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Footprints in an Earthly Paradise

Even conservative Muslims do not claim that a mosque existed at the site of Ram Mandir prior to the arrival of Babar's general Mir Baqi, who was appointed governor of Aodhya. — Sandhya Jain


But soon a wonder came to light, 
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered from the bite, 
The dog it was that died.

– Oliver Goldsmith, Elegy

Either by instinct or consensus, India’s uniquely secular national press simply ignored the discovery of a broken pillar with a lotus carving at the site of the erstwhile Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Such negation cannot, however, diminish the significance of the finding. As senior government administrator R.M. Srivastava observed, “the finding of a pillar and a multi-layered flooring suggests there exists a permanent structure beneath the soil. At this point we can only say that remains of a permanent structure lay buried in the soil. It could be anything – a temple, a mosque or even a kitchen structure” (Associated Press, 1 April 2003).

A mosque is simply untenable. Even die-hard Islamists have not claimed that a mosque existed at the site prior to the arrival of Babar’s general, Mir Baqi, who was appointed governor of Ayodhya. What is more, no medieval mosque has ever incorporated sacred and popular Hindu motifs in its decorative patterns, unless it was built by appropriating the material of ransacked temples. In the case of the Babri Masjid, it may be pointed out that Muslim claimants to the site have always held that the mosque was built on terra nullus (vacant land).

Moreover, the lotus is no ordinary motif, but is sacred to the entire autochthonous religious-spiritual spectrum of India. In art, Hindu gods and goddesses, Jaina Tirthankaras, Gautama Buddha and the Bodhisattvas are frequently depicted as seated on lotus thrones. The gods are also described as having lotus eyes, lotus hands, lotus feet. In no other religious tradition does it occupy such exalted status, and its widespread usage in native Indian decorative art in no way negates its sacred character.

A kitchen structure is reminiscent of the fabled Sita ki rasoi. It is possible that such a structure could have a carved pillar with a lotus, since the last extant temple at that site is said to have been renovated in the reign of a Gahadavala king. The finding of a temple building, however, it would simply be synonymous with Sri Rama, Prince of Ayodhya.

It is, however, still premature to rush to conclusions, and officials have emphasized the need for caution. Yet, if one thing is already clear at this stage, it is that the findings are unlikely to end the furious debate over the site’s original status, as Muslim intellectuals have taken the path of dogged resistance to its return to the devotees of Sri Rama. This can be seen in the petition seeking a stay on the excavation of the site; the bizarre demand for inclusion of an equal number of Muslim labourers in the dig; the insistence on more Muslim observers and supervisors; and the sustained attempt to negate the possible findings.

In the wake of the Allahabad High Court’s decision to order excavation of the site, Muslim intellectuals and their fellow travellers have avoided all reference to Mr. Syed Shahabuddin’s promise that if proved that the Babri Masjid was built after demolishing the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir, Muslims would return the land to the Hindu community in conformity with the Shariat.

Indeed, these assurances inspired the Chandra Shekhar government to bring the Babri Masjid Action Committee and Vishwa Hindu Parishad to the negotiating table. But this pioneering attempt to broker a peaceful settlement failed because the Muslim participants took fright when faced with credible evidence in the form of Mughal revenue records that list the site as Masjid-i-Janmasthan (masjid of the birthplace, which could hardly refer to Babur or Mir Baqi). Egged on by secular friends, they deserted the talks and let a festering sore linger.

Eminent historian Irfan Habib has signalled the Muslim determination not to settle the dispute honourably, by claiming that the excavations are a “post facto rationalization of what was done on December 6, 1992” (Indian Express, 12 March 2003). Habib claims that archaeological finds are open to several interpretations. But what is germane in the current dispute is only whether or not a temple existed at the site prior to the erection of the Babri mosque. As Ayodhya has from time immemorial been associated with the story of Sri Rama, this would be regarded as convincing evidence by all fair-minded persons.

In this context, one cannot but be suspicious of the motivations of obscure bodies like the Jain Samata Vahini, Buddha Education Foundation and Lord Buddha Club, which have suddenly staked claim to the site on behalf of their respective communities. One can readily believe that Gautama Buddha and the Jaina Tirthankara(s) visited Ayodhya on account of its established reputation as a holy city, and that viharas sprang up there. This would be consistent with the native tradition of different religious streams commingling and peacefully coexisting at sacred sites.

Yet it would be impossible to maintain that Ayodhya enjoys the status of Bodh Gaya, Sarnath or Kusinagar in the Buddhist tradition, or of Pava in Jaina lore. Even within the Hindu tradition, it belongs exclusively to Sri Rama, just as Dwarka belongs to Krishna. That is why the eminent religious leaders and secular eminences of the Jaina and Buddhist traditions have held their peace. The puny midgets claiming to speak on behalf of these two great communities would be well advised to go back to the darkness from whence they have come. Some Hindu friends feel that these organizations are ‘fronts’ set up to confuse the picture and delay the recovery of the Janmabhoomi. While their anxiety is understandable, I have no doubt the court will see through these late-blooming bleeding-hearts and dismiss their suits without much ado.

Of deeper concern is the refusal of the Muslim community to respect the fact that civilizational India has shed the weakness and defensiveness of the past millennium, and is on an irreversible journey of self-renewal and self-affirmation. Muslim intellectuals often accuse Hindus of falsely identifying the community with the atrocities committed by medieval invaders. Yet they scrupulously refuse to distance themselves from these atrocities, and seek to perpetuate the wrongs of the past in the name of minority rights. In Ayodhya, for instance, denial of the logic of the findings is nothing but a determination to perpetuate the Hindu memory of the demolition and prolong the Hindu sense of humiliation.

Muslim intellectuals are also shifting the terms of the debate by raising fears that excavations may be demanded at other sites, particularly the Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. This is too clever by half. In Kashi, one has only to walk around the Gyanvapi Mosque to see the vandalized temple that was deliberately retained as part of the mosque walls to demean the Hindu community at its most sacred site. 

As for Mathura, an agreement in the mid-1960s conceded the return of the site to the Hindu community after the natural decay of the mosque. It reflects poorly on the Muslim leadership that it has not adhered to the promise not to repair the structure and artificially prolong its life. Hindus have shown phenomenal fortitude; the violation of their sacred spaces must cease without further delay.               

(Note: This article was first published in The Pioneer dated 8 April 2003 and is being republished here with the permission of the author)


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