The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
Digging in the dark
- The ASI report on Ayodhya negates one of the constitutive principles of archaeology

The protests had rung out more than a decade ago. Ever since the miraculous archaeological “discoveries” of S.P. Gupta and B.B. Lal of 1990 armed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad with its most powerful body of “evidence” about the remains of a Hindu temple beneath the Babri Masjid, professional historians and archaeologists have cried themselves hoarse over the flagrant abuse of their disciplines at Ayodhya. The very form of the presentation of the Ramjanmabhumi demand, as a historically testifiable thesis, made “proof” a central issue in the controversy — the key endangered element, to be saved and retrieved. D. Mandal’s tract, Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition (1993), stands to date as the most convincing challenge to the temple “evidence”. Mandal, a field archaeologist, exposed the complete violation of the science of stratigraphy in the digging of trenches and in the analysis of the excavated artifacts at Ayodhya. He showed how the random mixing of post-depositional debris with properly stratified finds and a confusion of artifactual sequences automatically denuded this entire corpus of material of any status as “data”.

If there was one fundamental point that emerged from this archaeological debate of the early Nineties, it was the impossibility of anything like “incontrovertible evidence” in archaeology; also, the impossibility of unearthing clues about any single or distinct pre-mosque structure beneath the layers of debris of the demolished masjid at the site. That this point has been of no import at all is today up for all to see.

But what comes as a real eye-opener is the way the science and the profession of archaeology have once again allowed themselves to be dragged into the renewed farce of providing “hard proof” that a 10th or 11th Hindu temple existed immediately beneath the floor levels of the demolished mosque. That such “scientific” and “indisputable” evidence should now come after five months of excavation by the Archaeological Survey of India and in the form of a 574 page report submitted to the Allahabad High Court on August 22, 2003, comes as the greatest irony. It finally drives home the utter futility of all the scholarly criticisms and exhortations of the past two decades, and its invocation of objective knowledge.

Truth and facts died an ignoble death at Ayodhya long ago. Yet, the search for newer and newer “evidence” continues to drive the politics of the site. Thus new scientific “facts” about a sprawling multi-pillared temple structure beneath the Babri site can still be nonchalantly offered by a professional body like the ASI, to a gullible public and a jubilant Hindu right-wing, to be used as the best moral tool to disinherit the Sunni Waqf board of its rightful proprietorship of the land. And a clearly political agenda of a hunt for an imaginary temple can take on the scientific trappings of an excavation and a voluminous site report, this time with a token adherence to the tenets of stratigraphy.

This hot document, the ASI report, apparently in the public domain, remains tantalizingly out of reach. So, we are up to our ears with the latest reports on the “proof” of a massive 50x30 metre walled structure just beneath the surface mosque floor, of some 50 pillar bases that stand in full alignment with this structure, of terracotta figurines, lotus motif carvings and fragments of an amalaka, and most tellingly, of a circular sanctum-like depression at the centre of the disputed site, just beneath the make-shift shrine of Ram Lalla.

The media has also picked up the barrage of criticisms against these findings, brought up by the team of independent archaeological observers like Suraj Bhan, R.C. Thakran, Supriya Verma, Mohammed Abid and Irfan Habib. We are told of their counter-readings of the excavated mound as a rich habitation rather than a religious site till possibly the early medieval period, and of the existence thereafter of a distinctly Islamic structure of the early Sultanate period, as indicated most clearly by the presence of the lime-surkhi floor (a technique brought in by Muslim builders) and vast deposits of glazed tile ware.

If this ancient city site has yielded important evidence of settlements from the Northern Black Polished Ware and later Kushana and Gupta era, its richest archeological data pertain nonetheless to this early medieval Sultanate period. And these archaeologists have stuck out their necks to argue that if anything was razed, expanded and appropriated in the building of the Babri Masjid, it was a prior mosque structure. These finds, they allege, have been deliberately suppressed or distorted in the ASI report in its determination to discover only a destroyed temple at the site.

The quest for infallible underground evidence has only ended in a mammoth spectre of public misinformation. The independent or Left professionals, who were mobilized as representatives of the Sunni Waqf board and the all-India Muslim personal law board to adjudicate on the correctness and scientificity of the excavations at Ayodhya are now left in the greatest bind. They have on them the terrible onus of having to fight the “proof” of temple remains with an armoury of counter-proof or lack of proof.

The kind of faith that the Muslim parties have vested in the truth and objectivity of archaeological evidence is quite pathetic. They have thus allowed themselves to dance to the tune of the VHP; they were persuaded by leaders like Zafrayab Jeelani to agree to the digging of the Muslim graveyard site in the precincts even as excavation was disallowed beneath the crucial spot of the makeshift Ram shrine; and they have depended on the intervening powers of this team of selected archaeologists to set the “facts” right in their favour.

Throughout the months of the excavation, these visiting archaeologists had been continually handing in to the Allahabad court their observations and objections (including their objections to what they were not allowed to see or handle). Now they are faced with the unenviable responsibility of having to supplant the volume and intricacies of the ASI report at court with an equally formidable counter-document that can prove the falsities and fabrications of this excavation data.

More than at any other time, the public today is in dire need of being informed about the basics of standard excavation procedure, about the norms of digging, classifying and reporting, and about the regularity with which artifacts like terracotta statues, pottery, tiles or architectural carvings crop up in all such multi-cultural structural mounds, without begetting any conclusions about the existence of either temples or mosques. Only then would the aberrations in what occurred at Ayodhya from the middle of March this year be clear.

Why, we must ask, were trenches laid out only in accordance with the highly questionable Indo-Japanese ground penetrating radar survey' Why was the crucial epicentre of the site occupied by the Ram shrine left undisturbed, with worship continuing in the midst of an excavated site' Why were trenches dug with little consideration for natural lighting, with pink and saffron shamianas further blocking out that light' One could well say that a temple had been “found” here, even as the excavation began, well before any report was submitted. A temple was the only demand at the site — from everyone, whether they be sadhus, security personnel or court officials.

A renowned archaeologist has applauded the fact that, for the first time in Indian history, a full excavation has been conducted under the control of the judiciary, pushing the ASI into submitting this more-and-more rare product of a site report. But what credibility rests today with a body that has allowed its professional practice to be dictated by the archaeological illiteracy of political parties and the court, that could be jolted out of its notorious inertia about completing and publishing reports only under the political stranglehold of staging a made-to-order dig and a trussed-up report'

But there is of course a much larger accusation to be made here about the politics of archaeology at Ayodhya. To have permitted itself to be embroiled in this pointless exercise of authentication and refutation of underground evidence has been, in my opinion, the greatest undoing of the discipline. After all, what difference does it make even if temple remains do exist at the site, even if one assumes that portions of a temple were razed and assimilated within the medieval mosque'

This basic point needed to be made, and made most forcefully, by historians and archaeologists. As lawyers are pointing out, proof of a prior temple cannot alter the terms of the property dispute: it cannot take away the hard fact testified by revenue records that for centuries now, this mosque site was a waqf property. More important, the past “crime” of the destruction of a 10th-century temple by Babur’s general, Mir Baqi, cannot by any means justify the far-greater modern-day crime of the razing of a 16th-century mosque.

For that negates one of archaeology’s fundamental constitutive principles — the protection and conservation of historical monuments, established through a series of statutes in colonial and independent India. It goes against the grain of all its intricate knowledges of several other such temple-remains beneath mosques or vestiges of Buddhist and Jain establishments beneath Hindu religious edifices throughout India. It renders illegitimate, by the same logic (say the logic of appropriating a Buddhist site), several of the country’s most revered temples in the custody of the ASI.

Historical retribution and repossession becomes the most dangerous of arguments for the country’s vast architectural inheritance. If there was a single secular principle that the government and the archaeological profession should have established at Ayodhya, it was that the Babri Masjid had to be protected as a historical structure. The progressive infiltration of the mosque since its first forcible occupation by the Bairagis sadhus of the Hanumangarhi temple in the 1850s — from the construction of the Ram Chabutra within the compound to entry of idols, pujaris and worshippers — have underlined the urgency of this need for over a century now.

There were many critical moments when such a law could and should have intervened — when, for instance, during the communal riots at Ayodhya in 1934, one of the domes of the masjid was destroyed and had to be renovated by the government; or when on the night of December 22-23, 1949, the Ram idols were planted inside and the property had to be locked and attached by court order; or even as late as the Eighties when, following the “opening of the locks”, the unrestricted access of Hindu worshippers and the sangh parivar’s mounting Ramjanmabhoomi campaign made the destruction of the mosque an imminent danger. The “disputed property” needed to be more categorically claimed as an archaeological protected monument.

To have failed in this cardinal task, and then to have entered the battle for proof and counter-proof about the historicity of the site as Ramjanmabhoomi and the presence of the conjectured temple, were to have given the game over fully to the masters of Hindutva. There is little left to be salvaged now. Having first lost portions of the courtyard, then the rights of worship and eventually the entire masjid, the Muslim litigants are fast on the path of forfeiting their last rights on the property. To hope that the rule of law can still prevail to retain for the disinherited this symbolic land, or to ask that this emptied excavated mound be now preserved as a prime ancient and medieval archaeological site is like crying in the dark.

Email This Page