HomeArchaeologyRama Setu: The Bridge Between Myth and History

Rama Setu: The Bridge Between Myth and History

Roughly 1500 years old, narrated in 24,000 verses, and told in 480,000 words, the Sanskrit epic Ramayana forms part of the single most significant body of literature in ancient Indian lore—the Itihasa. Along with Ramayana, the Itihasa consists of another Sanskrit epic in Mahabharata and a collection of olden lore and legends in the Puranas.

Ramayana is an epic poem that chronicles the story of how Prince Rama rescued his wife Sita from the Demon King Ravana. Despite being considered as deeply meaningful literature, most experts agree that Ramayana is a product of mythology, rather than an artifact of actual history; in most recent years, however, this previously unshaken academic assumption has become the subject of much historical controversy.

In Ramayana, the great Hindu poet and sage Valmiki makes a great mention of Rama Setu, a bridge across the ocean that connects India and Sri Lanka. Ramayana tells the story of how Prince Rama was forced into relinquishing his throne as the crowned prince of Ayodhya. Following his dethronement, the former prince, along with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana, went into exile; the three spent fourteen years traveling across the deep forests of ancient India. As events unfolded, however, all hell broke loose when, in one of their forests journeys, Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by the Ten Headed Demon King Ravana.

To get his wife back, Rama gathered a large army that consists of a group of monkey soldiers called the Vanaras. In the story, Rama led his army from the mainland, which is modern-day India, into the Island of Lanka, which is modern-day Sri Lanka, where Sita has been held captive by the demon king. There, he waged war against the Demon King Ravana; a battle of epic proportions broke out. But in the end, Rama was able to destroy Ravana. The tale concludes with the return of Prince Rama and Sita to their home kingdom of Ayodhya, where the prince was finally crowned as the new king.

In Ramayana, Rama was initially unable to lead his forces of Vanaras across the ocean to the Island of Lanka. As such, the prince sought the help of the Sea God who gave him the precise instructions on how to build a bridge across the ocean; these included seeking the help of the Vanaras in constructing a floating bridge. The Vanara complied to Rama’s request by constructing a causeway made of rocks and boulders. The Vanaras did this by writing Rama’s name onto the stones, rocks, and boulders, and tossing them into the ocean.  It took the Vanaras five day to complete the bridge Rama Setu. Once in place, Rama used the Rama Setu to move his army across the ocean, and into the Island of Lanka.

Because Ramayana has always been considered a work of fiction rather than an actual record of the past, the Rama Setu or Rama’s Bridge, in turn, was always believed to be a fictional bridge rather than an actual bridge. But in recent years, thanks to advanced satellite imaging technology, NASA has revealed photos of a land formation that appears to have been a causeway of sorts. These strips of land, although broken, appear to have, at some point in the past, extended across the ocean, thus bridging a part of modern-day India into modern day Sri Lanka.

Today, this land formation is best known as Rama’s Bridge, in reference to the Rama Setu mentioned in the Ramayana. Rama’s Bridge is a long stretch of land connection that consists shoal and sandbank; it bridges the Rameswaram Island in India and the Mannar Island in Sri Lanka.

Rama’s Bridge extends to 50 kilometers long; and although most of it is submerged underwater, it forms a solid, albeit intermittent, pathway that connects India to Sri Lanka. The records kept in Rameswaram temple indicate that the bridge remained above sea-level and was passable on foot until sometime in the 15th century when it was finally submerged in water by a great storm.

Both the peoples of India and Sri Lanka has long been aware of the existence of the bridge as made apparent by the prominence of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. Since time immemorial, the sea that separates India and Sri Lanka have been referred to as Sethusamudram, which directly translates to ‘sea of the bridge’.

People in the West, on the other hand, first heard of Rama’s Bridge through Ibn Khordadbeh, a Persian cartographer who lived in the 9th century. The cartographer made a mention of the bridge in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms; in the book; he called it Set Bandhai, which means Bridge of the Sea.

In the early 19th century, a British cartographer prepared a map of the area and referred to the bridge as Adam’s Bridge; the name was derived from an Abrahamic-Islamic myth that speaks of Adam falling into a mountain in Sri Lanka and using the bridge to cross to mainland India.

A good number of Orthodox Hindus believe that the existence of Rama Setu is in itself an unmistakable and undeniable proof of the Ramayana being a part of actual real-life history. To bolster its perceived historical value, believers have put out historical inscriptions, travel guides, dictionary references, and even old maps that validate the existence of Rama Setu as the same exact bridge featured in Ramayana.

In 2002, NASA released photographs that show an almost unbroken chain of limestone shoals between the southeastern coast of India and the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka; these photos renewed the mythohistorical interests in Rama’s Bridge. Since then, many mainstream scientists, historians, and academics have repeatedly tried to debunk the pseudo-historical claims that surround the existence of Rama’s Bridge, making it clear that the structure in question wasn’t so much of a man-made bridge but a natural land formation of sorts.

There remains much debate and conflicting claims on the origin and nature of the structure. Among the most prominent theories offered by mainstream science is that Rama’s Bridge is, in fact, a chain of barrier islands that resulted from the natural process of sand deposition and sedimentation that has occurred over long periods of time. Another explanation offered by mainstream scientists is the possibility that the landmasses of India and Sri Lanka may have been connected at some point in time in the old world, making Rama’s Bridge an ancient shoreline.

In a rather confusing fashion, various scientific studies offer different definitions on what Rama’s Bridge is; it has been described as a chain of shoals, an extended stretch of coral reefs, a sequence of barrier islands, a sandbar, and a narrow strip of land, among other things. For all the speculations and explanations offered by the mainstream sciences, much of the scientific community has yet to arrive at an acceptable consensus on what Rama’s Bridge is exactly.

Over the years, modern-day scientists, historians, and academic researchers have repeatedly made clear what  Rama’s Bridge is not. Rama’s Bridge was not, at any point in time, a manmade structure; Rama’s Bridge, despite its name, is not the same mythohistorical bridge referenced in Ramayana; and perhaps most importantly, Rama’s Bridge was not constructed by the Vanana’s, nor was it built by any other ancient civilization of magical monkey soldiers 2,500,000 ago, as the Sanskrit epic suggests. But what if. What if we remain open to the possibility, however unlikely, that Rama’s Bridge was, in fact, all of these things? What effect then does it have on us, on sense history, and on our perceived understanding of the world?

At present, it is widely regarded in the academe that civilized life on the planet began about 4,800 years ago. Scientists, historians, and academic researchers, among others, point to the fact that there is no substantial body of evidence whatsoever that supports the existence of a civilization predating ancient Sumerian and Egyptian societies, both of which are considered to be earliest civilizations in prehistory.

Experts point out that the absence of evidence supporting the existence of a far older civilization plays directly in favor of the currently accepted timelines of civilizational and cultural development. This is where the growing interest in Rama’s Bridge and Ramayana comes in.

According to Hindu tradition, the events that unfolded in Ramayana took place during the Treta Yuga, which is presently considered a mythological period that began 2,165,000 years ago and lasted until 869,000 years ago. If we set aside, any mythical exaggeration alluded to in Ramayana, then assuming the possibility that Rama’s Bridge was, at some level, humanmade would place the structure well outside the accepted timeline; the existence of which would consequently imply the existence of a civilization that far predates ancient Sumerian and Egyptian societies.

Although Rama is central to the unfolding of events in Ramayana, it is not exactly the crowned Prince of Ayodhya that makes for the most significant variable in the mythohistorical debate that surrounds Rama’s Bridge; It is, in fact, his army of monkey soldiers—The Vanaras. Around 2,500,000 years ago, at very doorstep of the Treta Yuga, human evolution was kick-started by the existence the genus Homo, with the Homo Habilis being the first primates that were able to wield tools. And by about 1,800,000 years ago, Homo Erectus started to walk the Earth.

Archaeological sites that held the bones of Homo Erectus repeatedly reveal that these early humans coexisted in small communities; they lived in huts; they wore clothes, and they fashioned tools made of stone. Homo Erectus, in other words, showed early signs of a developing civilization—traits previously unheard of in predecessor primate groups.

These ape-men, so to speak, literally existed within the Tetra Yuga period.  As such, it might not be too far of a stretch to see the possible connection between today’s accepted history and the cherished mythology in the Ramayana. It’s not too far of a stretch to see the possible connection between these primitive human beings that we know, for a fact, existed in the past, and the Vanaras–builders of the ancient bridge that today rests in the waters of myth, magic, and history.

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