`It was not a temple'

Print edition : September 26, 2003

Interview with Suraj Bhan.

Suraj Bhan, former Professor of Archaeology at the Kurukshetra University and co-author of `A Historians' Report to the Nation' on the Ayodhya controversy, visited the Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) excavation site in Ayodhya for three days in June to examine evidence collected during the excavation. Excerpts from the e-mail interview he gave Parvathi Menon:

The ASI report to the Allahabad High Court claims that a temple existed below the Babri Masjid site. This reinforces the view that the temple was demolished to construct the mosque. You have visited the site during the course of the excavations and also read the report. What are the main points made in the report?

The report makes several points. It states that the site was occupied first in the NBPW (Northern Black Polished Ware) period around 1000 B.C. and that habitation at the site continued until the Gupta or post-Gupta period (600-1000 A.D.). It claims that an important structure of Period V (c.1000 A.D.) was a circular shrine less then 6 metres in diameter which was square internally and provided with a water-chute (Parnala) to its north. It claims to have exposed a "massive" burnt-brick structure in Period VII comprising a burnt brick wall 1.77m wide, three phases of floors, and "pillar bases" extending over an area 50 m north-south and 30 m east-west. The "massive" burnt brick structure associated with `pillar-bases' is claimed to have supported stone pillars constituting one or two halls. A ghata-like depression cut into the brick floor suggests its use for keeping an important object.

In the report, the debris of the structure underneath the floor and walls of the Babri Masjid was identified as a temple built in the 12th century A.D. The temple structure existed until early 16th century. The Babri Masjid was constructed in 1528 A.D. (Period VIII) above the temple structure. Its three domes and western wall lay over the "massive" burnt brick wall of the temple. In the late and post-Mughal period (Period IX) the Ram Chabutra was constructed over a smaller and earlier Chabutra. The Chabutra reveals five phases of construction according to the report. It is to this last period that the graves containing skeletons in the north and the south of the complex belong.

Are these conclusions valid?

There is no dispute that the habitation at the site began in the NBPW period. But the established date of the NBPW period is circa 700 B.C. to 100 B.C. The report pushes back the antiquity of Ayodhya and NBPW to c. 1000 B.C. (with a possibility of them being even earlier) completely ignoring the established chronology of North Indian Archaeology. C-14 dates can be erratic unless we have a cluster of dates from different laboratories. It also depends upon the stratigraphical accuracy of the samples analysed. The desertion of habitation at the site in the Gupta and the early medieval period had already been pointed out by B.B. Lal in his short report on Ayodhya in 1976-77. But the recent report gives the impression that the area was in public (religious) use until the Mughal period, when the Babri Masjid was constructed. It should not be forgotten that cities in north India were already in decay after the Kushan times. Sometimes people shift from a higher ground to a lower ground on ancient mounds for convenience. Soil samples must be examined to preclude the possibility of occupation of the site by marginalised sections of society living in huts and shelters.

There is no doubt that a circular burnt brick structure with a rectangular projection for a door (or a niche) was exposed in the upper levels of Period V (c. 600-1000 A.D.) at the site. But what is intriguing is the absence of any stratigraphical context; any icon or Sivalinga from the floor of the structure or a socket for the Sivalinga in the floor. The Shaivite identification of the structure is based solely on the existence of a water-chute to the north.

No one doubts the existence of a burnt brick wall of the so-called temple on the west of the site. It runs north - south to the length of 50 m. It is also associated with a lime and surkhi floor extending over a 50m x 30m area. Some circular or squarish so-called "pillar bases" are also recognisable, but they have no integral relationship with the floored structure. What is striking is the absence of foundation walls and the plan of the Nagar temple style prevalent in North India between the 9th and the 12th centuries. Secondly, the 50 so-called `pillar bases' are nowhere found associated with the stone pillars which they are supposed to have supported. Besides, the `pillar bases' have no religious symbols on them. It becomes doubtful in the absence of a stratigraphical context to talk of the relationship between the walls, floors and the `pillar bases'. Further, the `pillar bases' have not been plotted on the site-plan to make their alignment trustworthy. How could the report show more than 40 `pillar bases' to be coeval without any stratigraphical correlation? The report should have illustrated through plans the contemporary features of the burnt brick structures. Their correlation should have been shown by reproducing cross sections adequately.

The later- and post-Mughal period IX in the report has brought to light two Chabutras, graves on the north and south and the upper most floor of the Babri Masjid. But their stratigraphical relationship is either not recorded or not illustrated in this report.

There have been criticisms of the methodology followed by the ASI. How should such excavations have been undertaken, and how long would they have taken in the normal course? Has the method of excavation followed by the ASI interfered with the positioning of evidence? How has it distorted interpretation and analysis?

We know that the ASI had not undertaken this excavation to solve any archaeological problem like establishing a sequence of cultures, or to know the conditions of life of the people, or to understand questions of culture change. Here the issue that had to be established with the help of GPR [ground penetrating radar] survey was if any temple/structure existed below the Babri Masjid, and if it was destroyed to construct the Babri Masjid in 1528 A.D. This minor issue did not require these extensive horizontal diggings which destroyed all the Mughal period remains at the site. All that was required was limited vertical trenching, exposing the structure where necessary. This could have avoided undue expenditure of time and money. This is what the High Court perhaps wanted.

Let me also point out here that the excavation was in fact not called for in this case. The problem of the Ayodhya title suit has no relevance to the history of political and cultural conflicts in the past.

An archaeologist happens to be at the centre of any excavation work. Why he or she works in a particular way depends upon training and perspective. Contextual stratification of the deposits and the proper recording of the artifacts and features, if done scientifically, can help collect useful data. The absence of stratification would lead to mixing up of finds of different periods and locations. The clubbing together of the pottery of periods VII, VIII and IX in the report is a case in point. Or when the `pillar bases', structures and the floors are not correlated accurately. Doubtful stratigraphy leads to the rejection of pottery in interpreting the sequence of cultural periods. This is what happened when medieval (Islamic) glazed pottery reported from Period VII was completely ignored. This resulted in the wrong placing of the burnt brick structure No. 16 in the pre-Sultanate period and its identification as a temple. Similarly, jumping to conclusions on the basis of a few samples of NBPW analysed by only one laboratory could be misleading. But here there seems to be a motive behind pushing back the NBPW date. The ASI report was in fact eager to push back the antiquity of the `Ramayana era' as much as it wanted to offer `proof' of the VHP's contention that there was a temple below the Babri Masjid. B.B. Lal and J.P. Joshi have similarly pushed back the dates of PGW (painted grey ware) culture for enhancing the antiquity of the `Mahabharat Age'. The age of the Rigveda has also been pushed back by B.B. Lal on no reasonable grounds to make it coeval with the Indus civilisation. This is the general trend with the school of historians `Re-writing History' or doing tradition-based archaeology.

Why do you disagree with the conclusion that a temple existed at the site?

Because it is based on the wrong assumption that the massive burnt brick structure and its lime floors on which the `pillar bases' stand supported stone pillars like those in the Babri Masjid.

The report records that this structure differed from earlier constructions. Lime and surkhi have been used on the floors; plaster and mortar for both the structure and the `pillar bases'. The use of lime mortar becomes popular on such a scale only in the Sultanate period (after 1206 A.D.). These levels of Period VII are also associated with medieval (Islamic) glazed ware and glazed tiles, which came to be produced on a large scale only with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. Besides, a niche in the `massive' burnt brick wall had an arch, so typical of the Sultanate period. It can be noticed in one of the photographs in the report, though another photograph shows it decimated. It is clear from the above that construction of the so-called temple structure was wrongly dated as 12th century A.D.

It is evident from the report that the `pillar bases' were nowhere found associated with stone pillars or even their fragments. They have no symbols to establish their identity with a Hindu temple. On the other hand, the occurrence of animal bones from these levels precludes the possibility of the structure being a temple. Moreover, the use of sculptured stones in the foundation wall of the `massive' burnt bricks structure would also lead us to a similar conclusion since the Hindus normally immerse such sculpted remains in water rather than bury these in the ground or in the temple's foundation. Hence it is not possible to agree with the conclusion of the report that there was a temple below the Babri Masjid.

What lay beneath the Babri Masjid according to you?

This can be better judged only after studying the full record of the excavation. Much has not been included in the report. However, one thing is certain: it was not a temple. There is a great possibility of the structure being a Sultanate mosque. Its plan broadly corresponds with that of the Babri Masjid in the lay-out of the western wall, the southern chamber below the southern dome of the Babri Masjid and the extensive floor area of the court yard. It is well known from Mansura in Sindh that the early mosques had pillars in them.

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