Did Lord Rama destroy Ram Setu, the bridge over which his monkey army invaded Ravana’s Lanka – as the government told the Supreme Court on Wednesday? India’s leading authorities on the Ramayana want to throw that claim into the sea.
With anger growing in India’s right-wing parties over plans for a controversial multi-million dollar canal through the Palk Straits, research by Hindustan Times shows that the two most prominent versions of the Ramayana — by Valmiki and Kamban — make no mention of the destruction cited by lawyer Fali S Nariman, who represented the government before the court.
The debate is centred on an undersea bridge-like structure between the coasts of southern India and Sri Lanka that the government says is not man-made, and is to be destroyed to build a multi-million dollar shipping canal, the Sethusamundram Project. But many Hindus believe this bridge is a relic of the one built by Lord Ram.
The issue is so wrapped up in hostile politics that several experts HT spoke to, including eminent Tamil experts, declined to be named. But others spoke up. Former professor Veerbhadra Mishra, mahant of the renowned Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple in Varanasi is outraged, “Nariman’s scriptural interpretation of Hindu tradition that ‘something that is broken cannot be worshipped’ may hold for an idol … but it does not hold for tirthas and kshetras. These are geographical sites or ‘living monuments’ associated with faith,” says Mishra, who dissociates himself from the BJP.
An eminent Tamil scholar requested anonymity, fearing reprisals, but said: “It is a shame to misquote Kamban.” The 9th century Tamil epic, contains no reference to Sri Ram destroying the Setu.
In Kamba Ramayana's Yuddha Kandam in the section 'Meekshi Padalam', verses 166 to 169 describe Rama's return from Lanka in the Pushpaka Vimana, where he points out the bridge to Sita and underlines its sanctity. Verse 169 has Sri Rama actually saying: "The spiritual merit you gain by bathing in the holy rivers, is nothing compared to that you gain by bathing at this Setu."
Nariman did not quote from the Valmiki Ramayana, indisputably the first text of the epic, but it has nothing to say either on Sri Rama breaking the bridge, according to the eminent Ramayana scholar Pandit Satkari Mukhopadhyaya, an internationally respected authority on the text and on the Ramayana traditions of South-east Asia.
"Later regional variations may contain such interpolations perhaps … but not Valmiki," he said. "I uphold the sanctity of Ramsetu in the Hindu mind, sitting right here in this 400-year-old building in which Goswami Tuslidas wrote the Hanuman Chalisa and the last four chapters of the Ramcharitmanas," Mishra said.