Ramsetu – myth or fact.
by Dr. Nishit Sawal , M.D. (Medicine)
Authenticity of the epics and supportive historical evidence
Historical basis of Ramayana
Social and economic setting of the Ramayana
Hostilities between the Aryan agriculturists and non-agriculturist tribes
The greatness of Lord Rama
Demonification of the hostile non-agriculturist tribes in later literature
The monkeys-chiefs of Ramayana
Ram setu – fact or fiction
The recent Sethusamudram project controversy has again brought in limelight the Ramayana and the question of it being an historical fact or a plethora of myths and fables.
The UPA government filed an affidavit stating that ‘mythological texts such as the Ramayana cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of characters or the occurrence of events depicted therein’. Since this affidavit has cast doubts about whether Lord Rama actually existed or was just a hero of various myths whose fame increased to such an degree with the passage of time so that he came to be worshipped as God by succeeding generations , let’s evaluate the evidence we have of existence of lord Rama.
The foremost question is whether Lord Rama actually ruled in India and if yes, at what period. This is not an easy task for around Lord Rama’s life has grown a tangle of pious legend , through which it is very difficult to penetrate to the flowers of historic truth.
We have to remember that Lord Rama’s case is not an isolated one where a brilliant, brave and benevolent individual came to be worshipped as an incarnation of God in later times and divine properties were attributed to him. Most of the world’s religions have such instances. The nearest one is found in another religion- one which has it’s roots in India.
Lord Buddha was a Sakyan prince – probably one of the finest men to have walked the earth. Despite having been born in a royal family and possessing every material temptation one can ask for, he was deeply moved by the sorrows and sufferings of the world . At an young age, he left his life of luxury and after attaining the true knowledge , went on to spread the message- a true message of love, honesty and non-violence.
In the message of Buddha, there is a serenity and spiritual calm which charms and subdues the follower even after two and a half millennia . However we have to remember that during his lifetime and in the few centuries after his death- Lord Buddha was venerated and respected widely but as a wise teacher. It was only after the Mahayana school of Buddhism and Buddhist dominated school of art - The Gandhara school of sculpture – emerged that Buddha came to be revered as an deity – an incarnation of the Supreme Lord himself and the savior of mankind.
The story of Buddha vanquishing the demons of Mara’s army , Buddha’s taming of the raging elephant Nalagiri and that of Naga Raja Erapatra regaining his human form from the form of a serpent after getting blessed by Buddha are acts which cannot be explained scientifically since any human being would be unable to perform such feats , these are later additions made when Buddha had been deified and accepted as an incarnation of God.
Thus we see a clear evolution- a brilliant prince attained supreme knowledge and spent the rest of his life in spreading the message and came to be known as the supreme teacher. Not deified during his lifetime and in the immediately succeeding period, he was deified by later generations and a corpus of legends gradually grew around him .This process gained unprecedented momentum with the great Mauryan Emperor Asoka turning a sympathizer of Buddhism.
However if we simply go by the legends centered around Buddha, we can only come to one conclusion- “Mythological texts such as the Buddhist literature cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of characters or the occurrence of events depicted therein”. But chip away the increment of these later legends and the kernel of historical truth becomes clearly obvious. Viewed this way, even the harshest rationalist can’t cast any doubt on the existence of Buddha .
A similar study can be made of one of the most prevalent religion on earth - Christianity. Jesus Christ , widely accepted to be born around 2000 years back , spent his life preaching only one thing- universal love and brotherhood. Many of his teachings were not liked by those in power at that time and he was crucified. But his message did not fade away- it spread owing to it’s innate simplicity and the fact that it taught about living a life of love , virtue and avoiding sins. Probably Jesus was also deified by later generations in a similar way as Buddha was. The life of Jesus and other related happenings are contained in the Bible- the holy scripture of the Christians.
However on applying scientific reason - we’re unable to accept the teachings of Bible in totality. Many stories about Jesus are beyond the capabilities of a man and appear to be later fabrications – his walking on water, feeding with 5 loaves and few fish a large congregation of five thousand and his crucification and then his coming back and ascent to heaven are all part of Christian mythology. Scholars do not even have a consensus as to whether Jesus was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem.
No archaeological or literary evidence that directly supports the existence of Jesus has ever been found. It is a well known fact that Buddhism became popular and spread widely only after royal patronage was extended to it by Emperor Asoka. Similarly in case of Christianity, it spread widely only after it was endorsed by Emperor Constantine. Some scholars hold the view that it was only after the Council of Nicaea, AD 325 , that Jesus who was earlier viewed by his followers as a great and venerable man came to be known as an incarnation of God. Other stories in the Bible also lack an historical basis and appear to be based more on myths than on historical facts. If subject to a strict scientific analysis, the Old Testament appears to be one miracle after another. To the aged and barren, children are born. Angels appear and walk the rugged terrain of Palestine. Coming events are foretold. The finger of God inscribes divine law on tables of stone. Joshua orders the sun to stand still till he has finished killing his enemies. The story of Noah’s arc – improbable in itself - is now known to be derived from the equally improbable story of Gilgamesh .
Thus we see that the Bible , if subject to a scientific and rational scrutiny, appears to be based more on myths rather than historical facts. But again lack of archeological and historical evidence does not mean that Jesus did not exist. Jesus did exist – probably he was a simple man who spent his life spreading the message of universal brotherhood and love , of leading an austere life without sins , of taking care of the poor and the ill – amply reflected in his taking care of those suffering from the most dreaded illness of the time, the lepers. Like the silver rays of a full moon on a calm night, the teachings of Jesus still shed their gentle light on the face of troubled humanity .
However again if we simply go by the legends surrounding the life of Jesus Christ and the Bible , we can only come to one conclusion- “Mythological texts such as the Bible and other related literature cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of characters or the occurrence of events depicted therein”.
A similar case can also be made for Mahavira Varadhmana – the founder of Jainism. Probably an contemporary of Buddha, he renounced his family at an early age to become an ascetic. After wandering for 12 years, he gained enlightenment and spread the rest of his life preaching living a life based on love and non-violence. Later Jaina canon tends to attribute many divine acts to him and later he came to be worshipped as an incarnation of God. Here too, we can see a replication of the process we have already witnessed in case of Lord Buddha.
Thus we see that the holy scriptures of any religion cannot be taken on their face value .The scriptures consist of traditional accounts collected and written many centuries after the events they claim to record. On subjecting any holy scripture to a rigid , scientific analysis , we tend to find pre-dominantly myths and fables- most of the scriptures tend to attribute acts to their heroes which are beyond the capabilities of a normal man. This is partly owing to the fact that most of the holy scriptures are later compilations – written or collated centuries after their main subjects – Buddha, Jesus or Lord Rama existed. The people who compiled them tended to exaggerate the powers and achievements of their heroes.
It is only when we chip away at this accretions of centuries which in the form of legends and myths tends to obscure the real historical facts that we can extract the real historical kernel from these scriptures.
Thus we see that the Ramayana is as good a source of historical tradition as is the Bible or the Buddhist or the Jaina canon. However a flaw common to all these scriptures is that they have been heavy cloaked in myths and fables so as to envelop their heroes with divine powers. To reach the historical heartwood in these scriptures , we have to strip away the bark of poetic exaggerations added by the later generations.
Authenticity of the epics and supportive historical evidence -
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are collectively referred as the epics and the period in which the incidents described in these two epics occurred is referred to as the epic period by historians.
However many historians doubted the authenticity of these epics and The Ramayana and The Mahabharata were simply considered to be poetic fantasies without any historical basis at all.
Archaeological work has now proven Mahabharata to be a indisputable historical fact but it is also recognized that the events of the original war have been clothed in poetic exaggerations over the centuries so as to assume a form quite different from the original events.
Mythology fixed the date of the Mahabharata war as having occurred around 3000-4000 B.C. Even the Aihole inscription of Pulakeshin II [ seventh century A.D] describes the Mahabharata to have occurred around 3102 B.C- the starting point of the Kaliyuga era according to the astronomical tradition represented by Aryabhatta.
However such an early date for Mahabharata is clearly not tenable for the social and economic structure of societies in the third millennia before Christ could not have supported kingdoms as described in the Mahabharata .
Pargiter after an extensive analysis arrived at an date of around 950 B.C for the Mahabharata. This date and the fact that Mahabharata represents an actual event is borne out by these facts-
1. Literary evidence suggests that sites yielding PGW [ painted grey ware ] were connected with the Mahabharata. Archaeological work has unearthed extensive remains of these sites at Hastinapura ,Mathura, Indraprastha, Ahichchhatra , Kampil, Baghpat, Kurukshetra ,Barnawa etc.
2. The ancient rivers Saraswati and Drisadwati mentioned in the Mahabharata have been identified with the modern Ghaggar and Chautang. Many PGW yielding sites have been found around these rivers.
3. At Hastinapura , a large part of habitation of the PGW period has been washed away by a flood. This flood has been identified by Dr. B.B. Lal in his work - “Excavations at Hastinapura and other explorations in the Upper Ganga and Satluj basins “- with the great Puranic flood at Hastinapura which compelled Nichakshu to shift his capital from Hastinapura to Kausambi.
4. Chronologically period II of Hastinapura falls within the same period as is assigned to the Mahabharata [ 950 B.C according to Pargiter].
5. Dr. B.B.Lal after extensive archaeological excavations and an exhaustive literary analysis concluded that “The sites of Hastinapura ,Mathura, Kurukshetra, Barnawa are identifiable with those of the same names mentioned in the Mahabharata “.
6. The Mahabharata reports a Goratha mountain which is actually the name found in Brahmi characters in the epigraphs in Barabar hills . The Mahabharata states “ Bhima and Krishna looked upon GirivaRaja [ old Rajgir] from Goratha-giri”.
Thus we see that archaeological evidence now clearly shows Mahabharata to be a historical event. However one has to keep in mind that the Mahabharata as we know today is a grossly inflated version of the events which actually took place. Originally the Mahabharata was the description of a localized feud but it caught the imagination of the bards and the court poets and in its final form virtually all clans and people known to the bards were said to have participated in the battle. One does well to remember that poetic fantasy in epic poetry, undoubtedly attractive in itself, is not an ally of historical authenticity.
Current archaeological evidence conclusively proves that the Mahabharata thus represents a true sequence of events , albeit in a greatly magnified form. Firm Archaeological evidence for the cities mentioned , the events depicted in the Mahabharata has been found. However one has to remember that just a few decades back, historians used to casually dismiss Mahabharata as being based on fictitious events alone , as a collation of stories and myths. It was only after indisputable archaeological proof filtered in that they had to accept it’s authenticity, albeit grudgingly.
A similar case can be made for the Ramayana although archaeological evidence to support the Ramayana is not as yet conclusive as is in case of the Mahabharata. Some progress has been made in gathering archaeological evidence related to cities mentioned in the Ramayana.
The city of Maithila where Sridhavaja or Janaka - father of Sita ruled has been identified with small town of Janakpur within the Nepal border , north of where the Darbhanga and the Muzzafarpur districts meet. Further archaeological expeditions here will shed more light on the social and economic conditions ,especially agriculture , prevalent during the time of Ramayana.
Mention of Panchala is made in the Ramayana. And surely it is no coincidence that Ahichchhatra and Kampil – important cities of Panchala have yielded archaeological remnants which are commensurate with the predicted social and economic conditions prevalent during the time of the Ramayana. PGW [ painted grey ware ] in large quantities has been found at both these sites and iron has also been found at Ahichchhatra.
The Ramayana mentions that Lord Rama ruled over the kingdom of Kosala. Puranic sources – probably recording older traditions – also mention that the Ikshvaku kings ruled at Kosala . Buddhist accounts relying on older traditions state that the Kosalan kings had their capitals at Saketa and Sravasti in addition to Ayodhya. Ayodhya [ literally meaning impregnable] was probably the earliest capital followed by Saketa and Sravasti was the last. Archaeological explorations have validated some of these traditions. Sravasti has been identified as being identical with the site of Sahet-Mahet on the south bank of the Rapti lying on the boundary of Gonda and Baharaich districts of Uttar Pradesh. This site has yielded PGW [ painted grey ware] in beautiful forms, albeit in a limited number thus providing evidence that habitation here dates to the Vedic times. Saketa has been identified with modern Fyzabad . Further archaeological work will shed more light on the Kosalan capitals and on urban life during the period of the Ramayana. One limiting factor here is that only small scale archaeological explorations have been carried out at these sites . An archaeological exploration conducted on a large scale by a fully equipped team of trained archaeologists will put to rest all theories which consider the Ramayana as a mythical event.
The fact that no idol or any other evidence relating to deification and worship of Lord Rama has yet been discovered which can be dated to the Later Vedic period makes it clear that Lord Rama was venerated as a good and wise king in the centuries immediately succeeding him but later he was deified and came to be worshipped as an incarnation of Vishnu .
Here one has to remember that archaeology is not a science where one can have results in days or months. Archaeological results are based on years of perseverance , patient analysis of the material unearthed and last but not the least - luck. A Lucky find – as was in the case of Rosetta stone in Egypt- can solve archaeological riddles which have been puzzling us for centuries. Sadly such a lucky strike has yet eluded us in the case of the Ramayana.
However as technological advances in archaeology progress and more explorations are carried out at the sites which are believed to be mentioned in the Ramayana , we can be hopeful of getting solid archaeological evidence in the coming decades which will conclusively end the unjustified doubts of those who are skeptical of the authenticity of the Ramayana .
Historical basis of Ramayana
Firstly the date of Ramayana-
Mythology fixes the story of Ramayana as having unfolded in the Treta yuga- around 1.7 million years ago. However this apparently is wrong as man as we know today evolved around 80,000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent. So apparently this Treta yuga and the period described was a later addition by court bards and minstrels and cannot be validated historically.
Then what is the period in which Lord Rama reigned –
Literary sources make it clear that Lord Rama was an Aryan king and he ruled in a period when kingdoms had become the dominant territorial unit replacing the previously existing tribal states. Also various sources make it clear that Lord Rama reigned in a period where agriculture had become the pre-dominant occupation of people. Thus we can roughly fix the period of Lord Rama ruling in the later Vedic period represented by the PGW - painted grey ware - people who used iron technology and this comes around 1000-500 B.C.
Lord Rama’s reign is unlikely to have coincided with the early Vedic period or the Rig Vedic period [ 1600-1000 B.C] owing to the following reasons-
The early Vedic society was pastoral, semi-nomadic and predominantly tribal. Agro-pastoralism was the main occupation of the early Vedic period . Agriculture was rather primitive , it was carried out with a hoe or a wooden ploughshare as a subsidiary source of sustenance in the early Vedic period. Cattle rearing was the main source of subsistence in the early Vedic period . Since the early Vedic people lived in a semi-nomadic stage and were constantly engaged in warfare for sake of cows, they had to be mobile. This naturally prevented them from forming stable kingdoms and owing to economic and social factors prevalent at the time, small tribal principalities were the rule of the day.
In an economy based on cattle rearing , supplemented by agriculture and buttressed by acquisition of booty from intra-tribal wars , tribes could not afford to have a regular taxation system neither a professional army – two essential pre-requisites for a kingdom. Tribe was the dominant institution in the early Vedic period and it was a period of perpetual intra-tribal and inter-tribal conflict. Although the term jana or tribe is used 275 times in the Rig- veda [ believed to reflect the early Vedic period], the term janapada or kingdom is not used even once.
Thus we see that Lord Rama could not have reigned in the early Vedic period owing to the deficiencies of surplus income and taxes in that period , both of which are essential to formation and sustenance of a kingdom.
The Later Vedic period saw the flowering of Aryan kingdoms The later Vedic period was a period of rapid Aryan expansion . Western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab , Haryana , Rajasthan were the areas that were the epicenters of material and cultural activities. Tribal groups had paved way for territorial kingdoms. The later Vedic people had better knowledge of seasons , used manure and practiced irrigation all of which led to a significant increase in agricultural production.
The later Vedic period witnessed the introduction of iron technology on a large scale - chiefly in weaponry, agricultural tools such as the iron ploughshare which led to increase in agricultural production and the surplus production led to exchange in form of trade and commerce which fostered development of arts and culture. Initially used for weapons, iron was also now used to make ploughshares and this technological advance led to a drastic increase in agricultural production.
Several PGW [ painted grey ware ] sites have been excavated such as the ones at Allahpur, Atranjikhera, Hastinapur, Noh, Sravasti which have 3-4 meters thick deposits which suggests continuous habitation based on assured and continuous means of subsistence. Most of these sites have also yielded iron weapons or iron tools. This clearly suggests that agriculture had become the main occupation of the Later Vedic people.
Settled agricultural life led to beginnings of property in houses and in land, this was in addition to property In women slaves, animals and weapons and ornaments .One can trace the beginnings of tax collection in this period from the frequent usage of the term bali , a term used in this sense in Pali texts. Taxes probably consisted of grains and animals for the agrarian householders, artisans and craftsmen rendered services to the princes and the community for food and payment in kind.
Also one can infer that by and large instead of being consumed by the community as a whole , the taxes and tributes collected from the peasants were mainly shared by the Rajanyas /ksatriyas and the brahmanas and the power of these two groups was increasing as they increasingly came to rely on taxes from the agriculturists and the craftsmen and traders for their sustenance.
The later Vedic society had territorial kingdoms in the sense that people led a settled agricultural life under their princes and Brahmanas – several archaeological sites show a continuous habitation for two or three centuries.
Agriculture had received a major stimulus with the use of iron technology and agrarian settlements were rapidly expanding. The surplus grain made tax collection possible and the taxes thus collected could support kings and priests. This is the period in which the events mentioned in the Ramayana probably occurred. Sita , Lord Rama’s wife and the heroine of Ramayana , is mentioned as being daughter of king Janaka , king of Videha, who turned her up while ploughing the soil ; the word sita literally means “plough furrow”. The fact that the birth/creation of one of the most important characters of the Ramayana is directly attributed to an agricultural process indicates the central role plough agriculture had come to play in the society and economy of the Ramayana period .
A remarkable feature which distinguished the later Vedic period from the preceding rig-Vedic period was the development of two important organs of the government , taxation system and official machinery. The development of taxation system has already been mentioned. Regular taxes led to an increase in the number of administrative functionaries during this period. At last twelve of the ratnins seem to have been officials who were evidently supported out of the taxes collected by the state. The stage was now ripe for the rise of kingdoms and princes.
Thus from the above mentioned data we can hazard a reasonable guess that Lord Rama reigned in the Later Vedic period around 1000-500 B.C.
Social and economic setting of the Ramayana –
The second millennia before Christ was a period which saw the gradual extension of agriculture in the Ganges valley with corresponding increase in trade and commerce and in the inevitable result of this process- Urbanization . The Ganges became the main channel for trade and commerce and numerous cities and trade centers sprang up on its banks. The Agrarian settlements of Aryans were probably clustered around the river itself. However there were still large areas of uncleared forest , especially near the hills where the Aryan agrarian economy had not yet reached. However now it was possible for the Aryan speakers to assume the role of an advanced urban civilization based on technological advance their society had witnessed in the preceding century - chiefly the use of iron technology and the economic sophistication which had resulted from the increase in trade and commerce. They could now therefore regard with contempt the tribes living in the forests who had remained at the food gathering and hunting stage. Such technologically inferior tribes included the Sabaras, Pulindas, Mutibas, Kiratas , Asuras, Daityas, Danavas, Nishadas, Nagas etc.
A clear distinction is made in the Ramayana between the urban culture of the kingdom of Ayodhya based on a fairly extensive agricultural economy in contrast with the hunting and food gathering culture of the enemies of Lord Rama – the Rakshasas. However these tribes were not confined to hunters-gatherers. These tribes also practiced primitive slash and burn type of agriculture and some were horticulturists. Their societies were organized in clans and the larger unit was the tribe ; possibly this organization distinguished them from the later Vedic Aryans who had developed an agrarian economy and a caste society. In these tribes, Social hierarchy received little attention and generally the differentiation was only between the chief, who had the highest status , and the other clansmen. These tribes had a preference for living in forests and used a limited technology , their religion was largely animistic , they worshipped animal totems and their isolation permitted them to use their own language which was distinct from that of the Aryan agriculturists.
One can speculate that archaeologically these tribes are represented by the ochre colored pottery and the black and red ware using people. Very often, these tribes inhabited the fringes of Aryan culture and were displaced further up in the hills with the expansion of Aryan agrarian economy .Since the pace of this agrarian expansion had been quickened to a very rapid rate once the use of iron ploughshare became common , it led to increasing hostilities between the Aryan agrarian economy and the tribal economies.
The Mahabharata describes these tribesmen as being dressed in skins of wild animals, eating fruits and roots and inflicting cruel wounds with their weapons. However the Mahabharata also mentions that they brought as gifts to one of the heroes of the text , sandalwood, aloe wood, expensive skins , gold , perfume, and ten thousand serving girls , that the Chiefs of these tribes arrived riding on elephants. An early medieval adaptation of the Ramayana from the south speaks of the Sabara chief as a powerful ruler of the Mleccha – desa . This shows that these tribes – although lacking an advanced agrarian economy – did not have a primitive economy and in case of them turning hostile to the Aryans, they were a formidable force to reckon with.
The names Pulinda and Sabara are mentioned by numerous other sources also. The Greek historian Ptolemy uses the curious expression “agriophagoi” – the eaters of wild things in describing these tribes and locates them in the Vindhayas. The Ramayana mentions in its Adi Kanda and the Aranya kanda about the existence of these tribes in the Vindhyan region as does the Banabhatta’s Kadambari.
These names- the Pulindas and the Sabaras were later used as prototype of forest tribes. The Sabaras can be identified with the Suari of Pliny and the Sabarae of Ptolemy and are probably the ancestors of the Savaralu or the Sauras of the Vizagapatnam hills, of the Savaris of the Gwalior territory and of the various tribes on the frontiers of Orissa. A Sabara tribes exists to the present day in Western Orissa.
The example of the Nagas also brings home the fact that the non-agriculturist tribes were a formidable force during the time of the Ramayana. The naga totem of the cobra is an ancient totem and many seals bearing the naga totem have been found during archaeological explorations. The naga totem survives to the present day and numerous naga tribes still live in India although now most of them are found in eastern India where they probably migrated owing to the pressure from Aryan agriculturists.
The fact that Aryan agriculturists found it difficult to defeat the nagas by warfare and tried to win them over by reconciliatory measures is attested by the inclusion of the naga or the cobra in list of Aryan semi-divinities. Traditional literature mentions that the many hooded cobra was used as a rope during the churning of the sea; samudra-manthan. The cobra is depicted as the necklace of Lord Shiva and as the bed on whom Lord Vishnu reclines. An alternative name for the naga is Takshaka , which also means carpenter. The traditional naga , a snake demon able to assume human form at will , is depicted as being a superior craftsman than an average Aryan agriculturist. This shows that despite being an non-agriculturist tribe, the nagas were skilled craftsmen and probably had an advanced economy despite it having an non-agrarian basis.
Various other terms used in traditional literature such as Rakshasas , Asuras, Daityas, Danavas, denote non-Aryan tribes of different cultures in various stages of civilization ranging from the rude, uncivilized tribes to fully civilized cultures which offered considerable resistance to the spread of Aryan agrarian economy, to Aryan trade and commerce.
Inland trade especially trade with southern India probably had it’s beginnings in the later Vedic period. It is surely no coincidence that Lord Rama’s route of exile later developed into the southern trade route – the dakshinapatha that gave it’s name to the modern Deccan. Probably the earliest trade routes which followed Lord Rama’s exile path ran from Ayodhya in Kosala to Pratishthana on the Godavari and beyond. However these trade routes ran through the Vindhyan forests which were inhabited by non-agriculturist hostile tribes like Sabaras who would take to brigandage and rob the traders whenever possible . A ninth century inscription mentions the mleccha along the Chambal river and a fifteenth century inscription refers to the quelling of a revolt by the Sabaras inhabiting the Chambal valley [ this valley has remained throughout Indian history the main route from the Ganges valley to north-western Deccan and a trouble spot for traders up to recent times.] .
Thus for ancient trade to develop along this route , the non-agriculturist tribes inhabiting this trade route like the Sabaras, the Pulindas had to be subjugated by force or appeased .That something of this sort happened after Lord Rama’s exile can be inferred by the subsequent growth of trade along this route as evidenced by the presence of Northern Black polished ware along with punch marked coins at Alagankulam which indicates an evident increase in the volume of trade along this route. These coastal trading sites such as Alagankulam developed contacts with Sri Lanka and this probably led to small settlements in Sri Lanka . Also the fact that Ayodhya remained an important centre for inland trade in the later centuries is attested by the mention of journeys of merchants from Ayodhya to distant Tamralipti near the mouth of Ganges delta [ Tamluk, somewhere in modern Bengal ] in later inscriptions as in the eighth century inscription of Udayamana.
Thus we see that during the period of the Ramayana , agriculture was expanding but was limited by the presence of hostile non-agriculturist tribes inhabiting the fringes of the cultivated land. Also trade was beginning but trade routes ran through forests inhabited by hostile tribes who took to brigandage and robbery. For both trade and agriculture to develop further, the hostile tribes either had to be exterminated by brute force or appeased by other reconciliatory measures.
Hostilities between the Aryan agriculturists and non-agriculturist tribes –
Hostilities between the Aryan agriculturists and the non agriculturist hunter- gatherer tribes had sharpened during the later Vedic period with the latter acting as an impediment to the growth of Aryan agriculture as well as to trade and commerce. A confrontation between the two was inevitable as the Aryan agriculturists , expanding fast now on the basis of their new found iron technology , encroached up on the territories of these tribes. We have numerous accounts of ferocious fights between the Aryans agriculturists and the non-Aryan tribes.
The Mahabharata states in Khandava-daha-parva that the Pandavas – representing without a shred of doubt the ksatriya section of the agriculturist later Vedic society, set on fire the Khandava forest at request of Lord Agni himself , probably to generate more land for agriculture. The forest had been under the protection of lord Indra and had sheltered , among others, the great Cobra naga Takshaka . Having set it afire on all sides, the heroes shot down all living creatures that tried to escape the fire , only six escaped the fire alive . Reading between the lines here, we can infer that the Aryan agriculturists , led by the Pandavas, had a battle with the forest dwelling non-agriculturist naga tribes, whose skills as a craftsmen are well documented by the epithet Takshaka , and defeated them . That the Mahabharata mentions that only six escaped the fire clearly shows that the tribesmen suffered heavy causalities .
Such battles were increasingly becoming more frequent as trade routes too had to be secured against the brigandage of the forest tribes. Presumably the Aryan agriculturists also made attempts to appease the forest tribes and include them in their society but such attempts would probably be resisted by the tribal chiefs for they would stand to lose their absolute powers once the tribe assimilated in the Aryan society. Thus the staunchest resistance to the tribe joining the Aryan society was from the tribal chiefs rather than from the tribesmen .
However such stubborn resistance from the tribal chiefs usually meant a death sentence for a large number of his tribesmen as the tribal people were finding it difficult to face the might of the Aryan agriculturists who on basis of their superior iron technology and iron weapons were increasingly having the scales tilted in their favor.
The greatness of Lord Rama –
The agrarian economy during the period of Ramayana necessitated two things for the economy to grow and sustain itself -
1. Further expansion of agriculture and a corresponding increase in land under the plough.
2. Securing the trade routes which ran through forests against the looting of forest tribes.
Brute force and reconciliatory measures were both used by the Aryan agriculturists to achieve the above mentioned aims . This is well demonstrated by the episode of Khandava-daha-parva in the Mahabharata. However brute force could not succeed alone, it had to be buttressed by reconciliatory measures.
Aryan agriculturists probably had made earlier attempts also at appeasing the tribesmen and had tried incorporating them within their social system. In these tribes, generally the differentiation was only between the chief, who had the highest status , and the other clansmen . However in case of the assimilation of the tribe with the Aryans and with learning of agriculture and trade by tribesmen, new social norms would inevitably come to be accepted by the tribesmen which would dilute the authority of the tribal chief. Because of this factor, the chiefs of the tribes were vehemently opposed to assimilation with the Aryan agriculturists and would rather fight them to the end rather than accept assimilation within the Aryan society.
Lord Rama came to be known as a great king owing to the middle path he trod in achieving the above mentioned aims . It is probably on account of the signal service attributed to him in spreading the Aryan agricultural culture far and wide, especially in the Deccan , and rendering the trade routes running through these regions free from brigandage that he came to be venerated by the succeeding generations. One has to recognize these solid facts – the rapid expansion of agriculture from the Indo-Gangetic plain to the Deccan and beyond and that trade with south India increased drastically in volume following the period of Lord Rama’s exile . These lend support to the theory that events which happened during Lord Rama’s exile were one of the main catalysts of the above mentioned processes.
The numerous stories of Lord Rama vanishing Asuras/Danavas in which the Ramayana abounds probably refer to engagements of Lord Rama with the chiefs of these tribes . As we know from the Ramayana that during his exile period , Lord Rama was not having any peasant militia or an army at his disposal and logic dictates that despite being an brilliant archer, he could not have fought an entire tribe alone . So probably the stories of his fights with Asuras/Danavas/Rakshasas are accounts of Lord Rama entering into man to man combat with these tribal chiefs and subjugating them.
Thus we glean from traditional literature that Lord Rama fought many man to man contests with the tribal chiefs – contests in which he could have been wounded or worse , not for his own good but solely for the purpose of improving the lot of the tribals and for the indirect benefits that would accrue to the Aryan agriculturists Probably Lord Rama realized that the social and economic organization of the tribals would evolve further only if they were introduced to agriculture and that the single most important obstacle in introducing agriculture to them was the stubborn refusal of the tribal chiefs to accept any Aryan social or economic advance that could lead to dilution of the chief’s absolute power up on his people.
Recognizing this, lord Rama realized that the tribal chiefs had to be vanquished by force or appeased by other measures before the lot of the tribe as a whole could improve. Hence his numerous encounters with the tribal chiefs in which his physical prowess , intelligence and the fact that he used the most advanced type of ancient weaponry - bow and arrows [ probably Lord Rama’s arrows were iron tipped – a significant advantage over the weaponry of his tribal opponents] made him come out victorious every time. One can also hypothesize that hailing from a society of Aryan agriculturists, Lord Rama had also realized that for the expansion of the Aryan agricultural society and of agrarian land which was now necessary to support the increasing population , the tribals had to be brought within the fold of agriculturists.
Also most of the ancient tribes usually chose [ as many surviving primitive tribes still do ] the strongest and best warrior amongst themselves as their chief – in other words ,therefore one may guess that Lord Rama faced men who were formidable opponents . And the warrior who challenged and defeated the chief could become the next chief or chose the next chief to replace the vanquished one . Lord Rama by defeating the tribal chiefs in man to man combat ensured that the tribe accepted his writ . Probably the tribe was then converted to an agrarian society by Lord Rama– a welcome social and economic advance for the tribals. The tribals could have then been introduced to the benefits of trade and commerce and the material prosperity that could ensue up on them if the tribals joined trade instead of pillaging traders passing through their area. This way Lord Rama also made trade routes safe for traders. This automatically led to increase in trade and commerce and the resultant prosperity .
It was not only his martial prowess that was employed by Lord Rama to convert these non-agriculturist tribes to an agrarian system. The legend of shabari shows that Lord Rama was an brilliant statesman too .The legend of shabari as depicted in the Ramayana mentions that during his exile, Lord Rama came upon a old tribal women called shabari who was eagerly awaiting his arrival . She offered him ber, fruit of the tree Zizyphus jujube – a small, hardy tree that yields small berry like fruit. Lord Rama noted that a small chunk of all the fruits had been bitten off . On asking , Shabari replied that she had tasted all the fruits and kept only the tastiest ones for offering to Lord Rama. Lord Rama ate the fruits lovingly and blessed Shabari. The ber- to this day , is not a very popular fruit in India but the tree is worshipped by Hindus. This legend probably carries a much deeper relevance than is usually thought. The epithet Shabari probably refers to the Sabara tribe – a powerful, non-agricultural tribe which made safe passage through the trade routes passing through their region impossible and were thus a major obstacle to growth of trade and commerce. The Greek historian Ptolemy uses the curious expression “agriophagoi” – the eaters of wild things in describing the Sabaras .One can logically guess that the ber was considered among wild things by Ptolemy. Although why the ber and not some other fruit was chosen as the basis of the Shabari legend will never be accurately known but one can hazard a wild guess that probably ber was the totem tree of the tribe of the Sabaras. Lord Rama probably inter-dined with the tribal chiefs and/or tribesmen of the Sabara tribe – this is what one can guess the legend of Shabari hints at This act must increased the prestige of the Sabaras manifold and gone a long way in building up trust among the Sabaras and the Aryan agriculturists. That this was a huge step in reconciling the tribes can be understood if one realizes how strict the ban on inter-dining with tribals was in those days.
Lord Rama by inter-dining with the Sabaras won their love and affection and converted them to an agricultural society from a hunter-gatherer society The trade routes passing through Sabara territory also were made safe from their depredations and this probably was the reason that trade with South India witnesses an astronomical increase in the post Rama times.
Thus from the legends of the Ramayana, we can extract the numerous acts of a brilliant and brave prince. Lord Rama set in motion the wheel of material prosperity and progress for later generations - by converting the hostile, non-agricultural tribes to a civilized, agrarian society and securing the trade routes. In the Later Vedic period, agricultural production could have been increased only by increasing the land under the plough . It is only in modern times that with the advent of fertilizers and mechanization of agriculture one can have a larger yield from a limited area of land.
And to increase the fertile area under the plough , the tribes inhabiting the fringes of Aryan agriculturists had to be converted to agriculturists and made a part of the Aryan agricultural society or had to be subjugated by force.
In order to do so, on numerous occasions , Lord Rama had to single-handedly subjugate the chiefs of these tribes in closely contested fights – fights which could have gone either way. Also being a far sighted statesman and possessed of an extremely benevolent nature , Lord Rama didn’t hesitate to break down many oppressive social taboos as can be made out from the Shabari legend . Lord Rama , unmindful of the social wrath , inter-dined with the Sabaras and won their love and affection and introduced them to a settled agricultural life .
Probably there must have been numerous other instances also where Lord Rama would have won the love and affection of other tribes by treating them on par with Himself and not making any discrimination against them. Shabari legend is one of such instances which has come down to us. All venerated men such as Jesus Christ , Lord Buddha , Mahavira Vardhmana , Prophet Muhammad have stressed treating all men as equals . Lord Rama was foremost among these great men in setting this tradition which sadly is not adhered to even in these modern times.
Lord Rama probably lived during his exile period among the non-agricultural hunter gatherer tribes and taught them agriculture and made them discard some of their brutal customs like anointing their deity with blood of the sacrificed beast/human being [ we can hazard a guess here that probably many of these tribes practiced human sacrifice and Lord Rama must have played an important role in making the tribe discard this brutal rite ] . Lord Rama had already gained the respect of the tribals by his martial prowess and benevolence , by treating the tribals as equals and by inter-dining with them . This influence he used to improve the lot of the tribesmen.
Lord Rama , despite having a kingdom and a throne at his feet, chose to spend a long period [ 14 years is the time period mentioned in the epics] in the forests living as a hunter-food gatherer among the non-agricultural tribes solely to honor the word of his father . He spent this time living amongst the tribals , educating them , made them familiar with plough agriculture and ,again we may hazard a guess, also made them familiar with iron technology and converted them to an agrarian society. Thus Lord Rama , by converting the hunter-gatherer tribals to agriculturists, removed the very basis of conflict between the Aryan agriculturists and the non agrarian hunter-gatherer tribals. Now both the Aryan agriculturists and the tribals could focus their energies on social and economic progress- that this actually occurred is evident from the rapid pace of urbanization and increase in material prosperity in the post-Rama period.
Single-handedly Lord Rama achieved which generations of Aryan agriculturists before him had tried in vain to do. Ancient Indian Civilization owes more to Lord Rama than to any king or saint .
As to key role of Lord Rama in making the tribals discard their brutal custom of sacrifice- both human and animal, we have the following indisputable evidence .The monkey god Hanuman receives independent worship among the peasantry and is covered with red lead like all other cult-objects. One can safely deduce that the red lead used nowadays is a substitute for blood of the sacrificial animal. However one may notice that when Lord Hanuman is depicted in the company of Lord Rama, he loses his red coating. Probably the vanara forest tribe having the monkey as their totem , anointed the totem with blood of the sacrifice on ceremonial occasions . In the Post-Ramayana period, the monkey totem came to be identified with Lord Hanuman who was probably a chieftain of the vanara tribe and had gained an enviable position for himself by rendering help to Lord Rama in his war against the Ravanas .
That Hanuman loses his red coat in presence of Lord Rama can only be explained by the theory that Lord Rama educated the tribals about the futility of animal/human sacrifice and made them discard this practice . He was already venerated by the tribesmen of the vanara tribe and numerous other tribes owing to his qualities and benevolence. Lord Rama used this respect and affection to wean the tribes away from such cruel rites. Probably the sacrificial animals included livestock animals like cattle, buffaloes, goats etc. Thus by making numerous tribes stop animal sacrifice, Lord Rama also provided a major stimulus to plough agriculture as now cattle , spared from sacrifice, could be put to agricultural use.
In private life too, Lord Rama excelled as a model son and a devoted husband; it is not for nothing that even today a devoted husband wife pair is referred to as Ram-Sita. Lord Rama was a dutiful and obedient son as can be deduced that when he was banished from his kingdom and sent to live In the forests by his father Dasarata [ this owing to the palace intrigue set up by his queen Kaikeyi] , he quietly obeyed his father’s orders. Even when his younger brother Bharat came to his forest retreat beseeching him to come back to his kingdom and enthrone himself, Lord Rama refused his offer saying that doing so would amount to breaking the word his father had given to Queen Kaikeyi.
One can contrast this absolute docility and obedience of Lord Rama with that of other historical figures. Emperor Asoka, venerated by Buddhists , is mentioned as having revolted against his father and killed 99 of his brothers for the throne. Even the Pandavas slayed their brothers Kauravas for the sake of the throne.
In contrast, Lord Rama gracefully forsake the throne for 14 years and lived the life of a forest ascetic , solely to keep his father’s word . It’s no surprise that Lord Rama’s dynasty’s name is still considered the gold standard for those who strive to keep their word. “Raghukul reet sadha chali aaye, Pran jaye pur vachan na jaye” – the tradition of the Raghukulas [ dynasty to which Lord Rama belonged ] lives on , one should die rather than going back on one’s word.
Possessed of great physical prowess and an expert archer, Lord Rama was a valiant prince and after ascending the throne, proved to be an extremely capable and great king . His reign-“Ram Rajya “ became synonymous for that of an ideal king thus lending support to the fact that he was concerned about the welfare of his subjects and strove to improve their lot.
Thus it was no surprise that Lord Rama came to be venerated and worshipped as an incarnation of the God by later generations. His numerous qualities and benevolent nature , the fact that he saw farther in the future than any of his contemporaries , broke many oppressive social taboos such as inter-dining with the tribals, was responsible for introduction of agriculture in areas where it was hitherto unknown and increased the material prosperity of his subjects, made trade routes safe from brigandage , assimilated hostile tribes in the Aryan society and possessed every quality one wishes to be present in a model son/husband/king/brother were reasons enough for successive generations to deify him and incorporate him among the ranks of their Gods .
Demonification of the hostile non-agriculturist tribes in later literature -
One of the reasons some historians have cast doubts on the authenticity of the Ramayana is that there are numerous mentions of Lord Rama in the Ramayana vanquishing demons and ogresses who have super-natural powers. Some of them can fly, change their shape and form etc. One has to remember that all of these stories are later accretions added by court poets/bards so as to add to the aura of Lord Rama.
There appear to be three stages in the description of these non—agriculturist hostile tribes of Asuras, Danavas, Daityas and Rakshasas in the traditional accounts.
Originally ,and accurately, these denoted human beings belonging to the tribes mentioned above , but as these tribes were hostile to the Aryans, these names came to mean hated, hostile or savage men.
Later on, these names became terms of opprobrium and abuse which led to attribution of evil character to these people. Even certain Aryan kings came to be termed Danavas or Asuras owing to their evil character.
Finally in later times, these terms came to be associated with demoniac beings possessing super-natural powers who experienced pleasure in torturing and killing innocent human beings and who were usually vanquished by some learned Aryan sage or by an incarnation of God himself. Probably this was done by the court poet/bard in order to enhance the reputation and prowess of the ancestors of his Ksatriya /brahmanas patrons . Vanquishing an enemy who possessed supernatural powers and could not be defeated by ordinary human beings automatically meant that the ancestor of the Ksatriya /brahmanas patrons of the bard possessed similar powers but in a greater proportion . This is the reason we have numerous accounts in traditional literature of Rakshashas , Dainavas, Asuras , Nagas who could make themselves invisible, change their shape , size and form , of those who could spew fire , snakes etc. Many of later kings whose bards made these additions claimed to be of the Raghukula lineage and adding to the prowess of Lord Rama and his dynasty automatically enhanced their stature too.
The monkeys-chiefs of Ramayana –
Many Historians doubt the authenticity of the Ramayana owing to numerous mentions of the kingdom of vanaras [monkeys], bears and of vultures . This is easily explained as follows-
The monkey, the vulture and the bear were obviously tribal totems of the non-agricultural hunter-gatherer tribes . The Vanaras were tribes with the monkey totem. The Jaina Ramayana mentions that the banner of the Vanaras was the vanara-dhvaja (monkey flag), thereby reinforcing the totemic theory. An early issue of the Bellary District (now in Karnataka) Gazetteer gives us the interesting information that the place was inhabited by the Vanara tribe . Similarly, Jatayu would have been the chief of the vulture-totem tribe and Jambavan of the bear-totem tribe.
In ancient times, Totemism was a worldwide phenomenon . It is likely that the Totem of the Tribe could have been the most prominent animal in the area where the tribe lived but another possibility is that the totem was the creature that best "represented" that tribe, it's warrior craft, it's philosophy. The totem was usually an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan or a tribe. In a parallel to Jambavan of the bear-totem tribe mentioned in the Ramayana , there is the instance of the famous Berserkers of the Norse who's Totem was also the Bear . The Tribal Totem was also seen as the Tribe's protector. As to why animals were usually chosen as totems , human “gifts” or "powers" are often best expressed through animals since animals possess these physical qualities in a greater proportion.. This is why we use animals in our modern day speech to describe people: "strong as an Ox", "hawk – eyed " etc.
The probble uses of a totem were-
To embody the unification, collective pride and aspirations of a tribe and its ancestry , to guard against tribe’s defilement through acts that are considered to be against social and cultural morals . Totem also played a key role in maintaining the social identity of the tribe .
The Monkey totem was widely prevalent in the ancient world . Ancient Nubian wrestling stresses the symbolism and style of the monkey. In Africa, the gorilla has been venerated as a symbol of strength and agility since ancient times . In China, the sacred monkey totem is an important patron of martial arts.
Thus we see that the numerous references of the vanaras in the Ramayana actually allude to forest dwelling non-agricultural hunter gatherer tribes who had the monkey as their totem .
Ram setu – fact or fiction –
The Ram setu or Adam’s bridge is a chain of sandbars and coralline islets dotting a 30 km. stretch in the east-west direction between the Southern tip of Rameswaram island in India and Talaimannar in North-west Sri-Lanka. Composed of 103 small patch reefs and innumerable smaller reefs lying in a linear pattern with flattened reef crests [ which are emergent during low tide ] , sand cays [accumulation of looses coral sands and beach rock ] and intermittent channels , the Adam’s bridge is clearly made out in the sea by the change in color of sea water overlying it. The overlying sea is shallow, being around 4-10 feet and even lower at low tide. Traditional accounts claim that the Adam’s bridge or the Ram setu was constructed by Lord Rama and his vanar sena over a span of 5 days which when subject to a scientific analysis appears highly improbable. But again we have to keep in mind that achieving mastery over water in a super-natural manner is a theme common to many religions, we have instance of Jesus walking over water . In a similar manner we have claims in traditional literature that rocks with name of Lord Rama written over them started floating in the sea and the ram-setu was constructed of these rocks.
Construction of a 30 km. bridge across open sea is a Herculean task even today . Even modern nation-states which have at their disposal immense resources and advanced engineering technology would find it an extremely difficult and daunting task . In the period in which we place the events of Ramayana with the primitive technology of those times and the meager resources of the emerging, nascent kingdoms – such a task is clearly impossible. Hence this is clear that Lord Rama did not construct the Adam’s bridge as we know it today.
But then we have to solve an puzzle – why Adam’s bridge came to be associated only with Lord Rama in numerous legends. Various ancient and medieval historical sources- too abundant to be individually detailed but notable among them being accounts of the remarkably astute Al’Biruni and Marco Polo attribute the construction of Adam’s bridge to Lord Rama. The construction of Adam’s bridge is not attributed to any other ancient hero in even a single known legend. One can logically put forward this query that why building this bridge is not attributed to any other ancient hero . For example , just to cite an instance, why the construction of the Adam’s bridge is not attributed to the great Chola monarch Karikala who reigned around 190 A.D. This Chola king is said to have invaded Sri Lanka and after defeating the Sri Lankan king, carried away 12,000 inhabitants of the island and put them to work in fortification of his sea port Puhar. Ancient Tamil legends could have easily attributed the building of Adam’s bridge to Karikala in order to enhance his glory. It could have been claimed that Karikala built this bridge to invade Sri Lanka and to provide easy access to Lanka to retain his hold over the island. That , however , is not the case. Even in later Indian accounts where the exaggerations of the court poets and bards are an integral feature, the construction of Adam’s bridge is attributed to no one other than Lord Rama. Thus we can clearly see that Lord Rama’s name has been associated with Adam’s bridge since antiquity rendering it impossible for any other ancient hero or later bards to claim it for themselves or the ancestors of their patrons. Clearly some event occurred during Lord Rama’s exile which inseparably linked his name with that of Adam’s bridge .
To solve this puzzle , we have to turn to an aspect which has often been ignored – the skill of ancient Indians in wood making and carpentry.
India has a long tradition of making buildings/ cities in wood. The Greek historian Megasthenes who visited India during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya [ around 321 B.C.] , around 3-6 centuries after the presumed date of Lord Rama’s reign , writes that –“ All Indian towns which are beside the sea or the rivers are made of wood.” Writing further , Megasthenes states – “ the city of Pataliputra built at the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Son is 80 stadia [ 9 miles] in length and 15 stadia [ around 2 miles] in width . It is surrounded by a wooden wall having 560 towers and 60 gates”. Even the palace of king Chandragupta Maurya about which Megasthenes said that neither the palaces of Susa nor Ecbatana could vie with was made of wood. Megasthenes account has been bolstered by archaeological evidence .Excavations of Waddell unearthed fragments of the wooden city wall of Pataliputra. In 1926-27 was unearthed a double line of upright timbers around 15 feet high near Patna which the excavator remarked appeared to him to extend almost indefinitely. Dr Spooner unearthed massive remains of huge wooden buildings at Bulandibagh and Kumrahar near Patna – probably remains of the ancient palace of the Mauryas.
Even the reliefs at Sanchi and Amravati stupas clearly indicate that most of the buildings and cities in Pre-Asokan era were made of wood. The appearance of these buildings shown in the relief carvings leave no doubt that they were made of wood , the essentials of wooden technique being scrupulously imitated in these relief representations.
In the facades of early rock cut caves , such as those at Barabar hills near Gaya , survive the frontages of these early wooden buildings and here too the stamp and impress of wooden construction are clear and explicit. Thus it is clear that wood was the chief building material in ancient India and it was only after Emperor Asoka that stone came to be used for building purposes on a large scale. [ Some historians, notably Sir Mortimer Wheeler claim that this was due to large scale migration of the artistry of Persia who found themselves bereft of royal patronage following the burning of Persepolis in 331 B.C. After destruction of the Achaemenian empire of Persia , the artistry of Persia shifted base to India and the material in which they excelled was stone. Hence the increasing use of stone in the post-Asokan period ] .
Thus we see that ancient Indians had a long tradition of excellence in wood crafting . Their houses, cities , palaces , chariots were all made of wood which unfortunately have not survived to us owing to wood being a perishable material.
Coming back to the puzzle of Ram-setu , we can hazard the following theory. Around 500-1000 B.C , this being the time period in which we are assuming the events mentioned in the Ramayana happened , Lord Rama with his army had to cross the Palk strait to rescue his abducted wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana. Lacking a navy and not well-versed with sea-faring, Lord Rama and his army had to seek some other way to cross the strait. The Adam’s bridge was probably the same as it is today . Lord Rama and his army must have realized that this pre-existing shallow , natural reef chain could be used a way to cross the Palk strait .Having numerous skilled carpenters and artisans at their disposal , they could easily improvise upon this shallow, submerged chain of reefs and sand deposits .
Probably construction work was carried out only at low tide when the sea over the reef chain would become more shallow and some of the shallow sandbanks would be emergent. Construction of the bridge must have occurred over a period of weeks, if not months. The 5 day period claimed in legends is probably a later bardic invention. Small rocks and beach sand would have been used to fill up the shallow water filled channels . Forests provided the abundant wood out of which must have been fashioned a rough, makeshift wooden bridge which was probably supported on timbers which in turn were supported on the underlying, pre-existing reefs and sand deposits. Vines and ropes made of plants and nails would have been used to construct the bridge. [ The use of coir ropes was as yet unknown for the coconut tree was a later import from Malaya ]. The wooden bridge was then advanced forwards gradually. The carpenters and artisans of Lord Rama’s army were well versed with this type of work in wood and would have found constructing such a wooden structure quite easy .
Also one has to remember that in ancient period, battles generally consisted of man to man contest and the weapons generally used were clubs, spears, maces and the bow and arrow. Armies usually traveled light. Therefore , as most of the combatants while crossing the bridge would have been carrying little weight except light weapons like a bow and a quiver , a club or a spear , even a makeshift wooden edifice sufficiently strong to bear the weight of a man would have served the purpose.
Once the bridge was completed, Lord Rama and his army made the crossing , reached the Lankan shores and after vanquishing Ravana and rescuing Sita re-crossed the bridge and returned home to the Gangetic plain. The bridge , having served it’s purpose, was then forgotten. Made of wood and other perishable materials and being continuously exposed to the salt-water sea, the bridge would not have lasted more than a few years . Probably the sea claimed the wooden bridge erected by Lord Rama and his army in a span of few years but the memory of Lord Rama having used it to reach Lanka lived on and became part of folklore and legends. Later legends out of necessity had to attribute the whole of the Adam’s bridge to Lord Rama since the structure which his army had actually constructed had long vanished. The later legends had to give some material basis to their claims and since the chain of sub-merged coral reefs, sandbars was all that was now visible , they began to claim that even this chain was constructed by Lord Rama and his army. Agreeably no archaeological remains of the wooden bridge built by Lord Rama and his army over the Adam’s bridge has yet been found and probably will never be found owing to the perishable nature of wooden structures. But one cannot deny the fact that Lord Rama used the Adam’s bridge to cross over to Lanka. The wooden structure crumbled but the memory of his crossing the sea lived on. One cannot furnish archaeological evidence for all past events – whole of the human history will have to be considered a collection of myths and fables if such cast-iron criteria are to be applied.
Legends normally are accretions over a historical kernel and in reconstruction of the past, oral traditions are sometimes as important as the material remnants. This is illustrated by the following examples-
Local folklore and legends prevalent in Peshawar mentioned the relic tower or Pagoda of the Kushana king Kanishka erected over the relics of Buddha. Legends claimed it to be the tallest structure in Asia of its time. However many historians considered that this huge tower described in legends was sheer poetic exaggeration . However recently archaeological evidence to prove that such a structure actually existed became available when a site called Shah-ji-ki-Dheri was excavated , revealing a base of a tower around 286 feet in diameter. The casket containing the relics of Buddha was also found and is now a priceless possession of the Peshawar museum. Thus the ancient legends were found to be absolutely correct in their description of the tower and it’s contents. This example shows that archaeological evidence, albeit an essential parameter, is not the sole criteria for debunking or accepting oral folk traditions.
Another example will drive home the point that archaeological evidence, although a welcome addition to oral traditions is not always forthcoming. In Gurdaspur district in Punjab, residents of a village called Kathgarh on the bank of river Beas have long cherished a folktale which claims that Alexander the great had to turn back to Macedonia from the Beas at the place where the village is now situated. No archaeological evidence to prove or disapprove this legend has yet been unearthed. However ancient Greek historians record that Alexander had to retreat owing to his soldiers mutinying and refusing to proceed further on the banks of river Hyphasis. The river Hyphasis has been identified with modern historians to be identical with the Beas. Further Greek historians mention that while encamped on the river Hyphasis , Alexander consulted a chieftain called Bhagala about the extent and power of the Nanda empire. The name of the chieftain consulted is further corroborated by accounts of the great Grammarian Panini [ dated to have lived around 400 B.C.] . Further one may notice that no other place has laid a claim to being the point from where Alexander turned back. Concocting a folktale involves no great effort and one may ask as to why no other village other than Kathgarh [ there are numerous villages on bank of the river Beas and it would be historically impossible to prove or refute their claim if they asserted as to their village being the actual turning back point of Alexander ] claims to mark the turning back point of Alexander.
Thus we see that although no firm archaeological evidence has yet been unearthed but in all probability, the long prevalent folktale among the residents of Kathgarh that their village is situated near the point from where Alexander turned back is probably correct.
Oral traditions and legends reflect the memory of ancient populace’s mind and ideology and are an invaluable source for the historian. Some artisan groups in the Tanjavur area retain not only oral traditions about their migrations from Saurashtra but also use the same words for their tools as are common in Kathiawar thereby lending irrefutable proof to their traditions being absolutely correct.
Similarly although archaeological evidence to prove that the Lord Rama used the Adam’s bridge to reach Lanka to rescue his abducted wife Sita may never be forthcoming but the long prevalent oral traditions about his using the Adam’s bridge to cross the sea are in all probability correct .
Some historians [ although the number of such historians to begin with was small and has since rapidly dwindled] claim without any solid historical data that Lanka in the Ramayana, instead of being identified with the modern Sri Lanka , should be placed somewhere on the banks of river Godavari in central India. They claim that it is unlikely that the later Vedic Aryans were familiar with the sea. That this view is entirely erroneous has been proven by numerous scholars like Lassen, Zimmer , Kosambi etc.
Although it is probable that the Rig Vedic people did not have any knowledge about the sea [ although many scholars including the doyen among Indian historians - D.D.Kosambi believe that the Rig-Vedic people too were familiar with the sea ] , it is certain that the later Vedic people were familiar with the sea. The Aitareya brahmana speaks of the “inexhaustible sea” and “the sea as encircling the earth “ . The eastern and the western oceans mentioned in the Sathapatha brahmana are probably references to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea. Thus we can safely identify the sea mentioned in the Ramayana with the Palk strait and the Lanka with modern Sri Lanka . Recent evidence that there was some trade contact between India and Sri-Lanka as early as fifth century B.C comes in the form of potsherds excavated from fifth century B.C levels at Anuradhapura in Sri-Lanka with graffiti in Brahmi .
Thus the amount of evidence suggesting that the Adam’s bridge was used by Lord Rama to cross over to Sri lanka is impressive. We have long standing oral traditions and historical accounts corroborating this , correct in all probability. We have numerous historical mentions associating the Adam’s bridge with Lord Rama including that of foreign travelers. No other ancient king / bardic hero is credited with building the Ram-setu – this too is an important pointer that since ancient times, local folklore has preserved the memory of Lord Rama crossing the sea over Adam’s bridge.
Hence on strength of oral traditions and literary evidence , we can safely deduce that Lord Rama used the Adam’s bridge to cross over to Sri-Lanka , probably by erecting some wooden structure which is no longer extant. The Oral traditions and the literary evidence mentioning the crossing of Adam’s bridge by Lord Rama and his army , although not yet supported by any archaeological evidence , are absolutely correct. Archaeological evidence , if available in the future, will only serve to corroborate the literary evidence . The need of Archaeological evidence here is probably not as pressing as usually is owing to the cumulative evidence of literature and oral traditions already available.
Thus we see that the Ram-setu is a historical entity and not a figment of bardic imagination .It was used by Lord Rama to cross over to Lanka as is held in oral traditions and literary evidence , however probably the structure which Lord Rama’s army actually built has been lost forever to us.
It is rightly considered sacred by Hindus and their resentment at it being damaged during the implementation of the Sethusamudram project is well placed.