Both scientific ways and traditional knowledge can be useful to know the past, like in Ayodhya
Ayodhya has been the most dominant issue in India’s politics for the past 30 years. It has decided the fate of successive governments.
If we speak in terms of UNESCO’s cultural definitions, Ayodhya comes under the purview of ‘cultural property’, ‘sacred site’ and ‘site of significance’.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica: “Ayodhya (Ajodhya), an ancient city of India on the Gogra river near Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, is one of the seven sacred Hindu shrines…it was the magnificent capital of Dasharatha, king of Kosala and father of Rama, the eponymous hero of Ramayana. The temple marking the site of Rama’s birth was converted by the Mogul emperor Babur into a mosque, although the Hanumangarh and Kanak Bhawan temples are still in use by Ramaite Vaishnavas…”
The Avadh Gazeteer, The Gazeteer of Faizabad district, a large number of British, French and Portuguese sources also mention the destruction of the temple in Ayodhya. Even Mughal/Muslim sources, including the granddaughter of Aurangzeb, Mirza Jan, Shaikh Muhammad Ajmat Ali Kakorawi Nami and Mirza Rajab Ali Beg Surur highlighted this fact.
The importance of Ayodhya in Hindu life can be understood by the huge mass of literary, archaeological, and inscriptional evidence that testify a very remote antiquity and the legend of Rama. For instance, in Brahmand Purana (IV.40.91), Ayodhya is mentioned as one of the seven cities, which are holy and the bestower of moksha.
Various historical sources show that Hindus never relinquished their claim on Ram Janmabhoomi. Mughal emperor Akbar, recognising the claims of Hindus, allowed the construction of a ‘chabutara’ in the courtyard of the mosque as a symbol of the birth place of Lord Rama. He also allowed Hindus to worship right in the courtyard of the mosque.
Sites of significance form part of the cultural landscape everywhere in the world — whether through human ascription to it of mythological creation, or through physical actions by the humans themselves. All communities recognise some historical physical landscapes as very special.
Sometimes they are made visible by human activities like building monuments or structures and sometimes they remain invisible. Also, we must recognise that archaeology and visible records are not the only means of knowing such sites, places and spaces. The local traditions and people’s beliefs and practices are equally if not even more important in such matters.
To say that a specific place is sacred is not simply to locate it physically in the landscape. What is known as a sacred site carries with it a whole range of rules and regulations regarding people’s behaviour in relation to it, and implies a set of beliefs that include the non-empirical world, the spirits of the ancestors, remote or powerful gods. The question of ownership of sacred sites arises in the context of intrusion by other people or individuals. The loss of a piece of land is perceived not only as a material loss, but as a spiritual deprivation.
There are different ways of knowing about sacred places and archaeological sites. Some of the ways are scientific and some are spiritual. One way of knowing does not negate the validity of another.
It is essential that scientific knowledge and influence are accepted, but at the same time the legitimacy of traditional, indigenous ways of knowing must also be recognised.
The argument that archaeology is the only legitimate ‘scientific’ way of knowing the past needs a relook. A narrow, parochial approach to the past which simply assumes that a linear chronology based on a ‘verifiable’ set of ‘meaningful’ ‘absolute’ dates is the only way to comprehend the past completely ignores the complexity of many literate and non-literate ‘civilisations’ and cultures.
In the context of the Ayodhya controversy, many have been arguing that the scientific and economic developments must take the precedence over all other things, including culture and religion. However, it must be remembered that the notion that a world culture can be created simply through improvement in technology and universal education in the science has lost much of its credibility in the past few years.
Science may advance, but we all move ahead through the past of our own cultures, and it is this accumulation of ideas and experience, transmitted through education and sheer daily living that gives our thoughts, meaning and our actions — pattern and purpose. Science may forget its own history, but a society cannot.
Prof. Makkhan Lal is Founder Director of Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management and currently Distinguished Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation