Please tell us about yourself
Alok Tripathi is a man on a mission.
Last year, the marine archaeologist submitted a proposal to the Indian Council of Historical Research, a funding body for academic research in history, in which he offered to investigate Ram Setu and settle the matter of its genesis for good. Hindutva groups believe that a 35-odd km stretch of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka, also known as Adam’s bridge, was built by the vanar sena – an army of monkeys of the Hindu deity Ram. The word setu means bridge in Sanskrit.
Though Tripathi, 52, a professor at the Department of History in Assam University, Silchar, is still awaiting written approval for his project, the council announced in March that it was being commissioned .
If Tripathi is lucky, he will find wood or pottery preserved in the chain of shoals. He believes that finding wood there will lend credence to the theory that the rocks are remnants of a man-made bridge, while the discovery of pottery will prove that humans used it.
“I am 100% sure we will find archaeological remains” or evidence of human activity in the area, said Tripathi. “I would not have submitted this proposal if I was not.”
What did you study? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
Tripathi joined the Archaeological Survey of India in 1987, a year after completing a master’s degree in ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology from Jiwaji University, Gwalior. Before that he did his (B.Sc.) in hemistry, Physics, Biology from Govt Science College.
Over 1988-’90, he trained in underwater archaeology at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa. The Archaeological Survey of India was looking for young archaeologists to train and Tripathi, already displaying an affinity for water, was the only one to sign up.
“The reason [for no one else signing up] is that there is no incentive for joining even though the risks are far greater,” he said. “You are working in an environment not meant for humans.”
Tell us about your career path
Over the next decade, he worked at terrestrial sites – and underwater projects abroad – till 2001, when a separate wing for underwater projects was established and Tripathi was put in charge.
In 2005, when the Ram Setu controversy began, Tripathi was looking for evidence of a submerged city and temples near Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. He found “some architectural remains”. In 2007, when the court cases related to the Sethusamudram Project started, he was in Dwarka, Gujarat. He said that his presence in Dwarka had “nothing to do with Krishna”. According to Hindu scripture, Krishna, the human avatar of the deity Vishnu ruled over Dwarka.
What were the challenges you faced?
But his first underwater project was most challenging. In 2002, in collaboration with the Indian Navy, his team explored the wreck of the Princes Royal – a sailing ship commissioned in 1792 – in the Lakshadweep Islands. The wreck was at a depth of 54 metres. “You can spend just 12 minutes in 24 hours at that depth,” he said.
At such depths, the slightest mistake can prove fatal as even the process of resurfacing must be slow. High pressure causes gases to dissolve in the blood. A sudden change in pressure due to a diver’s rapid rise to the surface could lead to the gases being released within the body just like carbon dioxide escapes when a fizzy drink is opened for the first time. This damages blood vessels and nerves, and can even lead to death.
But Tripathi says there is little danger of that at the Ram Setu. “It is between six metres and nine metres underwater,” he said. “We can easily do that.”
He insisted that the politics surrounding the Ram Setu does not interest him and rejected the contention that this project is a Hindutva enterprise. “If you have a problem with the name ‘Ram’, no one can do anything,” he said. However, he admitted that the present government would be more amenable to his research plans.
A major car accident in 2015 put him out of commission for months. “Now I am 99% fit,” he said, explaining his decision to wait till 2016 to send across his proposal. “I will feel a 100% when I dive at Ram Setu.”