Almost two decades after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya scharada Dubey an Ayodhya resident studies the barricaded Ram Janmabhoomi site travels through temple alleyways visits the residents ordinary and prominent of a town that has known no peace.
What follows is Portraits from Ayodhya - a startling compilation of oral history, a mighty jigsaw puzzle of voices from across the town.
In this book of narrative non-fiction, we meet Ayodhya denizens with varying pasts, residents from all walks of life — from the allegedly omnipotent Mahant Gyandns, head of the Hanuman Garhi temple, to the unassuming Ram Sharan Das, occupied in cleaning gutters, nod the gentle musician, Gauri Shankar Das. Even as we witness two sides to every story, we spot a thread binding all the major figures: a love for Ayodhya, a longing for quiet, a struggle for a sense of belonging. If the present is no more than the collective swell of everyday voices, if places are defined by people, Portraits from Ayodhya is testament to this belief. Unflinchingly honest and sincere, this is a book that presents an Ayodhya never seen before.
Scharada Dubey has been a college lecturer, a radio announcer and a producer of video features for television. As Scharada Bail, she has penned several children’s books, including travelogues such as Footloose on the west Coast and Malwa On My Mind, and biographical volumes like Icons of Social Change and Crowing Up. Scharada set up the Sahriday Samiti in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, to work for the resolution of man—animal conflicts, which led to the title, Monkeys in My Backyard (Scholastic, 2011). Scharada now lives and works in Lucknow.
In an iconic photograph dating hack to 1999, that captures the spirit of Ayodhya like few words can, a group of people is shown standing by the steps of the Faizabad district courtrooms. In the centre is the mercurial Paramhans Ramchandra Das. Beside him stands his friend and legal opponent, Hashim Ansari. By Paramhans’s side stands Zafaryab Jilani, the lawyer who has represented the Sunni Wakf Board for years. A smiling mahant Bhaskar Das of the Nirmohi Akhara stands in front of the first three. The picture captures a priceless moment — when the whole group was sharing a smile over some small matter, even as they engaged in a decades-old litigation battle against one another. In Ayodhya, such contradictions exist without causing any comment. Truth lies in paradox.
The property dispute in Ayodhya, in which all these individuals were involved for years, lies at the heart of the events that have convulsed our nation from the mid-I 980s. But it cannot be said to be the cause of these events. It was the manner in which this dispute was picked up and projected to the country, as a clash between two faiths, that unleashed hate and bloodshed and repeatedly tested the resolve of a secular democracy.
This book is not an attempt at tracing the steps of the movement for a Rama temple, so ‘Ayodhya’ became synonymous with a troubled India. There have been several excellent studies of this, the most notable of which are Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and Fear of the self1by Ashis Nandy, Shikha Trivedy, Shail Mayaram and Achyut Yagnik (Oxford India, 2005) and the documentary film, Roam ke Noani, made by Anand Patwardhan in 1992. Apart from these, there are valuable accounts of the build—up to the temple movement in Ayodhya itself in the work of Peter Van der Veer, a scholar from the University of Utrecht, who lived here and observed firsthand the initial meetings organized to drum up support for the temple in 1984.
If I had any reason to write this book at all, it was to look at what has happened to Ayodhya and its people so many years after their lives were overtaken by ‘the Ayodhya issue’. But since looking at their individual portraits is an incomplete experience without having a grasp of the background of events from recent Ayodhya history, I have chosen to provide a chronology of events surrounding the Babri Masjid-Rama Janmabhoomi developments that affected the lives of each of the twenty-five people profiled in this book.
The land in the Babri Masjid-Rama Janmabhoomi area came under dispute in 1885, when the first suit was filed claiming rights over it. This was done by the Nirmohi Akhara, who cite traditional rights over this land, going back several centuries to when akharas were first set up to protect the Hindu faith. Coincidentally, this was also the year the Indian National Congress was born.
Under this suit, Mahant Raghubar Das’ application to build a temple on land adjoining the disputed structure was rejected by the Faizabad Deputy Commissioner. An aggrieved Das then filed a title suit in a Faizabad court against the Secretary of State for India, seeking permission to build a temple on the chabutara or raised platform in the outer courtyard of the disputed structure.
Dismissing the suit, the then Faizabad magistrate announced, given that the alleged demolition of an original Rama temple by Mir Baqi had occurred over three hundred and fifty years ago, in 1528, it was ‘too late now to remedy the grievance. ‘Maintain the status quo. Any innovation may cause more harm than any benefit,’ the court had said.
However the case was revived in 1950, due to the events of the intervening night of 22-23 December 1949, when the idols of Rama, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughan, depicted as children, were placed inside the Babri Masjid by a group of persons. An FIR was lodged alleging that fifty to sixty people had broken the locks of the structure and installed a Rama idol and several other Hindu idols and articles of worship.
Following the filing of this police complaint, the structure was attached six days later, and placed in the custody of receiver Priya Dutt Ram, appointed by the Faizabad additional city magistrate. A scheme of management was drawn up by the magistrate; the receiver was to ensure that the idol was worshipped through a pujari. People in Ayodhya became accustomed to this form 0f worship, and it went on peacefully.
In 1950, the matter was revived in the courts through a clutch 0f suits that continue to be heard to date, in 2011. The first case was filed on 16 January 1950 by Hindu Mahasabha member, Gopal Singh Visharad, and Paramhans Ramchandra Das, mahant of the Digambar Akhada in Ayodhya. Both had filed a civil suit in the Faizabad court against some district officials and Muslims. They sought an injunction against the removal of the idols and demanded permission for uninterrupted puja and darshan. An interim court order in these cases ruled that the idols should remain in place. In that same year, lawyer Umesh Chandra Pandey appealed that the gates be unlocked and free entry allowed for puja and darshan. However, this appeal was not a part of the title suit over the land.
On 26 April 1955, the Faizahad court confirmed their interim order, letting the idols remain in place for regulated puja and darshan. On 17 December 1959, the Nirmohi Akhara and its mahant filed a suit against the court receiver and UP government seeking delivery of the property to itself. This was the third title suit for the land and a revival of the demand that mahant Raghubar Das had made in 1885.
The next milestone in the tortured legal history of the 2.77 acres of land in Ayodhya is the filing of a suit on 18 December1961 by the Sunni Central Wakf Board. The Board sought the declaration of tile structure as a mosque, the handover of the plot to itself, and the removal of the idols and other articles of worship. This was the fourth suit. On 6 January 1964, all the four suits relating to the land were combined.
‘While this was the legal history of the dispute, as a part of everyday life people had now become accustomed to worshipping the idols on a small and peaceful scale at the Babri Masjid-Rama Janmabhoomi site. One sadhu who conducted an akhand kirtan, the unbroken chanting of Rama’s name near the site, received offerings in cash arid kind from the pilgrims who arrived there. The place was only one of many temples in Ayodhya and did not receive visitors on the scale of Hanuman Garhi, Kanak Bhavan or even Nageshwar Nath.
This is how things remained till 1984, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) began its campaign to build a Rama temple at the site.
On 1 February 1986, the District Judge at Faizabad accepted lawyer Umesh Pandey’s thirty-six-year-old plea to allow for a darshan and puja at the Janmabhoomi site and directed the Uttar Pradesh government to open the locks of the grille behind which the idols had been placed. The popular perception is that although this was a decision by the court, it was seen to have the backing of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In this same year, the VHP formed the Rama Janmabhoomi Nyas, a trust set up to oversee the construction of a temple for Rama at his birthplace in Ayodhya.
Rattled by the formation of this trust, prominent Muslim leaders in turn formed the babri masjid Action Committee in February 1986. Following this, the Sunni Central Wakf Board challenged the 1 February order of the Faizabad magistrate on 12 May 1986. Meanwhile, out of court, the VI-IP had begun mobilizing people across the country in large numbers to lend their support to a proposed temple at Ayodhya. In their appeal, one that was emotionally loaded, they exhorted people to come forward and offer kar—seva (actual physical labour) at the temple site. The calendar of the N/HP campaign and its confrontations with the government at the centre and in Uttar Pradesh during the term of Mulayam Singh Yadav have been detailed in Chapter 17 of this On 16 December 1987, the Uttar Pradesh government sought to transfer all the Ayodhya title suits from the Faizabad court to the Allahabad High Court. The matter had now become too important a national issue for it to be left at the district court level. However, the number of litigants in the various title snits was set to increase once again when a fifth title suit was filed in July 1989 by retired high court judge, Deoki Nandan Agrawal, on behalf of Rama Lalla Virajman (the deity of young Rama, installed at the site), making Rama himself a party to the case.
By this time, waves of kar-sevaks from different parts of the country had begun to arrive in Ayodhya, in response to the VHP, the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits. Because of such arrivals and the public meetings being held in Ayodhya, on 14 August book. 1989, the High Court restrained political parties from disturbing the status quo at the disputed structure.
On 25 October 1989 the High Court allowed the Uttar Pradesh government to take possession of land around the structure but later, on an appeal from Muslim groups, set aside the acquisition of the 2.77 acres adjacent to the disputed structure. It prohibited any permanent construction. Following this order, the Uttar Pradesh government was left with 42.09 acres around the disputed site in its possession, with only 2.77 acres having been surrendered after the appeal from the Muslim groups. These 2.77 acres effectively became the core of the Babri Masjid-Rama Janmabhoomi dispute. The government in office at that time was the Congress, led by ND. Tiwari. This was followed by Mulayam Singh Yadav taking over the reins of office with BJP support in December 1989.
Meanwhile, on 10 November 1989, the Congress government at the centre allowed shilanyas or a foundation-stone laying ceremony to be performed by the VHP outside the 2.77 acres. With this, effectively, the foundation for a Rama temple had been laid at the threshold of the disputed site.
The town of Ayodhya, small as it is, needs — not one — but twenty-five such books written, in order to begin to do justice to its history and character. I have attempted only one volume of oral history, concentrating on the people who are still active and living in Ayodhya in 2011, out of a belief that these accounts will bring readers some important insights that go beyond the headlines about Ayodhya.
When compelling personal circumstances brought me here to Ayodhya in 2008, after a lifetime in the big cities of Mumbai and Chennai, the stark contrast between India and ‘Bharat’, that I had been used to as a media-created cliché, suddenly took on a new meaning. Nothing in the big cities prepares you foe life in the smaller towns, whether it is being stuck in a traffic jam of tractors and Vikram tempos, seeing open gutters (as against giant, silent, invisible underground sewers), or having one’s notions of political correctness thrown out of the window Ayodhya exemplifies the ill-developed smaller towns of India in every way, and yet has a unique character of its own, chiefly because it has been the site of the flowering of many faiths. While the Hindu claim on the town’s history has been in the news for all the “tong reasons since 1984, Ayodhya can equally be claimed as a holy site by Buddhists, Jams and Sufi Muslims. In ‘Ayodhya’s Forgotten Muslim Past’ Yoginder Sikand writes.
The Buddhist claim is not unfounded. According to Buddhist tradition, Ayodhya, then known as Saket or Kosala, was a major city in the kingdom of Shuddhodhana, father of the Buddha. The fifth century Chinese traveller Fa-Hien visited Ayodhya and mentioned a tooth-stick of the Buddha in the town that grew to a length of seven cubits, which, despite being destroyed by the Brahmins, managed to grow again. Two centuries later, another Chinese Buddhist traveller, Hsuien Tsang, came to Ayodhya, where he noted some three thousand Buddhist monks, with only a small number of the town’s other inhabitants adhering to other faiths. At this time, Ayodhya had some one hundred Buddhist monasteries and ten large Buddhist temples. The Hindutva argument that Ayodhya has always been a Hindu holy city is, as this evidence clearly suggests, patently untenable.
In the Hindutva imagination, the relation between Muslims and Ayodhya is characterized by continuous large- scale destruction and bloodshed. Serious historians have forcefully challenged this image, and have pointed to the fact that the spread of Islam and the emergence of Muslim communities in the area owed principally not to violent invaders but, rather, to the missionary work of Sufi saints. Considerably before the emergence of Ayodhya as the centre of the cult of Rama, it appears that several Sufis had settled in the town and its vicinity. With their message of love and compassion, based on an ethical monotheism, they attracted a large number of followers, particularly among the ‘low’ castes, victims of the Brahmmical caste system. In other words, Ayodhya’s association with Islam and Muslims dates to a period much before the construction of the Babri Masjid in the sixteenth century.
As many local Muslims themselves believe, Ayodhya is a particularly blessed town. They consider it to be the khurd makkah or the ‘small Mecca’, because of the large number of Muslim holy personages who are believed to be buried therein. These include, or so local tradition has it, two prophets, Sheesh, son of Adam, and Noah, or Nub. In addition, there are said to be more than eighty Sufi shrines or dargahs in Ayodhya. Interestingly, most of these shrines attract both Muslim as well as Hindu devotees.
A number of Sufis made Ayodhya their centre for spiritual teaching and instruction from as early as the twelfth century. One of the first of these was one Qazi Qidwatuddin Awadhi, who came to Ayodhya from Central Asia- He is said to have been a disciple of ‘Usman Haruni, the spiritual preceptor of India’s most famous Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. Another great Muslim mystic of Ayodhya of pre-Mughal times was Shaikh jamal Gujjari, of the Firdaussiya Sufi silsilah. According to a popular local story, the Shaikh would regularly go out of Ins house carrying a large pot of rice on his head, as the men of the Gujjar milkmen caste did, which he would distribute among the poor and the destitute of Ayodhya. This is how he earned the title of ‘Gujjari’. His spiritual preceptor, Musa Ashiqan, who also lies buried in Ayodhya, would liken his distributing food among the poor to sharing the love of God with all mankind.
Ayodhya also seems to have been home to a number of spiritual successors of the renowned fourteenth century Sufi of Delhi, Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. The most important of these was the famous Sufi Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dilli, who lies buried in what is today New Delhi. Shaikh Nasiruddin was horn in Ayodhya, where he learnt the Qur’an from one Shaikh Shamsuddin Yahya Awadhi. At the age of forty, he left Ayodhya for Delhi to live with Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. Yet, he would often return to Ayodhya to visit his relatives and make disciples who, in turn, emerged as great Sufis themselves. These included people such as Shaikh Zainuddin ‘All Awadhi, Shaikh Fatehullah Awadhi and ‘Allama Kamaluddin Awadhi. Other khuiafa or spiritual deputies of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya from Ayodhya included Shaikh Jamaluddin Awadhi, Qazi Muhiuddin Kashani, Maulana Qawamuddin Awadhi and Shaikh ‘Alauddin Nilli.
From my personal wanderings in today’s Ayodhya, I noticed that the town had residential neighbourhoods like Raiganj, the sadhu’ belt stretching from the Digambar Akhara to Pramod Van and Vasudev Ghat, and the temples and malts close to the Sarayu riverbank such as the Lakshman Qua and Asharfi Bhavan, besides the neighbourhoods in the tortured periphery of the Rama Janmabhoomi that feel the effects of the barricading and police presence the most, such as Tcdhi Bazaar, Ramkot (the heart of Ayodhya), Begum Pura, Vashisht Kund and Brahm Kund. According to Shitla Singh of the Faizabad newspaper,Jan Morcha, and the activist, Yugal Kishor Sharan Shastri, while there are only two temples of real antiquity in Ayodhya — the Dantdawan Kund and the Chandra Han Kund temples — there are hundreds of little shrines and bigger temples all over. Indeed, the only sound you hear in some of the smaller lanes, as evening sets in, is the ringing of temple bells and the hum of aartis.
I also noticed that there are three types of Hindu places of worship — temples run by private families or trusts, caste-based temples, and ashrams set up around charismatic guru figures of relatively more modern origins. Private trusts like the famous Kanak Behart temple and the Janaki Mahal have been bitterly criticized by one man I spoke to as ‘a means for people from other cities to park their funds. Their deities inside are golden and floors are marble, and outside people still live in ill-lit shacks next to overflowing gutters.’ The caste-based temples came into existence after 1857 to assist pilgrims from their respective castes during their Ayodhya sojourn, arid protect the caste identity. There are the Nau (barber) Mandir, Badhai (carpenter) or Vishwakarma Mandir, the Sant Raidas Mandir for dalits, the Halwai Mandir for the Gupta pilgrims, the Dhobi (washerman) Mandir and the Chitragupt Mandir for Srivastava pilgrims, among others.
Of the newer ashrams built around charismatic guru figures is the Ramayanam Ashram, which propagates the teachings of Pandit Ram Kinkar Upadhyaya, through his disciple and Ramkatha expert, Mandakini. Such places draw younger devotees and even offer more modern forms of devotion. On 1 November 2010, the jyanti (birth anniversary celebration) of Guru Rant Kinkar was brought in at this Ayodhya ashram with a birthday cake and conical hats, sweets, trumpets and balloons. Hinduism is adapting globalization and succeeding, at such places.
As to the contradictions that the people of Ayodhya illustrate with the way they live their lives, the book will provide ample examples of the renunciate versus householder dichotomy. Whose moral code should be upheld in society? While sadhus have traditionally had the upper hand in Ayodhya, conditions are arming as the very demographic profile of the town demands a more ordinary, less ascetic and rigid view of rules and requirements.
Caste is another contradiction that is thrown up by Ayodhya’s living examples in this book. While the prevalent tradition among Ayodhya’s sadhus is Ramanandi, there are also sonic Ramanuji matts. The Ramanuji tradition continues to have Brahmins in the posts of ma/wets, while the Ramanandi tradition has done away with caste among sadhus, even though it persists in hidden forms. Between the two traditions, there has been a tussle of proving theological superiority through the encounters of Ramanuji Raghuvar Prasad and Ramanandi Bhagavadacharya in the early decades of the twentieth century.
There was also a revolt by Ramanandi sadhus against the Ramanujis around the ritual baths of the Kumbh melas. Before this revolt in the 1920s, the Ramanujis used to be considered bhitariyas or those who stayed indoors. They thus performed cooking and house-cleaning duties at the camps of the Mahakumbh. The Ramanandi sadhus were the bahariyas or outsiders, who would sweep the premises and carry the Ramanuji Mahamandaleswars in their palanquins to the Ganga to bathe. The revolt and its resolution have left the question of caste looming in the background of Ayodhya’s sadhuhood.
In writing this book, I have attempted to bring readers a sense of Ayodhya’s struggle to remain connected with its historical and religious roots while claiming its place in modern, democratic India. As everyone who has been following the Ayodhya story knows, the inhabitants of this territory have had their concerns being pushed aside. Their views have been misrepresented by leaders, all of whom come with their own agendas; they camp on these shores and thunder all sorts of dire threats. ‘If there is one big tragedy that Ayodhya faces today, It is the lack of a single good leader who can articulate its needs on the national stage,’ says Tarunjeet Varma, the last individual profiled in this book. The years following the retreat of the Acharya Giriraj Kishores and the Ashok Slnghals from Ayodhya have unfortunately not thrown up anybody to fill the vacuum.
Since this is a hook of oral history, I have concentrated on the accounts of the profiled personalities. I have included their unique points of view. On initiating this project, I ensured that I did not begin with any thesis of my own. My own responses however, have been described wherever I felt they were appropriate and Important for the reader. If these appear like taking liberties with the accounts at any point, I apologize. However, I think the omission of my emerging opinions would lead to gaps in the overall narrative.
I hope Portraits From Ayodhya goes a small way towards enriching the understanding of the place and her people.
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