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The tale of two Ayodhya archaeologists who changed the way we dig up India’s Hindu history

Archaeologists excavated Ayodhya on a number of occasions, not to search exact location of Ram’s birth place, but to practice tradition-based archaeology.

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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)

In the tale of how two archaeologists approached Ayodhya lies not only the fate of the present Supreme Court case but also the future of many similar missions in India – from Dwarka to Kurukshetra.

Also read: There are 3 claims to Ayodhya — law, memory & faith. It’s not a simple Hindu-Muslim dispute

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)

Also read: What the last imam of Babri Masjid told me a few months before the demolition

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.

Also read: From Jai Siya Ram to Jai Shri Ram: How Ayodhya erased Sita

The author is a Fellow at the Nantes Institute of Advanced Studies, France (2019-2020) and Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. If there were no temples in ancient India and the idea of temples with murtis was not practiced at that time, how did Sita go to the Parvati temple before her wedding and pray for the welfare of her husband?


  3. Shfting goalposts and red herrings! The question was whether a temple existed under the Babri structure , and not the coordinates of the exact birthplace of Lord Ram!
    Can anyone of us, including Mr Hilal Ahmed or any of the legion of eminent historians, pinpoint the exact spot where his grandfather was born? Ridiculous standards of proof are being sought !
    Reminds one of an article by the late Mr H D Sankalia on the Dwaraka excavations where he stated that no personal artefact said to be associated with Lord Krishna was found !!

  4. The question is not where is the birthplace of Ram, and temple constructed during the lifetime of Ram. But whether the Masjid was constructed by demolishing some temple, which might have been there at the place . And almost all archaeological evidence agree that there was a temple under the debris of Masjid. So don’t confuse the main point by raising the controversy of exact birthplace.

  5. The ASI report contains omissions and fabrications. Proper archeological excavation principles were ignored. The excavation was conducted with a preconceived notion. In fact, the evidence suggests that there was a smaller masjid below the larger Babri Masjid.

    Why doesn’t the India government demolish the nearly 5000 temples that were build over destroyed Gurudwaras during the medieval times?

    Interestingly enough, two of the kar sevaks(Mohammed Aamir previously Balbir Singh and Mohammed Umar previously Yogendra Pal) who first climbed the domes of Babri Masjid and struck the first blows, embraced Islam. What “barbaric Muslim invader” forced them to revert? Much of their families also reverted.

  6. Article seems biased. Didn’t expect this kind of stuff from Hilal Ahmed. I think even people on the left agree that the historians have done a terrible job. You just have to read their testimony in high court vs what they say publicly. Their academic integrity is highly questionable and if we were a more developed country, they would have been fired long ago. The ASI investigation was done to figure whether there was a temple or no. Finding out whether it was the birthplace would be next to impossible. Also there could be samadhis in some cases near temples for some honored Gurus or respected people. We also don’t know everything that happened between destruction/reconstruction, etc. The main problem with the narrative is that anyone with the slightest interest in the Hindu religion would be dubbed as belonging to Hindutva. I hate that Hindutva has been made into a pejorative term by constant propaganda. If they want to refer to BJP/RSS, they should just call them out. This coupled with all the double standards adopted in reporting the communal conflicts is pushing more people to the right. I don’t see how this would help the liberal agenda at all. It does seem to influence the perspective of the west but that too will fall apart if someone presents a rigorous analysis of the media coverage.

    I wonder how things would have played if a similar situation happened in any other country. I don’t care for the BJP but experience deep pain when I see the Gyanvapi mosque especially. Is it too much to ask the muslims and the left to empathize with this pain? I have a tough time understanding why muslims think this is so important as their theology seems to indicate that mosques can be shifted.

  7. “…the human skeletons found in the excavation…” The Sthula Sharira were that of brave Hindu priests of Ayodhya temple, who refused to convert to islam and were butchered by the barbaric islamic army. Hilal, why do you always end up with banal conclusions?

  8. Preislamic arabs used to worship the Kabba stone as a fertility stone. They used to go around it naked and women used to touch that stone with their menstrual blood, praying for a child. As an Arab, I demand immediate excavation of Kabba and restoration of my ancestral gods.
    Source: The moon-god al Lah and the black stone by Brett Marlow Strotroen (1997)

  9. I had read this with interest, but stopped reading further when author tagged one archaeologist as Pro Hindutva. Author was asking supreme court to be neutral but unfortunately he/she is itself biased and forcing readers to believe on one theory. Well tried

    • I usually read Hilal’s concoctions as comedic relief or banter…You may want to try that in future. After all, everyone needs a clown now and then. I don’t know whether he knows this: ‘Hilal’ means for ‘Crescent.’ Do you think it is coincidental? You might have seen al Lah’s two daughters, al Lat and al Uzza still appearing on top of almost every mosque and on the flags of several muslim countries. Those are the Crescent (al Lat) and the Star/ Planet (al Uzza). Is that monotheistic practice? I don’t know. I need to look up an islamic definition of ‘monotheism.’

  10. This case is open and shut, with temple pillars been found which is easily predating Muslim times and is probably even before of Gahadvala period

  11. It was not expected from you to support Ram Mandir issue….

    But the question in front of Courts is whether temple exists beneath the surface of Masjid….

    It’s a land dispute only…

    Whether Ram was born thrre or not, it’s the faith of Hindus…. And we believe that definitely. ….

    When Muslims can offer Namaz on roads even, it means Masjid is not Sancrosanct in their religion…. But for Hindus, who pray to diety, the place is very important to faith….

    Mr Hilal, you are further confusing the matter by citing Sankalia, being a Secular archaeologist and Lal is Right Wing archaeologist….

  12. Will Durant, the famous historian summed it up like this: “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilisation is a precious good, whose delicate complex of order and freedom, culture and peace, can at any moment be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within.”

  13. Indian history is abound with destruction stories of temples and building mosques on the same structures. When one looks at the viciousness how the Banyan Buddha was destroyed, we can imagine what their forefathers did when they came to this country as looters and invaders.

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