Thursday, May 28, 2009

The ruins of Ayodhya

If you had been a British historian of the eighteenth century, with some exposure to the methods and rigour of scientific research gaining ground in Europe, you would have found it exasperating to deal with the natives in India, who made no distinction between mythology and history. In the absence of written records, and with the locals clinging to a bewildering array of beliefs and interpretations, the British historian had to do some painstaking work to clear the cobwebs and create ‘Indian history’ so to say..

In 1835, a Montgomery Martin was asked to carry out a survey on the “History, antiquities, topography and statistics of Eastern India”.

One of the areas he surveyed happened to be Ayodhya ( pages 331-336). Even in the early eighteenth century, there were claims that a temple had been desecrated by Aurangazeb, and a mosque built in its place. Confronted by a web of beliefs, superstitions and legends, he decided to start ground-up, by engaging some Pandits, to dip into mythology and help him trace the geneology of the princely family starting from the time of Rama. He would then use a thumb rule (3 generations per century or something like that) and attempt a ‘dating” of events.

Based on this elaborate exercise and various surmises, his conclusions seem to have been:

1) Ayodhya was founded in 2732 B.C

2) Rama flourished in the year 1550 BC

3) Sometime around 1024 BC, after the reign of Vrihadbala, the 27th descendent of Rama, Ayodhya was deserted.

4) There was a widespread belief that one Vikrama of Ujjain came down centuries later and built 360 temples after clearing the ruins of the city. This, reasons Martin, was highly unlikely considering the time interval, and must be discounted as imagination.

5) “Unfortunately, if these temples ever existed”, writes Martin in 1838, “not the smallest trace of them remains to enable us to judge of the period when they were built; and the destruction is very generally attributed by the Hindus to the furious zeal of Aurungzebe, to whom also is imputed the overthrow of the temples in Benares and Mathura.”

“What may have been the case in the two latter, I shall not now take upon myself to say, but with respect
to Ayodhya the tradition seems very ill founded. The bigot by whom the temples were destroyed, is said to have erected mosques on the situations of the most remarkable temples; but the mosque at Ayodhya, which is by far the most entire, and which has every appearance of being the most modern, is ascertained by an inscription on its walls (of which a copy is given) to have been built by Babur, five generations before Aurungzebe. This renders the whole story of Vikrama exceedingly doubtful, especially as what are said to be the ruins of his fort, do not in any essential degree differ from those said to have belonged to the ancient city, that is, consist entirely of irregular heaps of broken bricks, covered with soil, and remarkably productive of tobacco; and, from its name, Ramgar, I am inclined to suppose that it was a part of the building actually erected by Rama.”

6) Martin concludes that the site of the mosque probably belonged to the palace of the erstw
hile kings of Ayodhya. As evidence, he provides this sketch of a pillar used in the mosque. “That they have been taken from a Hindu building, is evident, from the traces of images being observable on some of their bases; although the images have been cut off to satisfy the conscience of the bigot. It is possible that these pillars have belonged to a temple built by Vikrama; but I think the existence of such temples doubtful; and, if they did not exist, it is probable that the pillars were taken from the ruins of the palace.

I don’t know if this would enable the VHP to view the episode more charitably. After all, building a mosque on the site of a palace that had fallen to ruins a thousand years back is not such a newsworthy thing to do as building it over a destroyed temple.

Reading these accounts, one can get overawed by the intensity of the cross-currents of history and the paths of evolution that led to the present. One realizes that it is utterly foolish and futile to split hairs or cross swords to avenge past misdeeds, imagined or real.

We really ought to move on.

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