In her two books on the Ayodhya issue (Rama and Ayodhya and The Battle for Rama: Case of the Temple at Ayodhya), historian Meenakshi Jain uses religious texts and judicial and land records from British India along with accounts of foreign travellers to put forth a case that Ayodhya has been a sacred site for Hindus for much longer than a group of left historians would like us to believe. Jain uses extensive court records and archaeological reports to put together a comprehensive argument that Ayodhya is not only sacred for Hindus because of faith but also for the historical evidence left behind. She speaks about the relevance of Ram in Indian thought and the “left’s convenient overlooking” of the vast corpus of evidence
Open: When does Ram first appear in Indian consciousness? What is the evidence we have—textual or otherwise?
Meenakshi Jain: Long before Valmiki Ramayana, there was this tradition of oral recitation which is called Ram Katha. This was recited orally by people specially trained in this craft. They would go from village to village reciting the story of Ram. According to scholars, Valmiki was aware of these kathas and compiled them and created that great narrative called the Ramayana. Earlier versions of these kathas have not survived. So the first evidence we have of the existence of Ram is Valmiki Ramayana.
But the left historians have argued that Ram worship is an 18th century phenomenon.
That is because they very conveniently overlook the vast corpus of evidence—literary, sculptor, archaeological, epigraphic, which show how deeply ingrained Ram was in the Indian psyche. There is a terracotta piece of second-first century BCE and it shows Ravan carrying away Sita and she is shown throwing away her ornaments so that it will help someone find her. This is a single piece. Now why would any artist depict a single piece! It is not the complete story of the Ramayana. That is how we can interpret that everybody was familiar with the story. After that we have a Ram terracotta, which is now in a museum in America, with his bow and arrow and with the word ‘Ram’ written in Brahmi on his dhoti. Terracotta is the most accessible medium of art. It can be moulded by anybody.
So why would anybody prepare such an art if they did not know that anybody could relate to it?
There is reference to public recitation of Ram’s story around second century CE. Also, if you go to temples, especially in the north, whole scenes from the Ramayana have been depicted on temple walls. So that again speaks of the public popularity of the Ramayana. And then in the 12th century, three important temples were built in honour of Ram and each had an inscription that we are creating this temple in honour of Ram. Two of those are still there, in Madhya Pradesh, and the third was the temple in Ayodhya at the disputed structure from which the inscription fell from the walls of the Masjid in 1992.
In many temple inscriptions, the rulers of those times say we are descendants of Ram. It may not be a reality because it is difficult to verify. But the fact that they related themselves to Ram shows that Ram’s story had a place in the lives of kings as much as commoners.
We will come back to the inscription you mentioned. But before that, tell us a little about the accounts of foreign travellers you have mentioned in your book as evidence of Ayodhya’s importance for Hindus.
There are several accounts that talk about the Hindu presence at the site and Hindus coming to the site, but they do not mention Muslims or namaaz. The first account is in 1608 CE by William Finch. He was travelling all over India. He said that he has been to Ayodhya and that there were Hindus there. He writes about the presence of Brahmins at Ramkot who he says record the names of Hindus who come to take a dip in the nearby river. For us, what is important is that he does not mention Muslims or namaaz. That is the point. It is very unlikely that he knows about the history of that place; he is just an observer. He had no idea that centuries later, his account will be so important in reconstructing the history of that period.
The second account is by an Austrian Jesuit Joseph Tieffenthaler. He is an important source because he lived in India for 40 years and toured the Awadh area for seven-eight years. And he also died in India. He has written a lot and some of his papers were presented at science bodies abroad. He said that the Hindus have constructed a vedi, which is a cradle for a newborn. He also witnesses large gatherings of Hindus on the occasion of Ram Navami. It does not say that Muslims are also there and they are offering namaaz and that Hindus are coming and doing parikrama. So these two accounts, by what we would call neutral observers, raise a question: Did Babur just do a smash and grab job? In the sense that he demolished that temple and occupied that site.
But how can we conclude that there used to be a temple at the site?
As far as actual evidence of demolition is concerned, that has been given to us by excavations carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India [ASI] under the orders of the Allahabad High Court. The ASI carried out these under very stringent conditions set by the court. The court said that every day excavations will take place in the presence of representatives of both sides and the day’s findings will be recorded in a register signed by both sides. The excavation shows continuous occupation of that site since the second millennium BCE. And that site was never used for habitational purposes. No houses were built there. It was always a sacred site and a series of sacred structures have been found there, including the remnants of the 12th century temple.
So, when do we hear Muslim voices from Ayodhya?
In 1822, a judicial officer from the Faizabad court, Hafizullah, gives a statement that the mosque founded by Babur is situated at the birthplace of Ram. The first actual voice of a Muslim that we get from that site is only in 1858. So, from 1528 till 1858, we do not get a Muslim voice from that site. In 1856, the British annexed Awadh. But in 1857, there was the great revolt. So, they began looking after Awadh in 1858. They establish their system: judicial, revenue and law and order. It is a miracle that all these reports, complaints, counter-complaints were filed at the Faizabad district court, and they are preserved till today. No special attempt was made to preserve them. They could have fallen prey to rats, termites, rain. All these papers are from 1858 till 1947.
And we can write a book just on these. They came to light when Allahabad High Court began hearing the case. It called for all the evidence. These are all in its possession now, along with some diaries which certain officials maintained. This is the period when we get a profusion of Muslim voices.
And when does the first contestation at the site happen?
In 1858. It is a complaint which the thanedaar of Awadh [Sheetal Dubey] files. He reports that 25 Nihang Sikhs have come from Punjab and they have entered the Masjid. Masjid means the main structure, not the compound. And he reports that they have started havan and puja. Two days later, Mohammed Asghar, the muezzin of the Babri Masjid, makes a representation to the authorities, saying, ‘Please help me because these Sikhs have entered and they have created chinh [symbol] of Bhagwan, and with charcoal they have written ‘Ram Ram’ all over the walls of the Masjid.’
I must also tell you about one document which has not received the attention it deserves. In 1600, Akbar was the emperor. And he gave six bighas of land to Hanumangarhi, which is just next to the site. And this land was given for a particular duration. That grant had to be renewed in 1723. So, the priest applied for renewal to the emperor of that time. And the emperor renews that grant. What is interesting is that the scribe who records its renewal, and that is available to us, writes: ‘I am writing, I am the scribe… I am writing and recording the renewal by the present emperor and I am writing from the birthplace of Ram.’
“We have not got any concrete evidence by way of inscriptions, histories, memoirs of any kind from the party supporting the Babri group to strengthen their case”
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But the pro-Babri mosque party must have also provided some evidence from their side?
All little bits of evidence tell a story and that story is only pointing in one direction. What I find very interesting is that from the modern times, when this conflict entered our lives—1989, till now—we have not got any concrete evidence by way of inscriptions, histories, memoirs of any kind from the party supporting the Babri group to strengthen their case. There is no evidence presented by the opposite side. Except to counter the evidence presented by the temple party. And that is surprising because the Masjid party had so many eminent historians.
But didn’t they also claim at one point that there was an idgah beneath the structure?
All of them said it was built on vacant land. In fact, Syed Shahabuddin [a pro-Babri Muslim leader], in a series of interviews, said that building a mosque on the site of a sacred site of another religion is banned in Islam and if proved that way, we will voluntarily hand over the site. So, this was their constant claim. Often, when they were levelling ground, pieces of temple parts would come up. But even before demolition, they never entertained the possibility that it could be built on the site of a temple.
They formulated the idgah theory when the ASI excavations began to reveal that there definitely is a structure below Babri. When that possibility became definite, then they began to say that it is not a temple but an idgah. And the Allahabad High Court asked them, ‘Till this time, you said that it was built on vacant land. Now you say it is an idgah.’ Their position kept on changing as per the evidence coming up from the other side.
Let’s talk about the excavations. They happened twice: in the 1970s under BB Lal and then in 2003. What was found in the first excavation and what changed in 2003?
In the first excavation, BB Lal was not excavating inside the Masjid but outside the boundary wall. He came across pillar bases. They stopped at the boundary wall and then reappeared. So Lal was convinced that the bases are going under the Masjid as well. So he said that he is certain there is a temple under Babri Masjid. He also said it was possible to excavate without demolishing the mosque.
But the most extensive excavation happened in 2003 under the orders of the Allahabad High Court. This excavation threw up several articles, like animal and human figurines, a circular brick shrine. Though damaged, its northern wall still retained provision for pranaala [water chute] and then it was found that the Babri Masjid had no foundation of its own. It was built on the walls of the temple. According to the ASI report, there was not even a layer of air that separated the Masjid from the temple walls.
Let us come back to the inscription that you say fell from one of the walls of the Masjid when it was being demolished in 1992. What was the controversy around that?
This inscription, five-by-two feet, fell from the walls of the Masjid in 1992 and broke into two. But because it had been embedded in the wall, it was in an excellent state of preservation. You could read it very easily. The whole media was there and so many kar sevaks. I could not have put it in my pocket and planted it there. Irfan Habib [one of the prominent left historians in the pro-Babri group] must have realised the implication of this inscription. So his first instinct was to discredit it. He said it was a plant. But a plant from where? Okay, the kar sevaks planted it. But where did it come from? So he said private collection. But how come no one saw it before? Then Habib backtracked and said that the inscription had been stolen from the Lucknow museum. It was the Vishnu Hari inscription and was read by ASI’s chief epigraphist on court’s orders. It says this person who was a vassal of this king in this year built the temple for the person who destroyed the 10-headed Ravan. It is all there.
Now, another temple which Aurangzeb destroyed, Treta ka Thakur temple, is also in Ayodhya. From there, another inscription was recovered by British archaeologist A Führer, who sent it to Faizabad, and was then sent to the Lucknow museum. Kunal Kishore, who was OSD of Ayodhya cell during VP Singh’s Government, visited the Lucknow museum and took pictures of that inscription. It is badly damaged and shows only a few letters. And, of course, it was very much in place at the museum and not stolen.
One would have expected Habib to come forward and present his final opinion on this subject. He has not said a word. At the end of the day, when we can see closure, we have not heard a word from any of them. It is because every argument of theirs has been found untrue. But where is the accountability!
What role have left historians played in this whole episode?
Very negative. Their role has only poisoned the relationship between the two communities. And relations over this issue would not have deteriorated to this point if the left historians had not misled and misguided the Muslim group. And if I can add: the archaeologist KK Muhammed has in his book [Njan Enna Bharatiyan (I, an Indian)], because he was present as student of archaeology when BB Lal was excavating, said that when this controversy came up in a big way from 1989 onwards, there was a serious debate in the Muslim community that this site does not mean much to them. And that they have not offered namaaz [at the site] for decades, and it is so important for the Hindus. This is when the left stepped in.
It is a very harsh thing to say but their only role is the reason why there could be no understanding between the two communities. It is because the left has a very negative view of Hindu religion and they are also very negative about what we loosely call the Hindu civilisation. The established names have not produced one evidence.