Everything has scopes and limitations – archaeology is no exception. Archaeologists solve some of the most nagging questions through excavations and laboratory analysis, uncovering new information about cultures and people. Certain sites can be packed with data, just waiting to be discovered; yet there are often extensive procedures needed before excavation, or in the worst case, social/political unrest in that area.
The Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, India, is an example of this. Hindu mythology claims that Ayodhya was the birthplace of Rama, a famous warrior and protagonist in the Ramayana. Supposedly, on the very spot that Rama was born, a temple was erected in his honor. In 1527, Mughal emperor Babar constructed a magnificent mosque over the temple, thus destroying the original edifice.
For centuries, the Babri mosque stood undisturbed – until 1992, when a massive riot of over 150,000 Hindus resulted in mass vandalism and ruining of the mosque. In no time, the building was reduced to mere piles of rubble and dust. Muslims across the country were enraged; over 2,000 people died in communal riots and India was in turmoil.
In order to figure out what to do with the land to appease the Hindus and Muslims, the Government of India called upon the Archaeological Survey of India to run preliminary surveys of the Ayodhya site. Results proved to be inconclusive as there was a fair amount of ambiguity around whether or not there originally was a Hindu site, considering the unreliability of Hindu scriptures and oral tradition. It took many years for approval to pass, but in 2003, the ASI was given the green light to perform in-depth excavations of the site. Yet again, anger and tensions stirred between the Hindus and Muslims, with both parties claiming that the ASI was committing sacrilege on holy ground.
The results of the excavation were stirring. In the five month period of excavation, various teams had made around 1360 discoveries. The 574 page report stated that there was “a massive structure just below the disputed structure and evidence of continuity in structural activities from the 10th century onwards”, thus confirming the existence of an establishment prior to the mosque. In addition, a small seal with connections to the Asokan Brahmi was found, further supporting evidence towards a Hindu structure.
Numerous Muslim groups and organizations disregarded these discoveries and refuted the ASI’s findings. This, again, caused a rift within the volatile social framework of the country, spurring more tensions among the people.
Finally, in 2010, a decision to divide the land between the Hindus and the Muslims was made. Not everyone was happy, but it was the most practical decision and after decades, anger and disputes in Ayodhya had ceased.
Archaeology helped solve this case. By filling in the pre-Mughal void in time that was unknown, archaeology managed to settle any arguments by using scientific methods. At the same time, archaeology nearly sent the country into a massive civil war – it really is a miracle that the ASI managed to emerge out of such a touch situation unscathed.
Internet Archive: http://web.archive.org/web/20050323101829/http://www.the-week.com/23sep07/events1.htm
Picture 1: http://themmindset.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/babri_masjid.jpg
Picture 2: http://kiskikahani.openspaceindia.org/wp-content/gallery/rama-images/Babri-masjid-was-demolished-on-December-6-1992.jpg
The ASI was certainly a lightning rod for Hindu-Muslim tensions in India. But besides political and cultural objections to the project, there were also scientific criticisms of the report. One issue amongst many is the disregard of human remains. Two Muslim graves were found at the site, and they were neither dated nor included in the ASI report; many associated artifacts were also ignored. Animals bones found in the area were similarly omitted from the ASI’s final analysis. Besides noting the religious significance of the site, as one 2003 critique points out, “the ASI report fails to inform us of any human activity other than settlement in the area.” Basically, the report does not consider other uses for the site than religious ones, nor does it address the evidence of burial practices (the two graves) or subsistence patterns (the animal bones) of the area’s population. Could this imply that the excavators were biased in their investigation and were only looking to confirm/deny the existence of the Hindu temple? Or is this simply a case of evidence falling through the cracks?
You can find the critique here: