ASI's excavation in Ayodhya

ASI's archaeological findings in Ayodhya: Short shrift to facts

Print edition : December 06, 2019

CRPF jawans at the disputed site after they took control of the area, in Ayodhya in January 1993. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A recovered stone (left), claimed to be of 11th century vintage, on display in Ayodhya on December 13, 1992. Historians and archaeologists have debunked such claims. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

New archaeological findings from Ayodhya on display at a meeting organised by the Deendayal Research Institute in 2013. Historians and archaeologists have debunked such claims. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Revelations by two renowned archaeologists on how the ASI departed from norms in the way it conducted excavations at the disputed site and treated the findings are in focus again in the context of the verdict.

The unanimous verdict of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya dispute gives precedence to faith and belief over available and documented archaeological evidence. It is common knowledge among historians of repute that the operative part of the 2010 judgment of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court dismissed available evidence in the form of inscriptions and texts in order to show that there was a temple underneath the mosque.

The five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in its judgment, noted that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report merely said that the mosque was not built on vacant land and that there was an underlying non-Islamic structure of large dimensions. It added that the “ruins of an ancient religious structure under an existing building does not always indicate that it was demolished by unfriendly powers”.

The judgment also said that the ASI’s archaeological findings cannot lead to the establishment of a title based in law. Yet, the judges relied on historical accounts provided by travellers such as Joseph Tieffenthaler and Montgomery Martin in the 18th century that indicate a) the existence of the faith and belief of Hindus that the disputed site was the birthplace of Lord Ram, b) identifiable places of worship offered by Hindus including Sita Rasoi, Swargdwar and the Bedi (cradle) symbolising the birth of Lord Ram in and around the disputed site, c) prevalence of the practice of worship by pilgrims including parikrama or circumambulation, and d) historical presence of worshippers and existence of worship at the disputed site prior to the annexation of Awadh by the British and the construction of a brick grill in 1857.

Travellers’ accounts

Then the judgment goes on to say that beyond the aforementioned observations, the accounts of travellers must be read with circumspection. Therefore, the accounts of travellers like Tieffenthaler and Montogomery, described as personal observations, were ultimately taken into consideration by the bench, even though the honourable judges cautioned that they should be “sifted from hearsay—matters of legend and lore”.

The contents of the gazetteers “can at best provide corroborative material to evidence which emerges from the record”, they said. Yet, the judgment says that “the court must be circumspect in drawing negative inferences from what a traveller may not have seen or observed”.

The account of Tieffenthaler as quoted in the judgment itself is confusing, as the account as given shows he could not decide whether the mosque was built during Babur’s reign or Aurangzeb’s. The judges also held that title cannot be established on the basis of faith and belief alone. Faith and belief are indicators towards patterns of worship at the site on the basis of which claims of possession are asserted. Evidence indicated, according to the judgment, that despite the existence of a mosque at the site, “Hindu worship at the place believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram was not restricted”. The worship continued even prior to events in 1856-57. The physical structure of an Islamic mosque did not shake the faith and belief of Hindus that Lord Ram was born at the disputed site.

The court clearly does not question the basis of the faith and belief despite ample historical evidence presented by historians time and again pointing out that there was no overwhelming proof of the place or the exact spot as being the birthplace of Lord Ram.

Kasauti stone pillars inside the mosque and symbols of Hindu religious significance such as the depictions of Varaha, Jaya-Vijaya and Garuda outside the three-domed structure were suggestive of not merely faith and belief but of actual worship down the centuries, the judgment said. There was evidence on a preponderance of probabilities to establish worship by Hindus prior to the annexation of Awadh in 1857. This evidence is mainly from the accounts of travellers such as Tieffenthaler. It says that Muslims, on the other hand, had offered no evidence to indicate that they were in possession of the inner structure prior to1857 from the date of its construction in the 16th century.

In a document brought out by the Aligarh Historians Society, analysing the 2010 High Court judgment, Irfan Habib wrote that Tieffenthaler was a little-known traveller who did not refer to the inscriptions on the mosque but was described by Justice Sudhir Agarwal (one of the three judges of the Lucknow bench that delivered the earlier verdict) as “an intellectual giant and linguistic wizard”.

Anonymous addendum

One of the judges, while in agreement with the unanimous verdict, felt the need to record separately in the form of an addendum the reasons for the disputed structure being considered the birthplace of Lord Ram according to the beliefs and practices of Hindu devotees.

The addendum, which is unsigned and yet gives the views of one of the five eminent judges, states categorically without citing any historical reference that Ayodhya, which is associated with Lord Ram, is treated as a holy city by Hindu scriptures. It also refers to the judgment of Justice Sudhir Agarwal of the Allahabad High Court.

(All three judges gave separate judgments though a section of historians felt that the operative part of the majority judgment was derived from Justice Agarwal’s reading of the historical background.)

The AMU document, compiled by Irfan Habib in 2010-11, is titled “History and High Court Judgment in the Ramjanmabhumi-Babri Masjid Case: An Analysis” and deals with all the major points relating to history and archaeology that were raised in the judgment of Justice Sudhir Agarwal, and these arguments resonate in the addendum of the recent Supreme Court order.

According to the document of the AMU Historians Society, no Sanskrit text composed before the 16th century was cited before the Allahabad High Court that, in any passage, “lauded Ayodhya explicitly as the birthplace of Lord Rama, not even Valmiki’s Ramayana or attributed its sanctity as a pilgrimage centre”.

This was admitted by M.M. Pandey, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) advocate, and by Justice Agarwal himself concerning Hindu belief in the location of Lord Ram’s birthplace at Ayodhya. Even Tulsidas’ Ramacharitamanas, completed during Akbar’s reign in 1570, does not mention anything about a “Ram janamsthan”.

Irfan Habib wrote that the only reference that could be presented to the High Court was from the Uttarakhand chapter in Tulsidas’ Ramayana, where he speaks of his visits to Awadhpuri and witnessing Janm Mahotsav, or the birth celebration of Lord Ram.

Irfan Habib wondered “whether Tulsidas would have ignored Ram janmsthan had such a site been identified by his time, and should he then not have mourned that so holy a site had been desecrated by the construction of a mosque 50 years earlier? Quite obviously, Tulsidas was neither aware of the alleged janmasthan nor its supposed desecration.”

Habib also said that neither Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller who visited Ayodhya at the time of Harshavardhana in the earlier half of the 7th century, nor Alberuni’s Kitab-e-Hind, compiled in the 11th century, make any reference to the town being celebrated as the birthplace of Lord Ram. Alberuni makes a mention of Ayodhya as one of the main cities and routes of India but with no connection with Lord Ram whereas Mathura’s connection with Lord Krishna is explicitly mentioned.

The addendum also asserts that the Skanda Purana was from the 8th century, “providing ample proof of faith that is instilled in the hearts of Hindus, i.e., a visit to the birthplace of Lord Ram which is of extreme merit, which for Hindus, is nothing but moksha”.

The document of the AMU Historians Society observed that while the Skanda Purana was the first Sanskrit text which mentions the existence within Ayodhya of 30-odd sacred spots, one of which it calls the “Rama-janma”, it had many versions.

The leading witness of the VHP, Dr T.P. Verma, also an epigraphist and Sanskritist, reportedly admitted to the court that the Skanda Purana was not older than 400 years. There existed no proof of any sanctity attached to Ayodhya or any place within it on account of its containing the birthplace of Lord Ram before the 17th century, or more probably the 18th century, and even with regard to Ayodhya being Lord Ram’s kingdom.

It was only in the late 16th century that Ayodhya as a place was first assigned exceptionally high status on this account. The issue of the antiquity of Ayodhya being a great pilgrim centre on account of its association with Lord Ram’s birthplace was challenged by historians.

Prior to the demolition and the excavation by the ASI in 2003, four eminent historians, R.S. Sharma, Suraj Bhan, M. Athar Ali and D.N. Jha, had, in their report in 1991 to the government titled “Historians Report to the Nation”, stated that their study showed neither the existence of a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid nor of the destruction of any other structure there prior to the construction of the mosque. On August 1, 2001, the Allahabad High Court ordered the ASI to conduct excavations at the site to ascertain “whether a Hindu temple or Hindu structure existed and whether the Babri Masjid was constructed on the site of a Hindu temple after the demolition of the latter”.

The reason for the excavation being ordered was that a book was published in 1993 by the acclaimed archaeologist D. Mandal, titled Ayodhya: Archaeology after Demolition, in which he rubbished the claims of a section of archaeologists of the discovery of pillar bases which they said were the support of the stone pillars of a temple destroyed earlier.

He concluded after looking at the published photographs from earlier excavations of the pillar bases as well as post-demolition excavations that the bases did not even belong to the same stratum, pointing to a “stratigraphic impossibility” of the rows of pillar bases.

Mandal also doubted the validity of the “finds” after the acts of mob violence. The 1993 publication was released but later withdrawn on grounds that the matter was sub judice.

The excavations began in March 2003. Six months later, the ASI submitted a report that raised more questions than provided answers. In order to show that there was a temple underneath the Babri Masjid, the ASI report did not consider many important pieces of material evidence that came up during the digging.

Evidence ignored

Mandal and another archaeologist named Shereen Ratnagar were permitted by the court to visit the site during excavations by the ASI. In their co-authored book called Archaeology after Excavation in 2007, they wrote that there was a departure from established norms in the manner the excavation was conducted and some of the findings were treated.

Attempts were made to suppress the findings of animal bones, glazed ware and glazed tiles. Glazed ware was associated with Sultanate, Mughal and post-Mughal periods. These findings, Mandal wrote, had a tremendous bearing on the core issue of the debate. No records were maintained of the discovery of these finds. Bones were found in all strata, some with cut marks, and were obviously food residues which threw light on the nature of dietary practices of the people.

Animal bones would hardly be associated with a temple or temple locations, especially a Vaishnava temple, and as they were found in fill deposits, the existence of a temple was doubtful as temples were hardly built on landfills.

Irfan Habib also wrote that during the three centuries preceding 1528, Ayodhya or Awadh was a city with a large Muslim population along with Hindu inhabitants. Given the dietary customs of both communities, the “abundance of animal bones” would weigh heavily in favour of there being a Muslim presence in the immediate vicinity of the disputed site.

The Persian inscriptions by the builder, Irfan Habib wrote in a booklet published by SAHMAT, which was the most primary evidence under all canons of historical inquiry, were dismissed by two of the three judges of the Lucknow bench.

The inscriptions made it clear that Mir Baqi, Babur’s commandant, had built the mosque. The inscriptions had no reference to the destruction of any temple which would have been normally done as the builder would have wanted to glorify his faith.

These finds, along with the presence of glazed ware and tiles, had the “most dependable chrono cultural anchorage; culturally, they are associated with Muslim habitation and chronologically their initial appearance was datable to the Sultanate period”, Mandal wrote.

Till date, Shereen Ratnagar wrote in the preface to the 2007 book, no rejoinder to Mandal’s critique citing the stratigraphic impossibility was made. All this information was in the public domain but no one, including the top court, was interested in looking at it. Many established archaeologists were expert witnesses before the Allahabad High Court. But then, when matters of faith precede evidence, scientific inquiry ends up being the casualty.

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