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

The Wire interviews archaeologists Supriya Varma and Jaya Menon, who observed the court-ordered excavation of the disputed site in 2003.

The Supreme Court judgment has handed over the disputed site at Ayodhya to the Hindu parties. While doing so, the five-judge bench relied heavily on the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) report that a Hindu temple existed beneath the now-demolished Babri mosque. It also took into account the diaries of European travellers in the early modern period who felt that the Hindus worshipped at the site of the mosque.

However, the question of whether there was a temple beneath the mosque or not continues to be rigorously debated in academia.

In this email interview, The Wire spoke to two eminent archaeologists, Supriya Varma and Jaya Menon, who observed the court-ordered excavation of the site on behalf of the Sunni Waqf Board.

The ASI conducted a six-month excavation to conclude that a Hindu temple existed beneath the mosque. However, both Varma and Menon differed entirely with the ASI and argued that the excavated site threw up evidence of underlying structures that resembled either smaller mosques or Buddhist stupas, not a temple. They believed that the evidence collected during the excavation does not support ASI’s conclusion.

When the Allahabad high court’s verdict divided the disputed land equally between the three parties, Varma and Menon published a paper in Economic and Political Weekly questioning the ASI report and its methodologies.

Varma is currently professor of archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University while Menon heads the history department at Shiv Nadar University. In their first interview after the Supreme Court verdict, they talk in detail about the history of excavations at the site and why they hold a contrasting view.

How many times has the site at Ayodhya been excavated? Both B.B. Lal and B.R. Mani as ASI representatives have claimed that there was a temple beneath the Babri Masjid. What is the basis of that claim?

Parts of Ayodhya were first surveyed by Alexander Cunningham, as archaeological surveyor to the Government of India, in 1862-63. He was mainly interested in identifying places associated with Buddhism as mentioned in the records of the Chinese Buddhist monks, Fa Xian and Xuan Zang. He identified three mounds on the southern side of the town, Mani Parbat and Kuber Parbat that each had stupas, and Sugriva Parbat that had a monastery. He also recorded oral traditions and places associated with the Ramayana. He wrote: “There are several very holy Brahmanical temples about Ajudhya, but they are all of modern date, and without any architectural pretensions whatever…” He mentioned, “Ram Kot or Hanumangarhi on the east side of the city is a small walled fort surrounding a modern temple on the top of an ancient mound.”

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

What is extremely significant is that he actually identified a Janam Asthan, or “Birth-place temple” of Rama in a totally different area not far from Lakshman Ghat in the “very heart of the city” (A. Cunningham 1871, Four Reports made during the Years 1862-63-64-65, Volume I, Archaeological Survey of India, Govt. of India, New Delhi, rpt. 2000, p. 322). While Cunningham recorded oral traditions associated with the Ramayana story, and clearly identified a Janam Asthan temple, he made no reference to the Babri Masjid (located close to the Ramkot/Hanumangarhi temple area) as standing on the site of a destroyed Ram temple.

Cunningham’s map which identifies Janam Asthan temple at a different spot than where Babri Masjid stood. Photo: By arrangment

Other excavations at Ayodhya were by a team that included A.K. Narain, T.N. Roy and P. Singh, of Banaras Hindu University (Indian Archaeology: A Review 1969-70: 40-41). Three occupational periods were identified, two continuous, the third after several centuries of abandonment. No chronological details for the three periods were provided except for the first where Northern Polished Ware (generally dated between 600 and 100 BC) was recovered.

Between 1975 and 1986, B.B. Lal excavated at different sites, including Ayodhya, under the aegis of a National Project titled ‘The Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites’. Unlike the BHU excavations which were carried out in other parts of Ayodhya, Lal excavated at the mound associated with the Ramjanmabhumi/Babri Masjid and the open areas to the west of Hanumangarhi as well as Sita ki Rasoi. He found evidence for three periods of occupation (7th century BC to the 3rd century AD; 4th to 6th century AD; and after a break in occupation of over 500 years, it was reoccupied around the 11th century AD). In this last phase of occupation, B.B. Lal noted that “medieval brick-and-kankar lime floors have been met with, but the entire late period was devoid of any special interest” (Indian Archaeology: A Review 1976-77: 53). Indian Archaeology: A Review is an annual publication of the Archaeological Survey of India wherein excavations and surveys undertaken by different universities and government departments of archaeology (Centre and state) are briefly reported.

In October 1990, B.B. Lal wrote an article in Manthan, a magazine brought out by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), where he published a photograph from the excavations that he conducted at Ayodhya between 1975 and 1980. In this photograph were several brickbat (broken brick pieces) heaps that he claimed were the “pillar bases” of a temple that had been destroyed by Babur.

Pillar bases excavated by B.B. Lal (1970s). Photo: Courtesy Supriya Varma

All through the unpublished ASI excavation report (H. Manjhi and B.R. Mani, 2003, Ayodhya: 2002-03, Volumes I and II, Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi) there is no reference to the existence or demolition of a temple below the Babri Masjid. It is only in the concluding paragraph of the last chapter of the Ayodhya excavation report, which unlike all the other chapters has no named author(s), that a claim is made “of remains which are distinctive features found associated with the temples of north India”. These remains comprised of: (1) architectural fragments; (2) a “massive structure” of which only the western wall was found; along with (3) 50 brickbat heaps / “pillar bases”.

You represented the Muslim side when B.R. Mani was conducting excavations on the site. And you found that a basic archaeological method was not followed. Could you elaborate?

The basic problems relate to the collection strategies as well as creating the documentary record of the excavations. Right at the outset, it was observed that animal bones and glazed pottery were not being collected and instead were being thrown away. When complaints were made regarding these practices, the court then ordered that these be collected and recorded.

The second is the creation of the documentary record. In excavations, the standard procedure should be to maintain a detailed record of the actual process of recovery of individual features, as is now the norm with the use of context forms in excavations. In these forms, each dig is described, which taken overall constitutes a record of how walls, artefacts and features were recovered.

Hence, when the various floors under the Babri Masjid were being excavated, what was required was a detailed documentation of what was uncovered after each dig, as well as the composition of the deposits between the successive floors. It was critical to document that under each successive floor lay fill deposits of mud, brickbats and stone that constituted the base of the floor.

Had this been accurately documented and illustrated in the report, it would have been clear that these materials formed the base of the floor. Instead, brickbats were selectively removed but left intact at intervals, ranging from 1.98 meters to 5.0 meters to give the impression of “pillar bases”.  A documentation strategy that shows only the end point and not the intermediary stages of excavation, results not only in an incomplete but an erroneous record.

Also Read: Ayodhya: Once There Was A Mosque

The third concerns the obfuscation that was done in the case of the architectural fragments, which were presented in the report as “distinctive features associated with the temples of north India”. A clear distinction should have been made between the 40 architectural fragments that came from stratified contexts and the large majority of 405 that came from the debris lying on the surface of the mound. None of the 40 fragments that were recovered from stratified contexts was specific to a temple. The problem with the 405 fragments from the debris lies in their not coming from the deposits underneath the Babri Masjid and sealed by its floor. The issue with the material lying in the debris is that we do not know their contexts, and hence, claiming them as evidence is somewhat problematic.  This is a distinction that is difficult for non-archaeologists to understand but is fundamental to archaeological practice.

Fourth, there are discrepancies between the excavation report and the site notebooks. One such example that can be cited is the discrepancy in the date attributed to the “circular shrine”.  In the excavation report, the structure is dated to 9th-10th centuries AD, whereas in the site notebook, it is dated to 4th-6th centuries AD.

The SC verdict finally does not conform to the view that Babri masjid was built after demolishing a Hindu temple but does not disagree that there was a temple beneath it. Your comments.

The SC verdict categorically states that there is no demolition of a temple, as is the case with the excavation report. The question arises: if a temple was not demolished, then how come only one wall was recovered, and that too the western wall? Where are the other walls and the platform or plinth on which it should have been built?

On what basis do you conclude that there was a mosque beneath the Babri masjid? In which period was it built, according to your reading? Is there any evidence that the Babri Masjid was built after demolishing the earlier mosque?

In terms of structural evidence, if we discount the created “pillar bases”, then we are left with a western wall and three lime-surkhi floors attached to it. Further, this western wall had a slight tilt towards the east which is a characteristic of western walls of mosques in India due to the direction of Mecca towards which it is meant to face. Probably, this western wall was of an open-air mosque without a domed superstructure. The floors attached to the wall were built in succession and as the earlier floor deteriorated due to use, a new one was laid above it. This mosque was possibly built sometime in the 13th century AD and may have continued to be used till the early 16th century AD. This wall was not demolished but used as the foundation for the western wall of the Babri Masjid.

The ASI talks about ‘pillar bases’, ‘architectural fragments’ and a western wall to assert its theory of a temple beneath the mosque. How have archaeologists read such evidence?

Pillar base excavated by ASI in 2003. Photo: Courtesy Supriya Varma

Two other archaeologists, D. Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar, have carefully analysed the 2003 ASI report (D. Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar, 2007, Ayodhya: Archaeology after Excavation, Tulika, New Delhi). They too have pointed out the lacuna of the archaeological methods followed by the ASI. Mandal has also written that the “pillar bases” were features associated with four different floors and were not part of one structure. Both archaeologists point out that these brickbat heaps could not have supported pillars that could have held up the roof of a “massive structure”. Ratnagar specifically notes the absence of a plinth or platform, or even the base of one, at Ayodhya.

Also Read: Supreme Court’s Explanation for Ruling in Favour of Hindu Parties in Ayodhya

Both, along with a third archaeologist, Suraj Bhan, write that the existence of “a single [western] wall with in-built arch-top niches and a well-made Floor 4” points to an Idgah below the Babri Masjid (Mandal and Ratnagar 2007: 44). Regarding the architectural fragments, Mandal adds that this throws “no light whatever on the dates of those buildings, or their cultural or religious affiliations” (Mandal and Ratnagar 2007: 57).

Ratnagar interestingly highlights the evidence that was found from Somnath that was excavated by B.K. Thapar. “His excavations [at Somnath] uncovered stone walls and their foundation pits filled with rubble packing; remnant stone plinths of successive phases; the successive bases for the icon (the linga); a few pillar bases; and carved stone sculptures and embellishments” (Mandal and Ratnagar 2007: 16). Ratnagar contrasts the evidence of destruction at Somnath with its absence at Ayodhya.

The SC also depends on European travellers like Tiefenthaler to conclude that Hindus laid claim to the site. What do you think of that?

Alexander Cunningham. Photo: Public Domain image

While Tiefenthaler, a Jesuit traveller, who visited Ayodhya between 1766 and 1771, seems to have been depended on in the judgment, it is curious that Alexander Cunningham, initially the archaeological surveyor to the Government of India and who subsequently was appointed as the first director general of India (often referred to as the father of Indian archaeology) has been ignored. As we have stated above, Cunningham in 1862-63 surveyed Ayodhya and clearly identified the location of the Ram Janam Asthan temple in the heart of the city, rather than where the Babri Masjid stood. Also, while he recorded oral traditions of the Ramayana story, he did not mention any oral tradition of the Babri Masjid standing at the place where a temple had been destroyed. It is strange why Cunningham’s survey of Ayodhya and his testimony has been ignored in the SC verdict.

During the excavation, did you see any possibility of a Buddhist or a Jaina shrine existing at the site?

We contend that the “circular structure” beneath the “massive structure” is possibly a Buddhist stupa, belonging to about the 4th-6th century AD.

The proponents of the temple theory may say that since you were representing the Muslim side i.e the Sunni Waqf Board, your reading could be biased? Would you like to comment?

What we have presented is our reading of the evidence, based on what was actually recovered. It has nothing to do with which side we were representing. If they had excavated a plan that confirms to a temple, we would have been the first to admit it. The hypothetical plan that the ASI report suggests does not conform to any temple in north India, or any other part of India for that matter. In the case of a north Indian temple, a plinth or a raised platform would be required. Further, only one wall was found, that too the western wall (a characteristic feature of a mosque), whereas the remaining three walls and the plinth or at least its base, were never found.

The excavated western wall. Photo: Courtesy Supriya Varma

As observers of the excavation, did the ASI involve you in preparing its final report at all?

Not at all.

Finally, did you submit your report to the courts? And did the courts take notice of your conclusions?

As observers, we were constantly filing complaints regarding the recording and the collections. We filed a total of 14 complaints between May 2003 and July 2003. These complaints were signed and filed by the plaintiffs of Suit 4 (filed by UP Sunni Central Waqf Board), as we were told we could not file them in our names.

The complaints covered several issues, such as inaccuracies in recording depth measurements; selective collection of artefacts; discarding of animal bones, glazed pottery and glazed tiles; differential recording of material from the same deposits (moulded bricks, sculptured fragments, and terracotta figurines were recorded as coming from primary deposits, while animal bones and glazed ware and tiles were reported as coming from secondary deposits, such as a fill or dump or pit); and discarding of bones from a human skeleton.

The major complaints were regarding the creation of “pillar bases” that were observed first-hand on several occasions in different trenches. Due to the numerous complaints that were made, the director of the excavation, B.R. Mani, was replaced by Hari Manjhi, mid-way through the excavation. Once the ASI report was submitted to the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court, we were cross-examined as witnesses where we presented our objections in the form of affidavits.