and of a church stood still, a reminder of the railhead town that had been destroyed in a cyclone in 1964. There was now a small, new community there living in very elementary dwellings whose most precious possession was a single source of drinking water. Their existence or that of other people in the neighbourhood was so marginal that being told the story of the bridge the monkeys built for Rama would likely cause not the slightest stir in their hearts or probably some of them knew the story and did not care.
Sethusamudram and the feelings and thoughts it aroused in me had gone into some not too deep recess of my mind until eight or ten months ago a university professor, with whom I had just once exchanged two e-mail messages sent to me and oodles of others as an e-mail attachment a satellite photograph of the sea between Sethusamudram and the Srilankan coast, of what is also known as Adam's Bridge. The photograph showed a clear continuous line of rocks and sand under the sea between this point of India and Srilanka. The professor added no comment of his own. The photograph proved nothing beyond presenting another view of a natural geographical feature which had been known about for a very long time. It took me a little time to understand that the professor's mass e-mailing was part of a new Hinduist propaganda and campaign.
There is a Government of India project named, I think unfortunately, Sethusamudram project which involves the dredging of some of the sandbanks on Adam's Bridge within India's maritime boundary with Srilanka to create a deep shipping channel connecting the Gulf of Mannar on the west of Adam's Bridge to the Palk Straits on its east. The project when completed will shorten the shipping distance between the west and east coasts of India by around seven hundred kilometres; it will also shorten the distance for those ships carrying international freight from the east or the west which for reaching the west or east coast of India have at present to go round Srilanka. Those in charge of the project say they are taking care to minimise its effects on marine life and ecology. Unless demonstrated to be unfeasible on techno-economic bases or on grounds of damage to the environment, this project will bring clear economic benefits not only to India's coastal regions but also to the hinterland. Yet one increasingly vociferous group, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, with the support of a certain number of 'religious leaders and gurus' and on the basis of 'scientific' and 'historical' evidence has begun to oppose it on the ground that it will destroy the 'historic' bridge that was built for taking Ramachandra's monkey army to fight Ravana's army in Lanka.
Valmiki in some Sanskrit literature is known as adikavi or first or original poet. His version of the Ramayana story is considered by a vast majority of Hindus to be the original Ramayana. Any person with even a small capacity for rational thought who reads the paraphrase of sections of Valmiki's Ramayana describing the construction of the bridge for Ramachandra's army with which this essay starts will see the freedom with which the poet has used his imagination to create this mythical bridge: consider the large numbers of monkeys involved, the rapidity with which construction is completed, the length of the bridge at 1300 kilometres. Besides, Ramachandra and Lakshmana never walked on it. Like this bridge, large parts of the Ramayana story are myths and the Ramachandra of Ramayana, son of Dasaratha, descendant of Bhagirath who brought the Ganges to the sea may or may not bear a relationship to an actual king of Ayodhya called Ramachandra, of unknown antiquity and unknown description.
But calling the Ramayana story a myth is not necessarily to take away its importance. A myth acquires longevity and force because of its meaning, often its allegorical meaning. Both Gautama the Buddha of the Pali chronicles of Srilanka and Jesus Christ of the the four Gospels are semi-mythical figures bearing only a small relationship to the historical Sakya Muni or Jesus Christ. Yet both of them have been enormously influential because of the appeal of their word and not because of the historicity of their persons. For millions of Hindus, the Ramayana--most of the several hundred versions--is scripture and a guide to moral conduct because they believe that Ramachandra was the ideal man to be emulated in all important matters of life and that he was an incarnation of Vishnu, God Himself, an object of worship and prayer. For those who believe in the word of Gautama or Jesus or in the divinity of Ramachandra, minor historical facts about them are of little consequence.
For those for whom the manipulation of religious beliefs of millions of Hindus became a ladder on which to climb to political power real or invented history about Ramchandra and Krishna or about different places of worship became matters of great 'national importance', causing grave damage to Indian society. Thus a senior Indian politician, a leader of a party claiming to restore Hindu pride and glory, a long time Prime Minister in waiting, started a movement in 1989 to construct a Hindu temple at the 'actual place of birth' of Ramachandra, a site at which under the first Moghul emperor Babar a previously standing Hindu temple had supposedly been destroyed and a mosque constructed. That movement culminated in 1992 in the destruction of the sixteenth century mosque creating a rift between Hindus and Muslims of India which is yet to close. The destruction of the mosque provoked a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993, starting a number of court cases which are only now coming to a close. From time to time, the same kind of people talk menacingly about a mosque in Mathura at the site where another mythical figure, Krishna, was supposedly born. Yet others expend much energy talking about the real capital of the mythical Krishna which is now submerged in the sea off the town of Dwarka in Gujarat. The group that now seeks to protect the 'historical' bridge that was built for Ramachandra's army from those who in their pursuit of worldly economic progress forget about India's 'eternal, spiritual and religious traditions' is affiliated to the same people who in 1992 destroyed the the mosque at Ayodhya.
One of the consequences of old India's encounter with British and western culture and civilisation under British colonial rule was that there came up in the 19th and early 20th century a series of Hindu reformers, thinkers and activists who all started with more or less the same question in one form or the other: why had India, heir to an ancient and glorious civilisation fallen behind? The answer for most of them was that India had fallen into ignorance and superstition and acquired a number of undesirable, even evil social practices. These people created a powerful educational and social reform movement at least among Hindus. This reform movement, at times popularly labelled 'the Indian Renascence' dominated Hindu thought till around the middle of the twentieth century. The people who started and sustained this movement--Ram Mohun Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra, Keshub Chandra Sen, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi--were more or less deeply steeped in Indian tradition while being well aware and respectful of the achievements of Western civilisation. They were all, almost without exception, men of great intellectual worth, men with trained modern minds, concerned with the revival of India's fortunes. It is perhaps no accident that so many great Indian names in modern science--Jagdishchandra Bose, C.V. Raman, Satyendranath Bose, Meghnad Saha, R.Ramanujam and S.Chandrashekhar--came up during the period when the reformers and their influence were the strongest. The way of the reformers was the way forward, for that way lay renewal, openness, innovation and intellectal creativity.
As the twentieth progressed Hindu society seemed in some ways to go back. Competition and conflict among caste groups increased; so did intolerance towards other religious groups. There were violent conflicts not only between Hindus and Muslims--that old plague of Indian society--but there were attacks on Christian communities too. Worse still, there seemed to arise a collection of men of straw who would take Hindu society back to the dark ages--this one wanted to spend state funds on the teaching of astrology in Indian universities; that other wanted research in 'Vedic mathematics'; and that other said that colonial historians had deliberately fixed dates of different events in Indian history much later than they actually happened and maintained that every date in Indian history fixed by Western historians should be pushed back by six thousand years. The problems of Indian society, of Hindu society are many: poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, mistreatment of women, tribals and dalits, widespread desease and so on. These cannot be dealt with except with sustained effort over a long period. Indian society in general and the majority Hindu community in particular cannot afford to dissipate its energies on useless distractions. For it to be able to do so it must discard false prophets who agitate for the protection of a bridge that never was, of reviving the birthplace of a man about whose temporal existence no one can know or those who preach hatred against people who follow another religion.