The report of the Archaeological Survey of India on Ayodhya excavation, which confirms the existence of a temple-like structure at the site of Babri Masjid, is likely to play a determining role in the Supreme Court’s verdict in the days to come.
The Supreme Court has said that the 2003 ASI report will be recognised as scientific evidence, even though it dismissed the Historians’ Report of 1991 (that rules out the possibility of any Ram Mandir) as merely the opinion of a few politically charged historians.
This legal reading of history as opinion and archaeology as science to discover the final truth about the birthplace of Ram is interesting. After all, archaeological findings are subject to multiple interpretations too, like in the case of Ayodhya.
Archaeologists excavated Ayodhya on a number of occasions – not to search the exact location of Ram’s birthplace, but to practice what they call tradition-based archaeology. (Suraj Bhan, ‘Recent Trends in Indian Archaeology’, Social Scientist, Vol. 25 No. 1 & 2, January-February 1997)
Three positions on archaeology
Indian archaeologists have undertaken an enduring search for the historicity of the Ramayana and Mahabharata after Independence.
Although ‘scientific archaeology’ was the main thrust of the ASI’s excavations in the 1950s, there were three different positions on it. A section of archaeologists such A. Ghosh was in favour of tradition-based archaeology to extract ‘pure secular facts’ about the past. In contrast, there were archaeologists like B.B. Lal (he conducted the Hastinapur excavations in 1950) who wanted to examine Hindu epics as reliable sources to offer a scientific perspective to them.
Senior archaeologist H. D. Sankalia, however, was not satisfied with these essentialist positions. He maintained that traditions and beliefs should not be underestimated for archaeological explorations, but that the purpose of archaeology was not to validate or reject any tradition or belief. Instead, he wrote, archaeological excavations must be conducted with an open mind to discover the unknown facets of the past. (H.D. Sankalia, ‘Ayodhyā of the Rāmāyaṇa in a Historical Perspective’, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 58/59, Diamond Jubilee Volume (1977-1978), Pages: 893-919)
Sankalia & Lal: Two archaeologists on Ayodhya
Sankalia uses this interpretative framework to trace the historicity of Ayodhya. In a long essay published in 1977 – ‘Ayodhyā of the Rāmāyaṇa in a Historical Perspective’ –Sankalia extracts the descriptions of places, buildings and sites given in the Ramayana to reconstruct a picture of the city on the basis of available archaeological information.
Sankalia’s two crucial inferences are very relevant to the current debate on the Ram Mandir. The first is the idea of a public temple. Examining the practice of worship in Ramayana, Sankalia notes: “Neither Dasaratha nor Rãma nor anybody else goes to any public place of worship, such as a temple, when it is decided to coronate Rãma. This might suggest that no public temple had come into existence at that time, or that whatever was done, was done within the four walls of the King’s palace.” (Page 913)
The residence of Ram is the second interesting aspect of Sankalia’s archaeological reading of Ramayana. He introduces us to the urban formation of Ayodhya as described in Ramayana. According to him, “all the three queens of Dasaratha and Rãma lived in separate houses. Rama’s residence particularly was not near, adjoining to that of Dasaratha, but at some distance, so that when he was called by Dasaratha, a chariot had to be sent for him.” (Page 914).
These text-based inferences are compared with archaeological data. Sankalia substantiates his reading of Ramayana and argues: “As far as the structural history of temples is concerned, there were no temples with tall shikharas before the 6th century A.D. And even these shikhara might be compared with Kailãsa as far as the conical nature of their structure is concerned, but not in height.” (Page 915). Sankalia concludes that Ramayana may have been written in a later period.
These inferences can be interpreted in two ways. First, a temple with a deity is a post-Ramayana development; and second, there was no tradition of marking the exact birthplace of important personalities, including Ram’s. Now, the question arises: how could we use archaeology as science when the main source — Ramayana — does not pin down the exact location of Ram’s birthplace?
On the other hand, B.B. Lal, who came to be regarded as the pro-Hindutva archaeologist in the 1990s, did not show any interest in determining the birthplace of Lord Ram in Ayodhya in the 1970s. In fact, in an article published in 1975 (B.B. Lal, ‘In Search of India’s Traditional Past: Light from the Excavations at Hastinapura and Ayodhya’, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4 (October 1975), Pages 311-314), he subscribes to the argument that Sankalia later makes in his essay too, that the Ramayana story does not match with the available archaeological data.
However, in his later writings, the search for a temple beneath the mosque became B. B. Lal’s primary consideration. He began to focus on the disputed site of Babri Masjid and the adjacent areas. On the basis of his excavations, Lal produced a ‘pillar-base theory’. He claimed to identify pillars of a temples, which would have been used to provide a material foundation to the Babri Masjid.
Interestingly, Lal’s findings were not published in any professional academic journal. Lal wrote about them in an article published in the BJP-affiliated magazine Manthan in 1990, exactly around the time the BJP had transformed the Ram Mandir movement into a national issue. (B.B. Lal, ‘Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites Project’, Manthan, October 1990, Pages 9-21)
Archaeology of conflict
B.B. Lal’s pillar-base theory was later recognised as an interpretive framework for the court-appointed ASI excavation team in 2002. (‘Was There a Temple under the Babri Masjid? Reading the Archaeological ‘Evidence’’, Economic & Political Weekly)
This might be the reason why the archaeological materials, which went against the temple theory, were completely ignored in the 2003 report. For instance, there is no mention of the few graves and the human skeletons found in the excavation, which point towards the existence of an old graveyard.
Ayodhya archaeology eventually became an archaeology of conflict – not only between the temple and the mosque but also between excavation and conservation of existing built heritage. It created an impression that the purpose of nationalist archaeology was simply to dig deep to find out the true and authentic Hindu past and any talk of the conservation of non-Hindu monuments and sites was portrayed as an intellectual betrayal.
Professional archaeology, H.D. Sankalia reminds us, is always concerned about the future’s past. It suggests that our understanding of the past is momentary; therefore, we must not make it rigid and fixed. It is not possible now to search for the archaeological universe in which the story of Ram was conceptualised — primarily because everything related to this tragic protagonist has been converted into a subject of rigid faith.
There should certainly be room to pursue ‘tradition-based archaeology’ in India. But Indian archaeologists must have an intellectually honest discussion about how the Ayodhya excavations and findings panned out and got politicised.
The author is a Fellow at the Nantes Institute of Advanced Studies, France (2019-2020) and Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.