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Crisis of Archaeology

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  • Shaji John K
    ========[SACW]======== The Hindustan Times (India) July 5, 2003 Crisis of Archaeology by Irfan Habib Among the twenty issues framed in what is now termed the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 13, 2003
      ================[SACW]===============The Hindustan Times (India) July 5, 2003

      Crisis of Archaeology

      by Irfan Habib

      Among the twenty issues framed in what is now termed the
      Ramjanmbhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, evidence is being currently taken
      on the second issue at a Special Bench of the Allahabad High Court,
      at Lucknow.

      This is whether there was a Hindu temple at the disputed site before
      the Babri Masjid was built, and "if so, its impact on the case".
      While much evidence has been taken, as offered by the parties, the
      Bench decided to collect evidence on its own as well - by having the
      disputed site dug up to find whether or not there had actually been a
      temple below the mosque. To a lay person this decision might seem to
      weaken the force of the order of status quo that had been imposed by
      the Supreme Court. That this possibility also partly weighed with the
      High Court was reflected in its decision to obtain a geophysical
      survey of the site before actually ordering the excavation.

      The work of the survey was entrusted (at the invitation of the
      Archaeological Survey of India, ASI) to Tojo-Vikas International
      (Pvt) Limited, a company based at Kalkaji, New Delhi, with no
      previous known experience in archaeological work. In its report the
      conclusion was announced that the 'anomalies' "could be associated
      with ancient and contemporaneous structures such as pillars,
      foundation walls, slab flooring, extending over a large portion of
      the site." The word 'pillars' immediately suggested to many the
      existence of temple pillars, and little attention was paid to the
      fact that on page 26 of its report the company expressly cautioned
      that when it said 'pillars' there could actually be no pillars
      underneath, but just debris or a boulder of a certain size! In the
      event not a single pillar has turned up in the excavations of the
      entire site, except for one belonging to the Babri Masjid's own
      structure, one that had been broken by the karsevaks while
      demolishing the mosque. Subsequently, even the ASI had to note
      repeatedly that structures predicted by Tojo-Vikas through its
      reported 'anomalies', did not in most cases match with what was found
      upon actual digging.

      Yet it was the Tojo-Vikas report which became the basis for the High
      Court's orders on March 5 this year, requiring the ASI to begin
      excavations immediately. Now any archaeological excavation is an act
      not only of exploration, but also of destruction. One has to disturb,
      remove and demolish what lies in the upper layers in order to reach
      the lower. It has therefore, to be weighed very carefully whether
      what one is likely to get below is worth as much as what one
      necessarily destroys. At Mohenjo Daro, the great site of the Indus
      Civilization, a ruined Buddhist stupa of no artistic merit stands
      above a crucial part of the Citadel of the earlier city. Below it
      might well lie an important Indus monument. Yet till date no proposal
      to dig through the stupa ruins has been countenanced. This aspect was
      totally ignored in the excavations at Ayodhya. The entire
      surkhi-polished original floor of the Babri Masjid, as laid out in
      1528, was removed together with most of the remaining lower parts of
      its walls. Whatever the karsevaks had not been able to demolish in
      December 1992 has thus now been destroyed. There can be no
      justification for such destruction under any recognised principle of

      Such being the case, what we have seen at Ayodhya is just 'crisis
      archaeology' (a term used, tongue-in-cheek, for the Ayodhya
      excavations by the US journal Archaeology, May-June 2003). The crisis
      has been for archaeology itself: would the ASI perform in such
      circumstances as a professional body, or simply set its sights at
      finding what those in power wish it to find out: the remains of a

      There is good reason to believe that the latter has, indeed, been the
      case. Once the digging began, the ASI team's object seemingly has
      been to look mainly for stones, bricks or artefacts that could
      conceivably come from a temple and to forget everything else. No use
      of the flotation technique to sieve out seeds, bone fragments and
      other minute pieces of material has been made, so that much of the
      excavation from an archaeological point of view has gone waste. There
      has been a tendency to ignore medieval 'Muslim' glazed ware and
      animal bones; the High Court had especially to direct on March 26
      that such wares and bones be recorded and separately preserved. It
      will be seen from the ASI's three reports so far submitted to the
      Court that it has still paid scant attention to such finds. One
      suspects that this is because these constitute strong evidence
      against the existence of a temple at the time at the site.

      Now that the ASI has excavated the site for over three and a half
      months, and given its 'progress reports' to the Court for periods
      ending April 24, June 5 and June 19, it has become amply clear that
      despite practically the entire disputed site having been dug up, no
      structural or sculptural remains identifiable with those of a temple
      have been found. For one thing, lime mortar and surkhi, the
      recognised marks of Muslim construction, are present in practically
      all the excavated walls. The strong inference that the floor found
      below the Babri Masjid's own floor and the walls connected with it,
      belonged to an earlier mosque has now been confirmed with the find of
      the base of an arched recess (mihrab) and of arched niche (taq) in a
      connected wall. The find of lime -mortar and surkhi down to the
      lowest layers of brickwork at Ramchabutra sets at rest speculation
      about any pre-Muslim construction under it. An inscription which gave
      some momentary excitement has turned out to be in modern Devanagari,
      of no sacred import.

      It is now left to the ASI to make the best of what it called
      'structural bases' in its first 'progress report', but which in the
      next two reports have miraculously turned into 'pillar bases'. As
      described in the first report these are formed by "squarish or
      circular Š blocks of calcrete stone over three or four courses of
      brickbats". What is astonishing about the nomenclature adopted for
      them by the ASI is that in not a single instance are these 'bases'
      associated with any pillar, in fact, as we have noted, no pillars (or
      fragments of them) have been found. There are not even any marks of
      depression on the surface of the stones surmounting the so-called
      bases. In any case how can mere heaps of brickbats, uncemented by
      mortar, carry any kind of weight? To call them 'pillar bases' or even
      'structural bases' is absurd. They could just be low seats or, in
      some cases, markers for shops or stalls as in the Lal Darwaza Masjid
      at Jaunpur. The fact that some of these 'bases' are sealed, while
      others are not, by the original floor of the Babri Masjid, shows that
      they belong to different times, and most of them are demonstrably
      subsequent to the phases of mosque construction at the site.

      These 'pillar bases' have another feature: they are easy to assemble.
      A series of complaints have been submitted to the judicial observers
      appointed by the Court on May 21 and subsequently, showing how
      brickbats that lay scattered under lime-surkhi floor of the Masjid,
      along with sandstone blocks, obviously to provide a stable base for
      the floor, have been re-arranged by the ASI excavators to provide
      evidence for 'pillar bases'. Many of these 'pillar bases' are,
      therefore, likely to be not genuine at all.

      It is saddening that one should be obliged to speak in this manner of
      the work of the ASI that was once an institution in which the country
      could take justifiable pride. Today, one can only say that if it did
      not do worse at Ayodhya, part of the credit goes to the numerous
      archaeologists from many places in India, who maintained a constant
      vigil at the excavations. They did so only out of a loyalty to their
      profession and to secular values. When one thinks of them, one cannot
      help feeling sentimental about a country which, amidst all its
      troubles, can still bring forth such men and women.

      Sentiment must, however, also nestle with cynicism. Now that the
      excavations have proved such a disappointment one suddenly hears once
      again the demand for 'compromise'. Both the time and circumstances
      make the demand most suspect. Now that everything has been destroyed
      and dug up, why not just wait for the court verdict and obey the law?

      (The writer is one of India's most eminent Historians.)

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