NEW DELHI 06 Dec 2018
In August 2003, following a six-month-long excavation, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) informed the Allahabad High Court that it had found evidence of there being a temple under the Babri Masjid, the 16-century mosque demolished by kar sevaks on 6 December 1992.
Two archeologists, Supriya Varma and Jaya Menon, accused the ASI of having preconceived notions ahead of the dig, and violating ethical codes and procedures during the excavation.
Varma, professor of archeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Menon, who heads the history department at Shiv Nadar University, told the court that the excavation did not find anything that supported ASI’s conclusion. In 2010, they published a paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, challenging the methods used in collecting evidence and its interpretation.
The archeologists, who were observers during the excavation on behalf of the Sunni Waqf Board, a party to the tile suit in the Ayodhya dispute, say the ASI, then under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP-led) National Democratic Alliance government, was under pressure to reinforce the Hindu right-wing narrative that Mughal emperor Babur’s general Mir Baqi knocked down a temple to build a mosque on the spot where Hindu god Ram was born.
Ahead of the 26th anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s demolition, Varma spoke to HuffPost India about the three key pieces of evidence found in 2003, why she thinks the ASI felt compelled to fabricate its conclusion, and procedural lapses during the excavation led by B.R. Mani, who was later replaced on an order by the Allahabad High Court. In 2016, the Modi government appointed Mani as the Director General of the National Museum.
No, there is nothing. Even today, there is no archeological evidence that there was a temple under the Babri Masjid.
There are three things. What the ASI has excavated is not evidence there was a temple underneath the mosque. One is this western wall, the second are these 50 pillar bases and third are architectural fragments. The western wall is a feature of a mosque. It is a wall in front of which you say namaaz. It is not the feature of a temple. Temple has a very different plan. Underneath the Babri Masjid, there are actually older mosques.
Now, as far as these pillar bases are concerned, these are completely fabricated and we filed many complaints to the court about it. Our argument is that if you look at what they are claiming to be pillar bases, these are pieces of broken bricks and they have mud inside them. There is no way a pillar can even stand on it, it is so unstable. It’s a completely political issue. They wanted that report to say there are pillar bases and it said there are pillar bases.
The third piece of evidence is these architectural fragments. They say there are some 400-500 fragments, which are pieces of architectural buildings. Of these, they say 12 are the most important. Of these 12, none of these were found during the excavation.
These were recovered from the debris lying above the lime floor of the masjid. There is this one particular sculpture, which is closest to some kind of image, which they called a ‘divine couple.’ But even that is just one man and a woman and is half-broken. There is nothing else. A temple, a stone temple—supposedly this is a stone temple—has much more sculptured material than what they have found.
The stone cannot be dated. What you date in archeology is the deposit, the layer in which the particular artefact has been found. In that also, you can date organic material. So, for example, a bone or a shell or charcoal. The ASI have got some dates. But this sculptured piece has not even come from a stratified deposit.
Once the excavations began, there were a lot of apprehensions because the ASI comes directly under the Ministry of Culture. And also, because archeology as a discipline is fairly technical. At that point, the Sunni Waqf Board people thought that they should have an archaeologist who would be present and point out in case there are any procedures that are not followed the way it should be in terms of methods and recording. They contacted Irfan Habib, who is a professor of medieval history at Aligarh Muslim University, and he contacted us.
I, and I think I can speak for my colleague Jaya Menon, we were both quite keen. We both wanted to know what exists under the mosque. It is not as though we had any kind of bias either way. We went with an open mind. For us, it was an academic issue.
We knew that we probably would never be able to get the chance unless we go there ourselves. It was at the cost of our professional careers as well. As an archaeologist, if I have to excavate any site, I have to get permission from ASI. So, if you antagonise the ASI, chances are that you are not going to get a permit, and that is why very few archaeologists were willing to even go.
If you read the entire report, there is no mention of any temple. It is a standard report. You have a chapter on the trenches, you have a chapter of chronology, you have a chapter on different structures, you have a chapter on pottery. What is missing is a chapter on bones and human skeletal remains. That is what they also found but they never published it.
What you will also find is that the names of the people who wrote those chapters is mentioned. But in the conclusion, there is no name mentioned. And in the conclusion, in the last paragraph of the report, they say that given the evidence of this western wall, and pillar bases, and some architectural fragments, there was a temple underneath the Babri Masjid. It is literally written in three lines. Otherwise, nowhere in the discussion, is there any talk of a temple being found. With the same evidence, we have interpreted that there were actually two or three phases of smaller mosques underneath the Babri Masjid.
There was no temple under the Babri Masjid. What there was, if you go beyond the 12th century and you come down to the levels of the 4th to 6th century, i.e. the Gupta period, there seems to be a Buddhist stupa.
So, there was Buddhist occupation here, and that is something even Alexander Cunningham has said. Outside the Babri Masjid, there are several other archeological mounds which seem to be sites of Buddhist stupas as well as monasteries. There was clearly a Buddhist community here, in the period, roughly from the 2nd century BC to 6th century AD.
To us, it looks like this was then abandoned and reoccupied sometime around the 11th-12th century and possibly because there was a Muslim settlement that came up. And they had a small mosque, which was expanded as the community increased, in size and finally a much larger mosque was built by Babar in 1528.