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Ayodhya and Ram: What history reveals about the reality behind scripture and myth

By Valay Singh

Ascending anachronism means pushing an event or occurrence to a time in the past. This is often accompanied by the idealisation of that time as a period when things were perfect. The more the event is pushed back into the past the more legitimising power it acquires. Muslims hark back to the time of the Prophet, Christians to the time of Jesus, Buddhists remember Buddha, Jains the time of Mahavir, and Hindus today are told that in the time of king-god Ram, Ayodhya was the best capital in the world where all lived happily and peacefully.

The example of Ram Rajya, or Ram’s rule, was often cited by Mahatma Gandhi. It is interesting that Gandhi could use Ram Rajya to galvanise all communities and not just Hindus, which once again reflects the plurality of the Ramayana tradition. Ram was called Imam-e- Hind by Iqbal, the famous Urdu poet who later wrote the national anthem of Pakistan.

It is impossible to establish when Ram Rajya prevailed, if it indeed did.

Those who believe in the historicity of Ram Rajya place its birth around 5114 BCE on the basis of astro-archaeology, although using planetary positions to establish historicity is yet to be recognised as a reliable method.

The material evidence of Ram Rajya in the Ayodhya of today is negligible. Perhaps the Ayodhya of Ram was a different place that now lies submerged under the Sarayu, as suggested to me by KN Govindacharya, a former ideologue of the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS). The paucity of evidence of the kingly Ram has been replaced by faith in the godly Ram, and thus, the Ayodhya of today encapsulates both Ram-Rajya and Ram worship.

We cannot scientifically establish the historicity of Ram Rajya, but we shall attempt the same for Ram worship in Ayodhya. In today’s Ayodhya, the legends around Ram stretch time to limits that are impossible to wrap one’s head around. Visitors, educated and unlettered, rich and poor, are told by local guides, “It has been nine lakh fifty-six thousand years since Ram left Ayodhya. Therefore, obviously, nothing remains from that time. The temples that you see today were built by KingVikramaditya of Ujjain. He brought a Kamdhenu (wish-fulfilling) cow from Banaras, made the cow circumambulateAyodhya and wherever the cow dropped dung, he excavated those places and at these places he built the temples.”

A slightly different version of this story is what MahantSatyendra Das, the head priest of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, tells me. According to him, it was not dung but milk from the cow’s udders that marked the “holy” spots. Wherever the cow spilled milk, Vikramaditya built a temple.

Nar Singh Pandey, a local guide, continues, “Hanumangarhi, Ram Janmabhoomi, Kanak Bhavan, SitaRasoi and Dashrath Mahal were built by Vikramaditya. Later on, many temples were built by people. In Ayodhya, every year a couple of new temples come up.”

Ram is said to have left Ayodhya for heaven nine lakh fifty-six thousand years ago, taking his subjects who loved him dearly along with him. Thus, Ayodhya became desolate and remained so until Vikramaditya – whose own historicity remains unestablished – found it and resettled it. Pro-temple historian Thakur Prasad Verma writes about this legend in his book, AyodhyakaItihasevamPurattatva, and also in the ASI’s magazine, Purattatva.

“Who was this Vikramaditya? Nothing can be said with certitude about him. According to tradition,Vikramaditya was a king of Ujjain in the Gardhabhilla dynasty and who instituted the Hindu calendar known as VikramSamvat in 57 BCE. There is no evidence of him ever visiting Ayodhya.”

Verma also explores the possibility of Chandragupta II being the Vikramaditya of Nar Singh Pandey’s tour but concludes that the legend “can neither be rejected nor verified”. Be that as it may, the guides of Ayodhya believe it and so do the priests.

At the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)-run stone-cutting workshop which also houses a mini gallery exhibiting the VHP-approved version of Ayodhya’s history, Nar Singh Pandey continues, “Babur destroyed the temple in 1526 with the help of cannons because the temple was so strong that his army couldn’t destroy it without them. The mosque that he then built over the ruins used the blood of 176,000 Hindus to prepare the mud mortar. One lakh seventy-six thousand,” he emphasises the number of Hindus who presumably died protecting the Ram temple.

Information about the exact number of martyrs is doled out with astonishing confidence and regularity by many local guides. Pandey’s claims made at the VHP workshop seem even more astounding given that historians and archaeologists have been looking for decades for signs of the grand temple and have come up with nothing but controversial finds.

On the other hand, there are examples of destroyed temples at other sites in India, including Bijai Mandal and Ashapuri near Bhopal, where the broken and scattered remains of temples are overwhelmingly visible. They are undeniable, eliciting the attention of even the most uninterested and unsympathetic observer. No such remains are to be found in Ayodhya.

“Where is all that rubble?” John Stratton Hawley, a professor of religion at Barnard College, New York, had asked when he visited Ayodhya in January 1993, just a month after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He was told that the “vast Hindu crowd took it away…as souvenirs and objects of veneration”.

This is partially correct, but it doesn’t explain the virtual absence of huge building blocks of stone or any other remnants of the great mosque of Babur, said to have been constructed from the ruins of an equally great – if not greater – Hindu temple. As Hawley noted, the answer is quite simple: “The mosque was not actually constructed of such stones. It predated the fine mosques of Mathura and Banaras and used a more modest medium: large bricks of the Jaunpuri style.”

Ayodhya may not have any grand ruins of the Babri Masjid or any other majestic structure, but it does have other interesting layers of religious history.

The Buddha is believed to have preached from Mani Parbat, a mound of earth on the periphery of Ayodhya. Today, Mani Parbat has become part of the local Ramayana lore. It is said to be a fallen portion of the hill that contained the Sanjeevani herb that Hanuman was transporting from the Himalayas to the battlefront in the war with Ravan.

DeshrajUpadhyay, a local expert on the region’s history who works in the Dr Ram Manohar LohiaAwadh University in Faizabad and has published a book on the “statue art history” of this region, explains the origins of the Mani Parbat tale:

“When Buddha used to visit Saket (Ayodhya) he used to stay in PubbaramVihar which is the Pali distortion of PurvaramVihar (earlier it was Ram’s Vihar).Thus it is clear that the place was associated with Ram in the time of Buddha. Later on, in the time of Nandaram of Krishna dynasty a small stupa was built there which was enlarged in the time of Ashoka. With the decline of Buddhism the hump became abandoned by Hindus till the Vaishnava tradition turned it into a Ramayanic spot in the Mughal era.”
This kind of appropriation by the Vaishnava108 tradition is seen also in the case of the oldest known temple in Ayodhya – the Nageshwarnath Temple on the banks of the Sarayu. This temple is dedicated to Shiva, and the shivling there is said to have been installed by Kush, Ram’s son, as a sign of gratitude to a Naga-kanya who helped him find his bangle which had fallen in the Sarayu.

And so it goes on in Ayodhya. The guides, often from the community of “Pandas”, are young boys who work part-time to promote this hybrid but indisputably Vaishnava history of Ayodhya. Nar Singh Pandey too is in his first year of college and is preparing to appear for an exam that will get him a government job. These guides are aware of Ayodhya’s Buddhist history but reluctant to acknowledge it. And some of them admit that, being untrained in history, they are unqualified to comment on any non-Hindu aspect of the region. Many of them were in fact born after the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. Thus, to them, Ayodhya is what the VHP has made it to be. However, there are many people who acknowledge that Ram worship in Ayodhya is a phenomenon that gained prominence in the Mughal period (1526–1857).

Pawan Singh, a vociferous proponent of the theory that Jains are the real ancestors of Hindus, is one such person who doesn’t shy away from talking about the non-Hindu, non-Ram history of Ayodhya.

He has been managing a prominent dharamshala (pilgrim hostel) for many decades and is well respected for his good nature and efficiency in running the sprawling place. “When the first tirthankar of Jains, Rishabh Dev, is clearly mentioned as an ancestor of Ram-ji why can’t Hindus accept Jains as their ancestors instead of fighting with them?” Pawan Singh is referring to a well-known fact about Ayodhya’s links with Jainism. Out of their twenty-three spiritual teachers or tirthankars, five (seven, according to scholars like Hans Bakker) are believed by Jains to have been born in Ayodhya, and three of them in not too distant Banaras.

Jains believe that Ayodhya means a place “without war’ and Awadh means a place where there is “no killing”. The Jain temple of Ajitnath is the grandest and most beautiful of all the temples in the town and the statue of Rishabh Dev sits in a park named after the Buddha on the river-facing side of Ayodhya. It is one of the most scenic spots in the town, from where the stunning AwadhkiShaam (sunset in Awadh) can be best enjoyed.

Like elsewhere, Jain temples in Ayodhya are not only the grandest but also the best maintained. However, it is possible to spend several days in Ayodhya without ever hearing of its Jain history, as I would myself discover. And therefore this unsolicited declaration by Pawan Singh, a Ram-bhakt, was all the more unusual.

For Hindu pilgrims, this much can be said without a doubt – no matter which god the people of this region come to worship in Ayodhya, their visit isn’t complete without a dip in the river Sarayu, the only uncontested constant in the history of Ayodhya. The river’s importance to worship subsumes religious and sectarian differences.

As we have seen earlier, the Sarayu is mentioned in an eleventh-century inscription by Chandradeva, a Gahadvala king of Kannauj, in which he proclaimed a massive land grant to 500 Brahmins after bathing in the river at Swargdwar, the place where Ram ascended to heaven along with the entire population of Ayodhya. This is the “first evidence” pointing to Ayodhya as a holy place. However, Ram worship was still at least 500 years away.