Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Setu, is a sacred place for Hindus. Referred to in Hindu mythology and also in early Islamic texts, it is a supposedly traversable land bridge between Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent. Early Muslim texts state that the bridge was built to allow Adam to cross into India and so escape the island where he fell to earth after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
However, for Hindus it is an artificial structure, a superhuman achievement as the Discovery Channel termed it, built by a god. There is much evidence that this was indeed a land bridge across the strait between Sri Lanka and India in the recent geological past. Could it have been built by the hand of something more than man?
In Hindu mythology, the book Ramayana tells that Lord Rama, the supreme being had this bridge constructed for the purpose of defeating the evil Demon King Ravana. The evil king held Rama’s wife Sita in his island fortress of Lanka (for which Sri Lanka was named), unassailable across the sea.
Rama’s army of monkeys, mythological forest creatures loyal to their king, helped Rama construct a great land bridge which led out to the fortress where Sita was held. The ape-like creatures, known as Varana, then helped Rama take the fortress and defeat Ravana.
Hindus believe that the bridge survives to this day, and indeed there is a chain of limestone shoals that is situated between Tamil Nadu and Pamban Island. The total length of this bridge is around 48km (30 miles), running between the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar off India’s southeastern coast.
Depending on the weather, some of the areas upon this causeway can rise fully above the waves, and the sea within that stretch doesn’t exceed 3 feet (1 meter) in depth. The existence of this traversable bridge between the two landmasses, stretching across with the deep ocean on either side, seems almost impossible to believe.
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Ships cannot sail through this stretch as they would damage themselves on the shallows, being forced instead to chart a wider course or risk running aground. And in fact the bridge was apparently even higher in the relatively recent past, with 15th century records noting that the causeway was easily passable. But with passing the time and storms, the passageway has deepened, and the stones sank within the ocean.
The first records of the land bridge come to the west from the Persian geographer Khordabeh’s book The Book of Roads and Kingdoms, written around 850 AD. The book refers to this bridge as the Bridge of the Seas or the “Set Bandhai”. The more familiar name comes much later, with the earliest map that refers to it as “Adam’s Bridge” coming from a British Cartographer around the year 1804.
The Origin of Adam’s Bridge
The name Adam’s Bridge, as used in the British map, comes from the Islamic texts that refer to the creation myth of Adam and Eve. in these texts, after his expulsion from paradise Adam fell to earth on what is known as Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. From there he made his way to India.
But the stories are vague and contradictory, with some saying instead that Adam crossed the bridge to come to Sri Lanka and not India. In some of the books and stories, you will also find that Adam was cast away from heaven, and he landed on the bridge directly. In these stories, he fell with such force that he disturbed the stones on the ocean floor, creating the bridge.
The dispute between the Hindu belief, the Islamic belief and the geological explanation continued for much of India and Sri Lanka’s history. Finally, in the 19th century, two prevalent theories came to light about the formation of this structure.
One said that this bridge might have been formed due to the accretion of sediment in the narrow channel leading to the passage becoming blocked. The second theory stated that instead Sri Lanka may have been part of the Indian mainland in the past, before slowly separating.
Even today, with our modern understanding of tectonic action and sedimentary geology it is not clear what caused the formation of the bridge. The series of limestone shelves reaching out across the landmass could have been caused by any number of theoretical processes, but the initial cause of the structure which led to the later accretions is still unclear.
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The age of this bridge is calculated by the experts of today to be at most 125,000 years. Although outside the scope of the geology, this age obviously does not concur with the age of the bridge mentioned in Ramayana.
Bharathidasan University Professor of Eminence S.M. Ramasamy conducted a test however in 2003. He concluded that the bridge had been formed due to a change in ocean currents which occurred roughly 3,500 years ago. This is from the era of Ramayana and for many provided the proof to the legend that they needed.
These studies concluded, based on the age of the coral formations which partially make up the bridge, that the section which rose above the waves is relatively recent. However, the coral appears to have formed on much older sediments which form an underwater ridge.
A former director from the Geological Survey of India, S. Badrinarayanan, claimed that the natural formation of such a structure is not possible. He justified his claim by stating the presence of loose sands under the coral layer for the entire stretch.
The corals usually form over the rocks and not on the sand layers, as they need solid ground to adhere to. For coral to be found here is therefore unexpected and unexplained
A Geological Mystery with a Mythological Answer
The Hindu belief that this bridge was build by Lord Rama remains strong to this day. The Indian Government’s proposal for dredging the bridge to create a shipping canal referred to as Sethusamudram in 2001 met with strong Hindu opposition, forcing the government into retreat.
Who knows what new understanding of the bridge, or its formation, will come to light in the future. Perhaps, as our understanding of our planet and natural processes becomes more sophisticated, answers as to what caused the creation of the bridge will appear from the natural world.
But until then, if you are looking for an answer to the mystery of Adam’s Bridge, just ask a Hindu and they will be able to tell you.
Top Image: Lord Rama orders the Varana to construct the land bridge to reach the fortress Lanka. Source: Mrneutrino / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Bipin Dimri