Ayodhya: lost and found

No two events in recent times have saddened me so much as the media response to the Archaeological Survey of India’s report on Ayodhya and Saturday’s car bomb in Srinagar which killed six persons, including a senior army officer, and injured twenty-nine others. Even though the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack, some major newspapers in the capital did not consider the event worthy of front-page coverage. If the fresh spiral of violence in Kashmir following the death of Jaish-e-Mohammed commander Ghazi Baba can be relegated to inside columns in favour of news one cannot recall ten minutes later, I believe this reflects far more than a failure of editorial judgment.

It reveals a civilizational failure among our elite, an unwillingness, or inability, to grapple with fundamental issues of identity and ethos that are fast crystallizing in the nation as a whole. These issues will not subside, not least because a religion-inspired terrorism is undermining the very secular state that protects its right to exist. None but the most obtuse can fail to see that this contradiction must give way, sooner or later. Nothing encapsulates the twin issues of national identity and civilizational ethos like Ayodhya. The ASI’s unearthing evidence of an ancient Hindu temple is a powerful vindication of the millions of Ram bhaktas who kept alive the memory of the God’s birthplace through centuries of displacement and disempowerment.

The nation owes a deep debt of gratitude to Dr. Hari Majhi, Dr. B.R. Mani, and their colleagues, who submitted their professional honour and credibility to constant hostile scrutiny through five months of excavations, and maintained a dignified silence in the face of patently false media reports about the findings, which intended to intimidate them from making a definitive statement about the nature of their discoveries. That the announcement of the findings in the Allahabad High Court on 25 August 2003 was accompanied by serial blasts in Mumbai, killing at least 46 persons and injuring over a hundred, was certainly a tragic coincidence, even if we do not read more into the event.

The ASI excavated ninety trenches to verify anomalies and anomaly alignments found by the Ground Penetrating Radar Survey conducted by Tojo-Vikas Ltd. As press reports have focused more on debunking the findings, rather than cataloguing the major discoveries, the discerning reader may appreciate a listing of some of the salient features of the ASI report.

The diggings suggest that people using Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) first occupied the disputed site at Ayodhya, in the period 1000 BC – 300 BC. No structures of this period have been found in the small area excavated, but the material culture shows terracotta figurines of female deities with archaic features, beads of terracotta and glass, wheels and fragments of votive tanks. An important find includes a round signet with a legend in Asokan Brahmi.

The next level of cultural occupation is the Sunga period of second-first century BC. The typical terracotta mother goddess, human and animal figurines, beads, hairpin have been found. The pottery includes black slipped, red and grey wares; and stone and brick structures have been found. Findings of the Kushan period, first to third century AD, include terracotta human and animal figurines, fragments of votive tanks, beads, bangle fragments and ceramics with red ware. There are large-sized structures running into twenty-two courses.

The Gupta era, fourth to sixth century AD, does not show much qualitative change in building activity. The ASI found typical terracotta figurines, a copper coin with the legend Sri Chandra (Gupta), and illustrative potsherds from this level. The site remained occupied in the post-Gupta period upto the tenth century, as witnessed in burnt brick structures. The exposed structures of this time include a circular brick shrine with an entrance from the east. Though damaged, its northern wall retains provision for a water-chute, a feature of contemporary temples from the Ganga-Yamuna plain.

The findings for the eleventh and twelfth century indicate a huge structure of nearly 50 metres in north-south orientation, which lasted a short duration only, as only four of the fifty pillar bases exposed during excavations belong to this level. Above this was erected a massive structure with at least three structural phases. However, materials of the previous structure, with stencil-cut foliage pattern and other decorative motifs were reused in the new construction which had a huge pillared hall (perhaps even two halls). This structure differs from residential structures and shows adequate evidence of being a building of public usage, which survived between the twelfth to sixteenth century AD.

Readers may be interested to know that on the basis of this finding, some scholars now surmise that a Hindu temple may have been destroyed by invading iconoclasts around the eleventh century, and a mosque erected. This mosque may in turn have been pulled down by the Gahadvala kings in the twelfth century, and replaced with a massive temple that Mir Baqi later razed to build the Babri Masjid. While it is premature to comment on this theory, it could explain the insistence of Muslim historians that the Babri mosque was erected over a previously extant mosque, rather than a Hindu temple.

Anyway, it was over this massive sixteenth century structure that the Babri Masjid was built. The original structure had a minimum dimension of 50 x 30 metres in north-south and east-west directions respectively. The recent excavations have exposed nearly 50 pillar bases with brickbat foundation below calcrete blocks topped by sandstone blocks. The pillar bases found in the northern and southern areas also indicate the length of a massive wall of the previous construction, which may have been originally around 60 metres. What is more, the center of the central chamber of the disputed structure falls just over the central point of the length of this massive wall, but this could not be excavated owing to the presence of Ram Lalla’s make-shift temple. Terracotta lamps of this period have been found.

The last phase reveals glazed ware sherds, which continue in the succeeding levels of the next periods, along with glazed tiles, probably used in the original construction of the disputed structure. Celadon and porcelain sherds have been found in small quantity, and animal bones recovered from various levels of different periods. Skeletal remains correspond to the late and post-Mughal level. The ASI has thus concluded that the area below the disputed site was in public use for centuries till the Mughal period, when the disputed structure was built. Thereafter, population settled around it, as evidenced by the increase in contemporary archaeological materials, including pottery.

Thus, there is credible evidence that a temple/structure was demolished and a mosque built. Other findings include stone and decorated bricks, a mutilated sculpture of a divine couple, carved architectural members including foliage patterns, amalaka, kapolapali, doorjamb with semi-circular pilaster, broken octagonal shaft of black schist pillar, lotus motif, circular shrine having pranala (water-chute) in the north, fifty pillar bases, all of which are distinctive features of north Indian temples.

Naturally, mandir votaries feel the historical evidence supports their claim to the site. While the court is yet to decide the title suit, it is instructive to recall that the original plaint filed in the British period demanded return of a site illegitimately seized by medieval invaders.

The Pioneer, 9 September 2003

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