The city’s cultural heritage, encompassing Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu influences, is being overshadowed by the construction of the Ram Mandir.
The city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, historically known for its syncretic culture, now tends to be associated only with the Ram mandir, which is being constructed at the site where the 16th century Babri Masjid stood until December 6, 1992. In the course of the following three decades, the character of the city has changed so drastically that it is now synonymous with the rise of Hindutva in India. Incidentally, Ram was described as Imam-e-Hind, or leader of India, by the 20th century Urdu poet Allama Iqbal. However, today Ram’s perceived birthplace is at the centre of a movement that is involved in constructing the temple in his name.
After the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Hindu side in the Ayodhya land title dispute case in 2019, the construction of the temple has been going on at a fast pace, and the inauguration is slated for January 22, 2024. Simultaneously, an ambitious “beautification” drive has transformed the entire city of Ayodhya.
As Ayodhya takes on a unipolar identity, it is feared that its heritage will suffer further neglect. This heritage is of significance to not just Hindus (the birthplace of Ram and Sita’s Rasoi) but also Muslims (Badi Bua ka Yatimkhana, or orphanage of Badi Bua, and Khurd Mecca, or mini Mecca), Jains (temples dedicated to Tirthankaras), and Buddhists (ruins of monasteries). The majority of these sites are underfunded, poorly maintained, or on the verge of perishing. Here, we look at some of these remarkable sites that attest to the identity of Ayodhya, reflecting its multi-religious culture.
Right at the heart of Ayodhya lies a structure that sparks curiosity because of its name—Afeem Kothi, which means opium mansion. This is the palace of the third Mughal nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daula (1732-75). According to local lore, it got the name Afeem Kothi when the British, seeking to humiliate the nawab, started selling opium from his mansion.
“The very name “Awadh”, a territory consisting of the northeastern parts of modern-day Uttar Pradesh, is derived from “Ayodhya”. Apart from the grand structures from its Mughal past, hundreds of unnamed graves and unknown mausoleums dot the city.”
Today, the site is under the jurisdiction of the Narcotics Control Bureau, which is responsible for enforcing drug-related laws in the country. Much of its 4.5 acres is overgrown with weed, and the palace is also in a sad state, with crumbling corridors, shattered doors, and discoloured walls. Once known as Dilkusha Fyzabad (or Faizabad’s delight, Faizabad being Ayodhya’s twin city), the palace was ravaged after the Battle of Buxar (1764), which saw the defeat of Shuja-ud-Daula at the hands of British forces. The construction is distinctive in its use of Lakhori bricks, which were essential to Mughal architecture of the Awadh region. Many of these bricks are now just debris.
The nawab’s final resting place is in Gulab Bari, or Garden of Roses. The magnificent tomb is one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Uttar Pradesh. Adjacent to the tomb, a colossal but dilapidated gate-like structure stands as a reminder of the glory days of the nawab, when the site was the venue for spectacular religious and cultural events. Three gates, called the Teendara, encircle the garden, which is a popular picnic spot and a hang-out zone these days.
Moti Mahal, the palace of Shuja-ud-Daula’s wife, Bahu Begum, is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. When the capital of Awadh shifted from Ayodhya to Lucknow, Bahu Begum chose to stay behind in the city she loved, living in Fort Calcutta, or Chhota Calcutta Fort, built by Shuja-ud-Daula in the 18th century after his defeat in the Battle of Buxar. Shuja-ud-Daula too lived here until his early death at the age of 43. Moti Mahal and Gulab Bari exemplify the grandeur of Mughal craftsmanship and stand witness to Ayodhya’s regal legacy.
Indeed, the very name “Awadh”, a territory consisting of the north-eastern parts of modern-day Uttar Pradesh, is derived from “Ayodhya”. Apart from the grand structures, hundreds of unnamed graves and unknown mausoleums dot the city. And there are oral stories attesting to Ayodhya’s composite culture, such as one where the nawab of Awadh is said to have saved the Hanumangarhi temple from Muslim attackers. The 18th century temple was constructed with the support, including revenue and land grants, of Shuja-ud-Daula and his father, Safdarjung.
“The two religious communities are inextricably linked in the daily affairs of the city—for instance, many of the flower vendors near Hindu temples are Muslim, and most of the horses used in Hindu processions have Muslim owners.”
Krishna Pratap Singh, former resident editor of Jan Morcha, a local newspaper, enthusiastically delved into such tales. “Since the time Shuja-ud-Daula established Ayodhya as his capital, it has been a crucible of composite culture,” he said. The two religious communities are inextricably linked in the daily affairs of the city; for instance, many of the flower vendors near Hindu temples are Muslim, and most of the horses used in Hindu processions have Muslim owners.
Ayodhya has several Sufi shrines, too, the largest of them being the Syed Ibrahim Shah Dargah at Hargara, that draw visitors from all faiths. Some of these shrines were destroyed in the turbulent days following the Babri demolition. The surviving ones bear the scars of neglect as funds to facilitate their restoration remain elusive.
Badi Bua’s orphanage is a crumbling monument that stands at the intersection of Ayodhya and Faizabad. Badi Bua, sister to the Sufi saint Khwaja Nasiruddin (1274-1337), known as Chiragh-e-Dilli (Light of Delhi), was an esteemed figure known for her charity. The orphanage built in her memory near her tomb nurtures and provides education to some 35 orphaned children. Its madrasa has around 300 students from underprivileged backgrounds. However, financial constraints weigh heavily upon the management. Mohammad Saghir, a caretaker at the orphanage, said that the institution, solely supported by charity, suffered heavily during and after the pandemic.
A few kilometres away, on the banks of the Saryu, lie a multitude of small temples, which too are struggling to survive. According to legend, a reformist movement once swept through Ayodhya, wherein each Hindu caste group sought to establish its own temple as a response to Brahmins opposing the entry of individuals from other caste groups into existing temples. So, there is a Nishad temple, a Dhobi temple, a Thakur temple, a Patna temple, each embodying a unique identity. Their caretakers and priests fear that once the Ram Mandir comes up all devotees will flock there and what little support and donation they get now will also vanish.
Interestingly, many unflattering folk stories revolving around the Ramayana provide a counter narrative to the Hindutva portrayal of Ram as the ideal man. For instance, the people of Janakpur, a town across the border in Nepal that is famed as Sita’s birthplace, do not send their daughters in marriage to Ayodhya. They believe that Ayodhya is a cursed place for women because of what Sita went through in the company of her husband.
“Buddhists believe that Gautama Buddha spent the monsoon months in Ayodhya, lending it his spirituality.”
There is also a touching legend about a doe whose companion was killed in the revelry surrounding Ram’s birth. The deer’s skin was used for a drum, and on hearing the drum being beaten during the celebrations, the doe cried to her newborn fawns: “Merey hiran ko maarne ke baad bhi maar rahe hain” (They are killing him over and over again). Her lament is woven into traditional ditties sung at childbirth.
Such stories opposed to mainstream Hindu narratives characterised Buddhism and might have something to do with Ayodhya’s Buddhist past. Ayodhya, once known as Saketa, which is mentioned in ancient texts as an important city of the Kosala mahajanapada, traces its origins to the reign of the Buddha’s father, Suddhodhana. Buddhists believe that Gautama Buddha spent the monsoon months in Ayodhya, lending it his spirituality.
- As Ayodhya takes on a unipolar identity, fuelled by Hindutva, it is feared that its syncretic heritage will suffer neglect. Ayodhya’s cultural identity is shaped by its diverse historical influences, including Muslim, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, alongside its Hindu heritage.
- The construction of the Ram Mandir on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid presents a simplified narrative of Ayodhya’s history, overshadowing its rich cultural diversity.
- Ayodhya’s Islamic heritage is evident through the architectural legacy of Shuja-ud-Daula, the third Mughal nawab of Awadh, and counter-narratives to the traditional portrayal of Ram exist in folk stories. All this is set to vanish soon.
In 2018, Vineet Kumar Maurya, a Buddhist from Ayodhya, filed a writ petition in court asserting that the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi site belonged neither to Hindus nor to Muslims but to Buddhists. According to Maurya, Buddhist temples were transformed into Hindu sanctuaries by replacing the Buddha’s idols with those of Hindu deities, and several present-day Hindu temples, including Hanumangarhi, contain hidden Buddhist artefacts.
He also claimed that the Babri Mosque was constructed after the destruction of a Buddhist monument. The writings of Chinese travellers, Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang, do mention Ayodhya as a Buddhist centre with nearly a hundred monasteries and temples. Today, Jains and Buddhists constitute less than 1 per cent of Ayodhya’s population, and their monuments are all but gone.
Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, warned about the erasure of Ayodhya’s rich cultural heritage as a militant Hinduism overpowers the city. Institutions such as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) may also be to blame for this because of their focus on nationally significant monuments at the expense of numerous local historical buildings and heritage sites.
The Archaeology Boards in the States can step in here but they are constrained by a lack of funds and manpower. K.K. Muhammed, former Regional Director (North) of the ASI, suggested that State authorities should take charge of culturally important places at the local level when the ASI’s protection is unattainable. “India tends to overlook the revenue-generating capacity of its monuments, placing little emphasis on their marketing and promotion. It is a missed opportunity in a country rich with cultural treasures,” he added.
Mukesh Meshram, Principal Secretary of Uttar Pradesh’s Tourism and Culture Department, echoed his sentiment. He said: “In developing countries like India, the importance of monuments is often underplayed, leading to inadequate attention and resources for their preservation.”