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Tales from Fatehpur Sikri

Print edition : Jul 22, 2000 T+T-

Recent archaeological excavations at Akbar's briefly inhabited capital city near Agra lead to another feeding frenzy among theorists of a certain persuasion.


A SURGE of excitement has been passing through the normally placid world of archaeology since a series of discoveries were made at Fatehpur Sikri - a hoary site of Mughal grandeur which it now transpires has a considerably greater antiquity than was thou ght earlier.

The story begins in December 1999 with the discovery of the remains of an ancient Jaina temple in the vicinity of the Fatehpur Sikri palace compound. By far the most spectacular find was the idol of a Jaina Saraswati, firmly dated to 1010 A.D. on the str ength of an inscription at its base. In addition there were a number of Jaina tirthankara icons found in the same pit as the Saraswati, most of which were dated between A.D. 977 and A.D. 1044.

The archaeological discoveries soon became intermeshed with contemporary political agendas. Leaps of the imagination were made to argue that Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, had built his briefly inhabited capital city 34 km from Agra on the r uins of an established settlement of Jaina and Hindu provenance. Certain of the reports in the media went further, directly ascribing responsibility to Akbar for the supposed demolition of the newly unearthed Jaina structure.

These rather unwarranted assumptions were fed by the master narrative of Indian history which has been holding increasing sway since the campaign to supplant the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya with a temple became an item on the political agenda. This narrative views each temple that fell to cultural iconoclasm as a milestone in the historical victimisation of Hinduism. With little regard for nuance or complexity, this perspective renders history into an unending sequence of temple demolitions. By implication then, the rediscovery of Indian nationalism requires the reversal of these cultural depredations, and those adhering to the dominant cultural ethos of the nation are entitled to seek redress for the historical injuries they may have suffered.

Dharam Vir Sharma, Superinten-ding Archaeologist of the Agra Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), was at pains to distance himself from all such interpretations. "This is purely an academic exercise," he argued, "and the objective is to re veal certain aspects of the history of Central India from the pre-Mughal period."

The Saraswati idol that has been found is stylistically contiguous with the central Indian school of iconography of the period, argues Sharma. It is nevertheless an independent style which conforms to the various dictums of the scriptures. And its import ance stems from the fact that it is perhaps the finest Saraswati image from the 11th century that has been recovered so far.

Inscriptions dating up to 1044 A.D. have been found in the course of the excavation, which leads to the obvious inference that the structure could only have been destroyed or fallen into disuse at a subsequent date. Sharma is not prepared to venture any definitive conclusions about when this could have happened. There is evidence that Mahmud of Ghazni, one of the most prominent of medieval iconoclasts and plunderers, passed through the area around 1020, he says. But the structure remained intact for yea rs afterwards. This leads Sharma to the belief that the destruction could be ascribed to Iltutmish, who had sent expeditions through Mathura and Fatehpur Sikri between 1210 and 1236, reaching as far as Bayana and Dholpur in Rajasthan.

Irfan Habib, one of India's most distinguished historians of the medieval period, thinks that it is not necessary to go this far afield. The military occupation of the area around Fatehpur Sikri was accomplished between 1192 and 1206 by Mohammad Ghauri a nd his generals, he asserts. So if the object is to ascribe responsibility for the possible destruction of a temple in the region, it may not be necessary to go much further than this period. What Habib chooses to question rather is the very paradigm of history writing which looks at each episode of temple destruction as a decisive and formative influence on the course of history.

As for the antiquity of Fatehpur Sikri, Habib argues that it was a prominent hillock which stood in the vicinity of the Utangan river. The hillock looked out over a shallow depression which continues to be inundated in the monsoon months, creating a lake which could support a limited crop. Besides, there were a number of sandstone quarries nearby. In these multiple senses, the discovery that Fatehpur Sikri was settled well before the Mughal period does not add much of novelty. The Mughal settlement was qualitatively different though, in that Akbar dammed the Utangan and created much greater possibilities for supporting an urban community.

The various inherent complexities of the excavations led Harbans Mukhia, Professor of Medieval History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, to intervene very early in the public discourse. After a visit to the site in February Mukhia wrote in a dai ly newspaper published from Delhi, proposing a variety of hypotheses, each of which he emphasised was only tentative. His intent in drawing public attention to the various explanations that offered themselves was to correct the tendency to disallow all t heories except one: "of Muslim demolition of non-Muslim temples". It was especially crucial to do this since many of the ideologues of the Ayodhya movement, some of them now ensconced in government, have made it known that "this is the only correct versi on of Indian history".

But with all this said, Mukhia had words of high praise for the professional skills of the excavators and acknowledged the "generous help" he received from the ASI. He was also convinced that the Jaina Saraswati found at Fatehpur Sikri was a major discov ery, an "exquisite" idol which would advance contemporary understanding of medieval iconography.

A translation of the inscription found at the foot of the Saraswati image: "Om! 1067 Samvat era in the reign of Shri Vajram in Sikr i, in the locality of Shanti Vimalacharya in the month of Vaisakh in the Shukra phase of the moon, the seths of the Sanchamar and Bhalikkya gotras installed this idol and Ahilayan too."

Mukhia's plea for an attentive reading that would be alive to the complexities of sectarian strife in the medieval period was not received well in certain quarters. Among the first to react was S.P. Gupta, a former Director of the Allahabad Museum who di stinguished himself during the Ayodhya controversy in the late 1980s and early 1990s by his assiduous and often clumsy efforts to establish the "Hindu" provenance of the site of the Babri Masjid. In a paper circulated shortly after Mukhia's intervention in the debate, Gupta pointed out that "there is ample proof of the destruction of the Jain temple" and "no evidence of Hindu vandalism at the site". What, then, he asked, "is the other language of this destruction if not 'demolishing temples' by Muslims? "

For his part, Sharma reacted with vehemence to Mukhia's propositions. Ignoring all the pleas of tentativeness that had been advanced, Sharma accused Mukhia of offering a "definitive view" and a "final judgment" on the basis of incomplete knowledge. And p lunging ahead recklessly from this gross misreading, Sharma went on to ascribe motives of a particularly sectarian kind: "It is widely known that some historians of Delhi, who were hitherto monopolising the state patronage (sic), have been reduced to the ir actual size. Naturally, they are aggrieved and they are making the best of every trifle to embarrass the government on charges of saffronisation of institutions... They feel outraged that their intellectual hegemony - carefully fabricated and scaffold ed over the years - has been demolished."

Most observers thought it curious that Mukhia's plea for caution should have provoked this outpouring of intolerance from a professional archaeologist. It was a definitive sign of a recurrence of the Ayodhya syndrome which afflicted the archaeological pr ofession rather badly in the 1990s - of discoveries of the past being burdened by predilections and cultural biases of the present. Mukhia himself reacted mildly when contacted for his comments: "Let me assure Mr. Sharma that I am not denying the fact of demolition of temples in medieval India, but suggesting that each case has to be examined on its own merits and that Muslims had no monopoly over the demolition of others' places of worship. Historical evidence is far too complex to be reduced to simpli stic formulas."

The debate was meanwhile joined by a number of scholars, agitated by the growing sense of public confusion and the conflation of various kinds of discoveries that were strictly distinct. The ASI had under Sharma's supervision conducted an excavation with in the palace compound under Anup Talao (or "peerless pond"). The purpose was seemingly innocuous. From contemporary accounts of the construction of Fatehpur Sikri, a variety of textual references were available to a chamber that Akbar sought to build en closed in water. Access to the chamber could be obtained without the Emperor soaking himself.

By digging up the floor tiles of Anup Talao, Sharma laid bare an underground chamber at its very centre. He claims now that the excavation will be conducted further in order to discover the routes of ingress into this underground chamber.

Whether by accident or design, this chamber was confused in media reports with the site where the Jaina idols were recovered. Few seemed attentive to the fact that the latter spot lay at least 200 metres away, on the bank of the lake that served on the s outhern flank as a natural line of defence for the palace complex. But Mukhia's suggestion that the ASI should clarify these matters rather than allow the confusion to linger, was taken by Sharma almost as a professional affront.

Irfan Habib himself thinks that the excavation of Anup Talao is a grossly misdirected enterprise. The contemporary chronicler Badayuni has mentioned, he points out, that Akbar had tried in vain to build a chamber which would be protected from the fury of the summer sun by a layer of water. This attempt was abandoned because water kept seeping through to the chamber. The chamber was subsequently sealed and Anup Talao used in the following years alternately to store water and to display a hoard of copper coins. Since these facts are known from the textual record, there was no need to excavate right in the heart of a World Heritage Site, argues Habib. Indeed, he claims that the ASI's procedure is contrary to all known principles of preservation of histori cal monuments.

Perturbed by the ASI's exercise, Shireen Moosvi, secretary of the Indian History Congress, sent a fact-finding team to the site. The report of this team would be considered by the Congress' executive committee when it meets next, she affirms.

Delhi University historian K.M. Shrimali has for his part pointed out a curious asymmetry in the ASI's methods of reporting between two sites - Fatehpur Sikri and Khajuraho. In the case of the former, there has been a rush to judgment and little effort t o dispel the growing confusion in the public mind. In sharp contrast, the reporting procedures adopted in the latter have been cautious and restrained.

Reporting on his discoveries at the Bijamandal Temple in Khajuraho, the excavator Phani Kant Mishra of the ASI was content to advance a variety of hypotheses. "Among the conspicuous sculptures found amidst the debris," he records in the March 2000 issue of Marg, "are figures of Saraswati, Vishnu,.. Jain tirthankaras... The gigantic endeavour dragged on for many decades, albeit unsuccessfully... perhaps due to dwindling resources, the work began to flag and was finally abandoned... The site has ra ised questions of whether assimilative tendencies led to the carving of Jain tirthankaras in a Shaivite temple, or whether subsequent to abandonment by the Jain community, the sanctity of the place was maintained as a Shaivite shrine."

The Khajuraho finds, Shrimali points out, pertain to the same period as those in Fatehpur Sikri. Yet it is the latter site that has led to all the public debates and the adoption of hardened doctrinal positions impervious to debate and discussion. Is thi s, asks Shrimali, because Khajuraho does not speak "the language of destruction" that the ASI alone can understand?

The discoveries at Fatehpur Sikri come at a time when the ASI is besieged with questions about the numerous excavations it has undertaken over the last five decades. Many of these still remain to be documented and reported in full, leaving them vulnerabl e to generous subsequent infusions of political bias. These hazards were starkly highlighted in the recent past in the case of the Ayodhya excavations. There is clearly no need for a reprise of that sordid chapter in the annals of Indian archaeology. And members of Parliament, sensitive to the potential for long-term damage, are seemingly determined now to demand a complete exercise in accountability by the ASI in the near future.

IT was perhaps the possibility of an unsavoury political controversy that compelled the ASI finally to issue a long overdue clarification. Speaking to a news agency on July 6, ASI Director-General Komal Anand authoritatively confirmed that there was no b asis to believe that any religious structure was destroyed or damaged during the construction of the Fatehpur Sikri palace complex. On the chronic delays which seem to afflict the process of reporting the ASI's main finds though, she had little to say. F inal reports are enormously complicated matters, which require the gathering and collation of data from a wide range of disciplines. There is no feasible way of hastening this process, said Anand, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service.

This delayed intervention from the top may have temporarily laid to rest the controversy. But the larger questions about the political uses and abuses of archaeology are unlikely to disappear quite so easily.