Embark on an enchanting journey of the intriguing Ram Setu

Adam’s Bridge, also known as Ram Setu, is indeed a marvelous geological sill in a stretch of the Indian Ocean’s Palk Strait lying between India and Sri Lanka.

By Richard B. Cathcart

Arup K. Chatterjee’s latest book, Adam’s Bridge: Sacrality, Performance, and Heritage of an Oceanic Marvel (Routledge, 2024) is unique, as is the subject of this formidably complex and multilayered volume.

Adam’s Bridge, also known as Ram Setu, is indeed a marvelous geological sill in a stretch of the Indian Ocean’s Palk Strait lying between India and Sri Lanka. It is also extremely eventful, insofar as—to quote Amitav Ghosh from The Great Derangement—it often ‘turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive.’

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The coralline Indian Ocean structure projects above the current sea-level as isolated atolls. It is both a hallowed shrine and a potential infrastructural linkage between Sri Lanka and India. Some elements of its immediate region like the Jaffna Peninsula’s (Sri Lanka) coastal zone may soon be adversely affected by a change in sea-level. The erosions in the islands of the Gulf of Mannar (Southeast India) are caused in part by the coral mining and regional climate change. Deadly blooms of the phytoplankton Noctiluca scintillans in the Gulf of Mannar south off Adam’s Bridge during 2022 made the seawater anoxic, harmful to marine life. On either side of Adam’s Bridge, pirates—a ‘seafood mafia’—illegally harvest the multi-species sea cucumber. So, quite aside from its ancient religious significance among Hindu and Abrahamic faiths, the surrounds of Adam’s Bridge are a hotbed of political concerns and actions. All these historical and contemporary facets are clearly described by Chatterjee in charming prose.

Readers may also find it profitable to consult J.J. Puthur’s The Untold Story of a Coast (2013), whose chapter 16 offers an additional lever to move Chatterjee’s readers! Likewise, Roelof Dirk Schuiling’s work—summarized by Kate Ravilious, in ‘The New Stone Age,’ New Scientist 184: 38-41 (20 November 2004)—can help supplement an understanding of how to induce a slow sculpture rebuilding, indeed elevational, process at the site of Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu. Schuiling’s Anthropic Metasomatism is worth rethinking considering Chatterjee’s fine book-length revelation of Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu as a magnificent and enchanting ‘tombolo’ whether seen from soteriological or geological perspectives!

Adam’s Bridge, along with the barely navigable Pamban Pass, is observed to act as a barrier that limits the southward flow of cool low-salinity seawater into the Gulf of Mannar during wintertime. So, its artificial raising would alter that flow with consequences yet uninvestigated by anyone.

Chatterjee’s book also gives us occasion to revisit one of the more historically controversial and widespread fables surrounding Adam’s Bridge’s selection for railway infrastructure and dredged shipping channel schemes, when he mentions Alfred Dundas Taylor (1826-1898), whose hitherto unsubstantiated role in the travesty of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project’s hasty formulations has never been adequately documented by careful historians.

On page 181, Chatterjee—somewhat in a lighter vein—writes that ‘Lord Ram, a divine incarnation’ had to build a ‘bridge’ whilst ‘his devotee Hanuman’ simply leapt across the watery space currently separating India from Sri Lanka. That remark—derived from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna—was so vivid that it stimulated Macro-imagineering suggestions from this reviewer. These are as follows.

First, Adam’s Bridge might be artificially envolumed or made bigger by some technical reef-growth promoting scheme, perhaps named ‘Lord Ram,’ which would increase cyclone storm energy wave dissipation. Alternately, or in addition to the previous, a physical linkage of India and Sri Lanka could be planned via a catapulted aircraft route, one known as ‘Hanuman,’ capable of volplaning freight and passenger craft across the existing geographical gap.

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In brief, Arup K. Chatterjee recounts an intriguing saga, previously very little known, plausibly told through discourses traversing history, geology, mythology, legends, political, cultural, and geostrategic mores, in a most delightful way. Adam’s Bridge will inevitably stimulate further thought and pronouncements by those fascinated by the world’s natural and anthropogenic geography, its civilization and its amazing place in our collective minds. I recommend this book to both academic and non-academic readers most enthusiastically!

Reviewer: Richard B. Cathcart is an author, engineer, and geographer. He is the Founding Director and Head of the Department, Geographos, Burbank, California, USA.

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