Hindu hardliners go ape over Ram Setu report

India and Sri Lanka

South-east India and northern Sri Lanka © NASA

September 2007 was a bad month for archaeology in India. After submitting an affidavit to the Supreme Court investigating the development of the controversial Sethusamundram Canal, archaeologists found themselves in the dock. The Archaeological Survey of India (an arm of the culture ministry) has come face-to-face with the powerful religious lobby over the existence the mythical god Lord Ram. If the canal goes ahead as planned it will affect the supposed site of Ram Setu (also known as Adam’s Bridge). India’s fragile political secularism is being tested by the Hindu extremists as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seek to use archaeology to exploit religious sentiment for political gain.

Ayodhya and the VHP

Hindu fundamentalists are no strangers to archaeology in India. In 1992, a group of hardline Hindu nationalists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) (translated as World Hindu Council) were responsible for the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in Northern India. Their cause was bolstered by evidence fabricated by state archaeologists claiming to show that an earlier Hindu temple had once stood on the site of the mosque. The results made a mockery of the archaeological method. A crowd of Hindu nationalists then set about destroying the temple and anyone who stood in their way. Hundreds of people were killed in resultant violence and revenge attacks. In an act of blatant political expediency the Hindu-centred BJP (then the party of government) promised to build a Ram Temple on the site. This promise remained unfulfilled. Now the main opposition party, they are under continual pressure from the more extreme VHP for the Hindu vote.

Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project

The archaeological survey undertaken in the waters between India and Sri Lanka is in anticipation of a massive canal project which aims to reduce the travel times of ship navigating between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka (the Palk Strait). As is often the case with large infrastructure projects, there has been a great deal of opposition to the development. The opposition falls into four main categories:

  1. there will be unnecessary and substantial ecological damage;
  2. the economic case for the canal is unconvincing;
  3. the project is really about enhancing India’s military logistical capabilities;
  4. the canal will destroy the site of Lord Ram’s bridge (a site of extreme religious significance to Hindus).

Lord Ram overseeing the construction of Ram Setu

Lord Ram overseeing the construction of Ram Setu by his army of monkeys

Ram Setu in Hindu Mythology

Lord Ram is the subject of the epic mythological Hindu text, the Ramayana. Supposedly set c 1.7 million years ago and written by Valmiki, according to the Ramayana, Ram Setu (Ram’s Bridge) was build by Lord Ram with the assistance of his army of monkeys. He did this in order to rescue Sita, his kidnapped wife, from Sri Lanka. The site of the bridge is believed to be between Sri Lanka and India in the Palk Strait.

The archaeological survey and the report to the Supreme Court

An archaeological survey at this massive site was undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) prior to the necessary dredging of the Palk Strait. Dredging would significantly damage any archaeological remains in and around the proposed development.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the archaeologists found no evidence for the existence of Lord Ram and his army of monkeys. According to The Financial Times, the affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court stated that the Ramayana could not “incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events depicted therein”.

The 400 page affidavit, written by monuments director at the ASI (C Dorjee), was
quoted in The Times, stating that “The issue has to be approached in a scientific manner”. However, in this case the rational scientific approach was bound to clash with religious mythology.

As for the existence of the bridge, the survey found that it consisted of nothing more than sedimentation which has built up in the Palk Strait. According the the Ramayana, the Ram Setu is over a million years old but geological evidence suggests its age is closer to 5000 years.

Reaction from Hindu hardliners

The archaeologists report was deemed blasphemous and resulted in protests across India (in Bhopal and Delhi) bringing major disruption to transport infrastructure and city centres. The Hindustan Times reported that the government withdrew both its affidavits as a result of religious sentiment (though presumably the archaeological evidence remains the same) saying that they would review the contents of the original affidavits and submit supplementary documentation to the Supreme Court. One can only suspect appeasement is on the cards.

The Financial Times quoted Pravin Togadia of the VHP attempting to stir up sectarian tension by stating that the ruling Congress Party was “appeasing Muslims by hurting Hindu sentiments”. Togadia went further, putting the mental back into Hindu fundamentalism, by warning that “even the strongest drills” would break when applied to Ram Setu’s foundation.

Consequences for archaeology in India and elsewhere

The Supreme Court has ordered a three month suspension of the work. The archaeologists from the ASI and the culture minister (Ambika Soni) found themselves under immense pressure from a Congress Party-led government seeking to shore-up its religious credentials in the face of election pressure from more religious parties. The government announced an investigation into how such an inflammatory affidavit could have reached the courtroom. This seams to show no solidarity with the archaeologists or their findings and is a shameful example of political cowardice in the race of religious pressure.

Archaeology is the investigation of the past by means of material evidence. It is not a campaign to prove or disprove the existence of assorted deities. However, should archaeological evidence suggest that a god never existed, that a holy text described mythological fiction and folklore rather than actual historical events, then nobody should be afraid to say so. For such an argument to put both archaeologists and economic development at risk is an act of insanity.

Written by James Doeser