Alok Tripathi is a man on a mission.

Last year, the marine archaeologist submitted a proposal to the Indian Council of Historical Research, a funding body for academic research in history, in which he offered to investigate Ram Setu and settle the matter of its genesis for good. Hindutva groups believe that a 35-odd km stretch of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka, also known as Adam’s bridge, was built by the vanar sena – an army of monkeys of the Hindu deity Ram. The word setu means bridge in Sanskrit.

Though Tripathi, 52, a professor at the Department of History in Assam University, Silchar, is still awaiting written approval for his project, the council announced in March that it was being commissioned .

If Tripathi is lucky, he will find wood or pottery preserved in the chain of shoals. He believes that finding wood there will lend credence to the theory that the rocks are remnants of a man-made bridge, while the discovery of pottery will prove that humans used it.

“I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains” or evidence of human activity in the area, said Tripathi. “I would not have submitted this proposal if I was not.”

Two versions

Hindutva groups in India believe that Ram’s vanar sena threw rocks and tree trunks into the waters to build the Ram Setu, as described in the epic, Ramayana. They then crossed over to Sri Lanka, believed to be the Lanka of the Ramayana, and rescued Ram’s consort, Sita from the Lankan king Raavan, who had abducted her.

Others dismiss this as mythology. In 2007-’08, the Archaeological Survey of India said in an affidavit before the Supreme Court that the shoals or islets are of natural formation, possibly created when the island of Sri Lanka separated from the Indian land mass. The affidavit led to an outcry and was eventually withdrawn by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

Tripathi argued that even if he finds just rocks and sands native to the coast on the Ram Setu, it will not mean failure.

“It is the context which tells the story,” said Tripathi, who became the first head of the Archaeological Survey of India’s underwater archaeology wing in 2001. “In nature, stones would lie haphazardly,” he said. “If you find them aligned or you find layers of stone and sand, from the manner of their arrangement you know there has been human intervention.”

For preliminary work, essential for the selection of a site, Tripathi consulted ancient Indian texts such as the Ramayana and the Puranas. “Twenty-two verses in Valmiki’s Ramayana detailed how the bridge was built,” he said. “It is mentioned also in many Puranas, secular texts including [Tamil] Sangam literature, inscriptions from [South Indian] Pallava, Chalukya and Vijayanagar kingdoms and even Jaffna in Sri Lanka.”

He said that some sources called it “Nal Setu”, after Nal, the engineer in Ram’s vanar sena.

Tripathi argued that the references show that the “belief that Ram’s army built that bridge is well-established”. The vanar sena may have even simply “filled the gaps between the islets with stones and logs”, he said. “Archaeological investigation may reveal material evidence, if any.” If it does, he will next determine its antiquity.

Alok Tripathi at Dwarka in 2007 (Source: Alok Tripathi)

Setu, ships and survey

The controversy over Ram Setu’s origins erupted in 2005 when the United Progressive Alliance government finalised and inaugurated the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project.

It involved creating a shipping channel by dredging in the waters between India and Sri Lanka to connect the Gulf of Mannar (on the Indian Ocean side) and the Palk Strait (toward the Bay of Bengal). According the Press Information Bureau’s 2005 note on the project, Ram Setu was in the way and would have to be dredged.

Invoking Hindu scriptures, Hindutva groups joined environmentalists in opposing the plan. Dredging began in 2007 in the face of strong opposition from the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The matter reached the Supreme Court in July, 2007. The apex court sought Archaeological Survey of India’s view.

The Archaeological Survey’s 2007 stand, repeated in 2008, was that there is no archaeological evidence to suggest Ram Setu is man-made or that Ram even existed outside Hindu mythology.

Dredging for the Sethusamudram Project continued in other parts of the channel till about 2009. There has been much back and forth since, including the submission and rejection of a feasibility study, and changing stances of governments, but the shoals remained undisturbed. The change in government at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu helped. In Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam replaced United Progressive Alliance-member Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 2011, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party ousted the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre in 2014.

“Despite having an underwater archaeology section, ASI received no direction to explore Ram Setu during the peak of the debate,” said Tripathi. He says that it is likely that the UPA government “knew that the area would have archaeological remains” and deliberately put off excavation, fearing it would end the Sethusamudram Project.

Though he left the Archaeological Survey in 2009, he sent them a similar proposal.

CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia.

‘It will be easy’

Tripathi joined the Archaeological Survey of India in 1987, a year after completing a master’s degree in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from Jiwaji University, Gwalior.

Over 1988-’90, he trained in underwater archaeology at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa. The Archaeological Survey of India was looking for young archaeologists to train and Tripathi, already displaying an affinity for water, was the only one to sign up.

“The reason [for no one else signing up] is that there is no incentive for joining even though the risks are far greater,” he said. “You are working in an environment not meant for humans.”

Over the next decade, he worked at terrestrial sites – and underwater projects abroad – till 2001, when a separate wing for underwater projects was established and Tripathi was put in charge.

In 2005, when the Ram Setu controversy began, Tripathi was looking for evidence of a submerged city and temples near Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. He found “some architectural remains”. In 2007, when the court cases related to the Sethusamudram Project started, he was in Dwarka, Gujarat. He said that his presence in Dwarka had “nothing to do with Krishna”. According to Hindu scripture, Krishna, the human avatar of the deity Vishnu ruled over Dwarka.

But his first underwater project was most challenging. In 2002, in collaboration with the Indian Navy, his team explored the wreck of the Princes Royal – a sailing ship commissioned in 1792 – in the Lakshadweep Islands. The wreck was at a depth of 54 metres. “You can spend just 12 minutes in 24 hours at that depth,” he said.

At such depths, the slightest mistake can prove fatal as even the process of resurfacing must be slow. High pressure causes gases to dissolve in the blood. A sudden change in pressure due to a diver’s rapid rise to the surface could lead to the gases being released within the body just like carbon dioxide escapes when a fizzy drink is opened for the first time. This damages blood vessels and nerves, and can even lead to death.

But Tripathi says there is little danger of that at the Ram Setu. “It is between six metres and nine metres underwater,” he said. “We can easily do that.”

He insisted that the politics surrounding the Ram Setu does not interest him and rejected the contention that this project is a Hindutva enterprise. “If you have a problem with the name ‘Ram’, no one can do anything,” he said. However, he admitted that the present government would be more amenable to his research plans.

A major car accident in 2015 put him out of commission for months. “Now I am 99% fit,” he said, explaining his decision to wait till 2016 to send across his proposal. “I will feel a 100% when I dive at Ram Setu.”