Ayodhya and the Future of India’s Past

How history was held hostage to folklore and 'popular’ memory.

As a historian, I realise that I have no monopoly over giving anyone a true or a correct past; but I am supposed to have the tools and the expertise to give that past a reasonably believable provenance.

I also am supposed to have the methodological facility to verify that provenance, to interpret it, to connect that past (or a past) with the present and think of ways that the past and the present might become a part of the future.

But not anymore. The recent Supreme Court judgment in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi case has put an end to that confidence.

Historians and archaeologists have written reams on what they have considered to be an authentic past from the documented materials or from the artefactual remains that have been thrown up for expert scrutiny.

A mosque was built in Ayodhya some 490 years ago supposedly at the behest of an emperor who died within two years of the project. Given the time consuming and labour-intensive construction of those times, I wonder whether the said emperor even lingered long enough to witness the completion of a building spread over 1,500 square yards.

Also read: Ayodhya: Evidence From Excavation Does Not Support ASI’s Conclusion About Temple

He probably didn’t even halt long enough in Ayodhya to offer prayers at that site. He is said to have merely rested on the banks of the Sarayu while on his way back from eastern India. His memoirs make no mention of Ram or his birthplace, or that he wanted to leave his mark as a symbol of his triumph over that sacred spot of the ‘unbelievers’. We also know why he didn’t.

The spot where he is supposed to have commanded Mir Baqi to build a mosque neither had a temple, nor even the memory of a temple in the name of Ram. In all probability, and knowing Babur’s colourful personality, he subsequently forgot all about the mosque, at least the eloquent silence of his memoir would suggest so. His successors were equally disinterested in recording this event. After all, wouldn’t one expect Muslim rulers to repeatedly celebrate the construction of a mosque at the exact spot where Ram was supposed to have been born sometime in the Treta Yuga?

Their silence is puzzling.

Also read: Ayodhya: Once There Was A Mosque

Hindu litterateurs didn’t help resolve the issue of Ram’s birthplace or his date of birth or whether a mosque had been built on the spot where Ram was supposed to have been born. Valmiki didn’t say anything; nor did Tulsidas. European travellers like William Finch and Josef Tiffenthaler noticed the ruins of Ramkot, which they were told people believed to be the ruins of Ram’s palace. It would indeed be a small miracle that a palace built in the Treta Yuga survived 1,296,000 years only to turn into ruins when Finch visited Ayodhya sometime between 1608 and 1611.

As probably the first European to reach Ayodhya during Mughal rule, Finch made no mention of a mosque, or of Babur, or of Ram’s birthplace. He merely reproduced what Hindus ‘acknowledge’ as the great god who ‘tooke [sic] flesh upon him to see the tamasha of the world’.

In the absence of historical veracity or literary corroboration, such oral traditions, memories and myths became the points of reference where multiple sites could compete for the honour of Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya itself. Each had a lore; none had any verifiable history. Therefore, there can be no doubt that every aspect of the subsequent European narrative on Ayodhya (like Tiffenthaler’s) became based on a catalogue hearsay and folklore connected with the colonial construction of Hinduism in the nineteenth century.

What happened in the centuries between 1528 and 1856? Was the mosque not at all in use during those 328 years? Photographs of the site taken in the 1900s not only suggest that it was but also that it was being maintained with some care. Much before that, Faizabad was the home of the Awadh Nawabs who, particularly the women of their household,  were famous for their patronage of religious places. In fact, the temple at Hanumangarhi in Ayodhya was built in 1774 on 50 acres of land gifted to it by Shuja-ud Daula, the reigning Nawab of Awadh. It is thus inconceivable that the Babri Masjid was not a recipient of their benefaction.

Also read: Ayodhya and the ‘Modimon Effect’

Awadh was also a highly productive region and the attraction of its economy drew settlers from other places of which considerable numbers were Muslim cultivators, artisans and the labouring poor. The massive mosque was a natural magnet for the devout and to think it was not being used, particularly on Fridays, is unimaginable. No wonder the Sunni waqf board, while filing a review petition in the Supreme Court has used the Rule of the Presumption under section of 114 of the Evidence Act in order to contend the inconceivability of a mosque lying unused in the midst of a plebeian Muslim population and under the overall watch of the Nawabs of Awadh.

But all this changed in the nineteenth century. What transpired then was the morphing of folklore into history through colonial violence. The first recorded violent dispute between Muslims and Hindus over the mosque was in 1855, precisely 327 years after it was built, but Nawab Wajid-Ali Shah intervened, and peace was maintained. Though the Nawab was a Muslim, he carried enough legitimacy with both communities to enforce the peace. He was deposed in 1856, setting the stage for inventing a different history of Ayodhya.

Prior to this, Ram was part of a living folklore, which was respected by all; but the spilling of folk sentiments into bloody conflicts had been successfully kept in check.

All this was about to change. By fixing its sights on the Babri Masjid, colonial rule was about to transform folklore into history.

Also read: Archeologist Who Observed Dig Says No Evidence of Temple Under Babri Masjid

The deposition of the Nawab and the rebellion that followed in its wake stormed through Lucknow and Faizabad. Maulavi Ahmadullah Shah became the torch bearer of the revolt and from his base in Faizabad’s Sarai Masjid he kept the colonial army at bay for over a year till he was treacherously betrayed and killed by one of the local Hindu landholders of that area whose brother had promised his support to the Maulavi’s militia.

His collaborators against the British included Nana Sahib of Kanpur, Kunwar Singh of Arrah while his infantry regiment was commanded by Subedar Ghamandi Singh and Subedar Umrao Singh in the famous Battle of Chinhat. In Faizabad, Pandit Shambhu Prasad Shukla, the head pujari of the temple at Vasudev Ghat, Mahant Ram Charan Das, Maulavai Amir Ali and Acchan Khan constituted the local leadership of a united Hindu-Muslim front against British rule.

The price of this Hindu-Muslim unity against colonial rule had to be paid by both communities, not only by way of brutal retributions after the rebellion was put down, but through a conscious policy of killing a culture of plebeian syncretism by infusing the poison of communal animosity in it.

Also read: The Ayodhya Verdict is Based on a Strange Feat of Logic

Wajid Ali Shah had been able to snuff out a possible communal confrontation in 1856 by harking upon this very culture, the British fanned it in the other direction. Local beliefs that the Babri Masjid was the birthplace of Rama could now gather widespread traction, and using this pretext, colonial administration erected a fence at the ‘disputed’ site. While Muslims were assigned the mosque’s inner court to pray, Hindus could use the outer court. The communal fault lines which were wafer thin in the past were now made wider and deeper.

The costs of Faizabad’s opposition to colonial rule in 1857 were recovered by the communalisation of the Babri Masjid. It was just a matter of time before Ram’s place of birth would be definitively identified: this happened in 1859, precisely two years after the great rebellion was crushed with a brutality which only a ‘civilised’ nation like Britain was capable of inflicting on its colonies.

Also read: Ayodhya’s Forgotten Mahant and His Message of Peace

After this, it was open season in Ayodhya. In March 1934, merely 74 years after 1857, a Hindu-Muslim riot in the city damaged the mosque and the dome. A mosque which had stood on undsiputed land for over four centuries was now desecrated, and it would only be a matter of time before it would be surreptitiously transformed into ‘mandir’. This too happened. On a winter’s night in 1949, idols of Ram ‘miraculously’ appeared under the central dome of the mosque, and history henceforth was held hostage to folklore and ‘popular’ memory.

The Supreme Court used this post-1856 history to deliver the judgment on 9th November 2019. It ostensibly relied on documentation, but a documentation which was consciously and strategically fabricated under colonial rule.

In the meantime, I think Ram is still out there looking for his place of birth, while the historian in me tells me that the future of our past has been quietly denuded of its history.

Rajat Datta is professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.