The History of Ayōdhyā and the Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute – V

By Smita Mukerji


Read the previous section of this series here.


An authoritative religious history of the Hindus and the growth of the pilgrimage centres revered by them has been lacking owing to the proclivity of established historians to denigrate the written sources which would constitute its primary reference material, dismissing these as mythology. But in recent decades several scholars, both Indian and foreign, have undertaken the study of the sacred literature relating to these, namely the sthalapurāñas, gleaning information provided in them to reconstruct a definitive history of the places sanctified in Hindu belief. A pioneer in this field was the Dutch Indologist Jan Gonda, who wrote in his book ‘Medieval Religious Literature in Sanskrit’ that, “the literature of holy places of special sanctity is in all probability far more extensive than any other single topic of the Dharmaśāstras.” He further observed:

“This genre of literature is not only very useful for deepening our knowledge of the cultural and religious history of India in general but also most valuable for those who want to reconstruct the development of regional history and local cults or to gain a deeper insight into various religious institutions.”

Several texts lost in oblivion were brought out in the course of respective researches conducted by scholars, like the Gayā-māhātmya by C. Jacques in 1962, the Kāṇćipuram-māhātmya by a team led by R. Dessigane in 1964, the legend of Indradyūmna related to the story of Jagannātha in a detailed study[1] by R. Geib, Puruṣottama-māhātmya by A. Eichmann and his team, in 1978, the Prayāga-māhātmya by S. G. Kantawala in 1967 and by G. Spera in 1977, sacred sites of Nēpāl by H. Uebach in 1970 and Ćidambaram by H. Kulke (1969-70). In this sequence is Hans T. Bakker’s noteworthy study of the Ayōdhyā-māhātmya published in 1986, as part his book ‘Ayodhyā’.

Description of Rāma-janmabhūmī in Ayōdhyā-māhātmya

The Ayōdhyā-māhātmya (henceforth AM) identifies in unambiguous terms the spot where Śrī Rāma is said to have been born, furnishing clear directions and orientation. But regrettably this vital evidence has never been asserted authoritatively nor properly presented before the adjudicating authorities in the Rāma Janmabhūmī-Bābûrī Masjid dispute.[2]

Ayōdhyā-māhātmya versions used by Hans T. Bakker

Bakker used three versions of AM to base his work. The first of these (denoted by ‘S’ in the sigla) is a printed version (1910) of AM of Skaṇdapurāña,[3] by M/s. Khemraj Shrikrishnadas (Shri Venkateshwar Steam Press)[4], in which the following description of the place of birth of Rāma can be found:

AM-Skandapurana-printed
Excerpt from Adhyāya 10, p. 293R. of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya of Skandapurāña printed by M/s. Khemraj Shrikrishandas

The second version of AM referred to by Bakker is from a manuscript (MS) of the Rudrayāmala preserved at Bodleian Library, Oxford University[5] (denoted by him ‘OA’). It is in Dēvanāgari script with black Indian ink on hand-made paper. It is the largest version of the three used by Bakker, containing 30 adhyāyas (chapters) with 10 lines to a page and 50 akśaras per line. Apart from the specific directions given in ‘S’, this version gives more details on the exact distance separating the identifying spots.[6]

AM-Rudrayamala-BodleianMS1-1
Excerpt with description of Janmasthāna from Ayōdhyā-māhātmya of Rudrayāmala (Adhyāya 7), from MS at Bodleian Library, Oxford

The third version of AM studied by Bakker for his work ‘Ayodhyā’ is a MS in Bengali script (marked ‘B’ by him), preserved at Vrindavan Research Institute, which again is part of the text Rudrayāmala.

Rudrayamala-Vrindavan
Description of Janmasthāna in Ayōdhyā-māhātmya of Rudrayāmala (Adhyāya 5, folio 13v–14v), from MS at Vrindavan Research Institute

What is remarkable in the three versions is the striking consistency in the description and the coordinates of the place of birth of Śrī Rāma that they provide. The ‘S’ version though does not mention the temple built by Brahmā. It may be speculated that the MS of this version was scribed at a period when the (Janmabhūmī) temple and the castle (Rāmkōṭ) had ceased to exist.

Not all of Bakker’s conclusions can be strictly relied on since they suffer from the typical biases of Western Indological studies that seek to read the dynamics of India in terms of a preset notional matrix, devising themes of caste conflict and religious contention between ‘Brahminism’[7] as an orthodox block and Jainism and Buddhism (even Śaivism and Vaiṣñavism and their various sects) as heterodoxies rather than as valid philosophical traditions in concordance within the grand milieu of Hinduism. Straightforward evidences that point to the sacred status of Ayōdhyā in Hindu canon appears to have been consistently devalued, disregarded or misinterpreted and instead greater antiquity assigned to the association of Buddhist and Jaina traditions with Ayōdhyā, portraying the Hindu tradition as a later appropriation of the holy site and the Hindus as interlopers. In an effort to ‘demythologise’, the work tries to invalidate the longstanding association of Ayōdhyā with Śrī Rāma’s nativity as a comparatively recently forged tradition.[8] Bakker moreover introduced new divarications which further mired the issue rather than bring clarity. These will need to be addressed at a later point in this series since these have been adduced in the case against the movement to reclaim the Rāma-janmabhūmī site.

Bakker’s work however does affirm that Ayōdhyā was a sacred city in Jaina, Buddhist as well as—what he refers to as—‘brahminical’ tradition by the 6th to 5th centuries B.C.E. and an important centre of the Śaiva and Vaiṣñava traditions by the Gupta age (3rd to 6th century C.E.) and authenticates the lore of present day Ayōdhyā as Rāma’s birthplace since the beginning of the second millennium C.E. He confirms the existence of a temple at that spot, apart from four other Viṣñu temples at different locations in Ayōdhyā[9], at least since the 12th century C.E. (coinciding with the rule of the Gāhadavāla kings) citing epigraphical, archaeological and literary evidence, unlike the casual claims of our EIHs.

What is interesting is that the emergence of tangible signs of the Śaiva and Vaiśñava cults in Ayōdhyā coincide with the Gupta age, the period in which much of the traditions transmitted orally over aeons began to be actually recorded, as well as the beginnings of use of stone in the construction of temples. These however explain the appearance of scribed forms of the traditions and enduring edifices related to them and do not necessarily mark the originating point of the traditions as concluded by Bakker. For now, let us visit the various versions of AM other than the ones used by Bakker to see how they describe the Rāma-janmabhūmī.

Location of Rāma-janmabhūmī

In 1902, during a visit of the Prince of Wales to India a trip to Faizābād was planned, which however did not materialise eventually. The British district administration decided to utilise the funds allocated for the arrangements of the visit to mark all the locations of religious significance in Ayōdhyā.[10] The first stone marker was affixed in front of the eastern entrance of a mosque atop Rāmkōṭ bearing the notation ‘No. 1, Rama-janma-bhumi’. This was done in consultation with a local committee headed by Mahant Rammanohar Prasad of Baḍā-Asthān (Daśarath Mahal) and established on the basis of the details in AM of Skaṇdapurāña. As early as 1902, this spot was accepted officially by the British administration as the birthplace of Śrī Rāma revered since yore, pinpointed after assiduous study of traditionally handed down information as well as textual sources. Its authenticity was impugned by a clique of latter-day supposedly expert historians who had in fact not made any direct study of the primary sources.

Several recensions of the AM provide a meticulous sketch of the Janmasthāna mentioning its precise location in relation to other identifying features.

Māhātmya of Ayōdhyā in Awadha Vilās of Lāl Dāsa

The 17th century Bhakti saint Lāl Dāsa left a graphic description of the Janmasthāna in his composition ‘Awadha Vilāsa’. He was clearly in possession of a MS of AM since he expressly mentioned the source of his composition to be the Rudrayāmala. The description of Rāma Janmasthāna in his composition is remarkably similar to those in the presently available versions and therefore it can be safely assumed that not only did a MS of AM of the Rudrayāmala exist in 1675 C.E. (the year Lāl Dāsa composed Awadha Vilāsa), there is no significant change in the description of the Janmabhūmī for at least since 3-½ centuries, which completely belies the claim of the EIHs.

Avadh Vilas - Janmasthan description-Marked
Description of Janmabhūmī in Awadha Vilāsa

But curiously, the Awadha Vilāsa does not at any point mention a temple at the spot of Rāma’s birth. It however testifies that it was visited by a multitude of people, the sages and the gods (देव सिद्धि रिखि मुनि जन जेते ।  वंदत हैं ता ठौरहिं तेते ॥). It is likely that though the location was clearly identified, the structure on the site was no longer there.

Oldest printed version of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya

The oldest printed version of AM discovered so far is a lithograph edition published by Varanasi Prasad, at Kashi Sanskrit Press in V.S. 1925 (1868 C.E.) This version from Rudrayāmala containing 10 chapters was edited by Fatah Narayan Singh, a copy of which is available in the British Museum Library[11].

AM-Kashi Sanskrit Press-1
Excerpt from printed version of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya of Kashi Sanskrit Press

Ayōdhyā-māhātmya Manuscript in Oriental Institute Vadodara

A MS with exactly the same contents as AM of Kashi Sanskrit Press, but older, dated V.S. 1903 (1846 C.E.) is preserved in the Oriental Institute Baroda. The relevant chapter 5 describes the Janmabhūmī in detail (reproduced in the picture).

AM-Oriental Institute Baroda
‘Ájúdhiá Mahátum’ of P. Carnegy

AM-Carnegy1Patrick Carnegy, the officiating British Commissioner and Settlement Officer of District Faizabad (1863) had seen one MS of AM which he translated ca. 1860 into English, titled ‘Ájúdhiá Mahátum’. An abstract of this captioned, ‘Epitome Of The “Ájúdhiá Mahátum,” which again is taken from the Púráns’, prepared by Assistant Settlement Officer J. Woodburn, is included in Carnegy’s monumental work ‘Historical Sketch of Tehsil Fyzabad, Zillah Fyzabad’[12] with the following introductory note:

AM thieves - Carnegy
Excerpt from ‘Epitome Of The “Ájúdhiá Mahátum,” Which Is Again Taken From The Púráns’, with the story of the thieves, which can be found in the Satyōpākhyāna

The version could also have been likely part of the Satyōpākhyāna since it contains a narration of the story of ‘the thieves’ found in the AM of Satyōpākhyāna.[13]

So, what can we know about the Janmasthāna from this version? Though only a synopsis, the specific spots mentioned in the version tally with the other versions of AM.

AM-Carnegy2
Description of Janmasthāna in ‘Epitome of the “Ájúdhiá Mahátum’, by P. Carnegy

Ayōdhyā-māhātmya in Jīva Gōswāmī’s Library

The 16th century saint of the Gauḍiyā Vaiṣñva tradition, Jīva Gōswāmī (1523–1608), who established the Rādhā Dāmōdara temple at Vrindāvana had built a library in the temple premises for which he prepared in his own handwriting an elaborate catalogue of the books available. This list of books is presently preserved at the Vrindavan Research Institute. The MS is divided in four parts A to D, according to year of listing. In folio no. 9 of category A[14], listed in 1654 V.S. (1597 C.E.), mentioned as the 9th entry is the book with title ‘अयोध्या माहात्म्य गौ’ or ‘Ayōdhyā-māhātmya Gauḍiyā[15]’. A MS of AM in Bengali script was clearly available in 1597 C.E. possibly copied from a much earlier version.

Though it has not been possible to determine whether the listed book is extant or not[16], another work by Jīva Gōswāmī, Kṛṣña-saṅdarbha, which is part of the ‘Śata-saṅdarbha’, contains the following verses that refer to AM:

AM-Jīva GōswāmīThe first of these verses appears in many recensions of AM in relation to the description of Svargadwāra. The second verse can be found in the first chapter of printed version of AM which had been used by Bakker, indicating that the text was a well-known source of reference in Jīva Gōswāmī’s time (1513-1598 C.E.)[17] for the eminence of Ayōdhyā in relation to Śrī Rāma’s nativity available in one or more versions.

Other minor versions of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya

A printed version of AM in Hindi is known, composed by a poet called ‘Hajari’ in the Hara-Gaurī saṁvāda style of Rudrayāmala, published in July 1901, by Seth Chhotelal Laxmichand (Mumbai) and printed at Jain Press, Lucknow. It is a concise work of 20 chapters covering only 20 pages with neither the poet’s details nor a date. Its contents indicate the date of the composition to be in the 18th century around the time the Hanumān-gaḍhi temple was constructed in Rāmkōṭ.

Another version titled ‘Awadha Yātrā’, composed by Munsi Rai Gur Sharan Lal ‘Awadhvasi’ was published in 1869, by Munshi Nawal Kishore Printing Press, Lucknow. This work narrates the significance of a pilgrimage to the Janmasthāna in Rāmkōṭ mentioning the exact particulars and the location.

It is quite clear that there were several recensions and many more manuscripts of AM, quite a few of which have down the ages been lost. There are also other sources with corroborative references on the sanctitude of Ayōdhyā.

Dwārkā-paṭṭalaṃ, Badrikā-māhātmya, Yātrā Prabandha and Ćaitanya Bhāgvat

‘Dwārkā-paṭṭalaṃ’ was composed by the royal princess Bīnābāi (daughter of Māṇdalika, and wife of Harī Singh of the Chauhan clan of Pāṭalipura in Kāṭhiāwāḍ). The work draws mainly from the Dwārkā-māhātmya (part of the Prabhāsa Khaṇḋa of Skaṇdapurāña). Published in 1941 C.E. as part of ‘The contribution of Women to Sanskrit Literature’, volume III, it was edited by Jatindra Vimal Chaudhari, prepared from a MS dated to 1518 C.E. In a set of verses the book describes the prestige of Ayōdhyā:

AM-Dwārkā-pattalaṃ

The Badrikāśrama-māhātmya is a part of Vaiṣñava Khaṇḋa of Skaṇdapurāña which is estimated to have been collated in the 14th century[18]. It contains a short account of the Janmabhūmī but with some stunning details:

AM-Badrikamahatmya

The 17th century poet Samarapuṅgava Ḋīkśiṭa (b. 1574 C.E.) provides a brief but very specific description of Ayōdhyā from his pilgrimage there, in his treatise ‘Yātrā Prabandha’, composed in Champu style[19]. Dated to around 1610 C.E., it testifies to the history of Ayōdhyā on the banks of Sarayū river as an important centre of pilgrimage:

AM-Yatraprabandha

The biography of Ćaitanya Mahāprabhū (1486-1534 C.E.) ‘Ćaitanya Bhāgvat’, composed in Bangla by Bṛndāvana Dāsa Ṭhākura (1507-1589 C.E.) around 1545 C.E., contains a description of the pilgrimage by Bhagavān Ćaitanya around 1510 C.E.[20] and among the places visited by him mentions a visit to Ayōdhyā[21] which attest to the fact that it was a prime destination of pilgrimage in that time.[22]

In spite of the destruction and disruptions over the ages and the long passage of time, the whereabouts and description of the place of birth of Rāma in Ayōdhyā has been undeviatingly constant in numerous textual sources and subsequent recensions over almost a millennium. That it was an active and vibrant place of pilgrimage from the earliest times can also be seen from some of the accounts and will become clearer as we go along. But this was not the only bone to pick in Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute. Many controversies have been raised on the presence of a temple at the spot of birth of Rāma which though borne out from these sources, do not account for what happened to it later. We still have to figure out how and when (and whether) a mosque came to be at the site of Sri Rāma’s birth. In the next section we take a closer look at this aspect and also the spots mentioned in the Ayōdhyā-māhātmya with respect to which the location of the Rāma Janmabhūmī can be ascertained.



Cover Picture: Gold carving depiction of the legendary Ayōdhyā at the Ajmer Jain temple
(Source: Wiki)


Read the next section of this series here.


[1] ‘Die Indradyumna-Legende: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Jagannatha-Kultes’ (Wiesbaden, 1975)

[2] Kishore Kunal

[3] 8th section of the Vaiṣñava-khaṇḋa of Skandapurāña

[4] Another printed version of Ayōdhyā-māhātmya by the same publishers, published V.S. 1956 (1899 C.E.) is available, which according to the colophon is from the Rudrayāmala, containing 30 chapters.

[5] Bound into one volume along with the manuscripts of the ‘Kēdārakalpa’, the ‘Kōsala Khaṇḋa’ and the ‘Taṇtrasāra’, this MS belongs to the ‘Chandra Shum Shere Collection’ numbered C150, in black ink, marked ‘No. ‘473’ (possibly a shelf-mark of the original collection above), titled ‘Rudrayamala, Ajodhyamahatma 57’ (with an additional handwritten remark on the title page in red ink that reads ‘Rudrayamale’).

[6] There is another MS in Bodleian Library with almost the same content as the first, described by Bakker with the words: “Chandra Shum Shere Collection of the Bodleian Library Oxford No. C 150. The MS is included in the same binding as the preceding one (O1). The title page bears the number ‘1800’ and below it the title ‘rudrayamalokta’ in red ink; and the words ‘kosalakhanda’ ‘rudrayamala 78’ below it in black ink. (The word ‘skandakahai’ after ‘kosalakhanda’ has been crossed out.) Below this, noted in another hand are the words ‘Sriayodhyamahatmya’, followed by the number ‘78’, ‘A 30’, and below it ‘2254’ (possibly the shelf mark). It is Dēvanāgari script in black Indian ink, with 30 adhyāyas over 78 folios, containing a total of 1578 ślōkas. The name of the scribe and place of copying is missing, but it is dated to V.S. 1895 (1838 C.E.) The first MS used by Bakker is older than this MS.

[7] Bakker writes: “We conceive of ‘Brahmanism’ as the culture of the Āryan stratum of the society, notably that of the Brahmins, which preceded ‘Hinduism’, that is to say which did not yet know temple worship.

The basic premise is clearly erroneous in more ways than one. The idea of an “Āryan stratum” is fundamentally flawed since no such distinct set of brahminical practices attributable to a class existed. In reality, Hindu iconography developed over a vast period of time and was more a process of metamorphosis rather than a break or moving away from ‘Brahminism’ and remains rooted in the ancient Vedic tradition. Indeed most of the masters of Śaiva, Vaiṣñava, Jaina and Buddhist traditions were drawn from among the ‘brahminical’ complex and were merely philosophical streams inhered to it.

[8] Bakker has also made some preposterous assumptions about the political scenario, portraying diminutively the powerful Hindu kingdoms of the time while exaggerating the Ghaznavid tip-and-run assaults—most of which were thwarted effectively by Indian rulers—as an overrun.

[9] 1) Harīsmṛtī (Guptaharī) at the Gopratāra ghāṭ, 2) Viṣñuharī at the Ćakratīrtha ghāṭ, 3) Ćandraharī on the west side of the Svargadvāra ghāṭs, 4) Dharmaharī on the east side of the Svargadvāra ghāṭs, and a 5) Viṣñu temple on the Janmabhūmī
The identity of all these temples is not uncontested though locations are more or less certain. Three of these, viz. 3), 4) and 5), definitely existed until their destruction in the mediaeval period.

[10] “In 1902 a local committee was formed with the object of commemorating the coronation of His Imperial Majesty King Edward VII, and a sum of over Rs. 1000 was collected and expended on the erection of stone pillars marking the sacred spots in Ajodhya and its neighbourhood. This work had been carried out and no fewer than 145 such stones have been erected; their ostensible purpose being to preserve the memory of the various holy spots and to serve as a guide to pilgrims and others interested in the place. – ‘Fyzabad: A Gazetteer Vol. XLIII’, by H. R. Neville (Allahabad, 1905), pg. 176

[11] Part of the ‘Catalogue of Sanskrit and Pali Books in the British Museum’, prepared by Dr. Ernst Haas in 1876 in London. Ayōdhyā-māhātmya begins on page 141 with the note: “·Tantras·Rudrayãmalatantrã·Ayodhyamahatmyam· अथायोध्यामाहात्म्यं प्रारभ्यते [A description of Ayodhya and its sacred localities alleged to be a section of the R] ff. 16, lith. (काशी 1925 (Benares, 1868))]”

[12] ‘Historical Sketch of Tehsil Fyzabad, Zillah Fyzabad including Parganas Haveli-Oudh and Pachhimrath with the old capitals Ajudhia and Fyzabad’ (1870)

[13] The Rudrayāmala only alludes to the story of the thieves.

[14] Corresponding to book bundle no. 20 which carries various Purāñas wrapped in cloth (presently preserved in Vrindavan Research Insitute-Acc. No. 5425)

[15] Stands for the Bengali recensions

[16] Vrindavan Research had four MS of AM all of which however are later editions. No MS seems to have been received from Rādhā Dāmōdara temple at the Vrindavan library and it is not possible to examine the original works in Jīva Gōswāmī’s handwriting since they are worshipped by the devotees.

[17] According to some sources, 1533 to 1618 C.E.

[18] Bakker

[19] Mix of prose and verse

[20] Since he is known to not have been away from Jagannāṭha Purī in the last 18 years of his life

[21] Either on his way to Vṛndāvana or on the return journey

[22] तवे गेला नित्यानन्द अयोध्या नगर ꠰
        राम जन्मभूमि देखि कान्दिला विस्तर  ꠱२२꠱
(Thereafter Lord Niṭyānanda travelled to Ayōdhyā and seeing the birthplace of Rāma, overtaken by spiritual ecstasy, shed tears of divine love.)


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