Rama’s Bridge: The 30-Mile Sandbank That Divides Two Cultures


Landsat image of RamaPhoto:
Rama’s Bridge as seen from the Landsat 5 TM satellite in February 1988
Image: THK

Rama’s Bridge, also called Adam’s Bridge, is a 30-mile-stretch (48 km) of 103 sandbanks that form a natural connection between the island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India and Mannar in northwestern Sri Lanka. Geological evidence suggests that the bridge is a remnant of a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. Though usually a symbol of connection and peace, this particular bridge has caused controversy galore between Hindus, Moslems, politicians and environmentalists for quite a while now.

The problem starts with the perceived origin of the bridge. Hindus claim that the bridge was built by Rama and his army when they invaded Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka) to free Sita, Rama’s wife who had been abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana. Rama’s victory over Ravana is still celebrated today with the festival of Dussera and his return to India three weeks later as Diwali, falling this year on October 17th. As proof, Hindus cite the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, which describes Rama’s life.

Looking west from Sri Lanka to India:
Looking westPhoto:
Image: PlaneMad

A map of Rama’s Bridge and Palk Bay:
Map of RamaPhoto:
Image: UN Cartographic Section

Pamban rail bridge connecting the Indian mainland with the island of Rameswaram:
Pamban rail bridgePhoto:
Image: Swaroop C H

According to a legend of Islamic origin, the bridge was used by Adam to cross over to Sri Lanka to a place now called Adam’s Peak where he is said to have stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.

Even geologists have not only one theory of how this bridge was formed. It once was has the world’s largest tombolo or land deposit before it was split into today’s group of shoals by rising sea levels a few thousand years ago. Continuous sand deposition and sedimentation led to the formation of today’s chain of barrier islands. Other geological theories name crustal downwarping, block faulting and mantle plume activity for the bridge’s particular formation.

Regardless of whether one calls this collection of shoals by Rama’s, Adam’s or another name as seafarers have done since the 18th century, fact is that the Bridge and the shallow waters of the Palk Strait have hindered navigation of big ships through the area and forced them instead to travel all the way around Sri Lanka to reach India’s eastern coast.

Rameswaram Island with traditional fishing boats:
Rameswaram IslandPhoto:
Image: sunciti sundaram

Trade in this area has been active at least since the first century BCE but was restricted to small boats and dinghies. Suggestions for creating a navigable passage by dredging the area were already made by British officers in the late 18th century but didn’t surpass half-hearted attempts throughout the following centuries.

In 2001, the Government of India approved the multi-million dollar Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project that plans to create a navigable passage for large ocean-going vessels across the Palk Strait that would cut over 400 km or 30 hours of shipping time off the voyage around Sri Lanka.

A map of the area with the Golf of Mannar and the Palk Strait circled:
Palk StraitPhoto:
Image: M. Minderhoud

Work on the shipping channel has started with dredging the shallow ocean floor near the Indian city of Dhanushkodi but it has not been under a good star – one dredging vessel sunk, another’s spud broke and during retrieval efforts, a crane snapped. Some Hindus believe that this is Hanuman’s way of protecting the work of his master Rama: The monkey god who possesses supernatural strength and his army of monkey men (Vanara) who helped built the bridge many thousands of years ago are still said to watch over it by taking revenge on those trying to destroy it.

An 1820 painting of Rama and Hanuman fighting against Ravana:
Rama vs. RavanaPhoto:
Image: Anonymous

Environmentalists opposing the project because of concerns over the impact on the area’s ecology and marine wealth and increased risk of damage due to tsunamis claim that proper scientific studies were not conducted before undertaking this project.

A 2002 NASA satellite image was interpreted by those in favour of preserving Rama’s Bridge for religious reasons as man-made, therefore seeing it as proof of Rama’s work many thousands of years ago. NASA distanced itself from these claims, warning that a satellite image was not sufficient evidence for deducting origin or age of the sandbank chain.

The NASA satellite image of Adam’s Bridge:
NASA imagePhoto:
Image: NASA

A 2003 study undertaken by the Centre for Remote Sensing (CRS) of Bharathidasan University further stoked the fire by claiming that Rama’s bridge was only 3,500 years old and not 1.7 million as previously assumed. Critics of the study point to its oversights, one being that only the corals growing around the bridge were examined and not the limestone shoals themselves to determine the bridge’s age.

Those worried about physically breaking the bridge should consider that it has actually been broken long back: A ferry service linking Rameswaram in India and Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, part of the Indo-Lanka Railway service since British times, had to be suspended because of the ongoing fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist LTTE, disrupting the convenient and important rail connection between Chennai and Colombo.

A rail connection like this one to Rameswaram would be nice:
Rail bridge RameswaramPhoto:
Image: sunciti sundaram

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

We’ll even throw in a free album.