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Ayodhya: Old accounts by foreigners shed light on the shared history of temple site

An assistant commissioner of the Raj in Faizabad in the 1860s is among those who played, unwittingly, a key role in providing champions of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement substantive material to make the case that Hindus had launched their struggle for the 'janmasthan' in Ayodhya much before the Ram Lalla idol was installed in 1949.

Nov 10, 2019, 10.59 AM IST
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(This story originally appeared in on Nov 10, 2019)
P Carnegy is not a name that will ring a bell in contemporary India. But this Britisher, an assistant commissioner of the Raj in Faizabad in the 1860s, is among those who played, unwittingly, a key role in providing champions of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement substantive material to make the case that Hindus had launched their struggle for the 'janmasthan' in Ayodhya much before the Ram Lalla idol was installed in 1949.

Writing a historical sketch of 'Fyzabad', as he spelt it, Carnegy wrote that until 1855, the year in which communal violence broke out in Ayodhya over possession of Hanuman Garhi and the 'janmasthan', "Hindus and Muslims alike used to worship in the mosque-temple."

But "since British rule (in 1858, that is) a railing has been put up to prevent disputes, within which in the mosque the Mahomedans pray, while outside the fence the Hindus have raised a platform on which they make their offerings."

Carnegy wasn't the first to point to "joint worship" in the inner yard. That credit goes to Austrian Jesuit priest Joseph Tieffenthaler who visited Awadh circa 1770 and recorded that 12 "koti and kasauti" pillars supported the Babri Masjid's interior arcades and that there stood a square box called the "bedi" or cradle at the entrance, "where Vishnu took incarnation as Ram".

Tieffenthaler's theory was that it wasn't Babar or Mir Baqi in 1528 but Aurangzeb in the 17th century who had destroyed the shrine "to deprive Hindus of their faith". Yet, the Jesuit priest wrote, Hindus still came to the spot to do their circumambulation and prostrated.

The first to refer to an inscription inside the masjid which stated it was built in 1528 by Babar's chieftain Mir Baqi was F C Buchanan, physician of Lord Wellesley, who visited Ayodhya between 1807 and 1814. And the first legal record came in 1822, when a superintendent in Faizabad court, Hafizullah, submitted his report in Persian saying "the mosque founded by emperor Babur is situated at the Janmasthana", "adjacent to the kitchen of Sita".

After that, records about the dispute and about the persistent Hindu claim to the disputed site piled up quickly, with other European travellers following in Tieffenthaler's footsteps and British officials such as A F Millet taking the path trodden by Carnegy.

Millet, a land revenue officer of Faizabad district, stated in his report of 1880 that Hindus and Muslims had worshipped "alike" inside the structure, and the writer-traveller Edward B Eastwick recorded in his 'Handbook of the Bengal Presidency' in 1888 that before 1858, namaz and puja were both performed inside the shrine. The British officials of the period demonstrated the opposite of the well-known Indian disregard for documentation.

The gazetteers of 1854, 1881, 1892, 1905, the Archaeological Survey Report of 1891 and later archaeological and general survey reports of the 1930s reinforced the theory of the mosque having been constructed after demolishing a temple and of intermittent Hindu efforts to get the spot back.

The archaeological report of 1891 by A Fuhrer, who translated three inscriptions inside the mosque, corroborated Buchanan's view that it was Mir Baqi who "by the order of Babar" had built the mosque circa 1520 "on the very spot where the old temple Janmasthanam of Ramchandra was standing".

The old temple, Fuhrer said, "must have been a very fine one, for many of its columns have been used by the Musalmans in the construction of Babar's masjid". A police complaint launched by the muezzin of the Babri Masjid in November 1858 too became part of the 'janmabhoomi' docket for the protemple side. Syed Muhammad Khatib, who used to call the faithful to prayer in the mosque, had written to local cops a year after the 1857 revolt that a Nihang Sikh, a Bairagi (ascetic), was "on the rampage at the Janmasthan."

He had forcibly built a "chabutra in the middle of the Babri mosque" and had raised the platform and placed a flag, a picture and an idol, the muezzin complained, urging authorities to get the construction demolished and oust Hindus from the place, where, earlier, the "nishaan of Janmasthan lay for hundreds of years and Hindus used to do puja." These documents were put forward by the Hindu side in the post-1985 VHP (and later BJP) agitation phase to buttress their case.

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