On a cold winter evening in 1976, I reached Ayodhya along with 10 others from the School of Archaeology to participate in an excavation led by legendary archaeologist Professor B B Lal.
Earlier, I had once seen him from a distance in the Janpath office of the Archaeological Survey of India, when he came to attend a meeting from the Institute of Advanced Studies Centre, Shimla.
Then, the School of Archaeology was functioning from one of the rooms of ASI, Janpath. He was surrounded by a host of scholars and archaeologists.
I could not muster the courage to meet him as there was none to introduce me. When he was the Director General, ASI, I was told, the whole organisation was very vibrant with scholars from different parts of the country participating in discussions on various archaeological subjects.
Young and smart, he walked tall amidst a pantheon of veteran archaeologists. Although he left ASI in 1976, his presence lingered in the precincts of the campus.
It was unimaginable that we would soon be a part of this campus when Dr B Narasimhayya and A K Mishra said that our excavation training would be at Ayodhya under the supervision of Prof Lal. I was overjoyed at the thought of being his student.
At Ayodhya, we were accommodated in an inn right in front of the Janamsthan/Babri Masjid. The next day, Prof Lal came along with Kusum Lal to our camp site for the initial meeting and briefing.
When my turn came, I introduced myself as K K Muhammed. He asked me the full form of K K. Full form of K K in Malayalam would be the last thing I would like to divulge in front of a north Indian group. The strange-sounding Malayalam words would be used by my fellow north Indian members to tease me.
Even otherwise Achuthanandan Jha and A K Pandey used to say that south Indian languages were produced from the drum of Lord Shiva. The only person sympathetic to me in this case was Jayasree Ram Nathan from Tamil Nadu, as her language, Tamil, is the mother of the ‘drum family’.
Sensing my reservation, Kusum Lal in an attempt to save me from the embarrassment changed the subject by enquiring about my specialisation in MA. I was relieved and thanked all the gods.
Our excavation grounds, both Janamsthan/Babri Masjid and Hanuman Ghadi, temples were full of pious tilak sporting pilgrims, and the premises always was abuzz with bhajans and kirtans. The continuous ringing of the temple bells further added a spiritual aura to both the places. I was fascinated by the thronging multitude and their devotion.
Many humble devotees came from the far off parts of India for a glimpse of Ram Lalla. I was drawn to them as I had developed a sympathetic chord in my heart for the devotees. The next day, I reached the excavation ground marking my forehead with a tilak which caused a stir among my friends and labourers working at the site.
Would a Muslim show courage to sport a tilak like this? I found nothing unusual in it. Prof Lal saw my tilak, exuded a mild smile but did not comment. But after 24 years when he came to Patna, where I was serving as superintending archaeologist, he recalled it appreciatively, and shared this incident with Prof B P Sinha and few other scholars who had gathered.
After I got a job in Aligarh Muslim University, whenever he visited the university, I used to meet him to pay my respects. He also came to Fatehpur Sikri to see the excavation which was in progress and asked many questions.
The excavation of ibadat khana and a Christian church at Fatehpur Sikri, finally helped me to get the post of deputy superintendent archaeologist in ASI.
My first posting was in Madras (Chennai). In 1990, the Marxist historians unleashed a frontal attack on Ayodhya excavation in general and Prof Lal in particular. They also contended that no remains of the temple below the Babri Masjid had been exposed in the excavation.
None of them had the domain competency to speak on archaeology as they were historians who did not understand the techniques and intricacies of archaeological excavations. Nor had any of them visited the site and seen the excavation. But still, they had the audacity to question a reputed archaeologist due to their connection with certain reporters of the English press.
Since archaeologists were generally introverts, averse to speaking to the press, they were always at the receiving end and never considered as public intellectuals. Moreover, speaking to the press without prior permission is against the rules.
All these factors generally stopped an archaeologist from speaking to the press and defend his turf. But I took a calculated risk and spoke to the press, unmindful of the consequences. The risk involved was double in my case, as I was yet to receive the ‘probation completion certificate’ from the ASI headquarters.
During the probation period, anybody could be dismissed from the government service without even serving a showcause notice. I could not have expected any help from the then government in power.
Chandra Shekhar, the then prime minister, made concerted efforts to solve the problem but the deliberate attempt of the Marxist historians made it an ever-festering wound.
In my letter to the Indian Express, dated 15 December 1990, I said that the remains of a temple below the mosque has been exposed, and recorded during the excavation. The temple pillars were also reused for the construction of the controversial mosque.
I further argued that Ayodhya is as holy for Hindus as Mecca and Madina are for Muslims. Muslims should set an example by voluntarily handing over the structure to Hindus. In order to give no room for doubts, I had made it clear that I was the only Muslim, who had participated in the excavation. Soon all hell broke loose.
The revelation from an archaeologist and that too a Muslim was music to the ears of one group. But the other faction, headed by Aligarh Marxists, was baying for my blood and pressing for action against me.
In 1999, Prof Lal came to Patna, where I was serving as superintending archaeologist. He was living with Prof B P Sinha. I wanted Prof Lal along with Kusum Lal to spend a day with me at the ASI guesthouse. Where ever I was posted, I took special interest in setting up well-furnished guesthouses and earned the sobriquet ‘guesthouse man’.
After a full day of fieldwork in the scorching heat these guesthouses were like oasis in the deserts. Prof Lal readily obliged. The next day Kusum Lal told me, the stay at the Patna ASI guesthouse known as ‘Grams House’ was an experience and a walk down memory lane, as she had spent few years as a child in the very building along with her parents.
Prof Lal appreciated the work of the excavation at Rajgir stupa and quizzed how I could identify this stupa site, which was located on the Rajgir-Bodh Gaya Road and had gone unnoticed by early explorers.
I explained that what necessitated a meticulous exploration of the area was a proposal by the then railway minister Nitish Kumar to lay rail tracks connecting Nalanda, Rajgir and Bodh Gaya. It was this urgency and submission of a field study report which necessitated a careful exploration.
But as they realised the importance of the stupa, the Ministry of Railways shifted the railway track and alignment.
In 2009, when I was posted in Delhi, I approached Prof Lal to know his reaction about re-excavating Purana Qila, the ancient Indraprastha, which he had excavated in 1954-55, and again in 1969-1973.
Here, my proposal was to re-excavate the site, firm up the section of the excavated trenches, fix the replicas of the antiquities recovered from the site into the firmed up section, cover up the entire area under an air-conditioned, transparent roof.
Here, a scholar guide would take the tourists for a journey through various layers of the excavation, such as PGW, Maurya, Sunga, Kushan, Rajput, Sultanate and Mughal. The journey would be enjoyable and exciting as it would give the tourist an experiential experience of an excavated site. Something like a ‘history oceanarium’ which he has never been able to experience.
Such a walk through historical layers of a dim and distant past will change tourist’s perceptions about archaeology and ancient civilisation, as it is a life enriching journey through the corridors of history.
With the help of modern technology, digital cultural heritage (DCH), 3D graphic technology, augmented reality systems (ARS) and computer simulations, it would take them back to a period when life was lived on a grand and glittering scale.
Since the tour leader is a scholar, he would be able to take the tourists to the lanes and bylanes of an enchanted historical journey to make it an intellectually-stimulating experience.
Apart from this, another idea was to have an ‘interpretation centre’ where a museum of ‘eureka moments of Indian history’ was to be showcased. It included the details and location of sites that finally culminated in the discovery of Indus Valley and how Sir John Marshal might have felt when he declared to the world that the antiquity of Indus Valley sites goes back to 2500 CEC, competing with Mesopotamian sites Ur and Lagash.
How thrilled Christian Lassen and James Princep might have been when they could decipher Brahmi, the forgotten language of Emperor Asoka. Could Alexander Cunningham sleep when he located Sankisa, the Buddhist site on the basis of the travelogue written by Fahien? How ebullient Prof Lal might have felt when he could correlate the flood scars of Hastinapur with the flood of Mahabharata mentioned in Vayupurana?
These and similar other eureka moments of Indian archaeology needs to be showcased and properly presented to the public. Such an ‘interpretation centre’ is capable of awakening the dormant kundalini of the country. Prof Lal appreciated and welcomed it.
Many in the ASI, like Dr Poonacha and Dr Janwich Sharma termed it as a brilliant idea. The director general, K N Srivastav, IAS, who was always in search of creative and out-of-the-box ideas, fully supported it. But, Dr Shireen Moosavi, from AMU, a member of the Central Advisory Board, opposed it tooth and nail, as she learnt that I was director of the excavation.
Anything associated with me was like red rag for them. Marxist group especially, Aligarh Marxists were always against archaeology. Archaeology has the potentiality to spring many surprises and can come out with something original and outstanding. Hence the communist historians of Aligarh shudder at the prospect of giving a free hand to ASI.
If the project had moved ahead, the ancient Indraprastha would have been one of the most original vibrant cultural centres of Delhi.
From 2004-2008, I had conserved a number of temples at Chambal Valley with the cooperation of Chambal dacoits. When the dacoits were shot dead, the mining mafia moved in with alacrity and started rampant mining, causing severe damage to the conserved temples.
As my attempt to get mining stopped fell on deaf ears, I had to resort to an extraordinary measure of writing a letter to Late K S Sudarshan, who was the then Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS) chief. Of course, this letter was also against the rules of a government servant. But there was no other way to get the mining stopped, as politicians of all hues were involved in it. The letter yielded the desired results and mining was stopped, after fierce exchange of gunshots between police and mining mafia.
Ambika Soni, the central minister for tourism and culture wrote to Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, to provide help and support to ASI from the mining mafia. The Chief Minister in his reply to Ambika Soni, while assuring all the help to ASI, obliquely suggested taking action against me for my letter to RSS chief.
My daughter Shaheen Muhammed made a documentary about it and posted it on YouTube which got rave reviews. I requested Prof Lal to watch it, as I had started my career in archaeology at his feet. He was kind enough to watch it and was visibly impressed.
One day I received a phone call from him and said he liked the conservation work at Bateshwar very much. He added that he has already written a letter to the Union Minister of Tourism and Culture, recommending my name for a suitable award. He further elaborated that he does not know how the ministry would react to it, but that he would send me a copy of it.
I profusely thanked him and said that “irrespective of the fact whether the government acts on it or not, for me, your recommendation is the biggest certificate”.
When Padmashri Award was announced in 2019, I thanked him for his blessings and shaping my future.
On the day the hearing of Ayodhya was in progress in the Supreme Court in 2019, I knew that the Aligarh group headed by Prof Irfan Habib would come out with some press statements in English newspapers, with ulterior motives.
Having lived and fought with this group throughout my career at Aligarh, I knew their modus operandi. But before they could do anything, I could get published in Times of India some unknown facets of the excavation, initially carried out by Prof Lal and then extensively by Dr B R Mani.
Dr Mani and fellow excavators were under instructions from the courts not to divulge any details. The Marxists tried to paint the report submitted to the court through a communal angle by highlighting the name of Dr Buddha Rashmi Mani. But my argument that four expert archaeologists, who were the co-authors of the said report were Muslims, took the wind out of the sail of Marxists.
The names and designations of these Muslim archaeologists as given in the newspaper were not simply a punch but a knockout blow for the Aligarh Marxists. The article created a flutter among a wide spectrum of intellectuals and Muslim liberals. Sensing that the old communal cards are not serving their nefarious ends as they used to do once, they resorted to a new tactic to prove that I was not part of the excavation under Prof Lal.
Unbelievable as it may sound, that this version was first published in a Malayalam newspaper Madhyaam, associated with Jamat-I-Islami and later by Times of India. Journalistic ethics demanded that Times of India should have sought my reaction before publishing such an allegation as it affected my integrity.
But this deep-seated conspiracy proved to be an ill-advised misadventure for them. I immediately contacted Prof Lal who was in America requesting him to set the record straight by sending an email to Shakthi Shekhar who had initially reported my case in Times of India.
After hearing from Prof Lal that I was very much in the Ayodhya excavation in his team, Shekhar contacted few more scholars who had participated in the Ayodhya excavation, like Rajnath Kauw, Ashok Kumar Pandey and Dr Ramakant Chathurvedi etc, who further confirmed my presence in the team.
Although Shekhar contacted Jayaram Ramesh, the former cabinet minister in the Congress government to get the comment from Jayashree Jaya Ram, a member of our team, he was informed that Jayashri passed away few months back. Times of India published this well-researched rebuttal also exposing the Marxist historians of Aligarh.
In Madhyamam paper, Dr Irfan Habib went to the extent of saying that I had no association with Ayodhya at all, what to talk of the excavation. But no other newspaper in Malayalam, including communist party paper, carried this fake news, as they knew it as a tissue of white lies. But the timely intervention of Prof Lal alone saved me from a lifetime embarrassment that raised many questions about my integrity.
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