Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Setu the Wonder

Rama Setu - the Bridge of Rama - is an amazing structure in the Indian Ocean, a continuous 48 km long stretch of underwater causeway which connects Rameshwaram, the southern-eastern tip of the Indian peninsula, to Talaimannar, the northern-western tip of Sri Lanka.

The name comes from Sri Rama, highly revered figure of Hindus and is connected with Ramayana, his biography. According to Hindu scriptures, Sri Rama Chandra had commanded the construction of this bridge for the passage of his army from the Indian side of the ocean to the Sri Lankan side, in order to defeat the villainous king Ravana and rescue his wife Sita who was abducted by the treacherous Ravana. This event of constructing the bridge is related in detail not only in the Ramayana, but also in other prominent texts like the Mahabharata, Skanda Purana, Sthala Purana, and several others.

This structure literally got christened by the European cartographers, who marked it as 'Adam's Bridge' in the maps, during the British colonial rule over the subcontinent. But then, who cares for the fancies of Euro-centric cartographers and academics? Not the people, at least, who have always known it as 'Ramasetu', 'Ramarsetu', 'Setumandiram' or just 'Setu'. The importance of Setu in tradition can be gauged from the fact that even the surrounding sea which it separates, is called 'Setu-Samudram' - the Sea of the Bridge, the focus being on the Bridge rather than the sea. European cartographers named the waters of Setu Samudram as Palk Strait.

Setu is of such high reverence that many parents even name their children as 'Setu Raman', 'Setu Madhav', 'Setu Sundar', or 'Setu'. Such names are popular not only amongst Tamils, but all over India and Sri Lanka.

From the point of religious significance, Setu is one of the most important shrines of the Hindus, and referred as Setumandiram - the Bridge Temple. Skanda Purana, the lengthiest of all Puranas, dedicates one whole chapter to describing in detail the significance of Setu. In Setumahatmya chapter of its Bramhakhandam book, Skanda Purana details how Setu is blessed by both Shiva and Vishnu, and prescribes how pilgrimage to the Setu Teertham, performing last rites here, bathing, visiting, or even seeing or remembering it can give liberation from this material world. Different scriptures have specified two places suitable for performing penance for the most serious of all guilt, even as grim as killing a cow or a saintly man - Setu is one of them (Kashi, the city of Shiva, being the other).

Sri Adi Shankaracharya had re-established four primary centers of pilgrimage in the farthest corners of India, which every Hindu seeks to visit in one's lifetime. Rameshwaram, the western terminal of the Setu, represents one of those four dhams. Ramayana tells us that on his way back from Lanka, Sri Rama and Sita established a Shiva Linga here, using which they worshipped Shiva and repented for the violence committed by his army during the war. This shrine, aptly known as Ramalingam, on the western terminal of the Setu, is one of the most important places for Hindus.

Setu not only represents the unity of Shaiva and Vaishnava, but also the unity of North India and South India. The chief priests of Rameshwaram shrines come from the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just like the Northern shrines of Pashupatinath and Kashi Vishwanath are served by Southern priests. North-South unity goes beyond this. As per the tradition, pilgrim has to bring waters of Ganga from Gangotri in Uttaranchal, which must be used for the worship at Rameshwaram. While leaving, pilgrim has to take the sand of Rameshwar to Pryag in north, and 'return' it to the Ganga there. Come to think of such traditions - what are these if not the symbols of cultural oneness of India, and the subtle reminders to her people that every corner of her geography is but equally revered.

For Buddhists too, Setu is of high importance and connected with the Lankavatara Sutra, one of the founding stones of Mahayan Buddhism. Setu is even respected by Muslims and Christians. The President of India, the Honorable Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, is from the island of Rameshwaram himself, and has mentioned in his famous book Wings Of Fire, how Muslim fishermen and ferrymen revere Setu and assist Hindu pilgrims to Setumandiram.

Civilizationally, Setu is of utmost importance to the Indic civilization. If India can pride herself on being the oldest continuous civilization alive today, then Setu is quite literally a monumental icon of that continuity, and is a reminder of her glorious ancientry.

During colonial rule, when Europeans were studying India and her traditions, and contouring it within their existing Euro-centric, Bible-centric framework, several of her traditions like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jain and Bauddha traditions etc, were "explained" as myths. Over time and generations, Indians internalized that, and many Indians now believe these to be only myths and not history.

However the natural process of gradual detoxification of minds from their colonial mindsets involves re-creating knowledge of its traditions, knowledge of its own past realities. Within the last couple of decades, we have seen several possibilities for the plausibility of these Indian traditions as Ramayana and Mahabharata to be true events and not just myths. In recent times, this has been gaining momentum, and we stand at the juncture when several academic researchers seek completely new knowledge with a new framework, and new interpretations and explanations of traditional knowledge are becoming possible. Historicity of Ramayana and Mahabharat is one such subject of research.

Setu came to limelight worldwide, a few years back, when images taken by NASA satellite cameras, one of which is displayed on the right, clearly showed the Rama Bridge to be a very unique structure, a 'bridge' indeed. This added new excitement, if not new information, about Setu.

Modern researches on Setu have been conducted over last few decades, but unfortunately, these have been limited to ad-hoc, piecemeal, individual researches. On the contrary, Setu calls for a multi-disciplinary dedicated research scope, which is yet to be taken up. Partly the nature of the subject is also to blame, for the lack of modern knowledge about Setu. Marine archaeology has only been around as a scholarly discipline for about the last four decades - since the invention of Scuba and under-water research technologies. We hope, just like the scientists have conducted researches on other ancient heritages, Setu would also be studied and details about it revealed to us.

Setu received the attention of oceanographers after the notorious 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Several software simulation models demonstrated that Setu had effectively shielded the western coastline of India from any serious damage by diverting the tsunami's energies.

Setu has recently come in the news again, this time for very grim reasons. Because of the presence of Setu as a barrier, the ships of medium or large size can not pass through the waters between India and Sri Lanka, effectively causing the ships traveling between the east and west coasts of India to have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka. To avoid this circumnavigation, the Government of India has decided to build an under-water shipping channel, using which ships of medium size can avoid circumnavigation of Sri Lanka, thereby saving a trip of about 350 km and 22 hours. The project is called Setu Samudram Ship Channel project.

For building this channel, a most specific configuration, out of the six alternatives available, has been chosen, the only one that will damage the Setu. There are other feasible alternatives, which can avoid this destruction of setu, while still implementing the channel.

Beyond the question of heritage and tradition, there are environmental, socio-economical, geo-political, strategic security, and other concerns, which several experts have raised about the design of the project.

But the government seems to have no time for such menial and unimportant questions, all of which have been summarily dismissed by it. In fact the government seemed to be so impatient that, when hardly 6 months had passed since the notorious 2004 killer-tsunami, it went ahead and inaugurated the dredging for the canal, completely ignoring the pertinent concerns which arose in light of the new data made available due to the tsunami.

While the economic significance of the Setu Samudram Ship Channel project (SSC) is also questionable, what is not acceptable is that the present design of the project involves damaging this ancient heritage that represents an ancient part of India's civilizational continuity. Besides, the SSC project also causes enormous damage to the flora and fauna. Already scores of rare sea animals like whales have been killed in the first phase of the project.

This website is dedicated to bringing all the news, facts, analyses and updates on this issue. We encourage you to register your protest to the project, and to join the distribution list to receive news bulletins.

hits since Chaitra 7, 2064 Vikram (March 26, 2007)