NEVER BEFORE IN INDIAN HISTORY has a team of archaeologists been under such close scrutiny, or handled such a sensitive assignment, on whose conclusion rests not only the historical documentation of a nation, but also the scripting of its future.
Ayodhya, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is a site holy to both Hindus and Muslims, and has been a constant source of religious clashes. Now the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under directions of the High Court, is trying to settle the dispute over whether a Hindu temple once existed there.
The disputed site houses the remains of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque built by Mir Baqi, commander to Mughal emperor Babar but destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992. Hindus believe that the mosque stood on the ruins of an earlier temple that once marked the birthplate of Lord Rama, one of the most revered deifies in the Hindu pantheon.
The ASI has conducted excavations which, it claims, have revealed features of a tenth-century Hindu temple beneath the Babri Masjid. The report cites the discovery of stone and decorated bricks, mutilated sculpture of a divine couple, and carved architectural members including foliage patterns, amalaka (wheel found on temple roofs), three sculptures of Makar (crocodile associated with Goddess Ganga), vallari (floral motif found on temple gateways), a (used in rituals), lotus medallion, a circular shrine having pranjala (water shute) and fifty pillar bases associated with a massive structure ... all artefacts that, according to the ASI, are distinctive features of north Indian temples. A round signet with legend in Asokan Brahmi is another important find.
This has caused a furore. Detractors maintain that 'the massive structure' mentioned in the report is not a Hindu temple at all but a mosque with the construction plan and materials 'tallying with the Babri Masjid'. This is in keeping with the argument that a mosque of the Sultanate period (1200-1526) was expanded to build the Babri Masjid in the sixteenth century.
While there is no dispute regarding the authenticity of the materials recovered from the site, their interpretation is criticised. According to Professor Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University, the 'pillars' are nothing but the broken bricks and stones used for filling up the floors of the mosque, while glazed pottery common to Muslim culture has been ignored and flower motifs that are central to Muslim architecture have been misinterpreted as a Hindu pattern. Other senior archaeologists like Suraj Bhan and Shireen Ratnakar are also opposed to the ASI's findings. As Ramakar puts it, 'The mere discovery of objects does not count as archaeological evidence. Objects and artefacts are mute and do not speak for themselves. In archaeology, context is all-important. For example, a carved stone or brick, which comes from a domestic dwelling, can be easily misinterpreted as a temple relic by distorting its context or surroundings.
The fact that the excavation period was compressed to just 160 days, and that the current ruling party, of India has always favoured the construction of a Hindu temple on the disputed site does not reflect well on the independent scholarship of the government-controlled ASI. Critics are also citing Richard Eaton, American historian of medieval India, who carefully documented 'the desecration of each and every Hindu temple between 1192 and 1760', in Essays on Islam and Indian History (2000). The total adds up to eighty, but nowhere is there mention of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. To add to the chaos, more communities are now joining in the fray, with Jains and Buddhists claiming that it was their temple that existed under the mosque. …