Where do we come from?

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The current controversy on the identity and significance of the series of mounds linking Rameshwaram in India with Mannar in Sri Lanka has attained international attention due to a proposal to dig a channel though it.  It might also help address a burning question today ‘Where do we come from ?’

The environmental risks of the project were ignored in the pursuance of ‘economic expediency’ until, the tradition of the land spoke of its importance. It was the route that Rama followed in his quest to rescue Sita from Ravana. The developers suggested that these are nothing but mounds of sand, but what if science, rigorously applied, suggests that there might indeed be a historical reality to what sceptics have dismissed as myth?  That these mounds might represent a part of the southern hills of that mythical land called Kumari Kandam?

Studies of the coastline of India and Sri Lanka during the progression of the Holocene Transgression (a glacial event that began roughly 32,00 years ago and culminated about seven thousand years ago)  suggest a factual basis of the ‘ flood’ myth. This phenomenon was not uncommon in geologic time, but it was the first experience humanity had with such a global event. The ocean, at present levels, began retreating about 35,000 years ago. The level fell as the glaciation progressed culminating in the reduction of global sea levels by about 80- 100 meters. Then, about 11,600 years ago it turned, and in a series of three or more waves, spread over a period of about 4100 years, flooded the land to current levels. In eons past, the same process had occurred many times, linking Sri Lanka to India, giving rise to the related, yet different fauna and flora of the two countries. But this time, the flood created human possibilities.

Humans had been hunter-gatherers until about 32,000 years ago, agriculture, it is hypothesised, arose about this time. To practise agriculture one has to lead a sedentary lifestyle, difficult in a hunter-gatherer mode of existence. A sedentary lifestyle was possible only if one was surrounded by an overabundance of food.  About 32,000 years ago, the retreating seas created such salt marshes around the planet, with a superabundance of human food providing an opportunity to lead a settled lifestyles. For over 20,000 years the ocean retreated creating between Sri Lanka and India, new land, a’ Virgin Continent’, which is a literal translation of’ Kumari Kandam.’  A very apt name for the huge landmass that appeared literally out of the ocean. This new land, recently won from the sea would have been highly productive and a settled culture arose. Somewhere on this new land, the first sangam was established by the rising dynasty of the Pandyans.

The question before us is this; “ does the area that lies between India and Sri Lanka  really represent the drowned land of Kumari Kandam or is it merely a nodescript ocean bottom with a few sand mounds?’ The proponents of the proposed Sethusamudran channel, underwater  drilling, dredging and other mining related activities would have us believe that the sea floor is an unimportant area where dredging, drilling and construction will create no significant damage, while the opponents claim that it is a part of India’s heritage representing a geographical setting of the Ramayana, where dredging, drilling etc. would irreparably damage a valuable site with great cultural and religious significance.

The answer to the question lies in the modern work that is revealing the signs of a great cataclysm and flood in the region. The National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in India has discovered and provided ample evidence of drowned cities off Poompuhur in the South East coast of Tamil Nadu, right within the area where Kumari Kandam has been hypothesized. The discoveries of other constructions off Mahabalipuram adds weight to the idea that the region now underwater had been once habituated by a large population. The fishermen of the area around Rameshwaram are also familiar with these sunken ruins, as this is where fish gather.  The evidence that there were cities and temples in what is now the sea between Sri Lanka and India is overwhelming.

The bio geographic work done in Sri Lanka adds further weight to the hypothesis. Research on the nature of sea levels during the last glaciation, suggest that at about 32-28,000 ybp a large landmass was formed to the north of Jaffna peninsula extending it to join with the mainland around Poomphur. Mannar Island extended into range of low hills that connected Sri Lanka with the mainland on the southern boundary of this new land.  A significant geographical feature was expressed at this time, a new riverine floodplain south of the Mannar peninsula.  This was the course of the now drowned ‘Dereniyagala Oya’. Two large rivers, now drowned but whose courses researchers have described in the 1950’s created the riverine floodplain to the north. One river was an extension of the Aravi Aru of today; the other drained the watersheds of the Kal Aru, Modaragam Oya, Kala Oya and Mi Oya.  They both joined south of Mannar.  This large river created a series of riverine flats that existed for about 22,000 years, flowing northwards to water a land that was comprised of large and small hills and whose remnants are seen as the islands and shoals of what is known as ‘Adams Bridge’ between Mannar and Ramsewaran today. The river course to the south still exists, and is visible today, the stumps of drowned forests have been recoded in this area as far back as 1950 and confirmed by divers examining the sites in the 1980’s (Senanayake 1994). Thus the evidence of a recently drowned land to the north west of Sri Lanka is a scientifically verifiable fact.

On the Northern part of the hills lay a massive area of land that comprised what is the Gulf of Mannar today. The area is still relatively unexplored due to the war, but modern research points to the possibility that this region could be one of the central areas that support the veracity of the Ramayana.  The role of this landmass in providing a historical setting for the Ramayana is seen in books such as the Rajavali complied about the fourth century AD. It speaks of an antiquarian time when ‘The citadel of Ravana, 25 palaces and 400,000 streets were swallowed up by the sea’ The submerged land was suggested to lie between Tuticorin in India and the island of Mannar in Sri Lanka’. It has been suggested by many researchers that Mannar Island is a remnant of that ancient landmass

In Sri Lanka, neither underwater archaeology nor evaluation for such a possibility has been undertaken before rushing to ‘development’ and destruction in the region. The need to create a protected site in the Gulf of Mannar has been proposed internationally, but interest from politicians has been lacklustre. This is an important work, especially as it points to the possibility that we were once a part of a large group of people who moved to high ground on both sides of Kumari Kandan at the time of inundation.  An appreciation of our common roots, could help water down the ‘insular’ mentality that has been so destructive to the national psyche for so long.


Senanayake. R. 1994.  The Evolution of the Major Landscape Categories in Sri Lanka and Distribution Patterns of Some Selected Taxa : Ecological Implications.  In Ecology and Landscape Management In Sri Lanka pp 201-219 (eds) W,Erdelen, Ch.Preu,N.Ishwaran and Ch. Santiapillai. Verlag Josef Margraf, Weikersheim.