Recently famed archaeologist KK Muhammed stated in his autobiography ‘Njan Bharatiyan’ that leftist historians and a section of media inflated the Ayodhya issue, ignoring chances of settling the matter in an amicable way. Muhammed was among the members from Delhi School of Archaeology who joined the excavation team of Ayodhya headed by Prof VB Lal.
Sandipan Deb, Editorial Director of Swarajya magazine, entered the heavily guarded Ayodhya excavation site in May 2003, and wrote about what he saw there in Outlook magazine, of which he was then the Managing Editor. Republished with permission.
‘ 245.’ ‘ 175.’ ‘ 160.’ Numbers are the only words being spoken on a pitilessly hot afternoon here. Here, the flat top of a low hillock, the epicentre of a political earthquake whose aftershocks never die, whose waves never peter out.
Dozens of people work quietly with picks and shovels, whisks and dustpans, probing into the earth for the secrets it has concealed for centuries, secrets that, when uncovered and understood, could impact the lives and minds of a billion Indians.
But when you look at the workers’ nonchalant faces, periodically calling out some measurements, you get no such sense. They are just doing their job.
Ayodhya, May 2003. For more than two months now, following the order of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court on 5 March, the Archaeological Survey of India team led by Dr B.R. Mani (ordered by the court to be replaced on 22 May) has been excavating the land on which the Babri Masjid had stood from AD 1528 till 6 December, 1992.
The roughly 41 m by 24 m area is now a grid of 4 m by 4 m trenches, each trench separated from the adjacent one by 1 m strips forming what archaeologists call “baulks”. Aluminium ladders extend into the trenches. Every find in every trench is photographed, the recovery, the packing and sealing process videographed meticulously.
Entry into the excavation site is seriously restricted. The security is almost impossible to breach. Apart from the ASI team, only observers appointed by the court and nominees of the litigants in the various cases relating to the Ram Janmabhoomi issue are allowed in. All the permitted visitors have to carry passes issued by the Allahabad High Court. They enter through a gate separate from the one used by the pilgrims, the darshanarthis of Ram Lalla.
The pilgrims reach the makeshift structure where Ram Lalla sits through a long cage-like corridor that winds through the excavation site. Not only does the pilgrim have any way to enter the excavation site—he would have to cut through the steel rods of the cage walls to do that—he cannot even see what’s going on outside his cage.
To keep the excavation totally concealed from the public eye, the walls of the cage have been covered from roof to ground with dark-red curtains. And there are policemen patrolling the cage to make sure no one is peeping.
Every evening, shortly after six, when the excavation work stops, an ASI official comes to a small enclosure to read out a list of the finds of the day to the official observers. The observers spend their day in this enclosure, cooled by the blast from an air cooler and heated by their constant arguments about the meaning and significance of whatever has been gleaned from the earth recently. They are shown the smaller artefacts recovered that day, but no one is allowed to touch anything. Sometimes, when they have interesting photographic evidence, the ASI brings in a screen and projects pictures on it.
The picture they showed on 8 May is the most crucial and exciting find till now. When the ASI flashed the picture on the screen, a shiver ran down the spines of the pro-mandir men in the room. This picture, they feel, is clinching proof of the existence of a Ram temple which Babar destroyed to build his mosque:
We have found the pillars of the Ram temple, now we have found the Lord’s name. Our case is impregnable.
What they saw is an immensely blown-up version of some inscriptions the ASI has found on a stone slab 6.8 m under the ground. Since just a small part of the slab is protruding from the wall of trench J3, the diggers will not be able to retrieve the slab without obliterating the baulk between J3 and the next trench. This will take time. In the meantime, they have photographed whatever they can see of the slab. What they can see is early Devanagari script:
The pro-mandir men immediately saw the fourth letter as the Hindu sacred sign swoaham, followed by the word “Ram”.What more proof do you need, they ask. Non-VHP observers see no swoaham there, neither do they make out Ram spelt out in the next two letters. But all agree that this slab, when fully unearthed and deciphered, could be an extremely crucial piece in the jigsaw that the excavation is trying to put together.
But the puzzle is vast, and its pieces seemingly endless. The ASI has selected J3 as the test trench and intends to continue digging there till they reach virgin soil. When I was at the site, they were already more than 10 m under the earth in J3 and were still finding man-made artefacts, even after crossing as many as 12 chronological layers. In the other trenches, the deepest the ASI has dug till now is about 5 m. Among the artefacts found:
- A coin from the time of Akbar made at a mint in Bahraich
- Glazed pottery
- A copper seal showing a palm tree and a peacock
- Many decorated stone pieces
- A glass piece with what looks like “dhatri” written on it, the Sanskrit word meaning earth or mother
- Dozens of terracotta pieces, including human and animal figurines, pestles, vessels, balls, fishing net sinkers, seals, beads and so on
- Broken wheels
- Bone engravers
From the seemingly endless list of articles found, it is quite clear that this site has been inhabited for many centuries. It seems certain that Babar did not construct his mosque on open land. Just on one single day, 16 May, the ASI recovered part of a terracotta (TC) animal figurine, a TC ball, a broken TC wheel, two TC betelnut-sized beads, a broken TC pestle, two bone engravers, two TC tiles, several broken TC bricks, a TC seal, a carved stone fragment, two iron nails, and 11 clusters of human or animal bones.
These, at depths ranging from a mere 30 cm below ground level in the extended G1 trench (TC tile) to 10.25 m in J3 (TC ball). Prima facie, glazed pottery indicates Muslim inhabitation. However, pro-mandir observers argue that while Muslims brought the art of glazed pottery to India, there is no reason why Hindus would also not have used such items. They also say that terracotta human and animal figurines seem to indicate Hindu habitation, since representation of living beings was forbidden by Islam.
The Many Layers of Truth
While the ASI dates, analyses and interprets the artefacts, the two sides in the mandir-masjid dispute have already locked themselves into seemingly irreconcilable positions on the structures that have been unearthed so far. For example, to the archaeologically uninitiated pro-mandir layman, the discovery of dozens of “pillar bases” all over the site is blinding proof of the existence of a magnificent temple here. But the other side scoffs at these claims.
These “pillar bases” are roughly squarish structures (about 3 ft by 3 ft to my eye) made of rough bricks that have been found all over the excavation area. They are separated from each other by about 3.5 m, and appear to be aligned in rows, at least to the naked eye. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has long contended that Babar destroyed a majestic Ram temple called Ramkot or Ram’s Fortress which had 84 pillars of kasauti stone. So right now at Ayodhya, VHP observers are walking around smiling “I told you so” smiles.
To them, the “pillar bases” indicate the existence of a vast public building, since households would not have such pillars. And, says a VHP observer, “It could hardly have been a mosque. No one would build a smaller mosque on the site of a huge one. And as for this place being inhabited by Muslims even before Babar reached, the fact is that 98 percent of what the ASI has found till now is clearly Hindu in origin. At most, two per cent can be classified as Muslim.”
But, but, but. “Pillar bases” were first discovered here by B.B. Lal, former director-general of the ASI, in 1975 as part of a project on the archaeology of the “Ramayana sites”. He published his findings (with photographs) 15 years later in the rss magazine Manthan. This gave an enormous boost to the mandir cause.
However, in 1993, archaeologist D. Mandal published a paper that questioned Lal’s conclusions, and using archaeological theory, concluded that, one, the “pillar bases” belonged to different periods, that is, all of them had never existed together at any point of time; two, that they were not really in alignment with one another; and three, that they were not even pillar bases, but junctions of walls, bases of the load-bearing columns at the intersections of walls.
As far as I know, the issue has never been resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. But then, can any issue related to the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute ever be? Right under the Ram Chabutara, which was demolished by the indiscriminate zeal of the mob on 6 December, 1992, the ASI has uncovered a 21 ft by 17 ft floor of plastered stone, about 2 m below the ground. From the floor rises a 4.75 ft by 4.75 ft stone slab, 3.5 ft high. Cleaned up now by the ASI, the structure glows a calm pristine white under the blazing afternoon sun.
From the floor, there seem to be stairs leading downwards. This is further firepower for the VHP. But, writing in the newspaper Hindustan on 16 May , historian Irfan Habib argues that if the structure is made of plastered stone, it cannot pre-date the Muslim era, since plastering was something the Muslims brought to India. Habib fears that the ASI, whose minister-in-charge is Murli Manohar Joshi, one of the principal accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, will end up filing a heavily mandir-biased report.
Habib, who has read the progress report submitted by the ASI to the Allahabad High Court on 28 April, feels that the available evidence strongly suggests that there was no huge public building but a common human settlement with hardly the engineering skills to build that famous magnificent temple. He points to the “poor construction” of the “pillar bases” and says that they could not have borne those fabulous kasauti columns.
At the most, they would be able to carry some wooden beams like the ones used to build today’s roadside shops and homes of the very poor, he says. Of course, the VHP shrugs these conclusions off. “Can Habib saab then explain why the pillar bases are all in neat rows and separated from one another by the same distance, about 3.5 m?” they ask. “Besides, if it was a normal human habitation, the ASI team should have by now found some remnants of a hearth or chullah, or a wheat grinder, the usual indications that the structure was a household. ”
The trouble seems to be that everyone concerned has turned amateur archaeologist, while the archaeologists themselves will need months to reach any conclusions about the meaning of the excavation’s findings.
And the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy is hardly going to be resolved soon. So emotional is the issue, and so firm all the disputants on either side in their convictions, that any compromise, even any meaningful negotiation where either side patiently hears out the other’s argument, seems impossible.
The ASI discovered two graves early in its excavation work. The anti-mandir lobby claimed this as conclusive proof that the area was inhabited by Muslims before the mosque was built. The pro-mandir lobby has now produced the report of a survey ordered by the Faizabad Civil Court in 1950 in the .
The report lists several graves on the site, where local Hindu priests believe some Hindu sants are buried: Angira, Markendya, Narad, Ramananda, Shandilya and so on. Recently, one evening, when the ASI official was reading out the list of the day’s finds, the nominee of one litigant objected to the ASI saying “terracotta human figurine”.”To say ‘human’ is to interpret the artefact, which is not your job,” was the objection. “You should only say ‘figurine’.”
If this sounds like farce, think a moment about the three skeletons found by the ASI on 16 May near where the main gate of the Babri Masjid complex, the Singh Dwar, had stood. The skeletons were found at 20 cm, 30 cm and 56 cm below the ground. One of them was in a slightly curled-up position, and two of them were touching.
Clearly, these were not graves. Who were these unfortunate people then, lying just eight inches under our feet? A very plausible explanation: they were kar sevaks involved in the 6 December demolition. When the Singh Dwar was brought down, they were buried under the rubble.
Martyrdom or irony? Like almost everything else about the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, it all depends on which side you are on.