Understanding the archaeological aspects of the temple, mosque conundrum

This story was initially published in THE WEEK issue dated October 19


This story was initially published in THE WEEK issue dated October 19, 2003

After months of excavation in Ayodhya, what exactly did the Archeological Survey of India unearth in 2003? Was part of its report written on the orders of powers that be? What was life like in Ayodhya? THE WEEK unrolls a tapestry of life from 6th century BC to 21st century.

Ayodhya is not very ancient, unlike Jericho or Harappa. The earliest people to settle there, as known to archaeology, used iron knives and pointed bones to carve, and wore glass-beads probably as necklaces and ear-studs of baked mud. They had some weight measures for trade.

Their children played hopscotch with mud objects. They cooked in utensils of clay lavigated on a fast wheel, mostly small and medium- sized bowls and dishes. One lipped bowl piece has been found in the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) recent excavation.

When did these people start to live there? This also has been raised in the Ram Janmabhoomi- Babri Masjid dispute. The Indian Archaeological Society, a group of VHP-backed historians and archaeologists, had claimed that "human occupation began at the Janmabhoomi mound on the bank of river Saryu in circa 1200 BC".

'The earliest people to settle at the site," the ASI says in the main body of the report, "used northern black polished [NBP] ware and other associated ware.... which are diagnostic ceramics of a period from 6th to 3rd century BC."

However, in the Summary, black polished pottery is pushed back to "circa 1000 BC", leading to suspicions that it was written on the orders of those who want to make Ayodhya more ancient. So in the Summary, "human activity at the site dates back to circa 13th century BC". This corresponds to the time claimed by the VHP archaeologists.

By at least 4th century BC, people in Ayodhya would write Asokan Brahmi. The ASI diggers found "a round bezel in greenish glass with the legend sidhe in high relief.

Black polished pottery users were living all across north India. Hardly any clue has come out of Ayodhya on their life, faith, kings or chiefs. The oldest NBP ware till date was found in Taxila in today's Pakistan. John Marshall thought they were of 500 BC vintage; B.B. Lai, the first excavator of India's epic sites, pushed them back to 600 BC.

The pottery found in the Gangetic plain are newer, indicating an eastward migration from the Taxila neighbourhood. The most plausible explanation is that the Achaeminid emperors of Persia were annexing India's west.

If excavators dig deeper in Ayodhya, would they find objects more ancient? Unlikely. The main body of the report confirms the long-held view that urban life in the Gangetic plain is not older than 7th century BC. If Ram was a historical figure, and if his date is older than that of Achaeminid emperors, he could have been the ruler of an Indus valley kingdom where Harappan cities had existed earlier. "From the 6th century BC, we can trace a new development in Indian politics," writes R.C. Majumdar in An Advanced History of India. "We have the growth of a number of powerful kingdoms in eastern India." One such was Kosala; Ayodhya is believed to have been its capital.

No structure of a capital city has been unearthed by the ASI. No palaces, temples, trading marts, assembly halls or stables. If they are there, they could be King elsewhere.

Literary references of this period were not to Ayodhya, but to Kosala, one of the kingdoms which rose from the 16 Gangetic valley republics. Though smaller than the Harappan cities, Ayodhya was larger than contemporary towns— 20 hectares by George Erdosy's estimate, with 4,000 people. Since Pasenadi (Prasenajit), who ruled Kosala during the Buddha's time (6th-5th century BC), is said to have studied in Taxila, there were still cultural bonds with the Punjab.

Though Pasenadi bore the name of an ancient king of the Ikshwaku line, says D.D. Kosambi, "he was not properly a Ksatriva... He was of low tribal origin." He tried to retrieve Kasi which had been given as dowry to his sister's husband Bimbisara of Magadha, but was defeated by his nephew Ajatasatru. When Pasenadi's minister put Prince Vidudabha on the Kosalan throne, Ajatasatru gave him refuge in Magadha, where he died.

As if by divine retribution, Vidudabha and his army were swept away by a flash tlood while camping on the dry Rapti river bed. Kosala fell before Magadhan might and vanished from history.

How did the legend of Ram and the Ikshwakus come to be associated with Kosala and Ayodhya? Prof. E..J. Rapson has this explanation: "In the Puranas, which were the common scriptures of the ruling Aryan peoples of northern and western India, the traditional genealogies of the royal houses have been collected and made to form a consistent whole. Not only are the ancient tribes of the Rigveda and the kingdoms immediately descended from them represented here, but the realms of Kosala (Ayodhya), Videha, Vaisali, and Magadha, which were not Aryanised until a later date, have also been brought into the scheme and furnished with a still longer and more august pedigree."

The oldest structure dug out is of the 2nd or 1st century BC—"a brick masonry platform... running north-south" of a "hut like structure of wattle and daub". When this hut was built, the people here, as elsewhere in the north, were using red, grey and black slipped pots with no paintings or other decorations on them. They still wrote in Brahmi, as found on a sealing fragment of baked clay with the letters se. They worshipped Mother Goddess; a moulded terracotta "female figurine with headdress stamped with elliptical leafy motif has been found. Women wore crescent-shaped earrings, necklaces with pendants, wristlets of beads, and upper garments up to the thighs.

By now the Sungas, who had come to power through the first military coup recorded in Indian history, were ruling Magadha. Pushyamitra Sunga overthrew the last Maurya at a parade in 187 BC and usurped the empire, which was being besieged by the Afghan Greeks. By one tradition, the Greeks almost besieged Saketa (Buddhists called the Ayodhya region so) and threatened Magadhan capital ia. Fushyamitra's grandson hinn nn the Indus banks, I the proud grandfather performed two aswamedhas. Many view this as signalling the return of the Brahminical faith to the region where Buddhism was dominant during Mauryan times.

Buddhism had one more push under the Kushanas. The first major building at the site was built during their time.

Magadhan paramountcy ended with the Sungas. The Satavahanas dominated the south. From the northwest, the Kushanas under Kanishka swept into the region. From Purushapura or Peshawar, he held sway over the entire north.

Ayodhyans of the Kushana period (1st to 3rd century AD) continued to use Sunga-style pottery, a few of them decorated. They had vases with slender necks and expanding shoulders, "profusely decorated with... sunflower motifs and triratna symbols on the shoulder," and vases with crocodile-mouth spouts.

At the site they built a huge kiln, and also a massive brick structure— perhaps a temple, a Buddhist vihara, or an assembly hall. A stone structure, of unclear nature, also is suspected. Going by the report, the spot gathered some importance only now.

Their script was still Brahmi, as seen from two sealings—a round black one of baked clay with the legend Dhama(mi)tasa and another damaged one with the letters nasa. The triratna symbols and Dhama(mi)tasa are undoubtedly Buddhist.

From the Kushana period onwards, the "tradition of stone and brick construction is very much in vogue at the site and each successive period added some structures to the site."

Gupta clans came to rule Saketa as well as Prayaga and Magadha after the Kushanas. The excavators have found stellar evidence of Gupta rule, including a coin bearing the image of a king, probably Samudragupta's son Chandragupta II (whom tradition has associated with Vikramaditya), with a garuda standard and the legend Sri Chandra. It is doubtful whether the area was well-populated; a few shards of pottery have been  found. "The typical sprinklers encountered in other Gupta period sites are absent." Worship of Mother Goddess seems to have been prevalent still; torso of a female figurine has been found. Men might have worn, as assumed from a figurine, coiled turbans, long earrings and necklaces.

Some structure was built during this time, as judged from the remains of a few brick-and-brickbat walls, but nothing to confirm the belief that Skandagupta of the 5th century, who had styled himself Vikramaditya like his grandfather, had built a grand temple here after defeating the Huns. Says the report: "The advent of the Guptas.... did not bring any qualitative change in building activity although the period is known for its classical artistic elements."

Not only the claims about a Vikramadityan temple, but even Ayodhya's name is a matter of dispute among historians. Vinay Lai and others claim that Skandagupta renamed Saketa as Ayodhya (in the same manner as modern suburbs are given mythological names like Dwaraka or Saket, both of which are there in Delhi) simply to claim Suryavanshi glory. The Ayodhya of Ram existed elsewhere or only in mythology.

Styling themselves after mythical or ancient dynasties was a fashion among kings of the post- Gupta period which witnessed a Hindu revival at the expense of Buddhism. There was a clan calling themselves Ikshvakus in the Andhra country. Their kings followed Vedic practices while their wives patronised Buddhist sangha. They built the magnificent Nagarjunakonda.

The counter to this argument is: If Skandagupta wanted to wallow in Suryavanshi glory, he would also have built a temple for Ram in the town he called Ayodhya.

No trace of such a temple has been unearthed. The site seems to have been suddenly deserted after the Gupta period. There is a "conspicuous absence of habitational structures such as house-complexes, soakage pits, soakage jars, ring wells, drains, wells, hearths, kilns of furnaces, etc." from this period.

When Hsuan Tsang visited Ayodhya during Harsha's time, he found that the people were partly Hindus and partly Buddhists, as elsewhere in India. There were 100 sangharamas and 3,000 monks. No sign of these has come up in the dig-out.

The first sign of a temple has come from the Rajput period (7th- 10th century). "Among the exposed structures, there stands a circular brick shrine which speaks of its functional utility for the first time." This is the only undisputed shrine unearthed.

Going by parallels, this could well have been a Saivite shrine. "The brick shrine is similar in plan to the Chirenath brick temple at Sravasti," says the report. "Its central part is 2.20m square where a Siva Linga is placed in the centre." It has also affinity with circular Siva temples at Chandrahe near Rewa and Masaon (950 AD), with a Vishnu temple and a deity-less one in Fatehpur district and a Surya temple in Tinduli (Fatehpur).

Stylistically, it "can be dated to circa 10th century AD when the Kalachuris moved in this area and settled across river Saryu". The Kalachuris ruled central India, including Rewa, till they moved north.

There is a 300-year gap between the Chinese monk's visit and the date of this temple. Most historians agree that Buddhism declined after the 7th century, and Brahminism revived, thanks partly to the efforts of Sankaracharya. Ayodhya also could have witnessed this.

The present dispute concerns the period thereafter. The ASI has called it mediaeval-sultanate period—11th and 12th centuries, beginning with the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni and ending with Qutbuddin, the first Muslim ruler who planted his flag in Delhi. However, Islam hadn't reached the banks of the Saryu during this period.

Ironically, when the armies of Islam were raiding western India, hectic temple-building was going on in central and eastern India. The Khajuraho temples were built during this time by the Chandelas one of whom, Vidyadhara, raised a coalition to resist Mahmud but ended up sending verses flattering him. Archaeologists call the style of these temple Hindu-Nagar.

During this period, according to the ASI excavators, "a huge structure, nearly 50m in north-south orientation was constructed which seems to have been short-lived". Its architectural members had stencil-cut foliage pattern and other decorative motifs. The recovered fragments, including a square slab with srivatsa motil another with lotus medallion n "emphatically speak about 1 association with temple architect In addition is a highly mutilated (waist downwards available) sculpture of a "divine couple seated in alinganamudra"'.

The srivatsa motif may point to the structure having been a Vaishnavite shrine. In thai case, the site became a Vaishnavite centre only in the 10th-12th centuries.

By now Nagari had become the script, at least for courtly and ceremonial purposes, as seen from an inscribed 11th century stone fragment. The available part reads "ngapala/ j.ma". Could it be the name of a king or a local ruler? Perhaps an Anangapala?

Whether ..ngapala built the burnt brick structure or not, it didn't last long. Either it collapsed on its own or someone pulled it down to build what the ASI claims—and hotly disputed— was a massive temple-like structure. Parts of the earlier structure were used in this. This structure, the ASI says, stood there till the 16th century when Babar captured the Delhi throne from the Lodhis.

The dispute, in the post-excavation period, is all about this. The ASI claims to have excavated 50 pillar bases with brickbat foundation. There could be more in the unexcavated part since the diggers have found 17 rows of five pillars each.

Disputing the ASI's conclusion, archaeologist Suraj Bhan says that "the alleged massive burnt-brick structure belongs to the sultanate period and not to the early mediaeval period (llth-12th centuries)". The ASI has admitted that its floor and the plaster on the wall were of lime-and-surkhi mortar which was used in the sultanate and Mughal periods.

The report has compared the circular (presumably Siva) shrine to other structures of its kind and vintage. But not this one. North Indian temples in this period were built in the Hindu-Nagar style, argue Bhan and historian Irfan Habib. If the structure was massive, befitting an important worship centre, it could only have been built in such grand style as the Khajuraho temples, they say. The claimed temple is said to have had a large hall to the south. "Temples of the past neither had such large square halls nor a plan similar to it," argues Bhan. The plan and architectural features of the massive burntbrick structure, and the fact that the hall roughly corresponds to the Babri Masjid, "help to infer that it was a (sultanate period) mosque and not a temple". Animal bones have been found "from various levels of different periods". The ASI admits to this, but has not dated them or analysed them according to period levels. "Sheep and goat bones with cut marks were all around," which would not have been there if it were a Vaishnavite shrine, says Prof. Habib.

Glazed tiles have been found at the site. "Glazed ware was not at all used in temples," says Habib. In one place in the report, the ASI says glazed ware appeared in lOth-llth century, but in the Summary the glazed ware has been pushed forward to Mughal and post- Mughal period. So while the temple champions say that a grand temple stood at the site till it was demolished by Babar in 1528, Habib, Bhan and others say that a sultanate-period mosque could have been standing there till Babar got it rebuilt.

Curiously, neither side has much to show as evidence. After ...ngapala, nobody inscribed anything here, nor left a coin, for archaeologists to recover, till the early 16th century. The whole sultanate period, from the time the Slave kings built Qutab Minar in Delhi till the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526, seems to have gone into a black hole of history.

From the early 16th century, when Babar invaded India, the ASI has recovered a fragmented Naksh-style Arabic inscription on a yellow sandstone slab. It is part of an "opening verse Basmala, part of verse 256 of Chapter II, concluding verse of Chapter CXII of the Holy Quran and a few words which could not be made out..." Another inscription, part of an architectural member, reads "Allah".

The coin gap is still wider—about a thousand years. After the garuda motif coin of Chandragupta II, there are only coins from Akbar (three of them) and then Shah Alam II. Nobody left any coin here after 413 AD (the end of Chandragupta's reign) till 1569 (the year on Akbar's coin).

During the Mughal period, as during the sultanate, Awadh was a province of the Delhi empire. As the Mughal empire declined, the Awadh governors asserted independence. When Nadir Shah invaded India, Governor Sa'adat Khan tried to singlehandedly confront the Persian. His impetuous action led to his own capture. He then played the mediator between Nadir and the defeated Mughal, Muhammad Shah.

Sa'adat's successor Safdar Jang and his son Shuja ud-Daula won a few battles for the nominal emperors in Delhi and were virtually recognised as kings of Awadh. Shuja's defeat at the hands of the British in 1763-64 snuffed out Awadhi rulers' ambitions for all times to come.

Awadh's fortunes as well as those of the Delhi empire since then, are reflected in the few coins unearthed. There is a machine-minted copper piece of 1793-94, "circulated by the East India Company on behalf of the later Mughal King Shah Alam II". The emperor had become the Company's puppet.

Shuja's son and successor Asaf-uddaulah allowed his liabilities to the Company to be increased through the treaty of Faizabad. When he couldn't pay the arrears, he tried to seize the property belonging to his mother and grandmother. Warren Hastings sent troops to Faizabad where the begums lived and seized the treasure. The incident formed part of the charges against Hastings during his impeachment. In 1856, Dalhousie annexed Awadh and deported the ruler Wajid Ali Shah to Kolkata. The incident caused resentment among Awadhi troops in the Company's army who revolted in 1857.

Four coins from this period, issued in 1835, 1840 and 1848, have been recovered, all issued by the Company and bearing theimage of Victoria who was yet to be declared Empress of India. The fourth couldn't be dated.

One of the last major political acts of Wajid Ali Shah was to appoint a committee to decide whether Hindus or Muslims should worship at the disputed shrine. The first civil suit over the property was filed in 1885. In 1949 idols were installed and following a police case the state appointed a receiver. In January 1950, the additional city magistrate allowed puja.

The VHP came on the scene in 1984 calling for removal of the mosque. Rajiv Gandhi allowed shilanyas for a temple (1989); L.K. Advani began a rath yatra (September 1990); and the V.P. Singh government fell (November). Narasimha Rao allowed a kar seva on December 6, 1992. Kar sevaks pulled down the mosque, installed the idol of Ram in a make-shift temple, and smashed cameras of photographers.

An item recovered, and registered as No 982 from Trench ZE2, Layer No: ZE1/ZE2 Baulkh, is a 157134 Fuji non-TV zoom lens made in Japan.