Archeology on Babri masjid site

Again controversy over Ayodhya religious building

Published on 16 October 2010

Author(s): Times of India/TNN/Pronoti Datta

Type:  News

Two archaeologists have had a run-in with the law for their book on the Babri masjid site

In 1968, archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar travelled to Ashvan in Turkey to participate in an excavation. Her professor pointed to a wall and a floor and instructed the nervous young woman to identify which was older. On hindsight, the moment seems prophetic. In 2003, when Ratnagar and fellow archaeologist D. Mandal surveyed the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) excavation of the Babri Masjid site, one of their most significant discoveries involved the vintage of a wall and a floor.

The two archaeologists spent a day examining the site in order to verify the ASI report on behalf of the Sunni Waqf Board in 2003. Four years later, they published a highly critical appraisal of the ASI's work in a book titled Ayodhya: Archaeology After Excavation.

In April 2010, three years after the publication of the book, the Allahabad high court considered the authors and their publisher Tulika Books in contempt of court. The court objected to the authors, who are also witnessed in the case, expressing their opinion on a matter that was still being tried. The judges also verbally ordered the publisher to recall all unsold copies of the book.

I feel there has been an injustice, says Ratnagar, a specialist in the Harappan civilisation who taught archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for 22 years before retiring in 2000. But I respect judicial procedure and I have to be silent till the case comes to a resolution. She is frustrated that as the case continues to hang in the balance, she can’t express her views on Ayodhya as freely as her peers.

It was recently reported that Sudhir Agarwal, one of the judges at the Allahabad high court, criticised some of witnesses for the Waqf Board. Ratnagar, it was said, admitted not having any experience on the field. However the archaeologist says that she has participated in excavations in India, England, Iraq and Bahrain.

Muslim demonstration at Babri mosque, Ayodhya

Before tearing into the ASI report, the book outlines the history of the dispute. It’s a context that has always been politically charged, right from 1853 when records show that Hindu ascetics captured the premises of the mosque declaring that it stood on Rams birthplace. Colonial records from the mid- and late-nineteenth century, in what was perhaps a political move, support the Hindu claim that Babur’s general Mir Baqi destroyed a temple to build the mosque.

In 1949, the controversy flared up afresh when idols of Ram and Sita were secretly installed inside the mosque. The district magistrate insisted the idols remain and ordered the mosque shut. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi controversially opened the locks and allowed a shilanyas on the premises of the mosque. Four years later, L. K. Advanis rath yatra for the construction of a temple led to the mosques demolition in 1992.

Mandal and Ratnagar have criticised both the ASI’s methods of working and the conclusions it has drawn. The authors have found fault with the way the ASI established the chronology of the successive periods of habitation on the site. Archaeological finds such as pieces of pottery were not classified correctly and the site itself was strewn with debris. They write that finds such as glazed tiles and animal bones were not correctly tabled.

A number of verdict critics believe that the presence of bones suggests that the excavated structure was not a temple. The writers argue that the bones were part of landfills. If it was a temple, then the soil would have been sieved and the bones removed. But since there is no proof of this, the site cannot be a temple. It’s also possible that the inhabitants were non-vegetarian. Yet, some people seem to be rather opposed to acknowledging this fact. This might be one of the reasons for the suppression of details in the (ASI) Report pertaining to the recovery of animal bones, Mandal and Ratnagar write.

The fifty pillars bases have also been widely debated. Supporters of the temple theory believe that the bases suggest the presence of a temple. However, Vidula Jayaswal, a professor in Benares Hindu University’s department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, who reviewed Ayodhya agrees with the ASI’s interpretation. It’s an architectural feature of the Gupta period, she points out. Pillars were put above brick cushions.

But, archaeologically one cannot prove that it was Ram Janmabhoomi. Mandal and Ratnagar assert that the pillar bases are clumps of bricks that are too feeble to support the weight of pillars and their view is widely supported by archaeologists and historians who reject the temple theory. In a review of the book, M S Mate, a former professor of archaeology at Deccan College, points out that the layout of the pillar bases are not at all conducive to temple rituals.

One of the duos most important discoveries was that the floor of the purported temple was actually of the same age as the mosque, as it ran up to the face of the mosque wall. There is also no evidence that the mosque was built on the foundations of a structure that had been destroyed. This leads the authors to vociferously conclude that the site bears evidence not of a destruction that took place in the 16th century, but of vandalism in the 20th century.

See also on this website The Road from Ayodhya

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