The History of Ayōdhyā and the Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute – II

By Smita Mukerji

Ayodhya-2x title
Read the previous section of this series here.

Charting the Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute

Few people are aware that the dispute over Rāma Janmabhūmī is not centred on a singular structure, but three prominent sites that are considered sacred as per the legend of Śrī Rāma: Janmasthāna, Svargadwārī and Trētā-kē-Ṭhākur (or Trētānātha). There are dozens of other sacred spots dotted across the landscape of Ayōdhyā significant to this ancient tale etched on the hearts of millions, however these three upon which stand/stood the offending Islamic structures that make up the hornet’s nest.

The struggle for reclaiming the sites is much older than the present-day hubbub around it would lead us to believe. As mentioned in the previous section, the era of the first four nawabs of Awadh saw the Vaiṣñava bairāgīs expand their influence over Ayōdhyā. By 1766, Shuja-ud-Daulah had shifted lock, stock and barrel from Ayodhya to Faizābād. The bairāgī sādhūs moved in in large numbers and built their mûṭhs and new temples in the vast chunks of available vacant land. Hanumān Ṭīlā was fortified and the Nirvāñī Akhāḍā strengthened by Abhayarama Das, and Ramprasad Das had extended the Baḍāsthān to the heart of Ayōdhyā, not far from one of the mosques at the disputed site. Carnegy[1] wrote that “great astonishment has been expressed at the recent vitality of the Hindu religion at Ajudhia” and lists 203 Hindu institutions established until 1870.

Unopposed, the bairāgīs staked their claim over the sites of previously destroyed structures and by 1793, the mosque on the converted Svargadwārī site had been substantially damaged by them.[2] The Trētā-kē-Ṭhākur site was taken over in 1784 and rebuilt[3] by the Holkar queen, Ahalyabai, who also constructed its beautiful adjoining ghāṭ. The crumbling down of these structures was lamented in the works of Muslim writers of the 19th century as the ‘signs of bad days of Islam.’ With the nawab freely inducting the Gōsāīn sādhūs in Awadh’s army, they grew in clout and this became altogether too alarming for the Shia clergy, who began devising ways to lay claim on the sites.

The Shia clergy exhibited a virulent hostility towards Hindus[4], as well as the Sunnis on occasions[5], and struggled to preserve orthodoxy and communal delineations in the face of the Awadh government’s largely conciliatory outlook that co-opted rural Hindu elites and employed Hindus in the bureaucracy, and deferred to the ‘irreligious’ Sunni Mughals[6]. This also brought them in conflict with the popular Sufi leaders and institutions, who claimed to commune with God[7], and whose pantheistic ideas gave them an appearance closer to Hindu ascetics, owing to which they commanded a large following not only among Indian Muslims but also Hindus. Nasirbandi’s work ‘Ash-shihab ath-thaqib’ pronounced anathemas upon the Sufis imputing uncontrolled passions to them, which became the origin of the defamatory insinuation against the sufis that their mystical love poetry, ostensibly for God, were actually addressed to real women or slave-boys, citing Imami oral reports denouncing the Sufis. The Shia usūli ulama also strove mightily to stop Shia gentry from patronising Hindu holy men.

In reality, Awadh’s touted ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’ was a kind of loose syncretism consisting of labyrinthine interactions of these disparate groups, commingling, including with those outside bounds of social respectability (e.g., courtesans and eunuchs) that led to hybridisation of religious practices, and ambivalent political patronage, which did not necessarily imply communal harmony. It was a period of general moral decadence, paucity of character and vigour exemplified in the dissoluteness of the Indian nobility[8], in particular the nawabs, who, as described in the words of Henry Lawrence[9], “engaged in every species of debauchery, and surrounded by wretches, English, Eurasian and Native of the lowest description his [Muhammad Ali Shah, r. 1837-42] reign was one continued satire upon the subsidiary and protected system.”

Nasir al-Din Haidar at dinner with British Resident at Lucknow, Modaunt Ricketts and his wife
Nawab Nasiru’d-Din Haider at dinner with Modaunt Ricketts, British Resident at Lucknow (1822-30) and his wife (Source: British Library)

Beginning with the reign of the toothless Sa’adat Ali Khan II, the character of the state turned towards Shia hierocracy. Remissions of monies were made to finance building of mosques and various religious and public works like canals in Iraq as well as in Awadh, while the burden on the Indian peasantry was increased as the state’s fortunes declined. Awadh’s phenomenal treasury was steadily depleted owing to the impositions of the subsidiary alliance entered with the British, and between 1814 and 1837 it had shrunk drastically from 14 crores to a mere 70 lakhs.

As the Shia clergy gained ascendency, the usūli rationale increasingly formed the basis of government judicial policy that promoted discrimination on grounds of religious affiliation. Consequently, the Awadh government often pursued policies inimical to the interests of Hindus and Sunnis.[10] The governments under Nasiru’d-Din Haider Shah Jahan (r. 1827-37) and Amjad ‘Ali Shah (r. 1842-47) were most anti-Hindu.[11] As the dominant power, the British residents in Awadh often intervened in Awadh’s communal conflicts, however not always out of altruistic motives. These pre-industrial impulses constitute the beginnings of communal riots of the nature that mark much of modern Indian history.[12]

It is in this background of communal antagonism that the claims about the disputed structures of Ayōdhyā must be viewed, especially in respect of some mysterious occurrences that began in this period: the appearance of sundry inscriptions in a mosque on a site in an elevated patch in the western part of Ayōdhyā, known as ‘Rāmkōṭ’. But what mosque was this, what is the story of this site it stood on, what was possibly the purpose of the inscriptions being placed inside it, and where are the inscriptions today?


Description of Ayōdhyā and Rāmkōṭ by William Finch

This description of Ayōdhyā by William Finch (d. 1613), an English merchant in the service of the British East India Company, who travelled to India in 1608-11, during the reign of Jahangir, is one of the earliest references to the mound known as Rāmkōṭ or fort of Rāma. He maintained a carefully kept journal that “supplied in substance with more accurate observations of men, beasts, plants, cities, deserts, castles, buildings, regions, religions, then almost any other; as also of waies, wares and warres”[13], gleaned by the writer either by his own journeyings or by diligent inquiry from others.

Rāmkōṭ is described in another later account by the Flemish geographer, Joannes De Laet (b.1581 – d. 1649), who became Director of the Dutch East India Company in 1625. In his ‘De Imperio Magni Mogolis Sive India Vera Commentarius’, published 1631 in Latin, De Laet freely avails himself of the material in Finch’s work, however adds several fascinating details about this sacred tract of central importance to the Rāma Janmabhūmī dispute. Following is an excerpt from the English translation of his work by John S. Hoyland (‘The Empire of the Great Mogol: Description of India and Fragment of Indian History’, published 1927):

Yet another writing which repeats much of this information on Rāmkōṭ is the book ‘Some Yeares Travels into Divers Parts of Asia and Afrique’ by Thomas Herbert (b. 1602 – d. 1682)[14], published 1634.

ThomasHerbert1So what was it about the nondescript mound with its ruins that it was significant enough to find prominent mention in the accounts of foreign travellers among all the thriving places of the time in India? It was because Rāmkōṭ was the site of an ancient citadel of the same name, the precincts within which was located the natal home of Rāma, divinity incarnated in the age of Trētā as per the Hindus.

However, what is puzzling in all these accounts of Ayōdhyā is that none of them speaks of any mosque nor the presence of any religious activity of Muslims in the area. From all these accounts it is apparent that at least until 1638 (the year a revised edition of Herbert’s book was brought out) Rāmkōṭ existed in its ancient situation, it was occupied by Hindu Brahmins and there were several such ‘antique’ structures all over Ayōdhyā. Wherefrom then did the mosque spring in this place and, most importantly, when?

Our story gets only more ‘curiouser’ from here…

Cover Picture:
Painting of Ayutthaya ca. 1665, by Johannes Vingboons, ordered by the Dutch East India Company, Amsterdam

Read the next section of this series here.

[1] ‘Historical Sketch of Tehsil Fyzabad, Zillah Fyzabad including Parganas Haveli-Oudh and Pachhimrath with the old capitals Ajudhia and Fyzabad’ (P. Carnegy)

[2] The mosque lies today in a dilapidated state at this site. There are two available pictures of the Svargadwārī mosque on the banks of Sarayū, one painted by William Hodges in 1783, and the second by William Daniell in 1789. Comparing the two one finds that several temples had been built around the mosque in the intervening period of six years. Daniell’s painting also shows that a top portion of one of the minārs was broken indicating a state of disrepair.

[3] This was however not on the ancient Trētā-kē-Ṭhākur site, whereupon still stood the mosque—albeit in ruins—that had been built after demolishing the earlier structure, but on another piece of land close to the original location where a temple was said to have been constructed by the Rājā of Kullu a couple of centuries earlier [this timeframe however appears unlikely which will be discussed later]. (‘Gazetteer of the Province of Oudh, Vol. 1’, Lucknow 1877, edited by W. C. Bennet)

[4] The prominent Shia cleric, Sayyid Dildar ‘Ali Nasirbandi, “harbored an almost violent animosity toward Hindus, arguing that the Awadh government should take stern measures against them. He divided unbelievers into three kinds, those (harbi) against whom Muslims must make war, those (dhimmi) who have accepted Muslim rule and pay a poll-tax, and those (musta’min) whom their Muslim rulers have temporarily granted security of life. He insisted that Imami Shi’ism accepted only Jews and Christians as protected minorities (dhimmis), and even they could only achieve this status if they observed the ordinances governing it. He differed with Sunni schools that considered Hindus a protected minority.
He wrote that Muslims could only grant infidels personal security (aman) in a country they ruled for one year, lamenting that the government had long treated as grantees of personal security the Hindus of northern India, who openly followed their idolatrous religion, drinking wine, and sometimes even mating with Sayyid women. Legally … the lives and property of Hindus could be licitly taken by Muslims. Nasirabadi shared this rather bloodthirsty attitude with other Muslim clerics, of course. The Sunni Naqshbandi thinker Shah Valiyu’llah (1703-62) wanted the Mughals to ban Hinduism. The dependence of Muslim rule upon an alliance with Hindu landholders rendered any such persecution of the majority community wholly impracticable.
” [emphasis added] (John Ricardo I. “Juan” Cole, ‘Roots of North Indian Shi’ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859’)

[5] The majority of Indian Muslims and consequently the qāzis officiating Awadh’s judiciary were Sunnis. “The Shi‘i ulama sought through professional closure practices to assert control over the monetary resources that notables poured into religious institutions, no easy task in the traditional, ecumenical setting of India. To monopolize religious authority and the patronage of the Shi‘i state would require the exclusion of popular Sufi leaders and institutions. It also implied the displacement of Sunni ulama already occupying official religious offices.” (Ibid.)

[6] They were denounced for not making war against the Hindus, for not forcing them to accept Islam, as was their religious duty as per Islam. Within 5 years after the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the despised jīzyāh was revoked in 1713, in the first year of reign of Emperor Farrukhsiyar, and the governorship of Awadh passed to Hindus (though jīzyāh was re-imposed in 1717 under pressure from the Muslim orthodoxy and Awadh soon came into the hands of the nawabs in 1722.) Jjīzyāh was abolished finally by Emperor Muhammad Shah in 1720. The persistent efforts of some champions of orthodoxy and admirers of Aurangzeb to revive it, failed before the rapidly increasing strength of the Hindus and the section which stood for compromise with them.

[7] considered heretical as per Islamic orthodoxy

[8] The Hindu nobility tended to emulate the class in power, seldom demonstrating individual character and conviction born out of adherence to values of their religion.

[9] British military officer of the 1857 ‘Siege of Lucknow’ fame, at this time appointed to the Revenue Service of India

[10] “Amjad ‘Ali Shah enacted anti-Hindu policies, founding Shi’i shops to drive Hindu merchants out of business, and rewarding Hindu officials who adopted Imami Shi’ism. The provision of government welfare monies to only the Shi’i poor encouraged thousands of Hindus to convert to Shi’ism in the 1840s, according to clerical sources. Awadh’s fiercely usūli governments showed little understanding of their Hindu subjects, allowing communal resentments to fester, a policy that culminated in a major battle over a religious edifice in Faizabad.” (Cole, ‘Roots of North Indian Shi’ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859’, pg. 229)

[11] In 1829 Nasiru’d-Din Haider forced a Brahmin boy to go through circumcision even after his family changed their minds about having him convert to Shi’ism. He told the outraged resident that he had a divine right to dispose of his subjects as he wished. Ricketts angrily retorted that the British Government recognized no such right. Three months later, following violence provoked allegedly by Hindus accused of defiling a mosque in Rikabganj, the king vindictively sent troops into the area, who plundered, ripped nose-rings off the faces of Hindu women, and destroyed all 47 Hindu temples in that quarter, putting to flight its entire population of about three thousand. When rioting threatened to spread to other quarters, the British resident intervened with the king, who reluctantly sent criers through the city warning that he would punish anyone found molesting a Hindu or insulting his temples. (Ibid.)

[12] Violence most often broke out between Shias and Sunnis during the Shia mourning month of Muharram, as in Jaunpur in 1776 or Lucknow in 1807. (Cole – Khayru’d-Din Muhammad Ilahabadi ‘Tuhfah-‘i tazah’, MS 483, fol. 59a-63b, India Office; Resident to Lt. Colonel Thomas, 8 Mar. 1807, FDPC, 26 Mar. 1807, no. 49; Resident to Sec. Govt Pol Dept, 13 Mar. 1807, FDPC, 26 Mar 1807, no 48)

Amjad Ali Mirza, as heir apparent played a prominent part in harassing Hindus, and in 1840, when Hindus were said to have defiled a mosque of a landlord with pig’s blood, he took active part in retaliations that resulted in the killing of several cows, profaning of temples and Hindu shops being looted. (Ibid. pg. 228)

[13] Rev. Samuel Purchas (‘Purchas his Pilgrimes’, London, 1625)

[14] However, according to Sir William Foster (‘Early Travels in India: 1583 – 1619), Herbert did not personally travel much beyond the immediate vicinity of Surat and mostly reproduced the information from De Laet’s work.




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