The History of Ayōdhyā and the Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute – III
By Smita Mukerji
Read the previous section of this series here.
Before we go on to the mystery of how much longer did Rāmkōṭ abide in the state it was found in by mediaeval European travellers in the middle of the 17th century, let us go back in time to discover how long had it already existed then. What were its distinctive features? Where exactly is the place where Rāma is said to have been born and what in passage of time bechanced it?
One of the clearest descriptions of Rāmkōṭ is provided by Patrick Carnegy, officiating British Commissioner and Settlement Officer of District Faizabad (1863), in his book ‘Historical Sketch of Tehsil Fyzabad, Zillah Fyzabad including Parganas Haveli-Oudh and Pachhimrath with the old capitals Ajudhia and Fyzabad’, published in 1870, in which he writes:
“…aided by descriptions found recorded in ancient manuscripts, the different spots rendered sacred by association with the worldly acts of the deified Ráma, were identified …indicated the different shrines to which pilgrims from afar still in thousands half-yearly flock.
The most remarkable of those was of course Rámkoṭ the strong-hold of Rámchandar. This fort covered a large extent of ground and according to ancient manuscripts, it was surrounded by 20* bastions, each of which was commanded by one of Ráma’s famous generals, after whom they took the names by which they are still known. Within the fort were eight royal mansions where dwelt the Patriarch Dasrath, his wives, and Ráma his deified son…”
There is an easy credence in these narrations of early European travellers and British administrators about the story of Rāma that describe the path trodden by countless pilgrims and the devotions undertaken by them at Ayōdhyā since times of yore. This is unlike the way this longstanding belief of millions has been assailed by later day academicians who have raised questions on the antiquity to which the tradition traces its origin and the historicity of its central character Rāma, a millennia old conventional truth—and every single facet of it—weighed by present day evidential liability and documentary rigour incompatible with the dynamic character of Hinduism, in a way the beliefs of no other people are attacked. In reality, there is little proof of the characters Jesus or Mohammed having existed, or their having visited, lived at or being born at the places they are associated with as per tradition, and several contradictory elements in traditions as well as textual accounts on them (and this despite the unitary structure of these religions).
On May 14, 1991, four historians well-established in academic circles (R. S. Sharma, M. Athar Ali, D. N. Jha and Suraj Bhan) issued a public statement in a booklet titled “Ramjanmabhumi-Baburi Masjid; A Historians’ Report to the Nation”, submitted to the Indian Home Minister. Among the several averments in this lengthy exposition was the following:
“People will be surprised to find that the V.H.P. has been unable to cite any ancient Sanskrit text in support of its claim that there has been an ancient Hindu belief in Ram-Janma-sthãna at Ayodhya. Surely, if there were such a strong belief there would have been numerous Vaishnavite texts exhorting worshippers to visit the spot. The absence of any such reference makes it very dubious that the belief in Ram Janma-sthãna is of such respectable antiquity as is being made out. It is even doubtful if it is earlier than the late eighteenth century, as we shall see.”
Are there really any textual references that testify to the association of present-day Ayōdhyā with the iconography of Rāma over a greater epoch? Without going into what evidence could actually be mustered in support of their case by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the main litigants in the Rāma Janmabhūmi dispute, let us, in order to assess the Historians’ assertion, go over the sources that can be found in the vast body of literature available on the incarnation of Rāma from which this might be indicated. What are the particulars in the “ancient manuscripts” alluded to by Carnegy that might help ascertain the validity of the beliefs enacted in the pilgrimage undertaken to Ayōdhyā by devotees since centuries, possibly much longer?
The ‘Māhātmya’ of the Janmasthāna of Rāma at Ayōdhyā
The ‘māhātmya’ or eminence of Ayōdhyā as pilgrimage is described in at least four major Sanskrit treatises, the most significant among these being the Ayōdhyā-māhātmya of Skaṇdapurāña.
The Purāñas are a genre of Sanskrit texts which are an important source of Indian history as well as traditions that can be seen as a bridge to the Vēdas. By most reliable estimates they date to at least the first millennium B.C.E., but most extant manuscripts appear to be from the first millennium C.E. Transmitted as oral traditions, the material came to be established and reorganised the second time around the Gupta period (3rd to 6th century C.E.) into the designated 18 Mahāpurāñas, but continued to be edited and expanded over the subsequent 5 centuries or even a millennium thereafter. The Skaṇdapurāña appears in at least two listings of the Mahāpurāñas, that from Ādipurāña to Bhaviṣyapurāña, at the 9th place, and in another listing which appears in the Viṣñupurāña at the 13th place.
1. Ayōdhyā-māhātmya of the Skaṇdapurāña
The Skaṇdapurāña is categorised as a ‘sthalapurāña’, a corpus of texts that describes the origins and traditions of particular temples, shrines or pilgrimage sites. Named after Skaṇda, the son of Śiva and Pārvati, and the god of war, it is a primary Śaivite text that is one of the eighteen Mahāpurāñas and in volume the most expansive, containing over 80,000 stanzas. It is subdivided into seven khaṇḋas (groups) – all of which narrate the legends associated with tīrthasthalas (pilgrimage spots) located in various corners of Greater India and the virtue earned from visiting them. Ayōdhyā-māhātmya occurs in the grouping known as ‘Viṣñu Khaṇḋa’ or ‘Vaiṣñava Khaṇḋa’.
Like all texts of the Purāñic canon, the Skaṇdapurāña has been received in the modern era in the form of several recensions and in multiple manuscripts, owing to which the age of the specific manuscript from which reference is drawn is important. The oldest of these is a palm-leaf manuscript of the Purāñas discovered in the Nepal Raj Durbar Library in Kathmandu that contained portions of the Skaṇdapurāña. Though the portion is too scant to make any reliable estimate about the text it was excerpted from, it was written in Gupta script and estimated to have been copied before 659 C.E. based on palaeographic grounds, indicating that the original text almost certainly existed before this time. This is affirmed by Benjamin Walker who dates the Skaṇdapurāña to ca. 550 C.E. and as such one of the oldest Purāñas.
Excerpts from the Skaṇdapurāña can also be found in other important texts, viz. the Dānasāgara of Vallālasēna, composed in Śaka 1091, i.e. 1169 C.E., and the Mitākśarā, a celebrated commentary on the Yājñavalkya smṛtī and estimated to have been composed in the middle or end of the 11th century.
Though difficult to ascertain the age of the individual khaṇḋas or determine whether their root text belonged to the original version of the Skaṇdapurāña, the first 162 chapters are consistent in most versions which correspond to the older Nepalese editions, save the occasional omissions and insertions. Irrespective of the several interpolations, what is of utmost interest for us here is the authenticity of the Ayōdhyā-māhātmya, more specifically the Janmasthāna-māhātmya, merit of the place of birth of Rāma.
Apparently insistent on assigning a later date to the tradition of Ayōdhyā as the birthplace of Rāma, the four historians in their ‘Report to the Nation’ write:
“The various versions of Ayodhya mahatmya seem to have been prepared towards the end of the eighteenth century or the beginning of the nineteenth; even as late as that the birthplace was not considered to be important. It is significant that Janma-sthana is not mentioned even once in any itinerary of pilgrimage in the mahatmya.”
In their eagerness, the four historians who otherwise borrow copiously from the book ‘Ayodhyā’ by the Dutch scholar Hans T. Bakker, who had made a detailed study of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya, published in 1986, studiously omit his conclusions regarding the date of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya as approximating the 13th or 14th century.
Bakker bases his estimate on the other three tīrthamāhātmyas mentioned in the Vaiṣñavakhaṇḋa, which appeared to be “the work of one editor who collated his materials in the 14th century”: Venkatachala-māhātmya, Badrikāśrama-māhātmya, and the Puruṣottamakśetra-māhātmya (Puri). Though the date of the former two was uncertain, he estimated the time of composition of the Puruṣottamakśetra-māhātmya to be around 1300 A.D. But even this date would seem too late, as an analytic study of its contents shows. It was clearly composed much earlier, since it does not mention the construction of the magnificient Jagannātha temple, built in 1042 C.E. by Anaṇtavarman Choḋagaṅga.
On what then did the historians base their wide estimate of date?
The four historians claimed to have based their supposition of date of Skaṇdapurāña on three versions: a printed edition and two other manuscripts (one found in Vrindavan Research Institute, Vrindavan, and another kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.) It is interesting that these are the versions that form the basis of Bakker’s study, mentioned by him in references as ‘S’, ‘B’ and ‘OA’ respectively. It is unclear whether any of the historians undertook direct study of the original material they cite or simply took it down from Bakker’s references since they quoted him profusely. The lack of diligence of these historians can be gauged from the following observation in their ‘Report to the Nation’:
“The internal contents of the Skanda Purãṇa, including the mention of Vidyapati, who passed away in the first half of the sixteenth century, show that the core of this Purãṇa itself was not compiled earlier than the sixteenth century.” [Emphasis added]
It may be noted that the Vidyāpati mentioned in Skaṇdapurāña is not the famed Maithili poet, as assumed by the historians, but a mythological character described in the Mahābhārata and also the Bhāgavatapurāña, as the younger brother of the priest of the legendary king Indradyumna of Ujjain, who had tasked Vidyāpati to trace the Nīla Mādhava deity worshipped by the Śabara tribe of Utkala country.
Moreover, Vidyāpati of Janakpur (Nepal) could not have lived in the first half of the 16th century since he was born in 1350 C.E. He is known to have copied the entire Bhāgavatapurāña in Mithilākśara, which he himself dated in the colophon to L.S. 309 (1418 C.E.), at a ripe old age during his exile in Nepal, after the defeat of King Śivasiṁha. Other works by him, ‘Likhanāvali’, a treatise on drafting of official letters, is dated L.S. 299 (1408 C.E.) and ‘Durgābhakti Taraṅgini’, written on the request of Mahārāja Bhairava Siṁha, is definitely dated to Śaka 1375 (1453 C.E.) in an inscription in the Sun-temple in Kandāhā (near Saharsa, Bihar). In the enthusiasm to prove their case the historians kept Vidyāpati alive till mid-16th century!
Before we discuss the other sources that describe the ‘māhātmya’ of Ayōdhyā and that of the ‘janmasthāna’ of Rāma, let us dwell a while longer on the historians’ puzzling keenness to prove recent origins of the sanctity of Ayōdhyā as Rāma’s birthplace. Acharya Kunal Kishore, provides an interesting factoid from which this motivation would become evident.
Deputed as Officer on Special Duty in 1990 during his career with the Indian Police Service, to assist the Ministry of State for Home Affairs in mediations between the contending parties in the Rāma Janmabhūmi-Bāburī Masjid dispute, Ach. Kunal Kishore held the appointment at the time when the four historians came up with their vehemently worded missive which contained the following exhortation:
“The Government of India, under circumstances that are well known, began negotiations with the VHP and the Baburi Masjid Action Committee (BMAC), with a view to examining the historical and legal merits of the case of both parties. Thus, the dispute over the facts of History was now to be decided by the litigants, with the Government of India as an umpire, and not any independent forum of historians. This seemed to us, as professional historians, a very unhappy procedure. We therefore, approached the Government of India to include impartial historians in the process of forming judgment on historical facts and to let us have access to such evidence, archaeological and textual, as has been presented to it or is in possession of government organisations, such as the Archaeological Survey of India. We regret to say that the Government of India’s response to this was largely one of silence.” [Emphasis added]
The charge that the government of India was acting as “umpire” between the litigants was patently not true since both parties had been formally invited by the government to include reputed historians in their respective panels for holding debate and discussions within the framework of the negotiations, in order to arrive at objective conclusions that would help settle the issue. It turns out however, that all the four historians who had issued the ‘Report to the Nation’ pretending to be “impartial historians” were really experts preferred by BMAC and not independent, certainly not free of bias and prejudice, which can be seen from the list of experts nominated by both parties present with the government. It was no surprise that the document “Ramjanmabhumi-Baburi Masjid; A Historians’ Report to the Nation” criticised only the claims of VHP and did not comment on the quality of evidence presented by the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee (AIBMAC).
Rāma’s Court, Folio from a Rāmāyaña – India, Himachal Pradesh, Chamba, 1775-80 (Source: Collections Lacma)
Read the next section of this series here.
 They are considered to be of human origin and constitute the smṛtīs. Written and copied continually by many writers, the literature is stratified having grown by numerous accretions in successive historical eras (Cornelia Dimmitt and J.A.B. van Buitenen – ‘Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas’) and cannot be traced to any single author. Their content is therefore also inconsistent after multiple redactions (and at times even corruption) over time, having survived in multiple manuscripts and versions preserved by pundits who maintained Hindu pilgrimage sites and temples. They are encyclopaedic in nature, that cover wide-ranging topics from cosmogony, cosmology, astronomy, medicine, mineralogy, and grammar, to genealogies of gods, goddesses, kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, folk tales, pilgrimages, temples, humour, romantic stories, as well as theology and philosophy. The Purāñas play an important part in the cultural and religious landscape of India, several major national and regional religious practices, diverse arts and festivals being derived from them.
 This however, in combination with independent corroborating evidence, such as “epigraphy, archaeology, Buddhist literature, Jaina literature, non-Puranic literature, Islamic records, and records preserved outside India by travelers to or from India in medieval times such as in China, Myanmar and Indonesia.” (Ludo Rocher, ‘The Puranas’ – 1986; L. Srinivasan, ‘Historicity of the Indian mythology: Some observations’ – 2000)
 Vincent Smith, Moriz Winternitz
 As per the Viṣñupurāña, the earliest compilation ‘Purāñasaṁhitā’ was made by Sage Vyāsa, which was augmented and arranged into 18 Purāñas by his disciples.
 Al-Bīrūnī in ‘Qitāb-ul-Hind’ (ca. 1027-30)
 Maheśvara Khaṇḋa, Viṣṇu Khaṇḋa or Vaiṣṇava Khaṇḋa, Brahma Khaṇḋa, Kāśī Khaṇḋa, Āvantya Khaṇḋa, Nāgara Khaṇḋa, Prabhāsa Khaṇḋa
 By Haraprasad Shastri and Professor Cecil Bendall, published 1905 (‘Catalogue of Palm Leaf and Selected Papers Mss Belonging to the Durbar Library in Nepal’)
 “Skandapurana pp. 8 and 141, No. 229, is in Gupta character. Professor and myself carefully examined the palaeography of the MS at the Durbar Library, and we came to the conclusion that the ‘Paramesvaratantra’ in transitional Gupta character, described by Prof. Bendall in his Cam. Cat. So the MS must have been copied before 659 A.D. as the Paramesvaratantra was copied in Harsa era 252 = 859 A.D.” (Pg. 52, ibid.)
 Benjamin Walker, ‘Hindu World – An Encyclopaedic Survey of Hinduism’ (1968)
 The Sēna king of Bengal (1159-1179 C.E.) and founder of the kulīna system of nobility.
 The oldest versions of the Skaṇdapurāña texts have been discovered in the Himalayan region of South Asia such as Nepal, and the north-eastern states of India such as Assam, and therefore the critical editions of the text, for scholarly studies, rely on these manuscripts.
 Hans T. Bakker, ‘The Structure of the Varanasimahatmya in Skandapurana’, pgs. 26-31
 “In view of the above considerations we are inclined to accept the close of the 13th or 14th century as the most plausible date for the redaction of a type of text and its insertion in the Vaishṇavakhaṇḋa (S)” (‘Ayodhyā’, pgs. 129-130)
 S. N. Sen (‘A Textbook of Medieval Indian History’); by other estimates, in the 12th century (1156-1170 C.E.)
 Kunal Kishore (‘Ayodhyã Revisited’)
 Known to have ascended to the throne in 1402 C.E. at the age of 50 (Vidyāpati was elder to him by 2 years.)
 Retired I.P.S.; Vice-Chancellor of K.S.D. Sanskrit University, Darbhanga (Bihar); President, Board of Religious Trusts, Patna; Author (‘Ayodhyã Revisited’)
 Letter dated January 23, 1991, from OSD, Ministry of State (Home), to Shri Surya Krishna (VHP) and Shri Javed Habib (AIBMAC), produced before the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court, by Zafarayab Jilani, Advocate and Counsel for Defendant No. 4, i.e. Central Sunni Waqf Board, in O.O.S. No. 5 of 1989, Bhagwan Shri Ram Virajman and Ors. Vs. Shri Rajendra Singh and Ors., during the cross-examination of OPW-3 Dr. S. P. Gupta. It was marked ‘Exh. 005-5-D 20’, with the remark “genuineness admitted” (‘Ayodhyã Revisited’, pg. xxxix)