In the dry winter of 2003, in the dusty, monumental site of Dholavira, I met some officers, draughtsmen, photographers and archaeologists of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) who had just excavated the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid complex.
Dholavira was not an unusual place to meet them at. It was the fifth largest metropolis of the Harappan civilisation, gingerly poised at the top of an island surrounded by the shimmering, white, salty waters of the Rann of Kutch. ASI had been excavating this site for more than a decade. I was there as an anthropologist studying how archaeology makes meaning in postcolonial India.
“After doing history’s most important excavation, digging in Dholavira is like a joy ride,” remarked a coarse-faced, middle-aged assistant archaeologist who had camped in Ayodhya from March to September of 2003, excavating and then writing the Ayodhya excavation report.
We were walking between the trenches that had been dug up in the four-millennium old Harappan metropolis, admiring the dexterity of its masonry.
Talking about Ayodhya was prohibited. Everyone who had worked had signed a high court gag order.
A draughtsman, a veteran of ASI for 15 years rebuked me in hushed tones: “Bibi-bachche hai saheb (‘we have wives and children at home’)… the court has forbidden us to talk. It’s too sensitive.”
But in the slow and languorous world of an ASI archaeological excavation, time is not a premium. During my fieldwork between 2003 and 2005, gradually, my informants opened up and candidly talked about their experiences at Ayodhya.
The Ayodhya excavation was the ultimate bureaucratic juggernaut. Fifty-three ASI personnel — with a careful Muslim representation proportionate to their population in the 1991 Census — along with 131 labourers, excavated the site from March 12 to August 7, 2003 under the protection of the state police, the Public Accounts Committee and the Central Reserve Police Force. Under the glare of the national media, they were reporting every potshard unearthed. The task to find the remains of a Hindu god buried under a mosque made this the most unusual excavation in the history of archaeology.
“It was a dreadful experience working for more than 150 days on a stretch,” complained a junior ASI officer as we watched the sun set at the edge of the Rann at Dholavira.
“We worked for 16 hours a day in two shifts, day and night. Once the rains started falling the trenches were covered under multi-coloured plastic sheets. We worked under the agonising heat of the halogen lights’ glare, descending 20 metres under the earth, just digging. Only sweat, humidity, dirt and darkness. It was terribly hot. They used huge fans that would only churn out more hot air. We could not see anything, let alone practice archaeology. We were just digging and collecting objects. This was not archaeology, it was gaddha-mazdoori. All we found was tonnes of potshards, burnt bones, shattered ceramics tiles, unidentified terracotta pieces, and fragments of unknown idols that looked like someone’s god, but no one’s Ram or Rahim (na kisi ka Ram, na kisi ka Rahim),” he wryly recounted.
He continued with his air of annoyance: “Who can work with a group of anxious maulvis, nervous pundits, suspicious RSS swayamsevaks and the skeptical communists, voyeuristically gazing at every act we did in the trench. They even followed us when we went to relieve ourselves. As if we will smuggle something incriminating from the toilet into the trenches. The Muslims wanted us to find Babur’s nameplate and the Hindus wanted us to find Ram’s paduka!”
For all intents and purposes, normal ASI archaeological excavations are a leisurely exercise – tedious, monotonous, repetitive with occasional discoveries, but done at a relatively calm, nonchalant pace, without excessive haste or stress. ASI archaeology usually comprises unhurried interventions into the bowels of the earth. Years are spent languorously excavating the site layer by layer, artefacts are cautiously removed, structures are slowly exposed.
They are mapped, drawn, photographed, classified and, sometimes analysed.
The Ayodhya excavation of 2003, in contrast, was an excavation in “fast-forward” mode as an assistant archaeologist eloquently explained. “Conducting an archaeological excavation under the direct orders of the high court was a different ball game. Excavation is five-day match but the court forced us to play a one-day match,” he said.
It might be fair to say that the Ayodhya excavation was the most rushed in the history of ASI. What would have taken any archaeological survey in an analogous medieval site in north India nearly four to five years (with around 300-500 days of excavation) was hurriedly done in fewer than 150 days from March to August of 2003.
When the excavation ended, the ASI had excavated a staggering 90 trenches, some of which were 20 metres deep, and recovered many thousands of antiquities, ceramics of different periods, coins, architectural fragments, terracotta objects, figurines and bones.
ASI archaeologists were very unhappy with the working conditions at the site and the production of enormous amount of material culture was done in conditions that were substandard and impossible.
Dr. B.R. Mani, who was the editor of the ‘Excavation Report,’ in the ‘Constraints’ section of the introduction to the report elaborates:
“Monkeys started damaging the sheets as a result of which several layers of sheets were spread over bamboo and wooden poles. They created further darkness. Photography was also affected due to bad light and natural colours were not easily obtained as the multi-coloured sheets reflected their colours on the surface and sections. Much difficulty was felt for the stratigraphical observations particularly for determining layers”.
This alarming disclaimer in the very body of the report makes the evidential basis of the report suspect. Fuelled by the fact that very little time was spent on even a nominal analysis of the artefacts excavated, the ensuing report had to be kept unpublished because it was a poor one, even by ASI standards.
If the excavation was the fastest in the history of ASI, then the report was the most hastily written excavation report in the history of archaeology. It was a record of sorts. The Ayodhya excavation ended on August 12, 2003, and the report was submitted to the High Court on August 22, 2003.
The two-volume and 574-page report was written in 10 days!
A senior archaeologist told me: “It normally takes 25 years to write an archaeological report at ASI.” He was referring to the famed ASI report on the Harappan site of Kalibangan that Dr B.B. Lal (who had also excavated at Ayodhya in 1976-77) wrote in 2003, approximately 31 years after he had excavated the site. “The high court had held the gun to our forehead. So we worked like mad men — day and night, without sleep, to produce a report which reads less like a scientific one and more like boring fiction.”
This report was the most well-guarded secret when it comes to texts written by the ASI. Only the top brass of the ASI saw it. Even those who had worked at Ayodhya did not see it. Copies of the report were given to all the parties of the high court case but that is the extent of its public life. It is still not published. The non-publication of the Ayodhya report signals not just that fact that it is considered a state secret but that it was a very poorly written text.
If the Ayodhya excavation was a flawed project, then the Ayodhya Excavation Report that formed the empirical grounds for the Supreme Court to adjudicate that a temple existed under the Babri Masjid was an even greater anomaly. Among the many incongruities were that the report was written in an extraordinarily hurried manner; it has not been made public and has the life of a top secret state file rather than an archaeological report. It has also been written in an innocuous lacklustre style, more drier and staid than the usually written ASI archaeological report which itself was a sedate clone of 19th century colonial archaeological derivatives than an example of contemporary archaeological practice.
Finally, the most controversial inconsistency of the text is the mysterious un-authored tenth chapter of the report which provocatively and without much empirical basis, asserted for the presence of the temple under the disputed site. Mani and Hari Manjhi co-edited the report with a total of 22 authors collaboratively writing the first nine chapters. Mani was the sole author of the introductory first chapter and Manjhi does not feature as author of any of the chapters. Each of the eight chapters has two or more authors, whereas the last chapter, unexpectedly, has been written anonymously.
This last chapter of the report is called “Summary of Results” and is the most assertively interpretative section of the report. It has been used both by the high court and Supreme Court judges.
It is in this chapter of the report that the ASI proclaims that a monumental pillared structure under the mosque was a temple:
“…now viewing in totality and taking into account the archaeological evidence of a massive structure just below the disputed structure and evidence of continuity in structural phases from the 10th century onwards up to the construction of the disputed structure along with the yield of stone and decorated bricks, as well as mutilated sculpture of divine couple and carved architectural members including foliage patterns, amalaka, kapotapali, doorjamb with semi-circular pilaster, broken octagonal shaft of black schist pillar, locus motif, circular shrines having pranala (waterchut) in the north, 50 pillar bases in association of huge structure, are indicative of remains which are distinctive features found associated with temples of north India.”
The importance of this section can be judged by the fact that it has been cited twice in the recent Supreme Court judgment (in pages 524 and 563).
This hardly empirical assertion of a monumental structure having characteristics of a Hindu temple in an anonymous chapter of an unpublished report, of an epistemologically compromised archaeological excavation, conducted in constrained circumstances by the ASI has been usurped by judges of the Supreme Court to adjudicate that a temple did exist under the Babri Masjid.
And it should not come as a surprise that like this anonymous and decisive chapter of the Ayodhya excavation report, the 1045-page Supreme Court judgment does not have a stated author either.
The covert epistemological sleight of hand in the case of the ASI report and the juridical appropriation of spurious archaeological evidence have now given strength to an old slogan, which is reverberating from that messy corner of history: “Yeh to sirf ek jhanki hai. Mathura, Kashi baaqi hai.”
Ashish Avikunthak is an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island.