An army of monkey warrior helps construct a leg from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka, as illustrated in the Ramayana.

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Secular and religious Indians are butting heads end the beginning of an important limestone shoal the connects India and also Sri Lanka.


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This article is native Hakai Magazine, an online publication around science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories choose this at hakaimagazine.com.

The ancient Indian epic poem the Ramayana—a foundational text in Hinduism—is also a heart-stopping thriller.

Its wedded heroes, Ram and Sita, exiled from their imperial kingdom, are compelled to live as hermits. Ravana, a 10-headed demon king, entices Sita through a magical golden deer and also steals she away to Sri Lanka. It is up to Ram to slay she kidnapper. However first, he demands to find a way across practically 50 kilometers of ocean between India and also Sri Lanka.

Standing top top the shores the what is now Tamil Nadu, India’s southeastern-most state, Ram, one avatar of the god Vishnu, calls ~ above an army of warrior chimpanzees to help him bridge the two shores by building a footpath.

Five thousand year later, a team the Indian archaeologists is preparing to embark on one underwater expedition to plumb the shallow strait separating India indigenous Sri Lanka. There, a submerged 50-kilometer chain the limestone shoals—known, fittingly, together Ram Setu, or Ram’s Bridge—has end up being a main fixture in the continuous debates in between secular and religious India. The primary question: Is Ram’s Bridge natural or man-made?

“It’s a very sensitive matter, due to the fact that the area is linked with countless Hindus,” states Dayanath Tripathi, former chairman of the Indian the supervisory board of historic Research (ICHR), which is sponsoring the expedition.


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In 2005, the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal task proposed cutting a route through Ram’s bridge to open up a shipping roadway deep enough for cargo ships to happen through. (The idea to dredge the area was very first floated by the brothers in the 1800s.) The setup did not get much support, specifically among Hindu groups. Protestors petitioned the national federal government to disapprove the project and instead declare Ram’s Bridge—believed to it is in a website of deep religious significance older 보다 the good Wall that China—a national monument. Subramanian Swamy, a conference member, urged the federal government to defend the “historic and also sacred place.”

But the archaeological Survey the India (ASI), a branch the the Indian set of Culture—and the key governmental human body overseeing India’s heritage sites—argued in one affidavit that Ram’s bridge is little much more than a ridge that sandbanks produced by sedimentation.

Ram’s Bridge, presented here in a satellite photo, has come to be a symbol of the divide between secular and religious values in India. NASA/Wikimedia Commons

“There’s no proof from an archaeological point of check out . There’s just the religious aspect,” says Tripathi.

In 2013, the canal job was scrapped because that an entirely different reason: the projected devastation the the local ecosystem and also a projection of an boosted tsunami risk. With dredging turn off the table, the conflict over Ram’s leg was placed on hold—until now.

Alok Tripathi, an underwater excavator at Assam college in northeast India, will certainly lead the upcoming expedition, set to start this summer. Alok Tripathi (no relationship to ICHR’s Dayanath Tripathi) functioned with ASI until 2009, as soon as he left citing personal reasons. Previously, Alok Tripathi headed the 2007 excavation the Dwaraka, an ancient Hindu holy site that lies submerged turn off the coastline of Gujarat. He says the ASI’s declaration the Ram’s bridge was developed by geological processes was made due to the fact that of inconclusive data.

“Without fieldwork, nothing have the right to be said,” he says.

In a press conference in March, the ICHR chairman, Y. Sudershan Rao, compared Ram’s leg to Helen of Troy, a Homeric legend “proven to be true” by excavations. (While the old city of Troy has been uncovered, no proof of the Trojan queen has ever before been found.)

Alok Tripathi devised a setup to comb the shoals for indicators of an ancient civilization, in a task that will certainly take almost everywhere from months to years. “Definitely this area has gained historical importance,” that says. “We intend that there should be historical remains.”

But in an significantly intolerant, nationalistic, and also zealous India—whose picture abroad has been marred through recent assaults on spiritual minorities and also lynchings of doubt beefeaters—the maritime exploration is being released at a an especially charged time.

India is a secular republic of some 1.3 billion people, v a diversity that ethnicities, languages, and religions. However Hindu nationalism is increasing in India’s mainstream. In March, the country’s judgment Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide choice in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. The win placed a Hindu monk with a background of controversial cases in the state’s greatest office. Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s newest chef minister, has actually publicly endorsed the idea that India as a Hindu rashtra—a Hindu nation.

Adityanath’s controversial election has actually helped resurrect another national debate, one additionally centered top top Ram. In the city that Ayodhya, thought about to it is in Ram’s birthplace, a Hindu holy place was converted in the 16th century into a Mughal-era Islamic mosque, known as the Babri Masjid. In 1992, mobs tore down the mosque, triggering a spate of deadly riots that eliminated upward of 2,000 people.

Accused the inciting the crowd was a senior BJP leader, Lal Krishna Advani, that is also a an essential supporter in the activity to have actually Ram’s Bridge declared a safeguarded monument. Twenty-five years later, Advani is quiet awaiting psychological on criminal conspiracy charges. The BJP stays committed to returning Ayodhya come its Hindu roots. Subramanian Swamy, the BJP politician who filed the petition to protect Ram’s Bridge, promised in may that the Ram holy place in Ayodhya will certainly be rebuilt in ~ the following year.

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In India, archaeological investigations of religious sites such together Ram’s Bridge danger alienating some faction of the population—no matter the result by Alok Tripathi’s team. Between the present tensions, the maritime excavation is venturing right into dark waters.

Alok Tripathi, however, disagrees. “It’s completely an scholastic exercise,” the says. “If it’s done scientifically, there shouldn’t be any kind of controversy.”