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The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories
The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories
Sumathi Ramaswamy
University of California Press, 2004
384 pp., $31.95

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Philip Jenkins

Continental Drift

Lemuria and other lost Edens.

Once upon a time, there was not a lost continent of Lemuria, which was not the birthplace of humanity, nor an early haven of civilization, nor was it a bridge between the historic cultures of Asia and the Americas. Lemuria was no more a source of human wisdom or knowledge than those other lost lands, Atlantis of the Atlantic, Mu of the Pacific. Yet despite all these negatives, we can scarcely overstate the immense power that these lost continents exercised on the human imagination in the century or so after 1860, when all three were freely invoked by sober scientists, as well as by occultists and New Agers. The fact that these continents have since been—well, lost, or at least discredited, does not mean that they do not belong to cultural or intellectual history, or that Sumathi Ramaswamy has not made a real contribution by recreating the story of Lemuria.

I stress this since Ramaswamy mentions her colleagues' puzzlement as to why she was spending so much time and effort on a chimera. In fact, her Lemurian saga is richly informative, not just on the development of geology and archaeology but also on the intimate relationship between "real" science and the more speculative realm of esoteric study—especially Theosophy, that crucial intellectual force. The Lemurian myth also casts light on the creation of nationalist thought in South Asia, particularly among Tamil intellectuals, who found in the lost continent the history of a now-sunken Tamil empire. Above all, her book addresses powerful cultural themes of loss and redemption. Once long ago, in the dreamtime, there was a mighty empire that reached incredible heights of cultural development, perhaps that achieved technological skills indistinguishable from sorcery, yet which failed and vanished under the waves. But when properly enlightened, degenerate moderns can once more seek the lost mysteries and even, to a degree at least, restore the bygone wonders.

If this scheme sounds familiar, it is of course closely ...

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