A submission was made to the Supreme Court on August 28, 2019 by one party to the dispute that Babur never visited Ayodhya and makes no reference to Ram temple.
Well, Babur did visit the place in 1528 and records it twice in Babur Nama: “…stayed a few days… in order to settle the affairs of Aud” (medieval Persian texts’ synonym for Ayodhya) and went out for a hunt. However, the submission is right on the second point. Babur makes no mention of a Ram, or any other temple there, nor that he had commissioned the construction of a mosque.
The first and primary evidence of the construction was inscribed on the outer and the inner walls of the mosque in a verse. Mir Baqi, Babur’s noble, affirms in this verse that the mosque (“the alighting place of angels”) was constructed by him under the express command of his master, the emperor. But he makes no mention of a temple, much less a Ram temple, having been made to yield the place for it. Babur himself makes no mention of either the mosque or of his command to the Mir.
The next bit of evidence comes from Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s courtier-historian, in his Ain-i Akbari, where he records the length and breadth of Ayodhya and that “it is esteemed one of holiest places of antiquity… It is the residence of Ramchandra who in the treta age combined in his own person both the spiritual supremacy and kingly office”. But he does not identify any site as his place of birth nor mention any temple dedicated to him, nor the existence of a mosque there.
If Babur as emperor and Abu’l Fazl as historian do not record the erection of a mosque at the site of a temple, they are not alone in their silence. None of Babur’s descendants down to “the last Mughal” Bahadurshah Zafar, ever reminisces about it, not even the bigoted Aurangzeb, himself responsible for the demolition of Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath and Mathura’s Krishna temples and building of mosques in their place. Memory of his great ancestor’s deed at Ayodhya should have filled him with joy, if he could locate it. Silence is all we hear. Silence also from the massive list of historians from the Mughal period — Muslims and Hindus, dogmatic and liberal. Silence also in enormous numbers of Hindi literary compositions, most astonishing being the silence of Goswami Tulsi Das. The great poet was a resident of Ayodhya and perhaps the greatest ever devotee of Ram, writing within five or six decades of the construction of the mosque; anger at the construction at the site of his Lord’s birth itself and after destroying a temple dedicated to him would have driven him hopping mad. Not a word from him. Nor from anyone else.
The first concrete evidence of the identification of the site with Ram and the erection of Babari masjid comes from an 1822 document in the Persian language submitted to the Faizabad court by darogha-i adalat, Hafizullah. It says “Jama masjid, constructed by Emperor Babur at the janma asthan, that is at the site of birth of Ram, son of Raja Dasrat and is adjacent to the rasoi (kitchen) of Sita, wife of the aforesaid Ram”; it does not mention the existence of any temple at the site demolished to make way for the masjid. It is clear that the monument neither invited great celebration nor great lamentation nor even commemoration in any quarter.
In the 19th century, events took a fast turn and in some versions, a Ram temple came to be located at the site of the mosque, even as occasional violence began to erupt. But the version was still shaky enough in the 1860s when P Carnegy, writing about the Faizabad district, accepted it at one place attributing it to “locally affirmed sources”, i.e popular tradition and wondering whether the temple was dedicated to Ram or to Buddha at another in the same book. By 1905, the tradition that the masjid had replaced a temple had found its way to the Fyzabad District Gazetteer of H R Neville, though it still spoke vaguely of “an ancient temple”. In 1922, A S Beveridge, translator of Babur Nama, among other books, had firmly asserted that “presumably the order for building the mosque was given during Babur’s stay in Aud (Ayodhya) in 934 A.H”, and leaves none in doubt that it had “displaced at least in part an ancient Hindu shrine” though even she does not mention Ram. This is not part of the translation of the text but an Appendix U, she has added. It is a guess she has made and not a factual statement.
We can infer from the above that the first concrete historical evidence about the association of Lord Ram with the site under dispute comes nearly 300 years after the construction of the masjid. And as the discipline of history goes, the authenticity of evidence is greatly dependent on its proximity to the event it narrates. The later the evidence, the lower its reliability. How reliable would a statement first made in 2019 about an incident in 1719 be? There are other relevant variables too, but the chronology of the evidence is primary. Popular traditions are good subjects of study of the evolution of cultural norms; but these are poor testimony for judging the authenticity of a specific event in history.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 3, 2019 under the title ‘Babur and the Masjid’. The writer taught history at JNU.