We can ascribe to the legend of the monkeys in the Vanara army having constructed a 30km long bridge for King Ram to rescue his wife from the clutches of the demon king Ravana and call it Ram Setu. Or, rest our beliefs in the Islamic legend according to which Adam used the bridge to reach a peak, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1000 years leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint and call it Adam’s bridge. Taking science and geography as gospel and considering it nothing but a chain of limestone shoals between Pamban island and Mannar island is an alternative as well. But it is indisputable that this 18 miles strip has captured the limelight because of the controversies and difference of opinions that have surrounded it for the last two decades.

There are different geological theories behind the origin of the ridge, one of which even says that Sri Lanka was a part of Indian landmass and that the calcareous rectangular blocks are testimony of Lanka breaking away from the mainland about 1,25,000 years ago.

The depth of the sea along the 30-km-long stretch varies between 3 feet and 30 feet, thus making navigation by ships impossible. Today, ships bound for India's eastern coast have to circle around the entire island of Sri Lanka to reach the Indian ports. Therefore, a project titled Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project was mooted by the Government of India which calculated that successful completion of the project would cut travelling by about 350 nautical miles and save 10 to 30 hours' sailing time. The project involves creating an 83-km-long deepwater channel that will link Mannar with Palk Strait by extensive dredging and removal of the limestone shoals that constitute the Ram Sethu.

The project has been condemned and opposed by a wide spectrum of the Indian people. Religious right wing parties have come down on the plans to destroy something built by Lord Rama. Environmentalists have opposed it as they hold it would destroy and destabilise the aquatic flora and fauna of the area. There is another group which has criticised the project as economically unviable. 

Sri Lanka has reservations on this venture as well, but chooses to remain silent fearing strains in bilateral relations. Aside from environmental and livelihood concerns of its fishermen, Sri Lanka is more concerned about the loss of container traffic at its Colombo and Galle ports. Interestingly, the LTTE is also opposed to the project. Its naval activities might be hindered as and when the Canal becomes operational.

The legend of Ram Setu exemplifies the fact that myths and legends are relevant not only because they cause debate among different factions of the society regarding their historical basis, but also influence the policy making of the government and its international relations. As R S Sharma puts it, even though their historical basis cannot be proved, they dwell in the minds and souls of the people.

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    February 2013