The ‘Truth’ and Archaeology
Vidula Jayaswal
AYODHYA: ARCHAEOLOGY AFTER EXCAVATION by D. Mandal and Shereen Ratnagar Tulika Books, 2008, 137 pp., 250
July 2008, volume 32, No 7

The three parts that make up this book under review have been shared by the two authors; parts 1 and III, ‘The Context’, and ‘Comments on the ASI Report’, respectively have been written by Shereen Ratnagar while Part II, ‘An Analysis of the ASI Report’ is by D. Mandal. This division is logical both in terms of diverse themes and treatment of the matter. Ratnagar in ‘The Context’, gives a historic account of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhumi dispute, while Mandal critically views the reporting of archaeological operations at the site by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). In Part III, Ratnagar negates the existence of a temple at the place of Ramjanmabhumi at Ayodhya, by comparing the evidence unearthed at Somanath. As the publisher notes, ‘Mandal looks at the site as a whole, Ratnagar at only one portion of the mound, with pre-mosque strata in her focus’ (p. viii). Both authors focus on a restricted area of the disputed site in their discussion of archaeological facts.

The historical account of the Ayodhya dispute by Ratnagar, in Part I not only provides the background to the origin of this dispute, but also gives an insight into the political and social contexts in which such disputes emanate and flourish. The section on ‘The Relevance of Somnath’ (pp. 15–20) demonstrates how a non-historical perspective sows seeds of non-tolerance and communalism for which a nation pays the price for years. The narration of events related to the building of temple at Somanath, makes it apparent that the Ayodhya controversy has its roots in post-Independence (1947–1951) incidents which took place in Gujarat. What was claimed then by K.M. Munshi as the need to right the ‘historic injustice’ done by Mahmud Ghazni to Somanath, ensured the political colouring of a historic event. One wonders, if the ‘historic injustice’ of a particular time (several centuries back) can actually be mended or restored, now? And this too by constructing a new building in place of a monument of antiquity? Is it not a fact that all such ‘incidences’, including some unfortunate ones, of the past then become part of history? Can one and should one, individual and/or group/groups change/reverse history? Will not such similar ‘unfortunate incidences’ of history be treated by successive generations as ‘historical injustices’? Ratnagar’s account raises many such questions in a reader’s mind. In fact the relevance of history to present day society has been highlighted with the instances of Somanath and Ayodhya; these if understood in their proper context may help us understand the cause-effect-relationship of such acts that derails the socio-religious harmony of a nation, and often leads to extreme acts of destruction and vandalism.

The book narrates the circumstances under which the judiciary ordered the ASI to undertake the excavation at the disputed Ayodhya site in 2003. The first author of the book, D. Mandal was also one among a few who had expressed serious reservations regarding the existence of the remains of the temple beneath the Babri Masjid (Ayodhya: Archaeology After Demolition, by D. Mandal, 1993, revised edition 2003). The report of excavations undertaken at the site was submitted to the court in 2003. To the best of this reviewer’s knowledge, this report has neither been published nor is it available to a general reader for consultation. One gets glimpses of it through publications such as the present one (Part II of the book under review), or in Puratattva No. 33, by K.N. Dikshit in 2002–2003, pp. 116–117, and in B.B. Lal’s Rama: His Historicity, Mandir and Setu, 2008). Select portions of the ASI report have been summarized and discussed by these writers. A personal conversation with officers of the ASI was of little use as they have been directed by the courts not to discuss or publish the report’s contents. Under the circumstances, the controversy raised or the diverse interpretations of the archaeological findings cannot be assessed impartially.

The reviewer feels it would have been better if Mandal had given first a factual brief summary of the ASI excavation report. It is however, mentioned that nine cultural periods beginning from the Northern Black Polished Ware and going on to the Sunga, Kushana, Gupta, Post Gupta-Rajputa, Medieval-Sultanate, Medieval, Mughal and Late and Post-Mughal periods have been ascertained from the excavations at the site by the ASI. But other details such as the thickness of habitation debris for each phase has not been mentioned, nor do we find mention of dates for the horizons, particularly the lower levels, which is significant for the early historical archaeology of the Ganga Plain. For, instance the C14 dates obtained from the earliest occupation (the NBPW levels) of Ayodhya as per the 2003 excavations has pushed back the antiquity of the place to about four hundred years; the previous date assigned was circa seventh century BCE (cf Lal, B.B. in Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology, Ed. A. Ghosh. 1989. p. 32), while the recent date has been calculated as circa 1000 BCE (K.N. Dikshit, op.cit, B.B. Lal, op.cit, p. 30). A critical discussion of these dates is required as these are associated with the cultural remains of the Janapada period. Acceptance of revised dates for the NBPW culture will directly affect the chronology of the early historical period, for which the contribution of literary traditions is already immense and the information then available from this category will become difficult to accommodate. This important aspect has escaped Mandal’s attention.

Mandal notes that the four progress reports submitted by the ASI, between May and June, 2003, lack the basics of the archaeological norms, as, ‘. . . they present meticulously tabulated data on the depth, trench number, structure, item found, etc., but there is no mention of strata’ (p. 29). It is surprising to note that reproduction of the ‘Section Facing South of Trench G7’, of the ASI Report, by Mandal (p. 32) does distinctively mark 18 layers. Mandal also examines it critically and suggests the existence of an extra layer in the upper horizon (Layer 4). This layer according to him indicates desertion of the site after the Gupta period. After which the site was said to be re-occupied only in the Sultanate period, and continued to be inhabited during the early, late and post-Mughal periods (p. 41). But, whether this hiatus is also represented by the antiquities obtained from the dig is not clear. Mandal also cites the example of a recently excavated site of Jhusi (detailed report of which has also not been published), that shows similar results: ‘Excavated site of Jhusi also shows signs of having witnessed a break in habitation after the Gupta period … the break was succeeded by a deposit of the Sultanate-Mughal period’ (p. 17). In the absence of published details of the Jhusi excavations this feature cannot be ascertained.

Contrary to the above claim, there is another pattern of occupation seen in large sites of the Middle Ganga Plain, which may be important to take note of. Excavations at Rajghat (Kashi), have revealed thick habitation debris across six cultural periods—pre NBPW and NBPW to the Mughal period, (Excavations at Rajghat (1957-1958; 1960-1965) by A.K. Narain and T.N. Roy, 1976). The horizon after the Kushana period here is marked by less structural activity. But the site was under continued occupation during all the above mentioned six periods. Incidentally the recent excavations at Aktha (Vidula Jayaswal, ‘Aktha: A Satellite Settlement of Sarnath, Varanasi, Report of Excavations Conducted in the year 2002’, in Bharati. Bull. Dept. A.I.H.C. & Archaeology. BHU. No. 26. 2003: pp. 61–180) and Ramnagar (Vidula Jayaswal and Manoj Kumar, ‘Excavation at Ramnagar: Discovery of a Supporting Settlement of Ancient Varanasi’, in Puratattva. No. 36. 2006), reveal that the supporting settlements of the ancient city of Varanasi (identified at Rajghat locality), were deserted just after the late Kushana times. But the nucleus of the city appears to have shifted from modern Kashi station locality to the pucca mahal region (the heart of the present city of Varanasi), during the Gupta Period. Further even after the shift of the nucleus of the Varanasi city, the Kashi-Rajghat locality continued to be occupied in the successive periods. Is it not possible that a similar situation had prevailed at Ayodhya, which was also the capital city of Kosal Janapada, like Varanasi was of Kashi? The recording of Ayodhya culture sequence by ASI, thus, is not a lone example.

Further, the archaeological investigations carried out in Varanasi region by this reviewer has demonstrated that the territorial expansion of such ancient cities was quite extensive, and only a planned digging at a number of places can provide an authentic base for historical reconstruction of these sites. Almost a similar situation may be conjectured for Ayodhya. For, earlier investigators have noted a large spread of ancient remains (about 5 km circuit) at Ayodhya, of which only a few select localities have been subject to probing. Though Mandal thinks that ASI has excavated a much larger area (90 trenches of 5 x 5 m dimension) than was required to be exposed, the reviewer is of the opinion that in view of the need to unearth various historical aspects of Ayodhya, a large scale planned excavation is necessary.

Ratnagar also writes about the role of archaeologists in the Ayodhya dispute. The obvious bone of contention for the authors is the need to determine whether there is archaeological evidence to hold that the mosque was indeed built after the pulling down a pre-dated temple at Ramjanmabhumi. Since archaeology was seen by the courts as the one subject that could provide authenticity to the one or the other view, ‘archaeologists have been drawn into adversarial positions’ (p. 3). The reader gets a full account of how the digging at the site following the order of the court by the ASI was conducted in 2003. It is surprising to note that there was such a large contingent—academicians, representatives of all the concerned parties, the observer deputed by the court to watch the excavations. The reviewer, an archaeologist herself, realizes the pressure on the excavators of Ayodhya, performing their duties under so thick a cloud of distrust.

Ratnagar reminds us that the aim of archaeology, ‘is to understand past peoples and their actions, not the chemical content of the pottery they use’ (p. 3). It is also true that application of scientific methods and models of social sciences help interpret the past in a better way. Besides, it is but natural that researchers being individuals have diverse ideological convictions. But is it not expected from a professional that he/she would follow general ethics of the discipline with utmost sincerity? To this reviewer the greatest damage the Ayodhya dispute has done to historical studies in general and to archaeology in particular is to damage the mutual respect that existed for one other and the cultivation of distrust. When ideally the excavator should be given no benefit of doubt for the evidence he/she brings to light, and the historians should be respected for their impartial interpretation of the past.

Vidula Jayaswal, besides teaching archaeology and various aspects of Ancient Indian History at the Banaras Hindu University, for more than 30 years, is the author of ten books and monographs and about sixty research papers, on various aspects of archaeology—prehistory, ethno-archaeology and early historic archaeology. Her field discoveries of early Stone Age living floors with remains of shelters, at Paisra (Bihar), ancient sandstone quarries at Chunar hills, satellite rural settlements of the ancient city of Varanasi, are significant contributions. 

Review Details

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