The Game of Thrones

A visit to Ayodhya is a journey into the depths of time. Its history is a complex skein of various religions and philosophy. How did it become the line that divides us?

Written by Mrinal Pande | Published:October 30, 2016 12:35 am
On hallowed ground: Of the many myths that abound about Ayodhya, one says that a curse had wiped it off the earth, and it lay underground for centuries. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna) On hallowed ground: Of the many myths that abound about Ayodhya, one says that a curse had wiped it off the earth, and it lay underground for centuries. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Ayodhya is one of the seven holiest cities offering ultimate release to believers (mokshadayini saptnagari), a tirth for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. It has a long history of contrasts, contradictions and conflicts. Nothing about Ayodhya is unambiguous. Nothing here fits a formula. And what the late philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi called the “unself-restrained causality of bigotry’s oratory” bars any real spiritual or secular dialogue with it. Liberals of both the Hindu and Muslim communities have been firmly marginalised in the city since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992.

The name Ayodhya means a city against which no war may be waged. As a city, it predates its most famous divine progeny: king Ram, son of the Ikshvaku king Dashrath.

There are many different versions about its origins, all of them grounded in myth. The Atharva Veda (second chapter) says Ayodhya, also known as Saket, was created by the gods on the banks of the holy Saryu river as an earthly parallel to heaven. The Buddhist text Divyavadaan asserts instead that Ayodhya came up on its own (svayamagatam). The Valmiki Ramayana says Ayodhya, the capital of the mighty kingdom of Koshala, was settled by Manu. During the Treta period, the great hero Ram was born here to king Dashrath, who ruled and richly embellished the prosperous and peaceful city he inherited from his forefathers. After a long and arduous exile from his kingdom, Ram returned and created the template for the model state, Ram rajya.

Today, the idea of Ram rajya is being largely marketed as the ideal Hindu state, but Ayodhya’s history remains a complex skein containing strands of various religions and philosophical ideas. Jain, Buddhist, Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions have coexisted here since the 11th century with Islam and the heretical sects of Bairagi sadhus. Buddhist texts claim that the Buddha himself visited the city in 6th century BC. It is a holy city for the Jains as their first Tirthankar, Adinath Rishabhdevji, and four other Tirthankars were born in Ayodhya.

A visit to Ayodhya is a journey into the depths of time. Remote epochs flow here like subterranean rivers. Hanuman, the chief acolyte of Lord Ram, has a whole fortress to himself but the Lord himself is located under a tarpaulin cover. This is a city of negotiators, really. Hanuman, as the most important Ram bhakt and deemed son of Shiva, is a symbol of Shaivite and Vaishnavite traditions. Naturally, his abode at Hanumangarhi has been the liveliest meeting place for armed sadhus and feudal armies, Bairagis and pilgrims for the last 200 years.

Security at the main entrance to Ram Janam Bhoomi in Ayodhya. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna) Security at the main entrance to Ram Janam Bhoomi in Ayodhya. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Politics after 1947 has seen to it that Ayodhya has become identified almost solely with Ram’s birthplace. The Hindu right claims it was “polluted” by a mosque erected on the janmasthan by Babur’s general Mir Baqi. But the exact location of the birthplace is open to question.

Vishnu Bhatt Godshe, a Marathi pilgrim who visited Ayodhya in 1857, makes no mention in his eyewitness account (Majha Pravas) of a mosque standing over the holy area. On the contrary, he records his dismay at finding the accepted birthplace of Ram as an open maidan with a platform made of lime and stone, surrounded by walls and overrun by weeds and thorny shrubs.

The main Ram temple in Ayodhya, he writes, has gold statues and is guarded by armed men. One can enter after one pays a rupee and a quarter (a huge sum in those days). There was another temple, Kale Ram Ka Mandir, built by Parashuram Baba, who was said to have discovered Ram, Lakshman and Sita statues in the Saryu river. Vishnu Bhatt’s account, therefore, contradicts the assertion by a group of Hindus in 1949 that Ram’s images had “appeared miraculously” at his “birthplace” — which they claimed lay within the Babri mosque — on the night of December 22, 1949.

Vishnu Bhatt also repeats several stories he heard about the rediscovery of Ayodhya. It is said that a curse on Ayodhya — invoked perhaps because of the treatment meted out to Sita — wiped it off the face of the earth and it lay underground for centuries. Around 300 BC, the famous king, Vikrama of Ujjayini, is said to have dug it out with some help from the goddess Ayodhya.

Scholars, ranging from the Dutch Hans T Bakkar to the local Ram Gopal Pande ‘Sharad’, trace the beginnings of the worship of Ram as a deity in Ayodhya to 11th century. Reverence for Ayodhya as the birthplace of Ram began in the latter half of the 16th century, after the popular Vaishnavite Ramanand sect and saint-poet Tulsidas focused their devotion and poetry on portraying Ram as the ideal man-god (maya manushyam harim).

A hundred years after Vishnu Bhatt wrote his travelogue, in 1957, Hindi writer Amrit Lal Nagar went to Ayodhya to record the local memories of the 1857 revolt for a handbook (Ghadar Ke Phool) he was compiling. He quotes a report published in 1902 in The Pioneer, that a certain Bairagi sadhu had been thrown out of Hanuman Garhi for misbehavior and had triggered communal riots in Ayodhya in 1856. Raging mobs of Bairagi sadhus and Muslim mujahideen, led by Amir Ali, clashed on the streets. The fights soon spread from Ayodhya to the divisional headquarters at Faizabad and Lucknow.

Socio-religious chasms and fissures fostered by colonialism ran through the area. Nagar quotes Ram Gopal ‘Sharad’ as saying that by elevating Mirza Ilahi Baksh, a disaffected son-in-law of the last Mughal, the British sought to deepen the rift between Hindus and Muslims.

At a rally held on June 26, 1856, in Faizabad, as the Mirza ranted against his father-in-law and urged Muslims to support the British huqumat, Achhan Khan, a native of Ayodhya, and Baba Ram Charan Das, the chief priest of Hanumangarhi, intervened forcefully. Together, they urged both communities to unite and drive out the British and their stooges. The Mirza was then ingloriously and hurriedly escorted out. Both Achhan Miyan and Baba were charged with sedition after the 1857 revolt was quelled, and hanged. The tree they were hung from acquired the reputation of a tirth for both the communities. The British hastily cut it down.

New Ghat in Ayodhya on the bank of the river Saryu. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna) New Ghat in Ayodhya on the bank of the river Saryu. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Ayodhya, the complex cauldron of sectarian tensions, first saw clashes and then ideal communal engagement, throughout 1857. The revolt ended in defeat for the natives, but the unity it had forged created the ground for a united struggle against colonialism half a century later under Mahatma Gandhi. Like Achhan Miyan and Baba Ram Charan Das, Gandhi paid for the victory of unarmed, peaceful resistance with his life.

Those who succeeded Gandhi were soon distanced from the man on the street. They found everything in the way of progress: colonial practices, a slow-moving agricultural economy, religious fanaticism and tribal blindness. But unlike Gandhi, they did not relinquish party politics and go out among the wise local folk for answers. They kickstarted a unique electoral jugaad system: a move towards fostering age-old caste and communal fissures every five years when elections were held.

Ayodhya became a petri dish for those experiments. So the Ram “janmabhoomi” was locked, then unlocked. Then began a long litigation between the two communities. The courts protested: the matter was beyond their expertise. By then, an elaborate rath yatra had been mounted, accompanied by war cries urging Ram bhakts to rise and avenge themselves against Babur and his progeny. The mosque came down and with it the state government.

Many elections were won and lost and won again. And now in 2016, as the Uttar Pradesh state elections approach, talk has once again begun about building a museum to Ram at Ayodhya . By now, the whole elite that governs by turns, stands split into three groups: the liberal middle-class peaceniks who would vote for peace and the non-militarist state but have little to no vernacular communication skills that their opponents are using skillfully. Second, the vote-bank politics of veterans, who speak for a Ram rajya that (in a Sadhvi’s ugly phrase) dubs non-Hindus as bastards. Third, the mercenary guerrilla forces of the extreme right and extreme left who bring up the rear, armed with Molotov cocktails and rods.

Then Uri happens. A whole drama gets created around the doctrine of a “surgical strike”. Nervous glances are once again being cast towards Ayodhya . What happened there in 1992 was not a freak show but a violent process of national breakdown at the hands of political manipulators. The dynamic of fear and loathing between the peoples of India is not as unique as we might like to believe. They can occur today in virtually any part of the country, made fragile by economic hardship and moral turpitude. All the superficial talk of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and the Hindu belief in ahimsa will not hold back those who have opened the gates to the untameable wild beast, which has been stalking our land for centuries, waiting for the kill.

The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharti.