Sri Lanka Diplomacy 
Why India's High Commissioner To Sri Lanka Performed A Pooja On A Sandbar In The Middle Of The Sea

Nirupama Subramanian/An Awaaz South Asia Special | 19/02/2024

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The pooja lasted about 30 minutes. India's High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Santosh Jha and his wife stood on an exposed mound of sand in the middle of the narrow sea that separates the two countries and prayed to Ram, Lakshman and Sita.

And thus came together mythology, India's officially sanctioned Ram fervour, India-Sri Lanka relations and geopolitics on a windy evening last week at Adam's Bridge, the sand-bar that connects the two-countries and is claimed by some to be the bridge, which -- as described in the epic Ramayana -- an army of monkeys built to help Ram cross into Lanka, where he fought and killed Ravana and brought back Sita. 

The sand bar stretches from Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka to the tip of Dhanushkodi in Rameshwaram's Pamban island in Tamil Nadu. In Sri Lanka, it is officially called Adam's Bridge. It separates the Gulf of Mannar from the Palk Strait.

“The High Commissioner prayed that the people of both countries should come closer together, and that the ferry service from Thalaimannar to Rameshwaram should begin soon,” said Kannan Kurukkal of the Thiruketheeswaran temple in Mannar town on the mainland, who was taken along to perform the pooja.

“You know that in India Adam's Bridge is called Ram Setu, so the prayers were to Ramar, Lakshmanar and Sita. The couple had brought their own photographs of the gods, and they chanted their own prayer. I also read some shlokas,” the priest at the famed Shiva temple in north-western Sri Lanka told AwaazSouthAsia over the phone from Mannar.

Two other officials from the High Commission were also present. The Sri Lankan Navy facilitated the journey from the Sri Lankan side at Thalaimannar in one of its boats. The boat dropped anchor at the second shoal on the sandbar. 

The priest said it was around 4.30 pm, and a stiff wind was blowing, so they did not linger on the shoal longer than was required. After the pooja was done, they got back into the waiting navy boat quickly and returned to Mannar.

The Adam's Bridge pooja was part of a three day visit by Jha to northern Sri Lanka, his first since taking charge as High Commissioner at Colombo in December 2023.

In December 2021, Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenzong went on a five day visit to Northern Sri Lanka, including to Mannar, from where he visited a different shoal at Adam's Bridge, most distant from the Sri Lankan coastline, escorted by the Sri Lankan Navy and Army. India fumed then at how the Chinese envoy had been escorted by the Sri Lankans to the last point on the sandbar on the Sri Lankan side. Qi also prayed at Jaffna's Nallur Kadasamy Koil in full Tamil style  – silk veshti, bare chest, and a prayer plate in hand. 

Qi's visit set off a geopolitical race as to which envoy, Indian or Chinese, could go to the farthest point on the sandbar. Gopal Baglay, the then Indian High Commissioner, had also visited Adam's Bridge, months before Qi. 

“I went with the previous High Commissioner [Gopal Baglay] too,” the priest said, and recalled that Baglay was allowed to go so far out that the Indian shoreline could be made out on the hazy horizon.

The Jaffna daily Kalai Murasu noted that Jha was given permission only for the second shoal. The national weekly Sunday Times noted that “with the slogan Shri Ram [sic] popular in India these days with the recent opening of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, and moves underway to revive talks on setting up land connectivity between the two countries, the signficance of the envoy's visit [could] not be ignored”. 

A press statement from the High Commissioner said, “Underscoring the rich and shared cultural heritage between India and Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner offered prayers at the historic Ram Sethu (Adam’s Bridge)".

In 2010, the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka came out against the Sri Lanka Tourism Board's “attempts to distort Sri Lankan history” by “imposing an artificial one” and “inventing a Ramayana trail” to  target “a small segment of Indian travellers, specifically Hindu fundamentalists”, instead of promoting Sri Lanka's own Buddhist circuit in the “Cultural Triangle” of Sigirya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. But it seems to have been silenced as there was no further opposition from it.

In India, the existence of a man-made Ram Setu versus a natural sand barrier has been long been the subject of a noisy controversy and a court battle. Despite environmental concerns, in the 2000s, India also tried to dredge up the sand for the so-call Sethusamudram canal project to use the narrow strip as a shipping lane to reduce sailing time between India and Sri Lanka. Freight ships sailing from India's east coast have to sail around Sri Lanka's entire easter coastline and round back up to Colombo port on the western coast. The project was shelved due to its clear unviability – the channel is too narrow for big ship navigation. 

On the construction of a land bridge, India and Sri Lanka discussed the proposal during President Ranil Wickremesinghe's visit in July last year. Wickremsinghe has been pushing the idea for over 20 years. But southern Sri Lanka – it has its own Buddhist religious epic, the Mahavamsa, that valorises the Sinhala King Vijaybahu who defeated a Demala (Tamil) invasion -- is not as enthusiastic about it as the President. And in northern Sri Lanka, the Tamils worry about how it might affect fishing in that part of the sea.

Jha heard from Mannar fishers how Indian fishers were destroying their livelihoods with bottom trawlers that cut through their nets. He distributed freezers to the fishing community as livelihood support. 

Mannar is also the district where the controversial Adani wind farm is coming up. The Environmental Impact Assessment for the project has been opened for public comments until February 24. A campaign to have its stopped began last week on on the ground that the windmills will come up on the path of migratory birds. 

The press statement did not mention the Adani project. It only said the Indian envoy's three-day  visit to northern Sri Lanka attested to the "deep-rooted nature of the bilateral partnership as also India's firm commitment to deepening socio-economic and cultural ties with Northern Province”. 

Jha emphasised connectivity while visiting the Kankesanthurai (KKS) Port and the Talaimannar Pier and spoke of the need for expeditious resumption of ferry services between the two countries.
During his visit to the Palaly Airport, he explored means to strengthen air connectivity through infrastructure development at the airport, the statement said.

He also visited Nainathivu, an islet off Jaffna where an India-funded “hybrid renewable energy” project is to come up. The project includes two other islets as well. Citing security concerns – the three islets are just a few kms from the Tamil Nadu coast  -- Delhi wrested what was then an ADB-funded project from a Chinese company. 

“With grant assistance of more than SLR 70 billion, Northern Province has been a region of focus in India’s multi-dimensional development cooperation partnership with Sri Lanka, and the visit was an opportunity to reiterate India's unwavering commitment to the people of the region,” the press release said. 

Madhu gopinath

2024-02-19 12:34:32

very well written and informative


2024-02-19 13:07:04

A good article.I think it's high time we stopped taking the Ramayan story too far into the Srilankan psyche lest it becomes irritating to the srilankan sentiments.Now they may not be looking atreligious

Rekha Suresh Kumar

2024-02-19 14:04:41

Ayodhya and Ram fervour notwithstanding, glad to know India stands their ground against Chinese propaganda. The Chinese envoy praying at the temple in full shirtless (non) gear is quite over the top!