As recorded in the Ramayana's Book of War, Lord Rama, determined to rescue his beloved bride Sita from the clutches of the demon king Ravana, ordered his army of monkey warriors -- the Vanars -- to build a bridge from southern India to the island of Lanka.
Up sprang the Vanars from their rest,
The mandate of the king obeyed...
With mighty engines piles of stone
And seated hills were overthrown:
Unprisoned waters sprang on high,
In rain descending from the sky:
And ocean with a roar and swell
Heaved wildly when the mountains fell.
Then the great bridge of wondrous strength
Was built, a hundred leagues in length.
Rocks huge as autumn clouds bound fast
With cordage from the shore were cast,
And fragments of each riven hill,
And trees whose flowers adorned them still.
Wild was the tumult, loud the din
As ponderous rocks went thundering in.
To this day, as indicated by NASA satellites, there is a detectable ridge running across the Palk strait that separates Sri Lanka from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Known colloquially as Adam's Bridge, the ridge is held by some faithful Hindus to be Ram Sethu, the actual structure built by Lord Rama's mighty monkey army. Lord Rama, the epitome of a just and righteous king, an avatar of Vishnu, the Hindu Supreme Being, is one of the most cherished figures in Hindu culture. And his legacy is not to be trifled with. In 1992, Hindu nationalist activists destroyed a 500-year-old Muslim temple originally erected by the Muslim conquerer Babur, on the grounds that it had been sacrilegiously built on the site of an earlier temple to Rama that commemorated his birthplace in the north Indian city of Ayodhya.
But to more secularly-minded fellows, Adam's Bridge is a barrier composed of sand and coral that must be cleared away in order to create a shipping lane through the Palk Strait that would shorten shipping times between the east and west coasts of India. The Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, which may have been conceived of as early as 1860 by the British, finally received a go-ahead in June 2005 from the United Progressive Alliance government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But criticism of the project on a number of fronts has continued, and several petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court of India asking that the barrier be kept intact.
There are significant non-religious reasons to oppose the project. Environmentalists believe the massive dredging involved will cause significant damage to marine life, while others are skeptical that saving just the few hours required to circumnavigate Sri Lanka is worth all the trouble. The strait is also considered to be something of a cyclone magnet.
On Wednesday, the long simmering controversy turned into a full-fledged uproar. In a joint filing with the central government, the Archaeological Survey of India filed an affidavit with India's Supreme Court declaring that there was no historical evidence proving the existence of Lord Rama, and no archeological basis to consider Adam's Bridge to be the mythological Ram Sethu.
Excerpts from the affidavit:
The petitioners while seeking relief have primarily relied upon the contents of the Valimiki Ramayana, the Ram Charit Manas by Tulsidas and mythological texts, which formed an important part of ancient Indian literature, but which cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the event, depicted therein.
Whereas it is submitted that the ASI is aware of and duly respects the deep religious import bestowed upon these texts by the Hindu community across the globe, it is also submitted that the study of human history, which is the primary object of the ASI, like other sciences and fields of study, must be carried out in a scientific manner using available technological aids, and its findings must be based on tangible material evidence.
At the best, this is a case of disputed mythology and not a matter of historical importance. This does not therefore, come under the purview of ancient monument.
As reported by numerous articles in the press, the affidavit asserted that there was no evidence of the historical existence of Rama. In political terms, this may have been a faux pas, something on the order of Hillary Clinton declaring that there was no proof Jesus Christ had ever lived. Leaders of Hindu nationalist organizations and the Bharatiya Janata Party exploded.
"This is sheer blasphemy," said senior BJP leader Vijay Kumar Malhotr. "It's an insult to the Hindu faith."
"The government has set in motion the process of questioning religious beliefs. We will launch a nationwide movement if it does not withdraw immediately this blasphemous submission questioning the very existence of Lord Rama," said BJP chief Rajnath Singh. "The government has made an assault on Hindu sentiments, which cannot be tolerated at any cost."
Facing the threat of widespread turmoil and mindful of the violence that occurred during the Ram temple movement, the government immediately started backpedaling. On Thursday, Law Minister H. R. Bhardwaj announced that the "objectionable" paragraphs of the affidavit would be withdrawn.
History, politics, and religion make for a combustible brew in India. As the ASI's original affidavit held, "in a country as rich in cultural and historical diversity as India which has an established history ranging over nearly 9000 years, the line between myth and reality is often obliterated." This is all the more true when political capital stands to be gained. One suspects that even the leaders of the BJP do not believe, literally, that an army of monkey warriors built a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka in the ancient past. But if they can portray the current federal government as insensitive to devout Hindus, that's too good an opportunity to pass up.
UPDATE: An interesting review of some theories as to the historicity of Rama.