A political storm is raging over a project to build a shipping canal in southern India. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, Hindu activists say the canal will destroy a bridge they believe was built by the Hindu god Rama and his army of monkeys.
It is known as "India's Suez Canal," a project to dredge a deep passage between India and Sri Lanka, to allow cargo ships a faster route around the southern tip of India.
But Hindu activists say it is not that simple. They say the canal will damage a 50 kilometer-long chain of limestone shoals, which they believe was built by a monkey army to help the Hindu God Rama cross into neighboring Sri Lanka to rescue his kidnapped wife.
Hindu groups have petitioned the Supreme Court to save the bridge, known as Adam's Bridge, or Ram Sethu.
The government responded with a court affidavit that was probably ill-advised in a country with about 900 million Hindu citizens.
The affidavit said there is no historical evidence to prove the existence of Lord Rama, or any of the other characters in the revered Hindu epic "Ramayana," which describes his life. The affidavit said scientific evidence indicates the chain of shoals is a natural structure.
That did not sit well with such hard-line Hindu groups as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council. The group's general secretary, Praveen Togadia, says the government has questioned Hindus' religious beliefs.
"Anywhere in the world, faith should be respected," he said. "Here [the] government [has] raised a question regarding the faith of almost 1 billion Hindus of the world. It was basically an insult to Hindu society."
There is a distinct political edge to the debate. The issue has given ammunition to the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose to power in the 1990s on a Hindu revivalist ideology. Political analysts say this is a sensitive time: there is a possibility that India might face early national elections.
A defensive government, led by the Congress Party, is trying to control the damage caused by the court statement. It has suspended two officials of the Archeological Survey of India who drew up the affidavit. Senior ministers are trying to calm Hindu tempers by assuring the public they were not questioning the existence of Lord Rama.
But Hindu activists are determined not to let the issue fade away. They say they plan to hold nationwide marches later this month in favor of saving the bridge. The government says it will consult all political parties before deciding the fate of the project.