New Delhi, March 9 (IANS)
Hindu groups are stepping up protests against the likely razing of an ancient bridge in the narrow sea between India and Sri Lanka due to a shipping project, saying it will be unfair to do away with something of such heritage and religious value.
The Ram Setu or Adam's Bridge, a chain of limestone shoals 48 km long that once linked Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu with Mannar in Sri Lanka's northwest, faces possible destruction when the ambitious Sethusamudram canal project comes up to create a navigable waterway in the narrow sea dividing the two countries.
Recent NASA satellite images show clear pictures of the broken bridge that Hindus believe was built by an army of monkeys to help Lord Ram walk over to the land of Lanka to battle its king Ravan, who had abducted his wife. The war and Sita's rescue form the climax of the Hindu epic Ramayana.
'That bridge tells the story of the entire war, how Ram and his army went on to destroy the evil by crossing a seemingly insurmountable barrier,' B.P. Singhal, a former director general of police and a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told IANS.
'Therefore, the heritage is extremely sacred to Hindus. It is a heritage that cannot and should not be destroyed,' said Singhal, 65.
Swami Vigyanand of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is closely allied with the BJP, said they were not against the Sethusamudram project per se nor opposed to India taking steps to shore up its trade and security interests.
'By all means take care of your trade interests and your maritime security interests,' the Swami said. 'But surely this can be achieved without causing any harm to a bridge revered by millions and millions of Hindus.'
India does not have a continuous navigational channel linking the east and west coasts. Ships coming from India's west and heading to Bangladesh or Indian ports on the east coast have to go around Sri Lanka because the waterway in the sea dividing the two countries is shallow.
When the sea is dredged and a shipping canal does come up, it will save up to 780 km of sailing distance and 30 hours of sailing time for ships plying between the east and west coasts of India.
Indian officials say the canal will also boost the national economy besides speeding up the movement of Indian Navy and Coast Guard vessels as well.
Hindu groups say this may be true but such economic progress cannot be at the expense of Ram Setu, as they refer to Adam's Bridge, located at the southern end of the Sethusamudram project.
This is where an estimated 48 million cubic metres of silt will be removed over the next two years.
As work gathers momentum, Hindu holy men gathered in the northern city of Brindavan near Agra a day after Holi March 4 to chalk out a nationwide campaign for the safety of Adam's Bridge.
Presiding over the conclave was Goverdhanpuri Peethadhishwar Shankaracharya Nishchalanand Saraswati. A key speaker was Sadhvi Ritambhara of the VHP, Ujjain's Swarupanand Maharaj and Swami Nritya Gopal Das.
Shankaracharya Swaroopanand of Puri has already called on Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and pressed him to intervene and save the ancient bridge that is believed to have been built by an army of monkeys.
There have also been protests against the project over fears that it will cause irrevocable damage to biodiversity and harm endangered species such as marine turtles. But the Hindu anger is only over Adam's Bridge.
'This is actually world heritage. To destroy it is something not desirable,' said Singhal, younger brother of VHP chief Ashok Singhal.
'I am told that two machines engaged in the dredging have broken down. The belief is that no machine will be able to break it. So why not redraw the route of the canal?'