The Ramayana trail in Sri Lanka was touted as the ultimate religious experience: a trail of 52 sites related to the epic including the garden where an abducted Sita was imprisoned, the spot where she went through fire to prove her chastity and even a hillock said to be part of the mountain wrenched out by Hanuman to save Laksman’s life.
But if the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL) is to be believed, the Ramayana trail in Lanka is more a trail of fiction without any historical veracity.
In a recent closed-door meeting of the society, members denounced the trail as a gimmick to attract tourists from India. In a subsequent letter to the Ministry of Tourism, it was termed a "travesty" and even paving the path for future political complications.
"The Tourist Board has been over the last couple of years marketing Sri Lanka to India as the abode of Ravana of the Hindu mythological epic the Ramayana. This is a total travesty and a future danger for the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka as there is no historical evidence whatsoever about Rama and Ravana... I urge you to immediately cancel this foolish and anti national project," the letter said.
"The tourist board has produced some inscriptions, which I think were fabricated and then photographed," former VC of Ruhuna University and RASSL member, said.
"For example, the temple in Sitaeliya (a place in southern Lanka) was a small one in the 1950s. It was where Ravana had apparently kept her. Now, the legend has been manipulated and lot of land has been acquired (by those running the temple). Legends and words have been manipulated," Dr WMK Wijetunga, who is compiling a book on Sri Lankan history, said.
The Ramayana trail was inaugurated in New Delhi in early 2007. Wth the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ending in May 2009, interest in the trail is rapidly increasing in India. In 2009, more than 4000 Indians exclusively visited Sri Lanka to go on the trail. At least 650 are slated to arrive in the first week of December.
"Nobody questions the existence of Ram in India. The same way nobody questions the existence of Ravana here. There is evidence that he was a king in Trincomalee (east coast of Lanka). The `sethusamudra,’ which connects India and Sri Lanka, has also helped. Many are coming from India. We organise `ram kathas’ `bhajans’ for them," S Kalaiselvam, director general of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority said.
For professor S Pathmanathan, a respected ancient history expert in Sri Lanka, it is a battle between history and traditions. "I do not doubt the historicity of Ram. But the sites have no connection to the epic. I don’t think there is any evidence (to connect). One should not mix history and literature," he said.