Archive for June, 2003

Secrets Of The Shrine

Monday, June 2nd, 2003

Jun 02, 2003

Sandipan Deb gets into the heavily-guarded excavation site at Ayodhya and finds clues to a confusing past

‘ 245.’ ‘ 175.’ ‘ 160.’ Numbers are the only words being spoken on a pitilessly hot afternoon here. Here, the flat top of a low hillock, the epicentre of a political earthquake whose aftershocks never die, whose waves never peter out. Dozens of people work quietly with picks and shovels, whisks and dustpans, probing into the earth for the secrets it has concealed for centuries, secrets that, when uncovered and understood, could impact the lives and minds of a billion Indians.

But when you look at the workers’ nonchalant faces, periodically calling out some measurements, you get no such sense. They are just doing their job.

Ayodhya, May 2003. For more than two months now, following the order of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court on March 5, the Archaeological Survey of India team led by Dr B.R. Mani (ordered by the court to be replaced on May 22) has been excavating the land on which the Babri Masjid had stood from AD 1528 till December 6, 1992. The roughly 41 m by 24 m area is now a grid of 4 m by 4 m trenches, each trench separated from the adjacent one by 1 m strips forming what archaeologists call “baulks”. Aluminium ladders extend into the trenches. Every find in every trench is photographed, the recovery, the packing and sealing process videographed meticulously.

Entry into the excavation site is seriously restricted. The security is almost impossible to breach. Apart from the ASI team, only observers appointed by the court and nominees of the litigants in the various cases relating to the Ram Janmabhoomi issue are allowed in. All the permitted visitors have to carry passes issued by the Allahabad High Court. They enter through a gate separate from the one used by the pilgrims, the darshanarthis of Ram Lalla.

The pilgrims reach the makeshift structure where Ram Lalla sits through a long cage-like corridor that winds through the excavation site. Not only does the pilgrim have any way to enter the excavation site—he would have to cut through the steel rods of the cage walls to do that—he cannot even see what’s going on outside his cage. To keep the excavation totally concealed from the public eye, the walls of the cage have been covered from roof to ground with dark-red curtains. And there are policemen patrolling the cage to make sure no one is peeping.

Every evening, shortly after six, when the excavation work stops, an ASI official comes to a small enclosure to read out a list of the finds of the day to the official observers. The observers spend their day in this enclosure, cooled by the blast from an air cooler and heated by their constant arguments about the meaning and significance of whatever has been gleaned from the earth recently. They are shown the smaller artefacts recovered that day, but no one is allowed to touch anything. Sometimes, when they have interesting photographic evidence, the ASI brings in a screen and projects pictures on it.

The picture they showed on May 8 is the most crucial and exciting find till now. When the ASI flashed the picture on the screen, a shiver ran down the spines of the pro-mandir men in the room. This picture, they feel, is clinching proof of the existence of a Ram temple which Babar destroyed to build his mosque: “We have found the pillars of the Ram temple, now we have found the Lord’s name. Our case is impregnable.”

What they saw is an immensely blown-up version of some inscriptions the ASI has found on a stone slab 6.8 m under the ground. Since just a small part of the slab is protruding from the wall of trench J3, the diggers will not be able to retrieve the slab without obliterating the baulk between J3 and the next trench. This will take time. In the meantime, they have photographed whatever they can see of the slab. What they can see is early Devanagari script:

The pro-mandir men immediately saw the fourth letter as the Hindu sacred sign swoaham, followed by the word “Ram”.What more proof do you need, they ask. Non-VHP observers see no swoaham there, neither do they make out Ram spelt out in the next two letters. But all agree that this slab, when fully unearthed and deciphered, could be an extremely crucial piece in the jigsaw that the excavation is trying to put together.

But the puzzle is vast, and its pieces seemingly endless. The ASI has selected J3 as the test trench and intends to continue digging there till they reach virgin soil. When I was at the site, they were already more than 10 m under the earth in J3 and were still finding man-made artefacts, even after crossing as many as 12 chronological layers. In the other trenches, the deepest the ASI has dug till now is about 5 m. Among the artefacts found:

  • A coin from the time of Akbar made at a mint in Bahraich
  • Glazed pottery
  • A copper seal showing a palm tree and a peacock
  • Many decorated stone pieces
  • A glass piece with what looks like “dhatri” written on it, the Sanskrit word meaning earth or mother
  • Dozens of terracotta pieces, including human and animal figurines, pestles, vessels, balls, fishing net sinkers, seals, beads and so on
  • Broken wheels
  • Bone engravers

From the seemingly endless list of articles found, it is quite clear that this site has been inhabited for many centuries. It seems certain that Babar did not construct his mosque on open land. Just on one single day, May 16, the ASI recovered part of a terracotta (TC) animal figurine, a TC ball, a broken TC wheel, two TC betelnut-sized beads, a broken TC pestle, two bone engravers, two TC tiles, several broken TC bricks, a TC seal, a carved stone fragment, two iron nails, and 11 clusters of human or animal bones. These, at depths ranging from a mere 30 cm below ground level in the extended G1 trench (TC tile) to 10.25 m in J3 (TC ball). Prima facie, glazed pottery indicates Muslim inhabitation. However, pro-mandir observers argue that while Muslims brought the art of glazed pottery to India, there is no reason why Hindus would also not have used such items. They also say that terracotta human and animal figurines seem to indicate Hindu habitation, since representation of living beings was forbidden by Islam.

The Many Layers of Truth

While the ASI dates, analyses and interprets the artefacts, the two sides in the mandir-masjid dispute have already locked themselves into seemingly irreconcilable positions on the structures that have been unearthed so far. For example, to the archaeologically uninitiated pro-mandir layman, the discovery of dozens of “pillar bases” all over the site is blinding proof of the existence of a magnificent temple here. But the other side scoffs at these claims.

These “pillar bases” are roughly squarish structures (about 3 ft by 3 ft to my eye) made of rough bricks that have been found all over the excavation area. They are separated from each other by about 3.5 m, and appear to be aligned in rows, at least to the naked eye. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has long contended that Babar destroyed a majestic Ram temple called Ramkot or Ram’s Fortress which had 84 pillars of kasauti stone. So right now at Ayodhya, VHP observers are walking around smiling “I told you so” smiles.

To them, the “pillar bases” indicate the existence of a vast public building, since households would not have such pillars. And, says a VHP observer, “It could hardly have been a mosque. No one would build a smaller mosque on the site of a huge one. And as for this place being inhabited by Muslims even before Babar reached, the fact is that 98 per cent of what the ASI has found till now is clearly Hindu in origin. At most, two per cent can be classified as Muslim.”

But, but, but. “Pillar bases” were first discovered here by B.B. Lal, former director-general of the ASI, in 1975 as part of a project on the archaeology of the “Ramayana sites”. He published his findings (with photographs) 15 years later in the rss magazine Manthan. This gave an enormous boost to the mandir cause. However, in 1993, archaeologist D. Mandal published a paper that questioned Lal’s conclusions, and using archaeological theory, concluded that, one, the “pillar bases” belonged to different periods, that is, all of them had never existed together at any point of time; two, that they were not really in alignment with one another; and three, that they were not even pillar bases, but junctions of walls, bases of the load-bearing columns at the intersections of walls.

As far as I know, the issue has never been resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. But then, can any issue related to the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute ever be? Right under the Ram Chabutara, which was demolished by the indiscriminate zeal of the mob on December 6, 1992, the ASI has uncovered a 21 ft by 17 ft floor of plastered stone, about 2 m below the ground. From the floor rises a 4.75 ft by 4.75 ft stone slab, 3.5 ft high. Cleaned up now by the ASI, the structure glows a calm pristine white under the blazing afternoon sun. From the floor, there seem to be stairs leading downwards. This is further firepower for the VHP. But, writing in the newspaper Hindustan on May 16, historian Irfan Habib argues that if the structure is made of plastered stone, it cannot pre-date the Muslim era, since plastering was something the Muslims brought to India. Habib fears that the ASI, whose minister-in-charge is Murli Manohar Joshi, one of the principal accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, will end up filing a heavily mandir-biased report.

Habib, who has read the progress report submitted by the ASI to the Allahabad High Court on April 28, feels that the available evidence strongly suggests that there was no huge public building but a common human settlement with hardly the engineering skills to build that famous magnificent temple. He points to the “poor construction” of the “pillar bases” and says that they could not have borne those fabulous kasauti columns. At the most, they would be able to carry some wooden beams like the ones used to build today’s roadside shops and homes of the very poor, he says. Of course, the VHP shrugs these conclusions off. “Can Habib saab then explain why the pillar bases are all in neat rows and separated from one another by the same distance, about 3.5 m?” they ask. “Besides, if it was a normal human habitation, the ASI team should have by now found some remnants of a hearth or chullah, or a wheat grinder, the usual indications that the structure was a household. ”

The trouble seems to be that everyone concerned has turned amateur archaeologist, while the archaeologists themselves will need months to reach any conclusions about the meaning of the excavation’s findings. And the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy is hardly going to be resolved soon. So emotional is the issue, and so firm all the disputants on either side in their convictions, that any compromise, even any meaningful negotiation where either side patiently hears out the other’s argument, seems impossible.The ASI discovered two graves early in its excavation work. The anti-mandir lobby claimed this as conclusive proof that the area was inhabited by Muslims before the mosque was built. The pro-mandir lobby has now produced the report of a survey ordered by the Faizabad Civil Court in 1950 in the . The report lists several graves on the site, where local Hindu priests believe some Hindu sants are buried: Angira, Markendya, Narad, Ramananda, Shandilya and so on. Recently, one evening, when the ASI official was reading out the list of the day’s finds, the nominee of one litigant objected to the ASI saying “terracotta human figurine”.”To say ‘human’ is to interpret the artefact, which is not your job,” was the objection. “You should only say ‘figurine’.”

If this sounds like farce, think a moment about the three skeletons found by the ASI on May 16 near where the main gate of the Babri Masjid complex, the Singh Dwar, had stood. The skeletons were found at 20 cm, 30 cm and 56 cm below the ground. One of them was in a slightly curled-up position, and two of them were touching. Clearly, these were not graves. Who were these unfortunate people then, lying just eight inches under our feet? A very plausible explanation: they were kar sevaks involved in the December 6 demolition. When the Singh Dwar was brought down, they were buried under the rubble.

Martyrdom or irony? Like almost everything else about the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, it all depends on which side you are on.

No Escape, Left Or Right

Monday, June 2nd, 2003

Jun 23, 2003

The article Secrets Of The Shrine on the excavation findings has been accused of being untrue and partisan. Really, the author asks.

As I stood a few metres away from the makeshift structure that houses the Ram Lalla idol in Ayodhya on a dog day afternoon in mid-May and watched a Sikh videographer recording the process of recovery of some artefact from a trench close by, I knew I was in trouble. Whatever I wrote about my visit and the findings of the excavation, I would enrage both sides of the mandir-masjid debate. There was no escape.

I was right. In the last few weeks I have been called a running dog of the VHP, and a lunatic leftie. One mail on our website even promised that when the Hindu revolution comes, I should vamoose to Bangladesh. In addition, there have been accusations that I never visited the site, that the stone slab I had mentioned in my June 2 article with early Devanagari inscription on it did not exist, that I be hauled up for contempt of court. Let’s tackle the stone slab matter first.

On May 29, The Times of India reported: “(Sunni Waqf Board counsel Zafaryab Jilani said that) the inscription has neither been removed nor photographed till date. Even the plaintiffs or defendants have no idea about this particular inscription which is lying upside down.” Okay. But on June 12, the same paper quoted unnamed ASI officials as saying that it would take a long time before anyone can say that the fourth letter is the sacred sign swoaham followed by the word ‘Ram’. “Our own epigraphist has managed to decipher only one word, that is, ‘pala’ in the inscription,” the official is quoted. The ASI officials’ view totally corroborates the copy of the inscription we carried in Outlook. I had written: “The pro-mandir men immediately saw the fourth letter as the Hindu sacred sign swoaham, followed by the word ‘Ram’…Non-VHP observers see no swoaham there, neither do they make out Ram.” Yet, my article has been accused of being “partisan and inaccurate”.

The stone slab is still underground, since trench J3 was flooded. The water is being pumped out now and the slab will perhaps be unearthed in the next few days. As for charges that I was nowhere near the site and fabricated my story, based on the fact that my name is not entered in the visitors’ register, did you expect me to visit the disputed area wearing a fluorescent Outlook T-shirt handing out copies of the magazine to the policemen?

Which brings me to the question of bias. While most papers covering the new ASI report last week said that it claims there was no structure under the Babri masjid, what the report actually says is that of the 30 recent trenches, the team has found man-made structures in eight, and none in 16. In five, they couldn’t decide due to “structural activities at the upper levels” (mainly the plinth of the Babri masjid). One trench they did not survey. Among the structures listed in the report are several brick walls “in east-west orientation”, several in “north-south orientation”, “decorated coloured floor”, several “pillar bases”, and a “1.64-metre high decorated black stone pillar (broken) with yaksha figurines on four corners”. Now that I am sounding like a “running dog of the VHP” to the “lunatic lefties”, let me quickly add that they also found “Arabic inscription of holy verses on stone”.

But what many people have missed out on—due to bias or sloth—is that these are findings only from the period of May 22 to June 6. This is not the full list. If they read the earlier reports, they would also find listed several walls, a staircase, and two black basalt columns “bearing fine decorative carvings with two cross-legged figures in bas-relief on a bloomed lotus with a peacock whose feathers are raised upwards”.

The ideology does not matter. A journalist must report the facts. So let me apologise for two errors I made. One is grave: I wrote that the ASI reports to Murli Manohar Joshi; it actually comes under Jagmohan.The other is a technicality: the ASI did not project a photograph of the Devanagari inscription on a screen for the excavation observers to see, they showed a large photographic print.