According to Valmiki’s Ramayan, Ram walked over the Sahya mountains, with their spectacular forests and waterfalls. They were covered with red earth. The monkeys accompanying him had a great time, eating fruit and roots, playing in the streams, and drinking honey from honeycombs.
Then finally he reached and climbed up the Mahendra peak. Below him stretched the Ocean, brimming with fish and turtles. He asked Sugreev, the chief of the monkeys, to camp them on the beach, and told him it was time to think about how to cross the Ocean.
Ram did obeisance to the Ocean, spread some grass and lay down, resting his head on his raised palm. He made a vow, “I will either cross the Ocean or die.” He waited upon the Ocean for three nights. Still the lazy Ocean did not bother to show up.
Ram got annoyed and told Lakshman, “There is no point in dealing politely, calmly and straightforwardly with an unworthy man; people respect only a self-important self-advertiser who gallops around like a horse in heat. Wait till I shoot my arrow at this sea full of crocodiles and dry it up. The monkeys will then be able to cross it on foot.”
Ram shot an arrow, and a great storm broke out on the sea. Mountainous waves erupted. As Ram drew another arrow, Lakshman caught hold of his bow and said, “Stop! Don’t get angry. You can achieve your aim without destroying the Ocean.”
Then Ram turned to the Ocean and said, “I will dry you down to Paataal (the nether region at the bottom of the sea). All the creatures that inhabit you will die. You will become a sandy desert. Then the monkeys will be able to cross you on foot.”
As Ram drew another arrow, Ocean rose and advanced a yojan (eight miles), carrying with him all his demons and snakes. He greeted Ram with folded hands and said, “Earth, air, sky, water and light — each has its own changeless nature. I am bottomless; no one can swim across me. Desire, ambition, fear, affection — none can solidify me. But I will somehow make it possible for you to cross; I will see that the crocodiles do not attack the monkeys as they cross.”
Ram said to the Ocean, “Listen! I have drawn this arrow; it must not go to waste. Tell me, where shall I discharge it'” Ocean said, “There is a famous place to my north called Drumakulya. Many robbers live there under their wicked leader Abheer. I cannot stand those rascals. Why don’t you shoot your arrow amongst them'”
Ram released the arrow, and it struck a place called Maru. The fire it created dried up the place and turned it into a desert. Later he blessed it, and it became rich in cattle, flowed with milk and ghee, and became full of scents and medicinal herbs. But while it was burning, Ocean, the husband of all rivers, said to Ram, “There is this Nal, son of Vishwakarma. Let him make a bridge; I will hold it up.”
As Ocean went away, the monkey king Nal said to Ram, “I will use the knowledge given to me by my father and build a bridge across this Ocean as he said. My father had told my mother on Mandar mountain, ‘I will give you a son as able as myself.’ I did not want to say it unasked, but now that the Ocean has said it, yes, I am as good as my father. I shall build a bridge across it right away.”
Then, on being told by Ram, hundreds of thousands of cheerful monkeys leapt and ran towards the forest. They uprooted trees and smashed rocks, and dragged them to the sea. They made machines and used them to transport elephant-sized rocks. They laid out ropes 800 miles long to keep the bridge straight. Some held up poles; others used logs to secure the stones.
On the first day they constructed 112 miles of the bridge. On the second day they built 160 miles. On the third day they made 168 miles. On the fourth day they laid 176 miles. On the fifth day they built the remaining 184 miles and finished the bridge. It twinkled like the Milky Way in the sky. Gods and holy men came to watch this 800-mile-long, 80-mile-wide bridge. Leaping and shouting, hundreds of crores of monkeys swarmed along the bridge and crossed the Ocean.
Then Sugreev said to Ram, “Climb on top of Hanuman; Lakshman will sit on Angad’s shoulders. The two will fly you across the Ocean.” Thus Ram flew ahead of the army, as the monkeys walked along the bridge, swam in the Ocean or flew. On the other side, Sugreev had readied for the monkeys a camp rich in fruit, roots and water.
That, in brief, is the story as told by Valmiki. One thing he is very clear about is that Ram did not set foot on the bridge to Ceylon. He did not need to; he had flying monkeys to take him across.
Another thing that Valmiki makes clear is that Ram did not need to build the bridge. He could have evaporated the Ocean with a single arrow, and his army would have crossed over without any effort. Lakshman dissuaded him from the extreme step because it would have killed so many crocodiles, snakes, demons and fish. The bridge was more a humanitarian gesture than a technological necessity. Thus the bridge has nothing to do with Ram; it was quite incidental to the story. Ram would not have lost any sleep if the Ocean had swept away the bridge immediately after the monkeys crossed — and in fact, the Ocean has swept away most of it. At that time, only Ram and Lakshman could command the flying services of Hanuman and Angad. Today, anyone can fly to Ceylon — even Hindutwits.
Why, then, are the Hindutwits so upset at excavation of some stretches of the bridge' Why do they call it Ram Setu at all' First, because none of these devotees of Ram has read the Ramayan; none of them has an inkling of what it is about. For them, Ram is just one of the billion gods — another lucky charm. They are devout, but not very learned. And they would find learning distinctly inconvenient in the present case.
And second, because nothing is as good as a superstitious rumpus to bring together their fractious party. They cannot unite on a single thing to do in the interests of the country. When Manmohan Singh steals their foreign policy clothes, they let him do so with impunity; they disown the clothes. They did far more reforms than Manmohan Singh has. But they maintain a deathly silence about their achievements — almost as if they were ashamed. I do not know if they have any soul, but they have certainly lost their heads. In fact, they are performing so badly that I am no longer sure that they are not monkeys. I think they are the residents of Lanka who ran off when Ram took it, and came and hid themselves in Ayodhya.