Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ram Bridges Our History

Smt Sandhya Jain in Daily Pioneer

The current controversy over Ram Setu presents an ideal opportunity to probe the reality of a god whose human incarnation is central to Hindu faith. The deity who inspired a footbridge wide enough for an army to cross the Palk Straits poses a powerful challenge to historians who hold that India's first political states were the 16 mahajanapadas that fought to control the Ganga valley in the sixth-fifth centuries BCE. The kings of Kashi, Koshal, and the Vrijji confederacy succumbed to Magadh under Bimbisar (c 543-491 BCE). Much later, after Alexander's retreat, the Mauryan Empire (322-185 BCE) rose by deposing the Nanda dynasty.

Can history accept that Koshal (which included Ayodhya) was an older kingdom; that a prince banished after a palace coup could raise a formidable force and cross an ocean to recover his abducted wife? Closely linked is the veracity of Valmiki Ramayan as 'itihas', not kavya; the existence of a temple in the Janmabhoomi; and the evidence of human intervention at the Setu.

Chandragupta Maurya's mentor, Kautilya, treated Ramayan and Mahabharat as familiar history. In the Adhikarana dealing with discipline, the author of Arthasastra advises shunning the vices of lust, anger, greed, vanity, haughtiness and excessive joy, for Ravan perished because he was too vain to restore a stranger's wife; Duryodhan because he would not part with a portion of his kingdom.

Ram's life resonated in art from the time image-making began. Kausambi, Uttar Pradesh, has the earliest terracotta depiction of a Ramayan scene, datable second-first century BCE, which shows Ravan abducting Sita and the latter throwing her ornaments on the ground to help Ram to trace her (described in Aranya Kand, 54th Sarga, Slok 2, 3). This coincides with the period when Buddha's life began to be portrayed in stone, notably at Sanchi and Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh. If the latter are accepted as true episodes from the Sakya Muni's life, it follows that the real story of Ram was being depicted in the Hindu art of the same period. Los Angeles County Museum has a terracotta sculpture of Ram from Nachara Khera, Haryana, with an inscription saying "Ram,' in Brahmi script of the third century CE.

Scholars believe an earlier narrative formed the kernel of the written Ramayan, which was completed between third century BCE and third century CE. The Buddhist Jatakas are almost contemporaneous with Valmiki; possibly both drew on an older source. The earliest Tamil Sangam literature, dating a couple of centuries before the CE, mentions the exploits of Ram. A verse in the Purananuru collection says that when Ravan was carrying Sita away, she dropped her ornaments as clues to her whereabouts (depicted very early in art).

Three Buddhist Jatakas which form part of the Khuddaka-nikaya, third century BCE, deal with the Ram story, with minor variations. The Dasarath Jataka is set in Varanasi, not Ayodhya; however, Ram gives his sandals to Bharat to rule the kingdom on his behalf. The Nidana of the King of Ten Luxuries is lost, but survives in a Chinese translation by Kekaya in 472 CE. Similarly, the Anamaka Jataka or Jataka of the Unnamed King is preserved in Chinese translation by Sogdian monk Kan-Seng-hui in 251 CE.

The Jain Ramayans are in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa, and Kannada. The canonical second century Anuyogadvara lists many works, including Ramayanam; but Vimala Suri's Pauma-chariyam , fifth century, is the earliest version, along with Vasudevahindi. There followed Ramayan of Svayambhu in Apabhramsa (eighth century); Mahapuran of Pushpadant in Prakrit (tenth century); Pampa Ramayan by Nagachandra (11th century); and Jina Ramayan by Chandrasagar Varni (19th century). Nagachandra records a tradition that the ancient inhabitants of Kishkinda were not monkeys but a tribe whose banner carried the insignia of a monkey.

Sri Lanka is integral to the story; this calls for a credible explanation if a north Indian poet was imagining events from a jungle haven. Sri Lanka has many sites associated with Ramayan. Its literary texts include Janaki-harana by Kumaradasa, 7th century. As Janaki (Sita) was abducted to Lanka, this is of natural interest to a Lankan poet. Ram's travails made their way to China, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and found representation in the visual and plastic arts.

Archaeology has yielded much since Prof BB Lal began excavating the 'Ramayan Sites' in 1972. The demolition of 6 December, 1992 yielded valuable material from the walls of Babri Masjid, including three inscriptions. Deciphered by renowned epigraphist Prof Ajaya Mitra Shastri of Nagpur University, the largest, in classical Nagari script of 11th-12th century, said a temple of Vishnu-Hari was constructed in the temple city of Ayodhya, Saketamandala. Supreme Court mandated excavations of 2002-03 indicate that the earliest habitations at Ayodhya go back well before 1000 BCE (possibly 1980-1320 BCE).

So what are the true credentials of the 30-km chain of sandbanks, underlain by coral reefs and limestone shoals, from Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka? In the 11th century, Alberuni noted: "...Setubandha means bridge of the ocean. It is the dike of Ram, the son of Dasarath, which he built from the continent to the castle Lanka. At present it consists of isolated mountains between which the ocean flows." A 16th-17th century map shows a land-link between India and Sri Lanka; Ramanathapuram Gazetteer refers to Sethu Palam. The 13th century Venetian, Marco Polo, speaks of 'Setabund Rameshwara', bridge related to Ram. Coins by Tamil kings of Nallur in Jafna (Sri Lanka), who ruled between the 13 th and 17th centuries, affirm the existence of Ram Setu.

A cross-section of the setu with present sea level as datum-line shows many sandbanks above sea-level. The last glacial period ended 10,000 years ago; subsequently sea levels rose by a conservative two metres per 1,000 years. Microsoft Encarta 2006 says melting of ice sheets in Flandrian Transgression caused separation of Ireland from Great Britain; and of Great Britain from mainland Europe.

Ayodhya excavations suggest Ram's era fell around 1,000 BCE, when the sea level was probably six metres below current levels, exposing the entire land-mass near Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar. The odd stretch underwater could easily be filled up to create a ford to cross over. A close up of the setu shows firm edges on both sides (to prevent erosion), suggestive of human agency.

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