Whither Indian archaeology?

Print edition : October 24, 2003

A critique of the Archaeological Survey of India's report on the Ayodhya excavations, which raises more questions than it answers.

THE report on the recent Ayodhya excavations (2002-03) was prepared by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in pursuance of the order of the Special Full Bench of Allahabad High Court, Lucknow on March 5. Since its submission by the ASI to the court in late August, it has indeed come into the public domain. Consequently, it has also become a document of deep concern to professional archaeologists and historians.

The Babri Masjid.-SUBIR ROY

Their concern is not about the view that the court may or may not adopt. Their known position has been that given the position taken by the Supreme Court in 1993, the Allahabad court should not have ordered these excavations at all. After the dastardly and disgraceful demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the Government of India headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao had sought the Supreme Court's advisory opinion through a presidential reference under Article 143(1) of the Constitution. The issue referred to Supreme Court was: "Whether a Hindu temple or any Hindu religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid (including the premises of the inner and outer courtyards of such structure) in the area on which the structure stood." The highest court of the land was unanimous on the point that the issue was unfair and irrelevant. Now, in the face of a fait accompli, courtesy the Allahabad court order, the major concern is the lackadaisical manner in which the report on Ayodhya diggings has been prepared.

To start with, the report of the ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the `disputed site at Ayodhya' conducted by Tojo-Vikas International (Pvt.) Ltd. (TVIPL) had been questioned by competent authorities on several technical grounds. Notwithstanding TVIPL's confession to the effect that its interpretation of data was "not done from an archaeological angle" and that "due to inherent limitations of the technique... there might be discrepancies", the Allahabad court not only drew its conclusions from this flawed report, but also ordered TVIPL to provide "technical assistance" to the ASI excavators. It is obvious that right from the preliminary exercise that is undertaken in any excavation, that is, the planning of the layout of trenches, the ASI seems to have been obsessed with the GPR survey report. This is quite scandalous.

Sir R.E. Mortimer Wheeler was at the helm of the ASI (as Director-General from 1944 to 1948) when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Indeed, he was responsible for training a whole generation of archaeologists of the Indian subcontinent, and, in a way, he also paved the way for the transition to modern scientific archaeology. Delivering the presidential address (published in ASI journal Ancient India, No.2) at the Anthropology and Archaeology section of the Indian Science Congress in Bangalore in January 1946, he had lamented the absence of "coherent science of archaeology" and strongly pleaded "for a centralised school of archaeology of a highly specialised kind... to raise humanistic science in India to the international level". He often wrote in the `Technical Section' of Ancient India, (started by Wheeler in 1946) in the 1940s. Two such contributions between January 1947 and January 1948 dealt with "The recording of archaeological strata" and "Digging and recording". Stratification is as fundamental to science of archaeology as it is to the parent-science of geology. Wheeler had empirically demonstrated the centrality of this basic principle of archaeology during excavations at Taxila and Harappa (both now in Pakistan) and Arikamedu (Tamil Nadu, India).

The manner in which stratification has been worked out in the latest Ayodhya report, that is, the bench-level method, was discussed eloquently by Wheeler under the caption `How not to record stratification' (emphasis is Wheeler's). True to the spirit of the method, excavators have apparently recorded, maybe even meticulously, only depths (Wheeler was an exponent of three-dimensional recording) of structures and other antiquities from a `mean sea level' datum fixed at a remote point. Further, even for purposes of recording depths, two different levels were adopted - one for the `disputed area' (raised platform) and another for northern, eastern and southern areas. It defies the fundamental principles of archaeological diggings and falls in the category of what Wheeler called "parody of scientific method".

In view of the national importance being attached to the whole exercise, one expected not only a copious but very professional documentation of the excavated material. But the report is immensely disappointing. Ninety trenches were "partly or fully excavated" but section drawings have been provided for only a handful of these. Further, the manner in which sections have been drawn leaves much to be desired. One is not able to establish the correlation of a particular layer in different trenches, and more important, the correlation of different layers with the overall nine periods worked out by the excavators. This could at best be described as unintelligently differentiated stratification. It is difficult to account for such callousness. There are too many precedents available in the publications of the ASI to believe that the technicians and draftsmen concerned were uninitiated. For instance, section drawing "showing interrelationship of cultures" in a trench at Brahmagiri (now in Karnataka, excavated in 1947), published in Ancient India, (No.4, page 205) could easily be taken as an ideal example. Such examples could be easily multiplied if one scans the annual reports of the ASI (Indian Archaeology - A Review) being published since 1953. Was there a deliberate attempt to mess up the stratigraphy of the site at Ayodhya? Such doubts are inevitable and perhaps also not unjustified.

And what about nomenclatures of different periods? Much has already been said about the tendentious manner in which Periods VI to IX (`Medieval-Sultanate', `Medieval', `Mughal', `Late and Post Mughal' respectively) have been obfuscated to facilitate a pre-determined chronology (as no evidence of dating of related antiquities on a scientific basis has been provided) of the so-called "Massive Structure Below the Disputed Structure". Further, the characterisation of Periods II to IV as `Sunga', `Kushan,', `Gupta' and `Post-Gupta-Rajput' levels is too stereotyped and betrays considerable ignorance about nuanced inputs from historians of the last several decades. For instance, it is known now that the appellation `Sunga period/age' is a misnomer; the extent of Kushan influence east of Varanasi is yet to be established; the Guptas need not be given credit for everything that falls between the fourth and the sixth centuries A.D.; and the so-called `Rajput period/age' is better characterised as `early medieval'. Professional archaeologists are impervious to such writings and our expectations that they would develop historically more sensitive vocabulary are often belied. The report under discussion is no exception.

The report claims that its agenda was set by the Allahabad High Court order asking the ASI to determine "whether there was any temple/structure which was demolished and mosque was constructed on the disputed site". Insofar as this made the entire exercise unidimensional, the entire venture was flawed from the beginning. But looking at a more micro level, another question arises: While claiming to have found a "massive structure", have the ASI excavators simultaneously found the evidence of its demolition, which the court wanted them to find out? One is reminded of a monograph by the late Professor G.R. Sharma, the excavator of the famous site of Kaushambi, near Allahabad, who had ventured to document archaeologically the destruction and burning of several settlements in the Ganga valley during the so-called invasion of the Indo-Greek king Menander (considered to be identical with Milinda of the Buddhist tradition) in the second century B.C. A reading of the Ayodhya report shows that it is completely silent on the issue (simultaneous demolition of the "massive structure").

More than two years ago, this writer had drawn attention to the colonialist/neo-colonialist implications of perpetuating the nefarious link between cultural manifestations and religions ("Aesthetic deceptions", The Hindustan Times, June 7, 2001). Characterising glazed pottery, tiles, and so on, as `Islamic' or `Muslim' must be opposed. What if our breed of chauvinist archaeologists start designating the Painted Grey Ware, Northern Black Polished Ware, and so on, as `Hindu'? That would be disastrous. So, there should be no case for characterising various architectural members (beams, columns, decorative motifs, lotus, amalaka, stenciled floral/geometrical designs) alleged to have been found at Ayodhya as being specifically `Hindu' either. Incidentally, one must not forget that most of such 286 carved architectural members have either been surface finds or come from the debris above Floor-I (of the so-called `disputed structure') and not from stratified context. Also, stones and decorated bricks could have been used in any building, not necessarily only in "a temple".

The `Classified Lists of the Monumental Antiquities and Inscriptions in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh' was prepared by A. Fuhrer in compliance with the orders of the Government of India, Home Department (Archaeology), Resolution No.5/170-82 of the August 22, 1885 and published by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1891 (Preface dated June 1, 1891) under the title "Monumental Antiquities and Inscriptions in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh". It described "Babar's Masjid" (page 297). Further, in accordance with the requirements of the Government of India Resolution, Home Department (Archaeology), No. 3/168-83 of November 26, 1883, Fuhrer classified this historical monument (in possession of private bodies/individuals) amongst those that were "possible or desirable to save from further decay by such minor measures as eradication of vegetation, the exclusion of water from the walls, and the like... "

It is shame that the ASI failed to save the almost 500-year-old monument and remained a mute spectator when `The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and "Remains" Act' of 1958 was being shredded to pieces. No less disturbing is the astonishing use of the nomenclature of "disputed structure" (as distinct from Fuhrer's "Babar's Masjid"), which has been the vocabulary of the present-day political establishment. What have been the compulsions of the ASI officials to give up the description of this monument that had received due notice in the ASI's earlier publications?

Much publicity has been given to the alleged existence of "seventeen rows of pillar bases from north to south, each row having five pillar bases". Of these, 50 pillar bases have been completely or partially exposed. These are supposed to provide the raison d'etat of the so-called "massive structure". The excavators seem to be repeating history here. One of the earliest episodes in the sordid saga of Ayodhya archaeology was Professor B.B. Lal's sudden announcement in 1990 that he had found "pillar bases" during his excavations of Ayodhya in the late 1970s. It had raised considerable commotion amongst historians and archaeologists and raised several disturbing questions of archaeological ethics. Pressure from the professionals forced the then Government of India to permit some archaeologists to study the excavated materials and records. Regrettably, the most crucial evidence of the trench concerned and the relevant site notebooks were not shown to the experts. Professor D. Mandal's monograph (Ayodhya : Archaeology After Demolition,1993) had clearly demonstrated the untenability of Lal's claims (for details, see K.M. Shrimali, `Ayodhya: A Review of the Archaeological Evidence' in K.N. Panikkar, Terence J. Byres and Utsa Patnaik, eds., The Making of History : Essays presented to Irfan Habib, 2000, pages 611-614).

Apparently referring to Lal's contentions, the present report on Ayodhya diggings says: "A few pillar bases were noticed during earlier excavation after which a controversy took place about their association with different layers and their load-bearing capacity. The present excavation has set aside the controversy by exposing the original form of the bases having calcrete and stone block arranged in a proper manner over a brick foundation and their arrangements in rows (page 55)." In the absence of a ground plan with scale, it is impossible to accept this contention, specially because the question of proper alignment of pillar bases remains unresolved. Further, the varying levels of these "pillar bases" also fail to answer Mandal's reservations about their load-bearing capacity. Under the circumstances, it would be pertinent to ask if the excavators have submitted site notebooks to the court. Are these available for public scrutiny? Apart from the internal contradictions of the report, the discrepancies between the interim reports submitted to the court and the final report are also bound to raise doubts. In the 1990s, the ASI failed to show the site notebooks of Lal's excavations. Would it be more forthcoming this time?

THE relationship between "circular shrine" and the "massive structure below the disputed structure" remains an enigma. Stratigraphically, the former precedes but chronologically they are supposed to be partly coeval! In the discussion on the stratigraphy (page 40), reference is made to "a circular subsidiary shrine belonging to the late level of this (fifth) period" (emphasis added). The stratigraphy of the "massive structure" (called structure 4) is somewhat vague, spanning over perhaps Periods VI and VII (with varying nomenclatures in chapters IV and X). On "stylistic grounds" the "circular shrine" is ascribed to the 10th century and for the three different phases of the "massive structure" also it is claimed that the beginnings may have been made between A.D. 900 and 1030 (on the basis of the calibrated age range derived from C-14 dates from the deposit between floors 2 and 3 of structure 4). Was the so-called "circular shrine" subsidiary to the "massive structure"? Was the bulk of the "massive structure" raised on the ruins of the "circular shrine"? Either way, it would raise numerous questions about the inter-relationships amongst different religious sects. The issue as well as the purpose of both structures are far from being clear.

The report mentions the 12th century Dharmachakrajina Vihara of Kumaradevi (queen of the Gahadvwal ruler Govindachandra) at Sarnath (excavated in 1907-08) at two places. First (page 52), to demonstrate that its foundations comprised wide brick walls wherein "plain and decorated stone members of earlier structures were reused". And again on page 56 to determine the chronology of a "unique" stone block embellished with a floral motif found in trench F7 (southern area) under the section on the so-called "Massive Structure Below the Disputed Structure". Two-fold implications of these comparisons need to be underlined. First, what is the logic of comparing a supposedly "massive structure" embodying a (Hindu) temple with Buddhist monastic establishment? To be more precise, Kumaradevi's creation was for goddess Vasudhara, the consort of Jambhal (Buddhist god of wealth). The proponents of `One people, One nation and One Culture' are insensitive to such nuances. Second, was not Kumaradevi setting a precedent at the site for the "reuse" of architectural members of "earlier structures"?

It needs to be recalled that Kumaradevi's Jina Vihara was the sixth and the last encasing of the Dharmarajika Stupa, which is said to have been first built by emperor Ashok Maurya (circa third century B.C). The ASI's guide board at this stupa reads: "This huge structure was unfortunately pulled down by Jagat Singh, a diwan of Raja Chet Singh, king of Banaras during 1794 A.D. in order to exploit building materials. In this tragic event a relic casket of Green marble inside a stone box was discovered. The box is preserved in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, whereas the casket was thrown into the river Ganga" (see also V.S. Agrawal, Sarnath, 2nd edition, ASI publication, 1957, page15). Evidently, the demolition and looting of old religious structures was not the monopoly of `Muslims'.

There are 10 chapters in the report. The authorship of all except the last, that is., `Summary of Results' has been clearly mentioned. What's the reason behind the anonymity of this chapter? One can have different understanding of the "Structure" described as lying "Below the Disputed Structure" and also about its being "massive". But in all fairness to the authors, it must be recognised that they do not characterise it as "a temple" in the chapter concerned. It is only in the last sentence of the anonymous last chapter, running into 10 lines of awful grammar, that one gets to read about "features found associated with the temples of north India" by way of an analogy. This, and many other discrepancies noticeable in periodisation and documentation of data, creates doubts about the authorship of `Summary of Results'.

The Ayodhya Report talks about 142 years of the ASI's existence and regards it as unprecedented that the institution was asked by the High Court to submit excavation report within 15 days (page 9). Insofar as the ASI has been able to meet the deadline, it must be appreciated. But there are too many unprecedented landmarks in the saga of archaeology of Ayodhya that one is compelled to reflect upon the long-term consequences of the conduct of the ASI. Are there many precedents in the history of world archaeological establishments where agencies meant to protect historical monuments and architectural heritage have remained silent spectators when their willful destruction takes place? It happened at Ayodhya on the December 6, 1992. The prelude for this shameful vandalism had already been set in the early 1990s when the besieged city saw the operation of bulldozer archaeology. The ASI preferred to look the other way.

After the dastardly demolition of Babar's Masjid, a claim of the discovery of a large stone inscription purporting to speak of a `magnificent temple' of Vishnu-Hari from the debris of the mosque has been touted around. The ASI's official publication Epigraphia Indica, is yet to publish its authentically edited version. Further, whose responsibility is it to tell the people of India about the fate of the two famous Persian inscriptions of Mir Baqi that adorned the demolished mosque? ASI's reticence in the matter is baffling. The report of ASI's Ayodhya excavations of the 1970s remains unpublished but the excavator (B.B. Lal) went on to make unsubstantiated claims of certain discoveries in non-official publications. Can the great institution of 142 years' existence be exonerated? Any recapitulation of the conduct of the ASI in holding the World Archaeological Congress in New Delhi in December 1994 would be a very painful exercise. To say the least, it was a moment of national shame.

Conducting excavations under the watchful eyes of the court was certainly unprecedented and one sincerely hopes that conditions forcing such orders would not be created again. The ASI could have utilised the opportunity to redeem its prestige. However, its Report on Ayodhya excavations shows that it has failed to grab the opportunity. And not just that, hasty excavators called upon to uncover only "temple/structure" seem to have missed several subtle evidences. "Excavation is destruction, and its only justification is the careful and complete recording of all evidence revealed in the process," argued Wheeler. The present report is an example of the negligent obliteration of a page in the history of human endeavour.

K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History at the University of Delhi.

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