A journey to Mannar and the ‘Dancing Islands’

By Nimal Chandrasena

“Imagine being on one of those legendary islands of ‘Adam’s Bridge’ or ‘Rama Setu’ of the Ramayana fame! Many centuries ago, this 30 km stretch was a natural bridge connecting Sri Lanka to the southern tip of India; now, the ocean has reclaimed its own, leaving only a chain of sprinkled islands. On December 9, 2011, I was standing on the second island of the chain of limestone shoals between the Rameshwaran Island, off the south-eastern coast of India’s Tamil Nadu and Mannar Island, off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka. If the legends and folklore regarding Rama, Seetha, Ravana and Hanuman are to be believed, this ‘bridge’ is a critical part of the Sri Lanka’s past.

The Indian Ocean gently lapped my feet; and the warm sand ‘sucked’ at my feet; yet I walked effortlessly across several small islets, on the second island. Sea gulls swarmed, and marine life was plentiful. The marks of crabs and worms on the sand were everywhere, and fish were jumping out of water. The sand dunes are largely devoid of any vegetation and are mostly perpetually dry, because the sea is shallow. The setting sun, orange in haze, lit the scene, and the sea breeze was strong. The sailors, who accompanied us, waited patiently, giving us time to be ‘sucked in’ by the ambience of the place; and I am glad that India abandoned the Sethusamudran Project....”

The historical poem Mahavamsa, compiled by a senior Buddhist monk Mahanama in 5th Century A.D. begins with an account of Vijaya and his ministers landing on Lanka-dvipa in 543 B.C. on the historical day of the Buddha’s passing away. Prince Vijaya and 700 of his followers were expelled by the King (Vijaya’s father – Sinhabahu, from their Vanga Kingdom, which is West Bengal; present day ‘Singur’, a town in the Gangetic delta), as a punishment for evil conduct towards villagers (Mahawamsa VI.34-47). It appears that the expellees, shamed by half-shaven heads, may have sailed from a Gangetic port, crossed the Palk Straits, and arrived in a part of the north-western coastline of Sri Lanka.

Historic Link? A Google Earth satellite image showing the Adam's Bridge, a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka and Mannar Island

When the Vijayan immigrants landed from their ships, they sat down wearied, resting their hands upon the ground. Since their hands were reddened by touching the dust of the red earth, they named the region, and the island, ‘Thambapanni’ (Mahawamsa Chapter VII.36). The Thambapanni area, also, called ‘Tammanava’ in Sinhalese, is clearly located in the Mannar District, although the exact landing location may never be known.

For many years, I had longed to see Thambapanni, but it was part of the ‘no-go’ conflict-zone, since the 1980s. The Mannar peninsula, which consists of Mannar Town, and several smaller townships, including Talaimannar and Pesalai, were LTTE strongholds and caught in the middle of the civil war for at least three decades. The area was liberated in 2009.

In December 2011, my wife and I, accompanied by some friends and a retired Brigadier Hiran Halangode, embarked on a journey to Mannar, to see these historical areas. Brig. Hiran, of the Gemunu Watch (1 GW), had once been the Area Commander in charge of security at Mannar during January to July 2000. We set out to visit ‘Thambapanni’, Mannar and the ‘Mannar Island’, the peninsula off Sri Lanka’s north-western coastline, on the way to the ‘Dancing Islands’ a series of sand islands that separate Sri Lanka from India across the Palk Straits

On December 9, we travelled to Mannar via the Mannar-Medawacchiya Road (A14), from Anuradhapura. After a 2-3 hour drive, we arrived at Mannar, and then crossed the causeway to enter ‘Mannar Island’.

Adam’s Bridge

The sandy islands, between India and Sri Lanka (see Plate 1), comprise the renowned Rama’s Bridge (Rama Setu) of Valmiki’s Ramayana fame. It appears that according to Islamic tradition, ‘Adam’ crossed these shoals in order to stand on one leg for 1,000 years on the mountain of Samanala (Adam’s Peak) as a penance for his indiscretion in Eden; hence, the name “Adam’s Bridge”.

The actual ‘bridge’, which is about 30 km long, is a chain of limestone shoals between the Rameshwaran Island, off the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu and Mannar Island. Geological evidence suggests that the bridge is a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. In the Ramayana epic, Rama built the bridge, with the assistance of the monkey god Hanuman, to allow passage for his army in the rescue of Sita from the demon King - Ravana of Lankadeepa.

There are 16 sand islands, eight of which belong to Sri Lanka, and the other eight, to India. Our maritime boundary is at the middle point. The ferry service, from Talaimannar to Dhanushkody, used to operate through the Palk Straits in this area, until it was suspended in 1983, due to the conflict.

Brig. Hiran reminisced about his visit to the eighth island in 2000, accompanied by the Sri Lanka Navy. On that occasion, he had hoisted the Sri Lankan National Flag on the island, which marks the end of Sri Lanka’s jurisdiction.

By mid-afternoon, after some lunch at Pesalai, we reached Urumali beach, where the Navy has established a small-scale, commercial venture, which allows tourists to take a journey in a naval craft to see the ‘bridge’ for a fee of Rs. 600 per person. As part of the deal, you get life jackets, a bottle of water, and some food. All crafts are escorted by a second craft, with a Life Saver crew of young sailors.
We commenced our journey at 3.30 p.m., and headed for the second island. The naval officer’s remark that the sea journey would take 45 minutes in each direction was a bit off the mark; it took only about 25 minutes in each direction!

The journey in the boat was delightful, despite the inevitable drenching one gets, as the craft moves at high speed (30 knots). It is a must to have your camera well covered, because everything gets dripping wet.

As far as we could see, it was just the vast Indian Ocean surrounding us in all directions, except for the fast diminishing view of the Mannar coastline, behind us. Then, all of a sudden the distant series of sand dunes comes into view. One is mesmerised by the approaching vista of the sand dunes in the middle of the ocean.

We stopped the boat engines about 200 metres short of the second island, in shallow water only a metre deep. The sailors then jumped off and dragged the boats onto the sandy shores, so that we could safely disembark.

Imagine being on one of those islands! The sand dunes are mostly perpetually dry (Plate 2), as the sea in the area is very shallow, only one m to 10 m deep in places. They are largely devoid of any vegetation, except for the very rare seedling or juvenile plant.

The sand dunes apparently keep ‘shifting’; hence, the term ‘dancing’ islets. Natural ocean processes were visibly at play, shifting and rolling the sand from one location to another. The series of islets was reportedly passable on foot up to the 15th century until storms deepened the channel. Some historical, temple records found in India apparently state that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it broke in a cyclone in 1480 A.D!

Brig. Hiran explained that during the height of the conflict, refugees used this route to escape the trauma. People paid good money to be brought in by boats and to be dropped off at certain points, after which they walked across the islands to India, probably stopping and resting from time to time.

We spent a memorable 45 minutes on the island, and enjoyed the little snack while chatting away, and being mesmerised by the ambience of the surroundings. We thought the paper bag, in which the snack was provided, was a good idea. But the styrofoam container which held a small piece of cake was excessive; a small paper wrapping would have been much better, perhaps with a printed message – To please return all litter back to the main shore.

At some shoreline edges, the sand, mixed with some sort of clay, stuck to our feet and slippers; this could not be washed off, but had to be rubbed off. The sand was also tinged strongly black with ilmenite, the iron-black, titanium-containing mineral.By about 5 p.m., we returned to the Urumali beach. Again, the Navy crafts were efficient; the sailors extremely courteous. The return trip drenched us completely as the sea was choppy that afternoon, and the craft, moving at speed, ‘rolled’ with the waves.

Before we left, we chatted with the Naval Officers, who were doing a fantastic job. Our feedback, on the ‘food packaging’, was likely appreciated. I felt elated that our coastline was protected in this way, and the Navy must be congratulated for the job they are doing. Thank ‘God’ for India abandoning the Sethusamudram Canal Project!

Imagine what would have happened if India’s “Sethusamudram Project” had gone ahead. The somewhat atrocious suggestion was that a “shipping by-pass” should be constructed through ‘Adam’s Bridge’ by dredging the Gulf of Mannar straits to allow ships to get across to the Bay of Bengal by a shorter distance.

As pointed out by ‘Taraki’ (Daily Mirror, October 6, 2004 (, the project would have given India a firm grip on one of the world's most strategic and busiest sea-lanes. All the Middle East’s oil supplies are shipped from ports in the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia through the sea lanes that pass through the Gulf of Mannar and curve off the western, southern and south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka.

The known biodiversity values of the straits (i.e. extensive whale and fish populations and other marine resources) are so important in the region. The environmental impact of any dredging of the straits to make it navigable by large ships would have been immense.

Historians, geologists, and marine scientists have also said that Rama Setu cannot be considered a man-made entity, in the absence of material evidence. Responding to this India’s Bharatya Janatha Party (BJP) railed, claiming that 'Ram Setu' is a sacred structure and any denial of God Rama’s existence constitutes "blasphemy and an insult to Hindus". I firmly believe that: “...Epics should be read as epics, not as authentic histories...” (See:; therefore, I am glad that the Project has been stultified, largely due to the politics being played out in India.

(Next week: Arippu, Doric and Mannar)

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