The History of Ayōdhyā and the Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute – VII

By Smita Mukerji

Read the previous section of this series here.

One mediaeval European traveller who is of central importance to the story of Ayōdhyā is the Austrian Jesuit padre named Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710–1785 C.E.) During his wanderings over 42 years (1743–1785) in India he travelled its length and breadth through 22 provinces documenting in detail the topography, political situation and religion of 18th century India. A trained geographer and polyglot, he was a prolific writer and his meticulous account in Latin, Descriptio Indiæ[1], is one of the most remarkable works on geography which offers a wealth of precise and scientifically recorded information that has been only inadequately tapped till now.[2] The book was published in part in Latin in the period 1776–1784, a German translation[3] in 1785–87 and a French translation[4] in 1786–91.

Born on July 24, 1710 at Bozen (in Tyrol county in the Austrian empire), he entered the Society of Jesus in early youth and received his academic training at Landesberg in Upper Germany.  In 1740 he travelled to Spain and Portugal, and from Lisbon sailed for an East Indian Mission to Goa in 1743. After various assignments in Surat, Agra and Narwar, following an order of the Portuguese Prime Minister Pombal in 1759 for all Jesuits to be expelled from Portuguese-controlled territories, he was forced on an itinerant course.

Lavatorium named ‘Mancancound’ (bottom) and the cluster of monasteries in Awadh (top) it was a part of, sketched by Tieffenthaler in 1767 C.E. (Source: ‘The Battle for Rama’)

Thereafter, he undertook an arduous journey along the course of the Ganges down to Calcutta, studying the regions and tracing the sources of the major rivers of North India, among them the Ghaghra (Sarayū)[5] that brought him to Ayōdhyā in 1770. Called ‘Oude’ in his writings, he stayed in the province from 1766 until 1772 and some 58 pages in Descriptio Indiæ are devoted to the towns and villages in its range describing the contemporary life, with maps and drawings of buildings and fortresses and their design, accurate measurements depicting their location, plan and condition at that point. Some of these are a revelation as they show a degree of technical advancement far greater than the standard of buildings today. One of these illustrations is particularly remarkable which is of a multi-storied complex for monks in Ayōdhyā (labelled ‘some monasteries in Awadh where heathen[6] monks live’, apparently a mûṭh for sādhūs) and a lavatorium (Lat. for washing room) labelled ‘Mancancound’ (Skt. maṇćankuṇd) which was part of it. The reservoir had a sophisticated system of aqueducts for collection and discharge that had an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Great Bath’ of Mohenjo-daro.

Great Bath - Harappa
Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro (Source:

From Tieffenthaler’s account it is apparent that Ayōdhyā had many imposing structures in the 18th century and continued to be the centre of vibrant religious activity. But most importantly, it contains the first ever reference to the demolition of the castle in Rāmkōṭ and the construction of a mosque at the place, subsequently referred to as Bābûrī Masjid.[7] Tieffenthaler’s descriptive and categoric account blows apart every single contrivance of the cabal of historians intent on falsifying the historical circumstance that a temple had existed on the site of the Islamic structure that came to be known as Bābûrī Masjid.

It was first quoted in the context of the Rāma Janmabhūmī–Bābûrī Masjid Dispute by Abhas Kumar Chatterjee (IAS) in a series of articles which appeared in Indian Express in 1991 (‘History Versus Casuistry: Evidence of the Ramjanmabhoomi Mandir presented by the Vishva Hindu Parishad to the Government of India in December–January 1990-91’), though he had not used the original Latin account but quoted from the French translation. The book was not available in English until a translation was requisitioned by the Government of India to be placed before the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court, as there had been some objections raised on the authenticity of the French version when placed before the court as evidence. Unbeknownst to them however, an English translation did in fact exist as part of Vol. IV of the book ‘The Modern Traveller: A Popular Description, Geographical, Historical and Topographical, of the Globe’, by Josiah Conder, published 1828. This was submitted before the same bench by Ach. Kishore Kunal. An excerpt from this version[8] provide us with an unequivocal picture of what had happened at the Janmabhūmī of Rāma:


Tieffenthaler’s account clearly mentions the presence of two mosques which were built in Ayōdhyā after demolition of the temples that stood there, on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb: the first at Svargadwārī at the bank of the Ghaghra and another east of this spot. So what state was Rāmkōṭ in at that time? Tieffenthaler further informs:


This was the third Hindu structure, and apparently, most significant, that was destroyed and a mosque built in its place. But what site was this so significant that Tieffenthaler talked about?

The exact location of birth of Śrī Rāmaćaṇdra

The ‘Plaintiff’Bhagwān Śrī Rāmlallā VirājamanSabarimalā to Ayōdhyā: Hindu Deities plead for their space in ‘secular’ India

When the account of Joseph Tieffenthaler was first brought as evidence in the adjudication of the Rāma Janmabhūmī Dispute[9], numerous questions were raised on its authenticity by the lobby opposing the Rāma Janmabhūmī temple movement. There is however a striking consistency in all the translated versions done centuries apart and almost no variation from the original Latin work. Still this did not keep the fraternity of established historians from belittling its evidentiary value. In an article ‘A Historian’s Overview’ that appeared in the book, ‘Anatomy of a Confrontation: Ayodhya and the Rise of Communal Politics in India’, K. N. Panikkar tried to discredit Tieffenthaler’s account with the words: “Joseph Tieffenthaler who toured Ayodhya between 1766 and 1771 has stated that the Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the fortress called the Ramakot, and built at the same place a mohammedan temple with three domes. Others say that it has been built by Babur. Tieffenthaler has obviously confused the mosque built by Aurangzeb at the east of the Svargadvara with the Babri mosque. In this context it is necessary to make a distinction between the janmasthan and the janmabhumi (location of birth and place of birth.)”

But this claim is obviously fallacious as Tieffenthaler mentions the mosque built at Svargadwārī as distinct from “another mosque…built by the Moors, to the east of this”, the agency for which he clearly specified. Another mosque, a third, with three domes was constructed at Rāmkōṭ (located to the south-west of Svargadwārī), in case of which however he was not sure about the causer. Thus he clearly identified three separate spots where demolitions were carried out.

(Source: Researchgate)

AM-Skandapurana-printed1The differentiation of ‘Janmasthāna’ from ‘Janmabhūmī’ is also specious, as a perusal of the textual sources pertaining to the birthplace of Rāma (please see parts III, IV and V) would show, since the two terms are used interchangeably all through. An excerpt from Skaṇdapurāña in the picture below shows synonymous use of the two terms repeatedly describing the same place. In the following lines from Satyōpākhyāna the two terms are used for Rama’s birthplace in a single verse:

स्नात्वा च शरयूं दिव्यां जन्मस्थानं ततो गताः ।
व्रतिनो रामचन्द्रस्य जन्मभूमेः प्रदर्शनात् ॥३४.१८॥
(After ablutions at the heavenly Sarayū devotees should go [there] to the Janmasthāna and obtain a vision of the Janmabhūmī of Rāmaćaṇdra.)

In a verse from Ayōdhyā-māhātmyam (derived from the Rudrayāmala) found in a sequence describing the pieties to be undertaken at the place of Rāma’s birth on Rāma-navamī (the tithī on which Rāma’s is said to have been born), the birthplace is referred to as ‘Janmasthāna’ in the MS dated 1801 C.E. preserved at Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, while newer versions term it as ‘Janmabhūmī’.


Carnegy[10] too seemed to have entertained no doubt in using the two terms for the same place: “On its western side is the Janam Bhúm or Janam Asthán, the birth place of the hero.”

Patently, the terms do not denote two separate places but a single location. For all the earnest strains of these historians entrenched in academe to prove the contrary, Tieffenthaler’s description leaves no scope for ambiguity that the mosque in Rāmkōṭ was built on the site that was recognised since ages as ‘Janmasthāna’, alternatively ‘Janmabhūmī’, the birthplace of Śrī Rāma, and a platform called bēdī marked the exact spot of birth.


And what was the word of our favourites on this, the EIHs[11]? They found an artful explanation to discount this stark evidence that: “The account shows that the tradition of treating the site of the mosque and its surroundings as sacred was now in its initial phase of creation, marked by the construction of a small rectangular mud platform of no more than 5 feet x 5 feet x 4 feet, and its identification as Rāma’s crib. No tradition even remotely existed as yet of there having been a temple here; the entire place was thought to be a part of Rama’s ‘fortress’ or ‘palace’.”

But this is a facile argument as the ‘house in which Rāma was born’ (which formerly was) and a flat platform called bēdī marking the exact spot of birth (which could still be seen at the time of Tieffenthaler’s visit) are mentioned in no uncertain terms. The French translation of the book refers to it as ‘maison natale de Ram’ (natal home of Rāma). In other textual accounts too, e.g. Badrikāśrama-māhātmya (collated early 14th century) and the Tīrthayātrā Vidhāna of Rudrayāmala-sarōddhāra (early 15th century), the temple at the Janmasthāna has been referred to as ‘Rāmālaya’ or the ‘house of Rāma’, and the latter also refers to the ‘ćabūtarā’ (a square platform) there. (See Part IV of the series.)

The historians moreover mistook ‘ells’ to mean ‘feet’. Ell is defined as ‘the length of the arm or forearm, later standardised (English ell) as equal to 45 inches or 114 centimetres. The platform described as bēdī would have then been 18 feet and 9 inches x 15 feet x 5 inches. But where exactly in Rāmkōṭ was the bēdī and where had the temple stood?

In the light of recent proceedings in the matter it becomes particularly important to have answers to these questions, as in spite of the clear findings of the previous bench[12] hearing the matter, on the subject of the presence of a pre-existing Hindu structure at the site where the ‘Bābûrī Masjid’ had stood until December 1992, the Supreme Court again came up with the aggravatingly disobliging question directed at the Hindu parties in a hearing on August 16 this year, asking them to present ‘proof’ of their claim that the mosque was built on the remains of an ancient temple.[13] The counsel appearing for Bhagwān Śrī Rāmlallā Virājaman stated that ‘the unstinting faith and belief of the people and the “preponderance of probabilities” show that it was indeed a temple for Lord Ram.’ But the validity of the “belief” rests primarily on the antiquity and continuity of the tradition and the successful pinpointing of the site associated with the belief.

Returning to Tieffenthaler’s account: we are informed that Rāmkōṭ was demolished and a mosque “erected on the site”. But Rāmkōṭ is too vast an area! Then Tieffenthaler further points to Sītā Rasōī and the bēdī and says that one of the two Muslim emperors named “caused the place to be destroyed, in order to deprive the heathen of the opportunity of practising there their superstitions. Nevertheless, they still pay a superstitious reverence to both these places; namely, to that on which the natal dwelling of Ram stood…” He does not say that another mosque was built at this location in Rāmkōṭ. Taken together the two sentences lead to only one unmistakable conclusion: the mosque was built right on the site of the temple (mentioned as “natal dwelling of Ram”) which contained the spots marked as Sītā Rasōī and the bēdī, since there was only one mosque in Rāmkōṭ!

Late 19th century photograph of ‘Bābûrī Masjid’, from Patrick Carnegy’s Book (Source: Getty)

Moreover, these passages, along with the testimonies of William Finch (1608–11), Joannes De Laet (1631 C.E.) and Thomas Herbert (1634), establish the case of “unstinting faith and belief of the people” since at least early 17th century. Strangely however, all these accounts describe the presence of Hindus and their performance of devotions at the site and curiously enough, contain no mention of Muslims there. Since none of the earlier writings mention a mosque at the Janmabhūmī (as we shall hereafter refer to the site at Rāmkōṭ where the erstwhile ‘Bābûrī masjid’ stood until 1992), it is apparent that Hindus’ activities continued undeterred even after the mosque was built. How did it come to this pass? And then, does this mean that the bēdī was actually inside the mosque and the Hindus were already worshipping there in 1770? We will find out in the upcoming sections of this series.

Tieffenthaler’s rather crystal clear account nevertheless leaves one abiding puzzle still. How come there was a confusion in his mind about who caused the destruction of the Rāmkōṭ temple and built the mosque there? Considering his minute observation of the building, premises and the objects and careful measurements, e.g. of the bēdī, his inspection(s) of the site would have been far more than cursory. Did he not find inside the mosque some sign to confirm the prevalent assertion of the people that Aurangzeb had ordered the temple destroyed and the mosque built in its place, or the alternative view, that his great-great-great grandfather had performed the ‘pious deed’ ca. 1½ centuries ago? Something… like an inscription perhaps..(?)

Cover Picture:
A view of the ‘Bābûrī’ mosque (Deccan Herald)


[1] Translated ‘A Description of India’

[2] Among the manuscripts he sent back to Europe were maps and drawings of natural features and structures, papers on the course of the Ganges, a Natural History of India, a geographical account of India ‘Descriptio Indiæ’, a treatise on the origin of Hindus and the ‘Brahminical’ religion in Latin and other works on Hindu polytheism and asceticism, papers on Nadir Shah’s invasion in Latin, Ahmad Shah Abdali’s invasion in French and the deeds of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam in Persian. His works numbering 40 include a book on contemporary history during 1757–64 and the religion of the Persians and Muslims, and in linguistics a Sanskrit-Persian lexicon and treatises in Latin on Persian language. He wrote on astronomical observations on sunspots and zodiacal light and on his studies of Hindu astronomy, astrology and cosmology.
(‘The Mapping of Hindustan: A Forgotten Geographer of India, Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710–1785) by Jose K. John, based on the account of Fr. Severin Noti, ‘A Forgotten Geographer of India’)

[3] ‘Des Pater Joseph Tieffenthaler‘s Historisch-geographische Beschreibung von Hindustan’ (Father Joseph Tieffenthaler’s Historical-geographic Description of India), translated by Jean Bernoulli

[4] ‘Description Historique et Geographique De L’Inde’ (Father Joseph Tieffenthaler’s Historical and Geographic Description of India), translated by Anquetil Du Perron, Jaques Rennell and Jean Bernoulli.

[5] Considered by some to be synonymous with the Ghaghra (or Gogra) forming its lower portion. By others seen as a tributary of Ghaghra which ultimately flows into the Ganges at its left bank. Ayōdhyā lies on the right bank of the Sarayū.

[6] Used to refer to Hindus

[7] It was first quoted in the context of the Rāma Janmabhūmī–Bābûrī Masjid Dispute by Abhas Kumar Chatterjee (IAS) in a 1990 article which appeared in Indian Express, though he had not used the original Latin account but quoted from the French translation.

[8] There exists however almost no variation in content between the translated versions.

[9] Suit filed in 1989 by Bhagwan Sri Ramlala Virajman at Sri Rama Janma Bhumi Ayodhya, as Plaintiff No. 1 and Asthan Sri Rama Janma Bhumi Ayodhya as Plaintiff No. 2, represented by Sri Deoki Nandan Agrawal (Retired Judge of High Court, resident of Allahabad) as Next Friend of Ramlala Virajman and also Plaintiff No. 3 in the Suit. Among a total of 27 Defendants named in this Suit were Rajendra Singh, s/o Gopal Singh Visharad, Paramhans Mahant Ramchandra Das, Nirmohi Akhara, Sunni Central Board of Waqf and a few Muslims, Sri Rama Janma Bhumi Nyas and Shia Central Board of Waqf, and all the parties of previous four suits filed in the case.

[10] ‘Epitome Of The “Ájúdhiá Mahátum,” Which Is Again Taken From The Púráns’, by Patrick Carnegy

[11] This document submitted by the historians ‘Babari Mosque or Rama’s Birth Place? Historians Report to the Indian Nation’ was heavily relied upon by the plaintiffs in support of the submissions that neither the site in dispute was ever believed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama nor there existed any temple which was demolished to construct building in dispute.

[12] The Supreme Court of India resumed hearing in the case in 2018, after the ruling of the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court was suspended in May 2011, after Hindu and Muslim groups appealed against it. We will go into the landmark 2010 judgement at length later.

[13] Justice S. A. Bobde, also part of the Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice Bobde, asked Mr. Vaidyanathan to corroborate his arguments that the structure was a temple and that too one dedicated to Lord Ram.
“Over the past two millennia we have seen civilisations settle and resettle on river banks. They have built upon pre-existing structures. But prove that the alleged ruins or demolished building [on which Babri Masjid was built] was religious in nature…” – Justice D. Y. Chandrachud, on the Bench, to senior advocate C. S. Vaidyanathan, appearing for the deity of Ayōdhyā, Ram Lalla Virajman.


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