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Ayodhya’s sacred landscape: ritual memory, politics and archaeological “fact”

Julia Shaw provides an alternative archaeological perspective on the polarizing issues surrounding the contested site of Ayodhya, India and its significance in Hindu religious imagination as the birthplace of the deity Rama. Written in 2000, this article is a succinct reminder of what a materialized study of religion has to offer to the analysis of disputed sites. In 1992, the ‘Babri Masjid’ (Babri mosque) in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu sectarians who claimed the site as the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court ruled that the disputed site be divided between three parties (Sunni Muslim Waqf board, the Hindu Maha Sabha representing the deity Ram Lalla, and the Hindu Nirmohi Akhara). The verdict was suspended, following appeals, by the Indian Supreme Court in 2011. The debate continues.

Shaw’s article explores the use of archaeological evidence by Hindu sectarians to reinforce claims to the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, North India. In her article, Shaw analyzes the contested religious site of Ayodhya in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh as an archaeological ‘palimpsest’, that has had a pluralistic and reconstituting religious identity for over 2000 years. She points out that two main categories of archaeological literature have risen around the site, one by a group of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) aligned historians ‘authenticating’ the site as Rama’s birthplace, and the other, attempting to find a solution to the controversy. Both groups overlook ethical issues involved in destroying cultural property and the political and communal nature of the issue. Shaw asserts that the controversy has more to do with nationalist propaganda than any ‘pristine’ Hindu and pre-Muslim past. She argues that a nonreflexive and decontextualized archaeology cannot respond to the destruction of the Babri mosque since it cannot provide an answer about a preexistent ‘reality’. Instead, what is needed when dealing with landscapes that combine mythology with history is a recognition of archaeological landscapes as a whole that draw on Ayodhya’s spectrums of religious diversity and change. Such a theoretical approach will hopefully bridge differences within the discipline of archaeology as well as help diffuse the polarized rhetoric that surrounds the site.
Keywords: India, identity, Ayodhya, Babri mosque, Hindu fundamentalism, ritual landscape
Credits: This article was originally published in Antiquity: A quarterly review of world archaeology. We thank Antiquity for its permission to reproduce part of this article and the associated images.The full article (with Introductory and Concluding paragraphs which are omitted here) can be viewed at: Shaw, J. (2000). Ayodhya’s sacred landscape: ritual memory, politics and archaeological “fact”. Antiquity Vol. 74, No. 285, pp. 693-700.

Excerpt: pp. 694-699.

Archaeological landscapes

To this end, and in an attempt to broaden the basis of current discussions, I would like first to introduce some fresh evidence into the debate and, second, to describe a theoretical framework for interpreting this new material. This paper calls for a sensitivity to the types of archaeological vision which recognize the importance of the contextual setting of the material record (Hodder 1992); and which looks beyond the myopic trench-based focus of the site, artefact or monument, to the landscape as a whole. Although the major theoretical shifts which have led to an interest in archaeological landscapes have seen little application within the Indian context, Ayodhya’s rich body of ethnographic, textual and archaeological data makes it an ideal case-study for understanding some of the themes central to the debate on ritual landscapes and pilgrimage; in particular issues of contestation, multivocality and the invention of tradition.

In presenting this material, I draw heavily on the work of Hans Bakker, which albeit more aligned with Sanskrit textual sources than with archaeological theory or method, provides the most useful starting point for situating the Janmabhumi within its wider landscape setting (Bakker 1986). Unfortunately, this important work has been overlooked by both categories of literature discussed above. Bakker presents a survey of the material remains at the main pilgrimage sites in and around Ayodhya, alongside a comparative analysis of the various versions of the city’s traditional pilgrimage manual, the Ayodhyamahatmya. This text is marked by a gradual phasing-out of many of the city’s pilgrimage unassociated with Vaisnavism (a Hindu sect focused on the god Visnu), which had still been included in the earliest recensions of the 13th and 14th centuries AD. The contrived nature of the Ramaite landscape only comes out in the later recensions of the 15th and 16th centuries when these older sites become ‘Ramatized’ as direct traces from the Tretayuga—the semi-mythical age when it was the capital of the Iksvaku dynasty to which Rama belonged (Bakker 1986: 160). A similar process is identified by comparing the various pilgrimages documented in the texts. The older pilgrimages, which had included Saivite (related to the Hindu god Siva) or local cult places, culminate in standardized Ramaite routes. Even the Janmabhumi, despite being mentioned in the earliest recension of the Ayodhyamahatmya, only becomes incorporated into the pilgrimages after the time of its supposed destruction.

Bakker’s study illustrates that beneath the official Ramaite overlay is a multi-layered religious geography whose biographies are informed by a complex interplay between textual and oral traditions. The meaning at most of its sites is inherently unstable, constantly under alteration according to variables of sect, caste, time or season. It is by drawing on this level of religious fluidity, reflected in both the texts and Ayodhya’s archaeological landscape, that we can begin to break down the picture of a generic Muslim-Hindu dispute focused on the Janmabhumi alone.

FIGURE 1: Plan of Ayodhya showing sites mentioned in the text. 

(Drawing Ashutosh Vyas, after Bakker 1986.)

The archaeological setting

The most obvious aspect of the wider archaeological setting of the Babri Mosque/Rama Janmabhumi which has been obscured by the recent controversy is Ayodhya’s profound importance as an Early Historic city site (Cunningham 1871; Chakrabarti et al. 1999) (FIGURE 1).Whilst additional excavation is clearly required, the earliest archaeological levels identified in the mounds surrounding the Janmabhumi and Navatal have been dated to the 7th century BC. The brick wall which runs to the west of the Janmabhumi is believed by archaeologists to belong to the city wall of the 3rd century BC (Annual Report of the Archaeology Survey of India 1973; 1980; 1983). However, it also frames the western side of the structure now known as ‘Rama’s fort’ or Ramkot. This forms the pivotal point of the sacred sites supposedly re-discovered by the semi-mythical king Vikramaditya, and presented as sacred traces from Rama’s numinous city. Since the credibility of Ayodhya’s Ramaite geography has drawn heavily from its alleged antiquity, the city’s archaeological prominence has been important for providing such claims with material-based legitimacy. Ayodhya’s importance as a Mauryan centre, and its connection with early Buddhism, is illustrated by the Buddhist stupas, heaped-up mounds of earth over cremations (Allchin 1995: 242), to the south of the city. The largest of these, known as Mani Parvat, has been identified as the stupa constructed by the 3rd-century BC Mauryan ruler, Asoka, as described by the 7th-century AD Chinese pilgrim, Hsuang Tsang (Cunningham 1871: 325). However, in keeping with the Ramaite appropriation of archaeological sites, its Buddhist associations have been obscured by its new role as Rama’s wife Sita’s lilasthala (literally ‘playground’), another of the places made sacred by the divine actions of the gods during the Tretayuga. A similar process is illustrated by the recent discovery of a lotiform pillar capital, which is currently the base of a Sivalinga (phallic embodiment of the god Siva) in the Hindu Nageshwarnath temple (FIGURE 2). Although its precise age has not yet been confirmed, its similarity to Asokan capitals, often found in association with Buddhist monuments, suggests a 3rd-century BC date (Chakrabarti et al. 1999: 167-8).

Hanumangarhi temple

One of the most interesting and certainly most contested sites in Ayodhya, whose significance has been obscured by the recent dispute, is the Hanumangarhi temple, situated on a mound several hundred metres to the east of the Janmabhumi. The Early Historic levels in the underlying mound have yielded large numbers of terracotta seals and figurines dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries ADas well as an early Jain image, all of which provide an insight into the site’s varied religious heritage (Annual Report of the Archaeology Survey of India 1980). The temple itself is, however, relatively modern as it was built in the 18th century following a vision of the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. This was, and is, a common strategy for legitimizing temple construction (Carnegy 1870: 18). In earlier times, the temple is reputed to have been frequented by both Muslims and Hindus until it became the subject of communal tension in AD 1855. The point to note is that the ensuing riots here spilled over to the Janmabhumi site, thus forming the roots of the present dispute (Carnegy1879: 21). However, the long sequence of multivocality and contestation which runs throughout the Hanumangarhi site helps to dissolve the image of a simple two-fold contest between Hindus and Muslims both here and throughout Ayodhya in general. It is reported that the site began as a simple tree-shrine whose ritual significance transcended any sectarian identification (Carnegy 1870: 18). Later a long-running dispute over custodianship ensued between the various Hindu sects (Bakker 1986: 120), culminating in the late Ramaite appropriation of the shrine during the 18th century, when Hanuman was presented as one of Rama’s 20 generals placed around the Ramkot area. However, Hanuman’s older identification is partially retained as his birthday celebrations are held on a date traditionally associated with the worship of yakshas ancient nature spirits, which were often assimilated into the major Indian religions (Misra 1981: 157), contrary to the orthodox tradition.

FIGURE 2:‘Mauryan’ lotiform capital forming base of Sivalinga in Nageswarnath temple. 

(Photography courtesy D.K. Chakrabarti.)

Religious fluidity

Another example which illustrates some of the themes of this paper is provided by Carnegy’s account of two Jain sculptures held in the Faizabad Museum (1870: 22).He relates how they had been dug up in 1850 by villagers who, being oblivious to their Jain significance, had began to worship them as Hindu deities. Later they were informed by a Hindu priest that the images had originally been used in tribal rituals as the receptors of sacrificial victims. Their ‘Hindu’ identity was rapidly renounced and it was only then that they made their way to their new ‘life’ as museum exhibits! This story is an anecdote for a much broader problem; the traditional formal analytical approach of art history and its preoccupation with labelling objects according to their ‘original’ religious designation overlooks the way in which religious meaning can be subverted or transformed according to the shifting parameters of social memory.

Archaeological and ‘ritual’ landscapes

Many of these wider dimensions of Ayodhya’s archaeological arena have been overlooked in the recent literature, largely because the Janmabhumi dispute has been presented as an isolated field of enquiry. It is partly this lack of contextual meaning which has made the archaeological data so susceptible to political manipulation. A second major factor has been that the stream of deep-seated polarities underlying the entire dispute have largely been informed, and to a certain extent reinstated, by an unreflexive archaeological rhetoric whose own limitations have played directly into the hands of the VHP. Not only has such a polarized archaeological vision further lent legitimacy to the VHP propaganda, it has also helped to disable any attempt to proffer an effective archaeological counter-argument. The first of these polarities which needs to be highlighted is the unresolved clash between two fundamentally opposing knowledge systems based on conflicting notions of time, and the associated set of oppositions between objectivity-subjectivity and fact-myth. The credibility of Ayodhya’s Ramaite biography in the mind of ‘believers’ stems largely from the prevalence of ‘ritual’ or ‘cyclical’ time which blurs the boundaries, between past and present, or ‘myth’ and ‘reality’, upon which ‘historical’ or ‘linear’ time depends (Bloch 1977). Whilst Ayodhya’s description in the Ramayana (the story of Rama, composed by Valmiki in c. 400 BC, with later versions such as that of Tulsidas dating to AD 16th century) as the capital of the Early Historic state of Kosala corresponds roughly to the chronology established through excavation, its ‘textual’ topography is presented as a reflection of the celestial city of Manu, the ‘first man’ of the Vedic texts. Similarly, the area occupied by the archaeological mounds of the Early Historic city becomes Rama’s fort which belongs to the semi-mythical age to which Rama belonged. These texts present what Bakker calls a ‘timeless mythological universe . . . a theological dimension of reality that . . . is a kind of overlay spreading over the physical world only to be experienced by the believer’ (1982: 111). This is essentially at odds with the unilinear, evolutionary framework of time which, stemming largely from a culture-historical model, informs the chronological foundations of Indian archaeology.

It is largely through emphasizing the objectivity of the archaeological record that the VHP has created such a powerful tool for inciting sectarian wrath, but the real force of its propaganda stems from situating the chronologies of archaeology against the backdrop of a cyclical temporal framework. In retaliation, the ‘progressives’ sought to brandish the magic wand of ‘science’. Drawing exclusively from archaeological frameworks of time, their solution to the problem was to submit the original field reports to vigorous reappraisals, relocating every detail to its ‘correct’ stratigraphic context (Mandal 1993). This attempt to re-erect the boundaries between archaeology and local tradition reveals an inability to acknowledge the interplay between different types of temporal frameworks, and their role in the invention of traditions, which are so often perpetuated or transformed with legitimizing reference to an authority in the past (Rowlands 1993; Voss 1987). Here, a parallel can be drawn with the concerns of the 1980s New Archaeology, whose claims to scientific objectivity came, in part, as a reaction to the political misuse of culture-historical archaeology (Thakurta 1997: 38; Trigger 1996). By presenting archaeological data as neutral or infallible tools for hypothesis testing, the possibility for alternative interpretations of the past is discounted, irrespective of the important distinction between folklore and fanaticism. In Thakurta’s words (1997: 38), on both sides of the Ayodhya argument, archaeology has ‘defeat[ed]itself through its own claims’, because in its quest for ‘facts’ it has separated itself from the collective memory (Nandy 1995). A further set of polarities which derive from an oversimplification of the distinction between past and present, and from rigid boundaries between different religious categories, continues to inform heritage policies at places of antiquarian interest. The religious identity of archaeological sites is usually fixed according to the prioritization of a single point in their religious biography (Thakurta 1997; Lahiri 1999). Such an approach has obviously played directly into the hands of the VHP, whose propaganda has been aimed towards highlighting a single aspect of Ayodhya’s religious history at the expense of all others.

Ayodhya’s histories

It is largely because of the confusion between these different types of knowledge systems that the possibility of constructing a single version of Ayodhya’s past is both impossible and un-realistic. Its ‘pasts’ are inscribed in a myriad of contradictory ‘texts’, literary, archaeological and countless others derived from oral sources, or from temporal spheres such as the dates upon which certain sites are supposed to be visited. Like all texts, none can be read in purely objective terms, especially since they are tied up with issues of invention and legitimization. Although it is described in the Mahabharata (a composite text dealing with the story of the epic war between the Kurus and the Pandavas) as one of the seven sacred cities of India, Bakker has convincingly argued that these cities did not become important until the Gupta period, when the development of pan-Indian pilgrimage was very much part of the legitimizing strategies of local rulers (1986: 30). Certainly, during the Mauryan period, any religious significance which the city might have attained at the supra-regional level was due to the royal patronage of Buddhism. There are suggestions that a Hindu challenge to Buddhism may have begun during the 2nd century BC; for example, an inscription found in Early Historical levels of Hanumangarhi refers to a royal Hindu rite which represented a rival model of kingship to that followed by the earlier Buddhist kings (Epigraphica Indica 20: 53). However, it is only during the Gupta period, under Candragupta I (c. AD 320), that Ayodhya’s reputation as a Brahmanical religious centre attained any prominence. Both of the subsequent kings, Kumaragupta and Skandagupta, are known to have been Vaisnavas, and the latter (c. AD 455-467) is central to the process of the creation of Ayodhya’s Vaisnava sacred landscape (Bakker 1986: 30). A common strategy amongst the Gupta kings, aimed at forging a unity between the materiality of the historical present and the mythical temporal sphere of the Tretayuga, was to identify themselves with the legend of the semi-mythical king Vikramaditya, who according to tradition had restored Ayodhya to its Ikvaksu glory by ‘rediscovering’ the ancient sites sanctified by the acts of Rama and Sita. In the case of Ayodhya, it is Skandagupta who assumes the title, and according to the tradition goes on to built 360 temples on these rediscovered sites (Martin 1838: 331). It is this blurring of the boundaries between the frame-works of archaeological and ritual time, space and topography, which forms the legitimizing basis of this invented biography.

Apart from one or two exceptions it is not until the 11th and 12th centuries that elsewhere in India, the first archaeological and textual evidence for an independent and widespread Rama cult emerges. Not surprisingly, therefore, apart from the still unconfirmed evidence for a 10th-century Rama temple at the Janmabhumi site, it is not until the 11th and 12th centuries that an argument for the first direct associations between Ayodhya and Rama can be made. Its rise to prominence coincided with the mass settlement of Rajputs (a princely clan from Rajasthan) in the area, and it has been suggested that the Rama cult, by stressing orthodoxy, may have been a useful ritual and political counterbalance to the increasing challenge presented by Islam, and other rival sects (Bakker 1986: 30). Furthermore, the AD 1192 invasion by Muhammad Ghuri meant that many of its temples were destroyed or threatened with destruction. Despite the subsequent archaeological hiatus until the 18th century following the Mughal ban on Hindu temple construction, it was during this time that Ayodhya developed into a Ramaite pilgrimage centre at the ‘All India’ level (Bakker 1986: 61-3). Another important factor may have been the rise of militant sectarian unrest between the Ramaite and Saivaite sects, who were increasingly in disagreement over the custodianship of their sacred sites (Bakker 1986: 144). These suggestions, that the rise of the Rama cult was fuelled by resistance within an unstable and contested religious atmosphere, offer a striking alternative to the polarized rhetoric at the root of the Ayodhya dispute—that an eternal and unquestioned Ramaite stake over time and place had been upset by a single event, the onset of Muslim oppression.


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