At dawn, a procession of buses sped past coconut huts, past fishermen unfurling nets and through the ghost town of Dhanushkodi - levelled in a powerful cyclone in 1964 - before stopping at a stretch of beach where, according to Hindu mythology, an ancient bridge once stood.
As day broke, barrel-chested businessmen filed into the ocean, reciting mantras. Hindu priests, clad in white, dropped to their knees to lead funereal ceremonies for families who had lost an uncle, a father. A cluster of teenagers wandered over the dunes.
For centuries, pilgrims from the Indian cities of Chennai, Mumbai and Patna, and a few from London, have travelled to the tip of a thumbnail island in southern India. It is here that the Ramayana, a central epic for Hindus, says Lord Rama crossed a bridge called Rama Setu to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana in modern Sri Lanka, a contemporary distance of about 20 miles.
The trip to Dhanushkodi is a bit easier for pilgrims today. They no longer have to walk or go by four-wheel-drive vehicles to the site. There is now a blacktop road with reflectors and a direct train line connecting pilgrimage sites in northern India to Rameswaram, a port town near Dhanushkodi. The line, inaugurated this summer with a speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi near its terminus, covers about 1,700 miles.
The improved access has brought in waves of tourists, and practically every family living here has cashed in. Spartan accommodation in ashrams has made way for a Hyatt hotel and tour groups of as many as 1,200 people. The government seems to have caught on as well, erecting block-lettered signs announcing the history of many more local sites of interest: the place where Sita quenched her thirst, the spot where Rama bathed.
Recently, a team of researchers announced their intention to conduct an underwater exploration of Rama Setu, to determine once and for all whether the formations clearly visible on the ocean floor are naturally occurring sandbanks or structures made by humans. Alok Tripathi, an archaeologist who drafted the proposal, told the Indian news media he was “100 percent sure we will find archaeological remains.”
Many of those pushing to explore the site have stopped short of saying they hope to find Rama Setu. But some historians warn that politicians have deliberately played down hard scientific evidence for the soft power gained by developing pilgrimage sites. As far-right Hindu leaders gain traction in India, some see Rama Setu as a case study in ideological excavation.
“If you’re claiming that there was a bridge, go and excavate it, get the scientific data, put it through scientific analysis and see what it is,” said Romila Thapar, an Indian historian. “But don’t just say something was there.”
She added: “Let’s face it, the pilgrimage places have a dual role. They always have a role for religion and for commerce.”
Some 2,000 years ago (the date is the subject of debate), the sage Valmiki wrote a highly regarded version of the Ramayana, a reflection on Rama’s life, as a poem. But multiple renditions of the narrative exist in Buddhism, Jainism and across Southeast Asia. Details of Rama’s rescue mission vary, depending on which source is consulted.
Meenakshi Jain, the author of a book examining the story of Rama, said many ordinary Indians viewed Hindu epics as itihaas, or a record of history. She said it was important for scholars “not to belittle or ridicule” different streams of belief.
“The epics may or may not have a historical kernel,” she said. “Rational minds can distinguish what is a historical fact and what may not be. But they are conscious that myths convey a message that we should try to grasp.”
Occasionally, Rama Setu has figured in rousing discussions on the floors of India’s Parliament.
When plans were proposed to break apart the marine formation to build a shipping canal in 2007, politicians - many from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is now in power - organized protests. The Archaeological Survey of India filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming that no evidence existed proving that the bridge had been constructed by people. After a bit of push and pull, the project was halted.
A trip to the site takes visitors through ruins of another kind. After the cyclone tore through Dhanushkodi, killing nearly the entire population, little was rebuilt. There is the skeleton of a church, sinking in the sand, and the remains of a railway station. Some claim the bridge, too, was uprooted from the sea floor by the storm.
At the edge of the beach on a cloudy morning, not much was visible apart from distant patches of land belonging to Sri Lanka. A group of sinewy fishermen ripping shells from a net said they had no idea what was submerged in their fishing grounds. When they venture out in dinghies to catch tuna under moonlight, the water is impossibly dark, they said.
But the lack of a clear visual did not deter residents and pilgrims from describing, sometimes in elaborate, contradictory detail, what the bridge looks like.
First, there is the question of its size. Estimates of the number of stones used in its primeval construction ranged from 1,000 to 20,000. Grilling fish on the side of the road, Kumar Kali, 36, methodically broke down the math for his own dubious calculation: if three feet of bridge contained about 50 stones, he supposed, the total number beneath the water should fall close to 3,000.
Nearby, in Rameswaram, Vinay Nair, 34, an engineer visiting from Bangalore, breathlessly explained how the sandbanks outlined the shape of Rama Setu. Ravi Chandran, 50, a temple employee, cited a NASA satellite image, which locals sporadically attribute to American scientists in Chicago.
“I haven’t seen it,” he said, referring to the bridge. “I won’t lie. But there is a huge picture of Rama Setu outside the ashram. All of us have seen that one.”
In fact, the image pops up everywhere: in glossy tourist brochures; at hotels; in Hanuman’s Temple, where a water tank holds “floating stones” marketed as the same type that Rama’s army of monkeys flung into the ocean to assemble the bridge.
As children peered wide-eyed into the tank, Kandan, 31, a caretaker who goes by one name, related a story he had heard in which the machinery used to dig up the actual stones crumbled into pieces. “Rama’s bridge,” he said, “India cannot touch it.”
Surveying the scene, Rama Moti, 64, a restaurant owner, lifted from his chair a bit at the mention of the stones. “Fakes,” he called them, explained by natural processes and part of a campaign to commercialize Rameswaram.
“The wind, it gets in them,” he said of why the stones float. “It’s the scientific way.”
Back along the water, Omkar Ashram, a sadhu, or Hindu holy man, who guessed his age at 70, said he was shocked by the pace of change in Rameswaram, which he last visited 20 years ago.
“See, before, homes were huts,” he said. “Stepping down from the train, only horse-drawn carriages were coming. Now, there are three-story buildings and air-conditioning.”
As thousands gathered near Rameswaram this summer for Modi’s speech inaugurating the train line, the prime minister evoked the bridge to make a point about development.
“The Ramayana tells us the story of a little squirrel, the little squirrel from Rameswaram that helped in building Rama Setu,” he said. “A squirrel can inspire us all. So, like that squirrel, if 1.3 billion Indians each take just one step forward, India will march 1.3 billion steps ahead.”