Adam’s Bridge also known as Rama Setu is a chain of limestone shoals, between Rameswaram Island, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu and Mannar Island, off northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. It is 18 miles long and separates Gulf of Mannar from Palk Strait. Geological evidence suggests that it was a land connection between India and Sri Lanka. It was reportedly passable on foot up to 15th century. But storms deepened the channel. Some sandbanks are dry and sea depths are between 3 ft to 30 ft deep in places, which hinders navigation. Temple records seem to show that it was completely above sea level till a cyclone in 1480 AD.
Valmiki’s Ramayana mentions it in Sanskrit as it Setubandhanam or Rama Setu, built by Vanara army of Lord Rama to enable him to reach Lanka to rescue Sita. Sea separating India and Sri Lanka is called Sethusamudram meaning “Sea of the Bridge.” In 1804, the British named it in a map as Adam’s bridge, probably referring to an Abrahamic legend about Adam using it to reach Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.
It starts as chain of shoals from Dhanushkodi and ends at Mannar Island in Sri Lanka. Pamban Island with its small port of Rameswaram is about 2 km from mainland India and is connected by the Pamban Bridge. It was built in 1914 both as a road bridge and a cantilever railway bridge. Small boats would go under the 2065 m long road bridge. The railway bridge would open up. Mannar Island is connected to mainland Sri Lanka by a causeway. Border between India and Sri Lanka passes across one of the shoals constituting one of the shortest land borders in the world. Adam’s bridge and neighbouring areas like Rameswaram, Dhanushkodi, Devipattinam and Thirupullani are mentioned in various legends of Ramayana. Ships can’t sail the shallow waters of Pamban channel. Ferry service linked Dhanushkodi with Talaimannar as part of Indo-Ceylon Railway service during the British Rule when one could buy a railway ticket from Chennai to Colombo. People went by rail from Madras to Pamban island, by ferry to Talaimannar, and by rail to Colombo. In 1964, a cyclone destroyed Dhanushkodi and damaged shores of Palk Bay and Palk Strait. Thus the train finishes at Rameswaram.
Considerable confusion exists about this bridge. The friable calcerous ridges are broken into large rectangular blocks. Hence the belief that it is an artificial construction and that the bridge was formerly the world’s largest tombolo before it was split into a chain of shoals by rise in mean sea level few thousand years ago. Another theory is that its origin and linearity are due to the old shoreline as India and Sri Lanka were once connected.
Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project aims to create a ship channel across Palk Strait by dredging near Dhanushkodi, to cut over 400 km off the voyage around Sri Lanka. This requires dredging through Rama’s Bridge which is opposed by Hindu sentiment. Sri Lankan historians condemn the undertaking as “a gross distortion of Sri Lankan history.”
As carbon dating of the beaches roughly match dates of Ramayana, its link to the epic needs to be explored. The Madras High Court in its verdict stated that the Rama Sethu is a man-made structure. Hindu belief is that the bridge was created by Shri Rama and Shri Lakshman with the assistance of Lord Hanuman and the ‘monkey army’ to reach Lanka in order to find Shri Rama’s wife Sita who was kidnapped by Ravana.
Capt. A K Bansal,
L.L.B. (Hons) London,
Master Mariner, Bar at Law