On the poet John Keats’ grave in Rome are the words ‘here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ First reading Keats in my late teens, I have always held a mental picture of those words as his name traced on the surface of the sea. It is a wonderful image, the letters written in water, the dark mobile surface swirling and closing over each momentary mark.
My second Asialink Arts writing project with EarthCoLab takes as its focus Rama’s Bridge, a shifting line of sandbanks, reefs and islands traced across thirty kilometres of ocean between India and Sri Lanka, connecting Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar.
Rama’s Bridge is writ in water, and the lands and oceans it connects and separates are palimpsests of human and natural histories. The bridge bisects Palk Strait, a zone of intense weather where the land masses of India and Sri Lanka funnel both the southwest and northeast monsoons and regular tropical cyclones through waters barely ten metres deep. The ebb and flow of extreme weather events obscures and reveals human and non-human endeavour on these coasts.
The great Indian epic the Ramayana tells the story of the construction of this bridge by the vanara and their allies, the monkey army under the command of Hanuman, to enable the hero Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the demon Ravana in Lanka. That event is carved into stone in sculptures from India to Indonesia and beyond. Hanuman went on to become one of the favourite gods of Hinduism, the physical form of a monkey hiding his divine character. His characteristics are centrally shakti (strength) and bhakti (devotion). Because of a curse, he is unaware of his many attributes, including immense strength, shape-shifting and great learning. Rama and Hanuman are successful in their war against Ravana, and return to India. Temple records suggest that Rama’s Bridge was broken by a cyclone in 1480.
Another war has marked this region more recently. The civil war between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers was fought between 1983 and 2009, and some of the land I travelled had been part of this conflict. The war inscribed itself socially and environmentally as well as politically. My companions and I stopped at a forest church deep inside Wilpattu National Park, reputedly kept intact by the Tigers. We watched wild boar, Hanuman langurs and deer in a place that had seen armed insurgents discuss strategy and care for their wounded. It is likely that the Tigers hunted animals in the park, suppressing populations of some species, although all seem to have recovered. In a reversal of this, the war prevented fishing on the northeast and northwest coast for twenty odd years, likely creating a window of protection for marine species.
Like war, weather and climate are ephemeral processes that leave material traces. At the extreme edge of India, the town of Dhanushkodi was destroyed by a super-cyclone in 1964. At that time it was a busy port town, with a railway station and regular ferries to Sri Lanka. The Indian Meteorological Department says that the North Indian Ocean usually sees four to six storms during the ‘cyclone season’ from April to December. In 1964 there were 16 severe weather events classified from ‘deep depressions’ to ‘super-cyclonic storm’. At Dhanushkodi the sea wiped human presence off the map in one night. At Mahabalipuram to the north, ancient but persistent stories told of a city of seven temples, where one temple now stands on the shore. Long dismissed by researchers, the 2004 tsunami confirmed the ancient stories and revealed the lost temples past the shoreline.
On the two sides of the Strait I had different encounters shaped by the histories and positions of the people I worked with. In India my hosts were postgraduate educated, capital-backed, and in strong positions within local and larger social networks. Communal dinners twice included the highest ranking regional police chief, and conversations were routinely in English, not from deference to me but because that is what they usually spoke. This was intercut by my relationship with the team of guides and helpers, at least three of whom were from a Mumbai orphanage, sponsored from childhood into this employment by the owner, who was also from Mumbai. Here I started to understand a context of negotiating regulations from the top down, and of people working to establish themselves within local communities, sensitively and genuinely.
At Kalpitiya in Sri Lanka my hosts were a local fishing family who traced lineage to Catholic fishers from Negombo further south. When we were out finding divers and other ocean users, greetings and casual conversations were with other fishers, auto-rickshaw drivers, people very much embedded in the workday environment of a small fishing community that had a growing tourism industry, based strongly around kitesurfing. Communal dinners in this setting moved between Sinhala, English and other languages. Only the younger members of the family spoke any English.
Debbie Rose argues that:
Place… holds memories or traces of the lives that have been there, and the lives to come. The traces are more or less enduring…Traces can be thought of as both memory and promise—a memory of former presence, and a promise of future return.
The Ramayana, the Sri Lankan civil war, and the contemporary movements and adaptations of human and other communities inscribe their endeavours on the land and seascapes of this region. For many of these there is no prospect of return, but instead new and unstable negotiations with shifting constellations of locations and occupants.