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A bridge that Lord Ram built - myth or reality?

A US television channel has reignited the debate over the Ram Setu bridge between India and Sri Lanka, claiming that it was not a natural formation but rather a man-made structure. Murali Krishnan reports.

A US television show's promo claims that a scientific investigation into the structures forming Ram Setu, also called Adam's Bridge, suggests that the ancient Hindu myth of Lord Ram building such a bridge could be true.   

The promo for an upcoming show, "Ancient Land Bridge," on Discovery Communications-owned Science Channel quotes American archaeologists saying that the 50-kilometer (30-mile) line between India and Sri Lanka was made up of rocks that are 7,000-years old while the sand on which they are sitting is only about 4,000-years old.

Read more: #NewNationalism: 'Turn India into a Hindu state'

The experts concluded - citing images from a NASA satellite and other evidence - that the incongruity in the age of the sand and the stones proves that the stone bridge must have been built by human beings.

"The rocks on top of the sand actually predate the sand, so there is more to this story," Chelsea Rose, historical archaeologist and adjunct faculty member at Southern Oregon University, said in the trailer.

"There are Hindu legends that Lord Rama placed a bridge here connecting India to Sri Lanka. There are stones that have been brought from afar and set on top of sand bar island chain," says Alan Lester, a geologist, suggesting that building such a long bridge would have been a super-human achievement.

Spotlight on bridge again

The program's promo was music to the ears of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its right-wing Hindu affiliates reaffirming their belief that the "Ram Setu" was the structure that Lord Rama and his army of apes and monkeys built to reach demon king Ravana's Lanka some thousands of years ago.

According to the Hindu epic "Ramayana," the monkeys crossed over to Sri Lanka and rescued Ram's consort, Sita, from the Lankan king Raavan, who had abducted her.

"This TV program has supported what we have been saying all along. Now let the Supreme Court decide and not disregard the faith millions of Hindus both in India and abroad have for Lord Ram," BJP leader Subramanian Swamy told DW. He has previously filed a petition in the court opposing any alteration to the bridge.

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"These findings are a tight slap on those people who had been questioning the very existence of Lord Ram and called him a fictional character. Ram Setu will now never be demolished," Surendra Jain, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a hardline right-wing Hindu organization told DW. 

Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani shared the video in a tweet saying, "Jai Shri Ram."

This continuous stretch of limestone shoals that runs from Pamban Island near Rameshwaram in southern India to Mannar Island off the northern coast of Sri Lanka has been the center of controversy since 2005 when the then Congress government proposed a major shipping canal project, called "Sethusamudram," that would have required dredging the area.

Settling the debate?

The project proposed creating an 83-kilometer-long deepwater that would involve extensive dredging and removal of the limestone shoals. A feasibility study showed that completion of the project would cut travelling by about 350 nautical miles and also save 10 to 30 hours of sailing time.

Read more: Demolition of India's Babri mosque - the 'Hindutva project' 25 years on

Furthermore, it would bring down shipping costs and add to India's exchequer in the form of transit fees instead of circumnavigating Sri Lanka. Expectedly, the project was condemned by a wide spectrum of people.

While environmentalists averred that it would destabilize the aquatic flora and fauna of the area, some activists questioned its economic viability. The most strident criticism, however, came from the BJP and right-wing Hindu groups which wanted Ram Setu to be declared a national monument as it was a matter of faith.

In 2007, the Congress government submitted before the Supreme Court that there was no scientific evidence to prove the bridge was man-made but subsequently withdrew its affidavit following the volley of protests and given the religious sentiments involved in the issue.

The Congress party, for its part, refused to publicly comment on the television show's latest findings but privately leaders said it was up to the Supreme Court to pronounce a just order based on the feasibility of the canal project and not swayed by popular sentiment.

"We did due diligence after a six-year long study. This (project) is economically viable and must be carried out in the nation's interests. Succumbing to pressure for other populist reasons will not be an answer," a top Congress leader told DW on condition of anonymity.

The matter is now before India's top court which earlier this year mandated the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) to conduct underwater studies to answer this question agitating many sections of society.

Last year, Alok Tripathi, a marine archaeologist, submitted a proposal to the ICHR and offered to investigate Ram Setu and settle the matter of its genesis for good. But work has yet to take begin.

"An investigation may reveal material evidence. It will take time and we are working on several calculations before plunging headlong into the project," Tripathi told DW.

Prime Minister Narender Modi's government is expected file a fresh new affidavit later this month suggesting alternative routes for the Sethusamudram project thus keeping Ram Setu in tact.

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