Can there be anything more ironic than the fact that to make way for the Sangh parivar’s proposed new temple for Ram in his apparent ‘janmabhoomi’ (land of birth), a 300-year-old historic temple associated with the deity’s ‘janmasthan’ (place of birth) was razed to the ground on August 27, 2020?
The Janmasthan’s demolition, supposedly to accommodate an expanded vision of the new Ram Mandir, was carried out under the supervision of the Shri Ramjanmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust’s construction committee. The location of both temples: Ayodhya’s Kot Ramachandra area.
The most prominent temple of the Gudar (i.e. tatters) Ramachandra ascetic order, the Janmasthan was built 319 years ago on a piece of land donated by a Muslim zamindar. It was known as a symbol of the communal harmony that characterised Ayodhya.
The temple’s standing can also be gleaned from the fact that any person who became a mahant would get himself registered there, the receipt being proof of his newly acquired status. It could be said that this process of registration at the temple was important for a mahant to be acknowledged as such by his peers.
The place where the Janmasthan stood, was adjacent to the Babri Masjid, separated from it by a road that connected Hanumangarhi to the Dorahi Kuan (well). At the time when it was built, there was no idol of Ram in the Babri Masjid for the simple reason that the idol was placed in it only on the intervening night of December 22 and 23, 1949.
Janmasthan – pride of place in Ayodhya
In 1870, the Oudh government press published a report on Ayodhya-Faizabad titled ‘The Historical Sketch of Tahsil Fyzabad, Zillah Fyzabad’. Written by the then officiating commissioner and settlement officer of the area, P. Carnegy, among other things, the report listed the places of religious significance in Ayodhya, giving pride of place to the Janmasthan.
The report, which was written by Carnegy in 1867-68, recorded several things about the temple: it was 166 years old and had been built by Mahant Ramdas; and the land on which it stood, measuring over an acre, had been given as a grant by a zamindar, Mir Masum Ali.
Mentioning that 22 sadhus were living on the temple premises, the report noted that it was among the more prosperous temples in the Ramkot area (referred to as Kot Ramachandra by the colonial administration).
Until 1984, the historical importance of the Janmasthan remained undimmed, for devotees associated it with the birth of Ram. They would start at Hanumangarhi and visit the temples along the way – Kanak Bhawan, Dashrath Mahal, Ram Khazana, Ratan Singhasan and Rang Mahal – to finally reach the Janmasthan and the Ram Chabutra (known as Janmabhoomi). All these temples were located in the Kot Ramachandra area, which was considered the most well-to-do area of Ayodhya.
Decline of Janmasthan and other temples with the ascent of Hindutva politics
From 1984 onwards, as the Ayodhya dispute gathered momentum, steered by Hindutva’s narrative, the Kot Ramachandra area became a zone of contentious politics, catapulting Ayodhya from a local to a national context. Increasing security concerns meant that common devotees found it increasingly difficult to visit the older temples that held a great deal of significance for them.
Around 1984, a part of the temple’s residential area on the ground floor was occupied by a post office. From 1991 onwards, the upper portion of the Janmasthan was converted into a police control room to keep an eye on the goings-on in the Babri Masjid. On December 6, 1992, the control room was packed with senior police and administrative officials of Uttar Pradesh who watched as the kar sevaks demolished the masjid.
Even so, until 1993, when the Narasimha Rao government at the Centre acquired 67.703 acres in and around the place where the Babri Masjid once stood, it was the Janmasthan which was frequented by devotees and religious figures. They would come for a darshan, stay there, and perform their puja.
However, the acquisition of the 67 odd acres by the central government created problems for the dozen or so temples located within that area. For instance, the Janmasthan no longer had access to the land that had been given to it by zamindar Mir Masum Ali to sustain itself, take care of the expenses of conducting the daily ritual of ‘arti’ and ‘bhog’.
Moreover, as the lanes leading up to these temples were cordoned off, their other vital source of revenue – offerings by the public – also dried up. Not only did it become difficult for these temples to continue their daily ‘arti’ and ‘bhog’; there was a question mark on their very survival.
Virtually the only place the devotees could visit, through a zig-zag path created for them, and under the shadow of a gun, was the makeshift temple of Ram Lalaa that was erected immediately after the demolition. The older temples in the area were literally starved for devotion. They lost their lustre.
December 6, 1992 – when kar sevaks destroyed the Babri Masjid and the historic Ram Chabutra
The course that the Ayodhya dispute has taken, has not just brought about the destruction of the Janmasthan; what is hardly ever mentioned is that on December 6, 1992, the ‘Ram bhakt’ kar sevaks who razed the Babri Masjid, also demolished the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi, located in the Masjid’s outer courtyard!
These were landmarks which were an integral part of Ayodhya’s sacred geography for the faithful – Ram Chabutra was known as janmabhoomi from the early 20th century onwards; until the end of the 19th century, it was known as janmasthan, where the Nirmohi Akhara had been performing puja even before 1885.
In 1885, Mahant Raghubar Das sought permission to build a Ram Mandir over the Ram Chabutra. The suit was dismissed by the sub-judge of Faizabad and, on appeal, by the district judge as well.
The Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi were located at right angles to each other, in an L-shape. Both were close to the two main gates of the Babri Masjid. In 1859, the colonial administration had created a line of demarcation between the mosque and these two structures by means of an iron railing so that members of both communities could pray in their areas.
In the Babri Masjid title suit, the Masjid and its courtyard were referred to as the “inner courtyard”, and the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi were described as the “outer courtyard”.
Taking the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi to be under the Nirmohi Akhara’s control, the 2010 Allahabad high court ruling on the land title case, which opted for a three-way division of one-third for each of the three parties, gave the Nirmohi Akhara the area where the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi had stood until December 6, 1992. (The other two parties being the Central Sunni Waqf Board and Ram Lalaa Virajmaan).
Preparations for a grand new Ram Mandir, destruction of older historic Ram temples
As the final Supreme Court judgement of November 9, 2019, paved the way for the construction of a new Ram Mandir, the Modi government created the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust. Transferring the 67 odd acres of the land acquired in 1993 to the Trust, the government gave it the mandate of seeing to the construction of the temple.
The old Ram Mandir model, prepared by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), has been revised to facilitate more monumental proportions – 360 feet long, 235 feet wide and 161 feet high.
Both the president of the Trust, Nrityagopal Das (mahant of the Mani Ram Chavni in Ayodhya), and the general secretary, Champat Rai (VHP), are accused in the Babri Masjid demolition conspiracy case, which is going on in a CBI special court. (The special court has been asked by the Supreme Court to complete the trial by September 30, 2020.)
Following the demolition of the Janmasthan on August 27, many of the older temples located within the acquired land, mostly associated with Ram, and now condemned as decrepit, face the same fate.
Much before this, in 1991, the then BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Kalyan Singh, had also acquired 2.77 acres of land near the Babri Masjid, with the stated aim of creating public amenities. Many big and small temples within that area were demolished in the name of levelling the land. Sumitra Bhawan, Sankatmochan and Ram Janki temples were among the important ones to be so demolished (Sakshi Gopal temple was partly destroyed). To this day, that area resembles an open field.
Be it the demolition of temples in 1991, the destruction of the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi by kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, and the Janmasthan’s demolition in August 2020 – they form a sequence of events whereby historic temples and sites associated with Ram’s birthplace, and an older Ayodhya of faith and communal harmony, have been wiped out of existence.
The Ayodhya which symbolised coexistence
Ayodhya was known for its Ganga-Jamuni culture, or its syncretic ethos. It is a well-documented fact that the Muslim rulers and zamindars in the past gave land grants for the establishment and upkeep not only of the Janmasthan but of dozens of temples in and around Ayodhya. Among the important ones were Hanumangarhi, Achari, Ranopali Nanakshahi and Ram Gulela temples, and the Khaki akhara.
This fact is borne out by Carnegy’s Settlement Report (1870), mentioned earlier. The report provided a list of old temples and akharas whose mahants had benefited from the generosity of their Muslim patrons by way of land grants.
For instance, the report records that Nawab Mansur Ali Khan had given money from the royal treasury for the restoration of Hanumangarhi 100 years before, that is, around 1767 (the report was prepared in 1867-68).
Janmasthan and Janmabhoomi
Over the years, nomenclatures underwent a change. At one point, Sita Rasoi (in the outer courtyard of the Babri Masjid) was changed to ‘Chhathi Pujan Sthal’. More importantly, the plaque outside the Janmasthan, put up in 1901, which originally said Janmasthan, also underwent a change sometime after 1984. As the Ramjanmabhoomi issue started hotting up, Sita Rasoi was added on the plaque to make it Janmasthan Sita Rasoi.
There was a reason for it. People visiting Ayodhya during that period would be somewhat bemused – there was one Janmasthan (temple) adjacent to the Babri Masjid and another at Ram Chabutra. They would ask, is the Ram janmasthan at two places? They were told – one is a janmasthan, the other is the janmabhoomi.
The term janmabhoomi has its own history going back to the cusp of the 20th century. In 1898, on the birth anniversary of prince Albert Edward (Queen Victoria’s eldest son who succeeded to the throne as King Edward VII in 1901), the Edward Teerth Rakshini Vivechini Sabha was formed by the Badasthan (Dashrath Mahal) Mahant, Manohar Prasad, in Ayodhya. The Sabha collected Rs 1000 through public donations and proceeded with the job of identifying and displaying the names of temples and kund (tanks and pools).
Pink stone plaques, like milestones, were erected at each identified spot, with the name of the temple or kund inscribed on them. In all, 103 spots were identified.
One such plaque, numbered one, with Janmabhoomi inscribed on it, was erected in front of the Ram Chabutra, close to the partition separating it from the Babri Masjid. Following objections from members of the Muslim community, the matter was taken to court.
In 1903, the court ruled that the plaque had been placed in front of the Ram Chabutra, not in front of the gate to the Masjid. The court order also stated that anyone who attempted to pull out the plaque, would have to pay a fine of Rs 3000 and undergo a three-year prison term.
Here it is important to reiterate that there was no idol inside the Masjid (below the main dome) at the time, nor was any puja conducted there. In fact, Friday prayers were held there until the intervening night of December 22 and 23, 1949. Also, puja at the Ram Chabutra and Sita Rasoi continued until December 6, 1992, when they were destroyed by the kar sevaks.
More than a century later, the memory of Ram Chabutra has receded. Few remember its end – demolished on December 6, 1992, by the same kar sevaks who razed the Babri Masjid. Fewer still remember that the 300-year-old, historic Janmasthan, and many other temples in Ayodhya, were built on land and money given by Muslim rulers and zamindars of the area. The destruction of landmarks that are a reminder of Ayodhya’s older culture of co-existence, signals that an entire chapter in its history has been wiped out.
As Ayodhya readies itself for a mammoth new Ram Mandir, one thing is clear. Hindutva politics has transformed Ayodhya from a symbol of Ganga-Jamuni culture to the epicentre of divisive politics across the nation – in the name of Ram.
Suman Gupta is a senior journalist with the Hindi daily, Jan Morcha, brought out from Faizabad.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.