The Lost Land of Lemuria by Ramaswamy

Sumathi Ramaswamy. The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Paperback, xvii + 334 pages.

The numerous popular books on lost continents like Atlantis, Mu, and Lemuria are packed with nonsense and generally not worth the paper they are printed on. I tend to have high expectations from any volume published by the University of California Press, and I am happy to report that I was definitely not disappointed when reading through Sumathi Ramaswamy’s fascinating book.

It was courageous of her as an academic to even want to study such a touchy subject, never mind risk her neck publishing a book on Lemuria. It helps, of course, to have a prestigious university press be the bearer of the message. Ramaswamy, who is an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan (why did they not publish the work?), has proved herself as a scholarly writer with Passions of the Tongue and an edited volume on the visual practices and ideologies in modern India.

She has approached her obscure subject with great enthusiasm and considerable erudition, but also understandably with a certain self-conscious diffidence. After all, as she lets on, she has already had to deal with a certain amount of skepticism (to put it mildly) from her colleagues.

Far from wanting to prove or disprove the existence of a fabulous lost continent, which should indeed make one suspicious considering she is not a geologist but a historian, Ramaswamy is rather more interested in how this whole idea has been handled culturally in various parts of the world. With enormous skill, she weaves all the many strands of the story into a broadly based consideration about loss—the loss of time and place—which seems to be a powerful motif of our confused era.

In the process, she excavates many fascinating details, which, among other things, reveal a fertile connection between science and occultism, as well as between myth-making and politics. In this respect, I found her discussion of the cultural exploitation of the Lemuria idea by the Tamils of South India to be especially illuminating. Lemuria is thought to have been the missing land bridge connecting the tip of India to Madagaskar, and the Tamils have been making good use of this originally geological notion in promoting their cultural-political identity as India’s original inhabitants. Recent findings in underwater archaeology around the shores of the Indian subcontinent together with an abundance of literary references to a past catastrophe and lost geographies in the Sanskrit and vernacular literatures would seem to lend support to the idea of Lemuria as promoted in Western occult circles.

Ramaswamy leaves enough of the Lemurian mystery intact to make her book appealing to veteran explorers of the unexplained, while at the same time enriching the horizon of her fellow cultural historians with plentiful facts and thoughtful interpretations. Both groups of readers will presumably be as delighted with her elegant and easy-to-read writing style as I was. Congratulations to both author and press.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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