Ayodhya's Sacred Landscape: Ritual Memory, Politics and Archaeological `Fact'

Article excerpt

Keywords: India, identity, Ayodhya, Babri mosque, Hindu fundamentalism, ritual landscape

Great astonishment has been expressed at the recent vitality of the Hindu religion at Ajudhia [sic], and it was to test the extent of this chiefly that ... this statement has been prepared. As the information it contains may be permanently useful, I have considered it well to give it a place here. This information is as correct as it can now be made and that is all that I can say

CARNEGY (1870: appendix A)


After the destruction of Ayodhya's Babri mosque in 1992 by supporters of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the statement above seems laden with premonition of the events to come (Rao 1994). More importantly, Carnegy's comments highlight that the mosque's destruction was not simply the result of 20th-century politics. The events surrounding and following the outbreak of violence in 1992 have resulted in more `spilt ink' than Carnegy could ever have imagined. This literature can be divided into two main categories; firstly, the initial documentation submitted to the government by a group of VHP aligned historians, which presented the `archaeological proof' that the Babri mosque had occupied the site of a Hindu temple dating to the 10th and 11th century AD (VHP1990; New Delhi Historical Forum 1992). This was believed to have marked the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama (hence the name Rama Janmabhumi -- literally `birthplace of Rama'), and been demolished at the orders of the Mughal emperor Babur during the 16th century. As a response, a second group of `progressive' Indian historians began a counter-argument, based on the same `archaeological proof' that no such temple had ever existed (Gopal et al. 1992; Mandal 1993). The second category is a growing body of literature which has filled many pages of international publications (Rao 1994; Navlakha 1994). Especially following the World Archaeology Congress (WAC) in Delhi (1994), and subsequently in Brac, Croatia (1998), this has been preoccupied with finding an acceptable route through the battlefield which arises as a result of the problematic, but recurrent, marriage between archaeology, folklore and politics (Kitchen 1998; Hassan 1995).

There are a number of problems inherent in both categories of work noted. The first approach assumes that the unquestionable objectivity of the archaeological record can either `prove' or `disprove' the existence of the Rama temple. Both parties involved have ignored ethical issues, in particular the use of archaeological evidence to justify the destruction of cultural property. They have also overlooked the political and communal nature of the issue, which has more to do with 20th-century propaganda aimed at reconstructing a national identity based on a pristine Hindu and specifically pre-Muslim past, than with what might have happened in the 16th century (Rao 1994). Given the widespread occurrence of multi-layered archaeological sequences at many important ritual sites in India and abroad (Bender 1992; Stopford 1994), the two-way debate over the `factual' basis of the argument for, or against, the existence of a Rama temple has turned out to be both futile and ineffectual. The second body of literature aimed at mediating a middle ground and in many cases trying to reclaim, albeit inadvertently, a certain authority for archaeology as a discipline, fails because it simply reproduces, in various guises, the same narrow evidence. These various shortcomings have led to the view that `archaeologists ... had nothing specifically academic to contribute' towards finding a solution to the problem (Chakrabarti 1997: 20). However, rather than completely rejecting the positive role which archaeology can play in such situations, it is important to explore alternative interpretative frameworks which enable archaeologists to deal with Ayodhya's multi-stranded history, without undermining their ability, and indeed responsibility, to make a credible material contribution to historical knowledge. …