While temples are erected for political gain in India, the archeological and historical record underpinning the movement is less than certain, reports Ullekh NP.
Modi at the Pran Pratishtha ceremony of Shree Ram Janmaboomi Temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on Jan. 22, 2024. (Indian Prime Minister’s Office)
By Ullekh NP
in New Delhi, India
Special to Consortium News
The consecration last month by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of a new Hindu temple built on the site of a destroyed mosque in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India underscores the rising tide of Hindu nationalism and marginalisation of Muslims since Modi took power in 2014.
Hindu nationalists contend that medieval Muslim rulers persecuted Hindus and demolished Hindu temples and that left-leaning historians in the last century omitted such excesses from the history books.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has cast Hindus as victims in the medieval period starting from the 12th century, especially under the Mughal Empire from 1526 to 1858, the year the British took control of the subcontinent by deposing the last Mughal ruler.
The Hindutva movement has over the past decades tried to mobilize Hindu Indians in the name of “reclaiming” temples allegedly demolished by whom they refer to as invaders – the Muslims from across the border. Archaeological proof of these claims is in dispute.
The consecration of the Ram Temple on Jan. 22 on the site of a centuries-old mosque venerated by the Muslim community in Ayodhya, after a prolonged court battle, showed that historical and archaeological evidence played a minor role in the judicial process.
This is in a country that has been constitutionally secular and avowedly multicultural, but where superstitious beliefs and misinformation are on the rise, touching levels unprecedented in free India.
At no other juncture of contemporary Indian history has any ruling dispensation been able to rally people around Ram, a character from the Indian epic Ramayana who is venerated as a god by many Hindus, and who is being projected as a king who once lived and thrived as a liberal and ideal administrator.
At the theatrical consecration ceremony, Modi lamented that Ram had lived in a tent since 1528 and that he had finally got a home of his own after a centuries-long wait. According to Modi and his followers, there once stood a Ram temple at the site of Ram’s birth in Ayodhya, which was demolished to build a mosque in 1528, and since then the Hindu god has been homeless.
The Babri Masjid, the mosque that had stood in that spot, was demolished by Hindutva nationalists on Dec. 6, 1992. The riots that followed killed more than 2,000 people.
The court verdict of 2019 that favored the construction of a Hindu temple over the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood never endorsed the claim that a temple was demolished in the 16th century or that any temple remains were used for constructing the mosque.
The verdict said:
“The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) report does not conclude that the remnants of the pre-existing structure were used for the purpose of constructing the mosque.”
As with the temple ruins identified by the ASI as dating back to the 12th century, the court added, “No evidence is available to explain what transpired in the course of the intervening period of nearly four centuries.”
It also said,
“The ASI report has left unanswered a critical part of the remit which was made to it, namely, a determination of whether a Hindu temple had been demolished to pave way for the construction of the mosque.”
For their part, archaeologists Supriya Varma and Jaya Menon, after overseeing the ASI excavation in the run-up to the publication of their 2003 report titled “Was There a Temple under the Babri Masjid? Reading the Archaeological ‘Evidence,’” contended that the mosque was built over structures that resembled a Muslim place of worship. They also questioned the methods used by the ASI to come to certain conclusions.
In a video on Jan. 22, the day of the consecration, Ruchika Sharma, a 33-year-old historian, examined what she calls “lies by the ruling party in India on Babur and the Babri Masjid mosque.” Babur was the founder of the Mughal dynasty, and the Babri Masjid mosque was reportedly built in his honor. Sharma starts with five key questions:
- Did Babur demolish any Hindu temple in Ayodhya, which many believe is the birthplace of Lord Ram, an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu?
- Was there any proof of any temple in this political case?
- Did Babur build any mosque in the city?
- What are the findings from the archaeological excavations in the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi (birthplace of Ram) complex?
- Was there a temple beneath the demolished mosque?
The Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodha sometime between 1863–1887. Destroyed in 1992. (Samuel Bourne (1834–1912)/Wikimedia Commons)
Sharma says there has never been any proof of Babur building a mosque in Ayodhya and that a mosque there was previously called Juma Masjid. She says that Babur had kept a journal in which he wrote daily in the language Chagatai Turki, also known as Eastern Turkic. Later, his grandson, Emperor Akbar, had it translated into Farsi and called it Babarnama.
In that text, Sharma says, there is no mention of Babur building any mosque in Ayodhya. In the 20th century, Annette Beveridge, a British orientalist, compared both the Farsi and Chagatai versions of Babur’s journal. According to Beveridge, in 1528, the year the Babri Masjid was supposedly built, Babur was nowhere near Ayodhya, Sharma explained.
In Akbarnama, the authorized history of Akbar’s rule, written by his court historian and biographer Abu’l-Fazl, too, there is no reference to any mosque built in Babur’s name in Ayodhya although there are references to Ram and the city. Neither does the text mention any demolition in Ayodhya, says Sharma.
It was during the reign of Akbar that the great Hindu saint and poet Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitmanas, a magnificent poem based on the Ramayana, one of the two Hindu epics, the other being Mahabharata.
The poem also doesn’t mention any mosque or demolition of any temple in Ayodhya. Sharma states that there was also no mention of a Ram temple in the accounts of explorer Ibn Battuta, who had come to what is now India in the fourteenth century CE.
Meanwhile, the inscription in Farsi at the Babri mosque states that it was built in Ayodhya by Mir Baqi under instructions from Babur. Sharma falls back on historian Sushil Kumar’s book, The Disputed Mosque, which states that the style of the inscription at the mosque was a 19th-century one, not of the 16th-century.
Sharma argues that the style of the mosque is similar to the ones built by the Sharqi kings of Jaunpur (in today’s state of Uttar Pradesh), especially the Atala mosque in Jaunpur, which was built between the 14th and 15th centuries.
Sharma also quotes archaeologist BB Lal who had done excavations in Ayodhya between 1979 and 1980 as saying that the history of Ayodhya based on records is not older than the 8th century CE.
A large section of Hindus believe that Ram was a real-life king born in Treta Yuga in Hindu cosmology, a period that dates back to thousands of years before the common era. Lal’s excavations were done to unearth historical evidence related to the original Ramayana written by Valmiki, which is believed to have been penned centuries before the 8th century.
The 7th-century Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang had called Ayodhya a flourishing center of the Buddhist faith. It was also known as a place of importance for the Jains. Certain old Buddhist texts linked Ram and his father Dasarath to the city Varanasi, which is more than 220 km away from Ayodhya.
Alexander Cunningham (who founded India’s archaeological department that later became ASI), in his excavation of Ayodhya in 1862-63, does not refer to any demolished Ram temple in the city.
Sharma goes on to talk about the excavations carried out in independent India in the 1960s and the 1970s, none of which mention any demolition of a temple to build a mosque in Ayodhya. Sharma examined the history of the dispute, which started in the mid-19th century, although there was no archaeological or historical evidence attached to it.
Modi at ceremony of Shree Ram Janmaboomi Temple in Ayodhya, Jan. 22. (Indian Prime Minister’s Office)
Such was the hype and hoopla around the recent consecration ceremony at Ayodhya that columnist and noted public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a critic of Modi, called it a watershed moment in world history.
“Just in sheer magnitude, of the tens of millions of people mobilized, whose identity, emotions and hopes are, at least for the moment, oriented towards Ayodhya, this event has almost no precedent in history,” he wrote. Perhaps he exaggerated, awed by the popular response, but we know from history what religious and racial nationalism is capable of.
Sharma addresses controversial topics such as Buddhist remains in the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, the Aryan migration theory (which she argues is true, armed with an avalanche of new DNA evidence), the Indus Valley civilization, and various other contentious subjects.
“The bulk of the lies is about the Mughals,” Sharma said in an interview, adding that Mughal crimes are exaggerated in comparison with the statecraft of other rulers from different periods of Indian history.
“They won’t talk about the brutality of, say, a Chola ruler. Recently I posted about a Chola ruler called Virarajendra (1002 – 1070) who attacks the rival Chalukyas and kidnaps a Chalukya princess, rapes her, and cuts off her nose. The right wing never talks about it,” Sharma said. The Cholas and Chalukyas were dynasties whose cultural and religious beliefs fall under the ambit of Hinduism today.
“Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (River of Kings) tells us that Harsha [of Kashmir] – and he is the only king to have done it in history – had appointed a minister whose only job was to destroy [Hindu and Buddhist] temples and break idols. He institutionalized temple destruction,” she says. Rajatarangini is an account of the history of Kashmir written between 1148 and 1149. [Harsha (1059 CE to 1101 CE) looted the temples because his extravagant spending put him into perpetual debt.]
Sharma stresses that all monarchies are violent, but right-wing commentators single Mughals out for attack. The Hindu right wants to portray Mughals and Muslims as the real colonizers of India, although they had made the country their home and contributed to its growth, unlike the colonial British whose primary aim was to enrich themselves with the country’s resources.
An alumnus of Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University where Sharma obtained her PhD, she is the creator of the History Clinic program for the Credible History project. “It is a series aimed at performing surgical operations on the diseased myths of Indian history,” she notes.
India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s dreams of a multicultural India driven by a scientific temperament may have suffered a huge setback thanks to the Hindutva project that aches to turn India into a Hindu-first state.
Ullekh N.P. is a writer, journalist, and political commentator based in New Delhi. He is the executive editor of the newsweekly Open and author of three nonfiction books: War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology Behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Win; The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox; and Kannur: Inside India’s Bloodiest Revenge Politics. His forthcoming book on Cuba, part travelogue and part political commentary, is due for release in mid-2024.
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