The government of India recently announced that it plans to send an unmanned mission to Mars late next year, at a cost of about $90 million, followed by a manned operation sometime in 2016, as part of its ambitious program to keep up with the celestial aspirations of the developed Western countries and its principal Asian rival, China.

However, if myths and legends are to be believed, space travel is nothing new for Indians.

Two of ancient India’s most important and grandest Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, vividly describe giant, magnificent space vessels which took fantastic voyages to distant stars and planets.

Some texts also suggest the ancient rulers of India had tremendously destructive weapons at their disposal.

Consider this passage from the Mahabarata:

"It was as if the elements had been unleashed. The sun spun round. Scorched by the incandescent heat of the weapon, the world reeled in fever. Elephants were set on fire by the heat and ran to and fro in a frenzy to seek protection from the terrible violence. The water boiled, the animals died, the enemy was mown down and the raging of the blaze made the trees collapse in rows as in a forest fire. The elephants made a fearful trumpeting and sank dead to the ground over a vast area. Horses and war chariots were burnt up and the scene looked like the aftermath of a conflagration. Thousands of chariots were destroyed, then deep silence descended on the sea. The winds began to blow and the earth grew bright. It was a terrible sight to see. The corpses of the fallen were mutilated by the terrible heat so that they no longer looked like human beings. Never before have we seen such a ghastly weapon and never before have we heard of such a weapon.”

The above description sounds remarkably similar to the terrible impact of an atomic bomb, as in, say, the destruction once unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Ramayana speaks at length about the “Vimanas,” which are clearly flying machines that could traverse vast distances at great heights.

"At [the deity] Rama's behest the magnificent chariot rose up to a mountain of cloud with a tremendous din," reads one passage.

Another segment declares: “Bhima flew with his Vimana on an enormous ray which was as brilliant as the sun and made a noise like the thunder of a storm."

A Vimana (or flying machine) is also described as "an apparatus which can go by its own force, from one place to place or globe to globe."

The Mahabharata also speaks of "two-story sky chariots with many windows, ejecting red flame, that race up into the sky until they look like comets . . . to the regions of both the sun and the stars."

The ancient Indians even provided manuals on flight safety and how to conduct aerial military maneuvers in explicit detail.

In 1944, an Oxford scholar named V.R. Ramachandran Dikshitar wrote: “There are numerous illustrations in our vast… and epic literature to show how well and wonderfully the ancient Indians conquered the air.”

Lest one dismisses all these ancient texts as fanciful and impossible fantasies, consider that modern technology has confirmed the existence of some of the long-forgotten chapters of India’s prehistory.

In October 2002, NASA satellite images discovered a mysterious bridge – made of a chain of shoals -- between Sri Lanka and India which was mentioned in the Ramayana.

The bridge is believed to be man-made due to its unusual composition and curvature – it is estimated to be almost 2 million years old. The Ramayana epic described the bridge, stating it was constructed under the supervision of the deity Rama. That text suggested that the bridge was not constructed by humans, but rather by the Vanara, who are described as a human-monkey hybrid. Of course, modern science cannot account for nor verify the existence of such creatures.

Still, given the extreme detail of advanced technologies -- such as air travel, nuclear weapons bomb-making and aerial military battles – provided for in these ancient texts, one must wonder how much of it was fiction, and how much, reality.