Posted by: John Elliott | September 18, 2007

Hindu religion and mythology hit a controversial infrastructure project

Infrastructure projects are rarely easy to implement anywhere in the world because of all the social and environmental issues that have to be accommodated, in addition to basic business considerations. In India it can be even worse because of unclear and changing government policies, complex and ill-defined environmental and other rules, difficulties over vague land ownership, and resentment among those displaced who see others becoming rich.

Even when a project has started, it can still go wrong. Religious sensitivities also intervene – highway projects frequently have to cope with temples and sacred shrines located in their path – but rarely do issues of both religion and mythology come into play as they have on a shipping channel in southern India.

This is a story that shows how the cauldron of religion, politics, ethnic groupings and regional differences that are a part of daily life in India can spill over into business and infrastructure development. The project involves dredging a shipping channel along the Palk Straits between the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the island of Sri Lanka, and it has been halted by a dispute that turns on the arcane point of whether an ancient Hindu god is part of mythology or someone who actually built a rocky bridge, now mostly submerged under the sea (bottom of map), across the straits in the path of the channel.


Not only has dredging been halted, but national politicians are caught up in the row, with one government minister being called on to resign, and the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) berating the avowedly secular Congress Party that runs the government coalition.
The god is Lord Ram, the hero of the Ramayana, the Hindu religion’s most popular and important epic. He is said – at least 4,000 years ago – to have built a crop of rocks known as Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Setu) across the straits so his armies could rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the king of what was then Lanka.

Ram has also figured in modern politics and is a sensitive and important Hindu figure – though in southern India he is sometimes also regarded as a symbol of attempted northern (Aryan) domination of the Dravidian south. Defending the project, M. Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu chief minister (and a declared atheist), said last weekend that the Ramayana was “only a piece of fiction that allegorically represented the conflict between Aryans and Dravidians.”

First mooted by a British engineer in 1860, and then by the Indian government in 1955, the $600 million-plus 167km (104 mile) Sethusamudram Canal, as the channel is called, has always had its skeptics and critics. Though its supporters like to compare it with the Panama or Suez canals, it will take coastal ships of only up to 30,000 tons and will cut just 24-30 hours off their sailing time round Sri Lanka.

Environmentalists have complained about destruction of coral and the rest of the local eco-system, including the loss of a barrier that can hold back tsunami waves, but sand dredging has been under way for two years and is about 25% complete, though no rock cutting has started. Local business will be the main beneficiary, and the project is being determinedly steered by T.R. Baalu, India’s Minister for Shipping and a member of the regional DMK political party that is in power in Tamil Nadu. Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s finance minister and a Tamil Nadu member of parliament, has also spoken in favor.

High court petitions however have tried to block the project and have asked for the site to be declared an “ancient protected monument.” These petitions were transferred recently to the supreme court, and work was temporarily halted. Arguing that the project should continue, the government last week sparked the current row by saying in a petition that Adam’s Bridge could not be called a “man made structure” and consisted of “naturally occurring formations caused by tidal action and sedimentation.” It added that the Ramayana could “not be said to be a historical record.”

The BJP accused the Congress Government of questioning the religious beliefs of millions of people, which led to the law minister, H.R. Bhardwaj, to backtrack and declare that “the existence of Ram cannot be doubted.”

Since then, politicians and officials have been passing the buck and a government inquiry has been started into who – possibly DMK politicians – inserted the insensitive lines (which apparently were not in some drafts of the court submissions). But, as usually happens in India, this fracas will soon no doubt vanish from the front page headlines that it has dominated for much of the past week, and the canal will eventually be built – a monument to the vagaries of trying to do infrastructure projects in a country with such a vast mix of cultures, beliefs and interests.


  1. Accoding to the statistics, it was proposed that the canal will be used by 3000+ ships approximately…What i suggest, let them build the canal..let all the politician board the ships and drown in the canal praising their own parties and success. Lets feed the poor educate the people…Open your eyes indians..its not Johns mistake…its our own mistake and inabilities guys…

  2. John is one of those guys who understands neither history nor culture or for that matter Democracy.
    Do people in American debate whether there should be prayer in school? Are there schools in America where Darwin is rejected? Does religion impact the Abortion debate in America? Grow up John!

  3. Check this artical on rediff from one mariner’s point of view. I feel this setu sundram project is again going to be big Scam. It’s just for creating money for politicians. Nothing else.

  4. It’s not about the religion that needs to be paid attention to but the kind of political leaders we have in India.

    They have been trying to make ways to make sure that they earn profits by one way or the other. While this issue is there in the picture, they are creating situation out their as if there are expected to be mid term polls.

    And clear indication of the same is that now with the president has changed and political leaders looking to earn higher profits. Though the elections in India mean a very huge expense, the leaders wont care for forcing the elections for their personal profits. Now that there wont be anyone in presidents house who can make them hear the inner voice they will be more interested in that. And same is the case for the opposition party who should have played active roll of opposition party but I can see them getting active only to make sure that they do earn their part of profits.

  5. “Mr. Yadgyu believes in bribing and bullying only and possibly his upliftment has these two as strength but can he not think of the resultant weaknesses and threats?” – Posted By A.K.Ghosh, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

    There are no weaknesses in my theory. People can easily be manipulated through greed and fear. Those that cannot be manipulated can stand strong while the rest of the world gives in. The strong people will then be ostracized, rejected, and ridiculed. The world only cares about progress. Being strong has never stood in the way of progress.

  6. Most comments from both the Pro-Sethu canal project lobby and the anti- Sethu canal lobby are only comparing themselves with other religious belief with theirs, rather than scientifically debating on the merits of the project, from environmental or economic perspectives. If say for example, Christians or Jews had unscientific belief and fought wars, and because the World is unable to do anything about it. Do we Indians do not have choice to think scientifically and take decisions?. Comments by the Chief Minister of TN about Ram is as uncalled for as much as the Pro-Hindu lobby trying to prove that the structure is man-made etc., Like Grand Canyon, if environmentalists and scientists consider this natural formation as natural thing to be protected, then let us debate on that. Then, let us discuss and evaluate the merit of the project on scientific and economic perspectives and take decisions. BJP has no foot hold in TN and why would they talk about a project, which is likely to impact TN most. The TN Government is the elected body to represent the interest of the State, what wrong in this present Government aggressively pressing for this demand.

    Most comments here will only be biased. Indians must learn to be scientific in taking decisions, through objective evidence and dialogues.

  7. Why do we call Ramayana or ram sethu a mythology ?
    When the christians claim that moses divided the red sea for the jews to cross no one calls it mythology but when one says hindu gods army built a bridge it becomes mythology

  8. Mr. Yadgyu believes in bribing and bullying only and possibly his upliftment has these two as strength but can he not think of the resultant weaknesses and threats?

  9. “…and resentment among those displaced who see others becoming rich.”

    This is all about poor Hindus standing in the way of progress. All that the government needs to do is bribe or bully a major Hindu figure and tell him that he can have $1 million dollars or that several temples will be destroyed. This leader will persuade followers that the “bridge” needs to be destroyed for the good of Hinduism.

    This is the 21st century. People need to let go of the past so that they can have a chance at a real future. Money is the only thing that will enable a good future.

  10. Faith is big. Faith knows no archeological or scientific evidence. Safeguarding people’s Faith is one of the responsibilities of the elected Government. Unfortunately the likes of Soni and Karunanidhi have undermined the trust that the people have placed in them. The world outside is quick to criticise the the shortcomings and baselessness of a religion such as Hinduism. Are other religions based on logical, scientific or evidence based principles? If the religion in question were to be that of any other minority community in India would the outside world still be as tolerant and dismissive as this? Why does the US Government have on its one dollar bill the following words: ‘In God We Trust’?

  11. Mr Johns comments are not unwarranted but a piece of ignorance.Karunanidhi is a scounderal heading Tamilnadu like Lalu heading Bihar and Ravna heading Lanka. Thier days are counted and God will rescue soil which is being molested by such evils.I have gone through the various comments which are enough to criticise Mr John and thus I close to write.
    From- R B Upadhyay. New Delhi

  12. John I Invite you to my India. I’ll take you to places which you could have never imagined and I bet you will feel enriched. I don’t believe in religion.but yes there is a supreme power above us, that can be a RAM, a Christ, An Allah or whatever.Its a question of faith. Please don’t put a question mark on anyone’s faith.

  13. You speak the language of reason and science, when is that relevant in politics of the mass?

    I fully agree, we should let science and economics decide the argument. We should silence ignorance with reason when possible, or hit the fools over the head with a bull dozer and continue what is of greater good for the country. So that the others will think twice before speaking. Because the responsibility arise if you are in the political system and people are admiring you because they have selected you to do right and speak well.

  14. John,
    You can only say this to Hinduism since this is the only religion in the world which says that people of all religions are created equal. Your comments have directly attacked the 900 million people in India and other Hindus living here in U.S. I have observed staying for the last 5 years in U.S that Christian religiosity is more here than in India. Otherwise, how could you explain that Bush was elected President the second term even after leading to war in Iraq. I dare to say that if you could have said that Christ is a myth here in the most developed nation in the world, you could have lost your job of writing here

  15. Is a marginally-useful infrastructure project really worth the environmental and cultural damage caused? I don’t think so.

  16. It would behove John Elliot to understand the sentiments of the majority of the indian population. Time warner is not starting an indian section so they can pull out in a year or so, they see this as a long term growth opportunity for them where US is dwindling as a market itself. John can single handedly destroy Time warner’s hopes from Fortune in India. I dont know If he is a conservative or liberal but he would have been pummelled for questioning christianity’s foundations in the US.There will always be double standards in these so called intellectuals and as long as people like us encourage these people, they will keeping growing in strength. Hailing from chennai, I know that the politics in tamil nadu is dirty and cheap and finds its base on dravidian pride etc. I wish we could not elect people like him to power but if George Bush(greatest joker) can be the US president, there is no doubt democracy helps all scoundrels alike

  17. religions is faith and faith is strenght of human beign making us different from animals who dont have faith or fear of lord .we can question scientifically all incarnation of gods or its messenger as no one can prove that virgin mary gave birth to lord jesus ,or holy koran was send by almighty allah or even allah or vishnu ,akalpursh or god is there.
    let science first count no of stars in galaxy or no of galaxies in universe then try to find its creater

  18. It is illuminating to see how the lotus eaters chewing off the fat of the West have reacted to this blog, which doubtless can be construed as offensive. What, however, is more offensive is the intolerance (what’s wrong in calling Ram a hero), weak-kneed defensiveness (by dragging in comparisons with Christ and Allah), and narrowmindedness (why bring somebody’s polygamy into the picture) of these so-called Indians.
    Yes, India is a growth story for the world to see, but the lack of a capacity to accept a counter-view and the stubborn inability to look beyond religion towards progress will ensure that this country remains in the dark ages.

  19. Is mr. John Elliot an authority on Hinduism and Hindu Mythology? Why are we breaking our heads on such an infructuous article? His article contains the abstracts of the sayings of those who had always blatantly attacked the faith of billions. He quotes Mr. Karunanidhi!!!!!. He has no comments of his own.
    Mr. John, the standard for the protection of environment is the same for all the countries of the globe. Why should he try to belittle India? There cannot be two opinions that this project shall destroy the marine and aqua culture. I wish that Mr. John reads the first mantra/shloka of Shri Ishopanishad, ‘Ishawashyamidam sarvam yatkincham jagatyam jagat, Tain tyaktain bhunjitha ma gridhah kasyaswidam dhanam’ which means that everything in this universe belongs to the Lord and is controlled by Him.No one has any right to damage/destroy/deteriorate these. Now shall I wait for some one to challenge Shri Ishopanishad?

  20. This debate on the science-history-myth conundrum can find no answers. Everye single religion is based on myth and miracle, if you like.

    Do read my two posts on the subject in my blog

  21. John, you need to visit this website to see what is involved in the Setu project and to see why preserving the structure is so important for Indians:

  22. For tens of generations millions of people have believed that the structure was built by Ram. I think that is good enough reason to declare it as a historical monument.

    Also the project does not appear to pass the tests an infrastructure project of this kind has to.

    Also, if you are not blind to the developments in India, you will see that there is an attempt to supress whatever Hinduism stands for. Bulldozing through the Setu project appears to be a part of the game. A big question here is why the pursuants of the project are intent on breaking the Setu when other canal routes are available that can still preserve the structure.

  23. I am not sure that this kind of a commentary would appear on any other faith other than Hinduism. The reason for that is folks tend to think it is a free-for-all, there will be some noise, but it will all die down.

    That kind of a tone and tenor are obvious in the last couple of lines – “But, as usually happens in India, this fracas will soon no doubt vanish from the front page headlines that it has dominated for much of the past week, and the canal will eventually be built – a monument to the vagaries of trying to do infrastructure projects in a country with such a vast mix of cultures, beliefs and interests.”

    The issue is not if Ram existed or not, if the bridge was really built or a natural formation – it is one of belief of 800-900 million people across the world. The belief is that Ram was an incarnation of God (not SON of GOD, but GOD himself). We all believe in some faith except for a minority of atheists.

    Why do we have separate yardsticks for different faiths? Why is it a “fact” that Christ lived on earth – and there are many archealogical discoveries that point to it. Why is it accepted that Muhammad was the Prophet of Islam and he wrote the Koran and that Allah is GOD? And why are Hindu gods mythological (read myth) ???

    Who gets to decide that one faith is based on myth and another based on hard evidence? It looks like centuries of Crusades have not taught people anything – still trying to belittle some other faith. In those days it was done through swords, now it is the pen / keyboard – that seems to be the only difference. Oh, I missed something, the target is different this time.

  24. After reading John’s article I remembered reading about Annie Beasent. Once Annie Beasent was asked why India being a land of millions was ruled by a few thousand foreigners? Her observation was very telling and true much more now than then. She said ‘You Indians are not generous people.’. When the person that posed the question was shocked she explained – ‘When a friend, neighbor, a sibling a fellow Indian does better, Indians don’t applaud they feel jealous. While a fellow Britisher will cheer on when his fellow countrymen achieves more, does better.’ That in a nutshell explains why we are in a pathetic situation of even entertaining the discussion of dredging through the Ram Sethu canal.
    I wonder what qulalification does Karunanidhi an open polygamist,(Polygamy is illegal in India) has to comment on Ram? The question is not whether Ram was historical or mythological it is about respect for the millions who are influenced by Ram and the great symbolism Ram Sethu represents.
    I wonder if Karunanidhi wants to erase Ram because he stands for Honesty, Dignity, Honor, Chastity, he was a perfect son, sibling, friend, ruler, warrior, husband and father – all the very qualities sorely lacking in a person like him.
    I wonder if the world would have been so amused by his intellect if he had questioned which college God went to before creating the world as described in Genesis.
    Symbolism is at the heart of every culture and relegion. Every relegion has structures, places, practicies that evoke deep emotion and feelings among the followers that needs to be respected and cherished. It is this symbolism and belief that has provided the support structure for Indians to preserve their religion and culture even after centuries of Islamic and Christian occupation.
    For John to say ‘But, as usually happens in India, this fracas will soon no doubt vanish from the front page headlines that it has dominated for much of the past week, and the canal will eventually be built’ shows either his ignorance of arrogance, I wonder which.

  25. John:

    As an aside to the points raised in your article, I would request you to reword the first sentence of the 5th para, “..Lord Ram, the hero of the Ramayana…”.

    Irrespective of your religious beliefs and social values, I dont think charactering religious figures as ‘hero’s’ in a religious epic like the Ramayana or Bible, etc. is a polite or sensitive way of addressing them. You and your religious background may view these lightly, but i as a Hindu dont.


  26. I agree with others, Americans as well as Indians, that the John Elliot has tone which is on the border of being offensive.
    To John,
    I don’t need to tell you how more than 1 billion people of many different religions, speaking 20+ languages (not dialects), practicing many different cultures ( and many more differences) live peacefully in India. We’ve our own beliefs and values and it may be funny in your eyes but you need to be always keep this in mind that being an outsider, you need to cautious about your tone. Thanks.

  27. I just cant get over the hyper-sensitivity of Indians.

    Yep, you are right Christ is a myth, Moses is a Myth, Allah a myth, Buddha is a myth and the 10000 gods hindus pray to as well. So what’s the problem???

    What i find more appalling than the ignorant comments here are the 2 people who were burned to death in a bus in Hosur because a mob decided to burn the bus because it was from TN to show their disagreement with the CMs comments.

    I find India to be a place essentially run by uneducated, uninformed, mobs who resort to violence or bullying at the slightest perceived provocation or offense.

    Opposing this over environmental grounds I get, but this Lord Ram nonsense is insane.

    India really does need to decide whether it wants to be part of the modern world or continue to be the inward looking, inward bred, self-satisfied (regardless of the pathetic state of things) country it has always been.

  28. There seems to be very little understanding about what Hinduism is, what is the phenomenon of Ram, what is at the root of crying fowl, whether the canal should be built or if the same will be built under sever opposition. Actually hinduism is less devided than most of other religions due to its all encompassing nature where even Christ and Mohaammad find a place, if not as the incarnation of God (which even the practitioners of these religion do not claim) but as a great man with connection with the God, so calling India a very divided or a land of unconnected cultures is wrong.
    Karunanidhi who is opposing the ones who are against the project keeps a name which is another name of Lord Ram, such is the Ram factors influence in India. Further the hoopla is about the affidavit given by the govt questioning the Rams’ historical existance, actually the learned Hindus know that there is no need to verify Ram as history and Ram him self did not cling to positions and places in his Avatar.
    The matter is of the damage inflicted on the ordinery people who do not have very deeper understanding of the tanets of the religion but for whom the worldly symbols are necessary to remain in the religious stream and which after long long time with association of enlightened people at such places gives them the real insight in to the real nature of God and then they rest in peace for ever.
    That’s the angle that the places where Ram is beleived to have born, stays, gone by and did special acts have to be preserved and protected as through these references the Rams’ life is remembered more easily nad the impression of the values which he demonstrated in his time by practicing them get imbibed in the psyche of people and that why the Indians have a special character which endears everybody around the world and their family values are given a respect.

  29. Morons who call this as a ‘Man made Structure’ should explain their logic ! As put by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, “Ram is a fictional character. He is no civil engineer”. People should not use their religious beliefs to stop an infrastructure project. Every scientific study conducted proved that Adam’s bridge is a natural formation. When China is over-investing in their infrastructure for their welfare, India is still trying move backwards !

  30. I have to say that much of your writing on India is insightful, but often put forward in a tone that can verge on the inappropriate. You undoubtedly have much to say on India but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to report in an ostensibly impartial fashion rather than a Westerner constantly amused by the childish antics of his new neighbours.

    My company does a lot of business in India, and I have visited the country several times in the process. Many of my ardently pro-American Indian colleagues consider your blog mildly offensive. As much as I’d like to disagree, I’m afraid I cannot.

  31. why blame john? when govt of India, believes that Ram did not exist, when chief minister of tamil nadu says , was ram a civil engineer ? which college did he go to?

    Emotions aside,I think John’s point of view is not to humiliate or look down up on us Indians, but present a view of things as he sees it.

    We need to lighten up, relax…we are not borat’s from glorious nation of kazkstan !!! or worst intolerent taliban…

  32. Well said Vishnugupta (above comment)! Looks like John Elliot doesn’t have any respect for other religions. Ramayana is history and not a story. Why is all that fight going on between Israel and Palestine? The article is very racist and shows no respect for Indians.

  33. John Elliot must be smoking something interesting. He writes in the manner of a man chosen to be the viceroy or of a American Envoy in a banana republic.

    His amusement is entertaining but frighteningly close to being racist.

    Ram is as much a myth as the Promised Land Occupied by Jews in Israel.Ram is as much a myth as paternity is, in the sense who the father is after all is only a conjecture propagated by the mother.
    Of course Ramayana is a mythological tale. It was written for those professing allegiance to the Hindu Culture (not religion) to explain character, integrity, morals with a human face — warts et al.
    But so is the old testament and the new one too.
    Almost all faiths tell the same story in different languages for civil society to learn and interpret form.

    I don’t have an issue with that. But John Elliot seems to be looking down his elegant nose at India and Indians. Should we dub it an old colonial habit or should we put it down to new world smugness?

    It may be chaotic out here in India but to mock at the faith of 800 million people who are using DEMOCRATIC SYSTEMS to protest the violation of faith is being churlish, vain and indulgent (on the part of the editors)

    I wonder if a project in the Reservations for Indians if blocked would be reported differently?
    Would the author mock at the Mormons?
    Would he indeed mock at a faith which frowns on abortion in the age of the stem cell?

    Surely Fortune could exihibit better taste.!!!

  34. Calling Ram-a hindu mythology would be like calling Christ-a christian mythology.

  35. The comment by Govt of India about existence of Lord Rama was unnecessary and avoidable. But the real issue is a ecological one . The canal is going to destroy a huge marine ecosystem and economic gains also may not be very sustainable as the canal will required continuous dredging to keep it operational

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