Monday, May 19, 2008

Ram existed, so did temple - A Book Review by Sandhya Jain

Pioneer 18 May 2008

Rama: His historicity, mandir and setu
Evidence of Literature, Archaeology and other Sciences
B.B. Lal
Aryan Books International, 2008, pp. 99; Price: Rs. 190.

Archaeology, long given the step-sisterly treatment by Marxist historians, now finds itself at the high table of history, as it alone can deliver a credible verdict on whether the Ram Setu shows evidence of human intervention in the hoary past. The Supreme Court's direction to the Central Government in this regard is welcome to the extent that the UPA is made to depute only reputed archaeologists for this task, and not the type of academics accredited to the Babri Masjid Action Committee.

The Archaeological Survey of India has been without a proper head since the retirement of late M.C. Joshi over a decade ago. Reports delivered under the headship of an IAS officer will not have credibility; nor will a committee that does not include the iconic Prof. B.B. Lal and Dr. K.N. Dikshit, who was closely associated with the excavations of the Ramayana sites. Prof. Lal's timely book addresses hard facts relating to Ram as a historical figure; the Janmabhoomi temple; and the Rama Setu. The production values are high, and Prof. Lal generously waived his royalty to bring the work within the reach of the ordinary citizen.

B.B. Lal began exploring western Uttar Pradesh as Superintending Archaeologist, Excavations, ASI, and found the distinctive Painted Grey Ware pottery at the lowest levels, far below material known to belong to the 6th-5th century BCE. As many sites were associated with the Mahabharata, he excavated Hastinapur, Meerut district, and found that a sizeable portion of the PGW settlement was washed away by a heavy flood. This exactly matched the Mahabharata: 'after the washing away of the site of Hastinapur by the Ganga, (the then ruler) Nichaksu will abandon it and move to Kausambi.' Sure enough, the lowest levels at Kausambi begin with the same kind of material culture found at Hastinapur at the time of the flood!

Prof. Lal conceived the idea of the 'Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites,' but could actually take it up only after voluntary retirement from ASI in 1972, focusing on five major sites. At Ayodhya, human settlement began with a phase associated with the distinctive Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) pottery. The findings included iron and copper tools that could be used for domestic chores, agriculture, even warfare. Gradually, weights of fine-grained stones appeared, along with coinage. The NBPW-period weights were cylindrical, those in Harappa cubical. The coins were earliest in the country, silver or copper, with punch marks and no inscriptions. The structures were mud or mud bricks; and later kiln-fired bricks. Writing began in the NBPW period, and settlements continued uninterrupted through the Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods.

In the suburb Ranopali, a stone inscription datable 1st century BCE mentions the construction of a ketana (shrine?) by Dhanadeva, king of Kosala, sixth from Pushyamitra, senapati. Pushyamitra killed the last Mauryan king, Brihadratha, and seized the throne; thus Ayodhya was the capital of the Kosala kingdom even in the early CE. Though deserted after the Gupta period, Hanumangarhi and Janmabhoomi were reoccupied in the 11th-12th centuries. In the uppermost levels of a trench just south of the Babri Masjid, a series of brick-cum-stone bases were discovered, over which there evidently once stood stone pillars. Affixed to the piers of the Masjid were stone pillars bearing Hindu motifs and sculptures. (In 2002-03, under apex court mandated digging of the Babri area itself, the existence of a Hindu temple below the structure was vindicated).

Sringaverapura is a massive mound on left bank of Ganga in Allahabad district, heavily eroded by the river, but still offering remains of occupational strata. It is earlier than Ayodhya with Ochre Colour Ware (OCP) pottery in the lowest levels; also found were harpoons, antennae swords, and anthropomorphic figures, known collectively as 'Copper Hoards.' This cultural complex is datable circa 2000 BCE to mid-2000 BCE. But OCP-occupation was short-lived, and after a break in occupation, black-slipped and black-and-red wares were followed by NBPW. This period yields the same material culture as corresponding strata at Ayodhya, and was succeeded by Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods. After a break, the site was reoccupied in the 12th century CE, as indicated by numerous coins of the illustrious Gahadavala ruler, Govinda Chandra.

The flat land associated in public memory with Bharadvaj Ashram revealed kiln-fired bricks, pottery, terracotta figurines, and inscribed seals of Gupta era. There were no structures or regular occupational floors below, but lumps of clay with reed impressions, showing sporadic occupation with wattle-and-daub huts, consistent with an ashram. NBPW was found at Chitrakuta and Nandigram.

It is significant that Bharadvaj Ashram did not exist when Valmiki composed the epic, between 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE, though other sites associated with the Ramayana were occupied at that time. Valmiki's inclusion of the Ashram at the site popularly associated with it suggests it did exist, and was probably recorded in a pre-existing ballad which formed the kernel of his narrative. There is evidence that the Ganga flowed past the ashram, but the river has since been diverted by a bund.

Carbon-14 dating of the NBPW strata from Ayodhya's upper levels gave a date-range from 6th to 3rd centuries BCE. But after excavations of the lower levels in Janmabhoomi area in 2002-03, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, gave a date-range of 970-810 BCE to 1980-1320 BCE. These excavations were a fallout of the 6 December 1992 demolition, which revealed much archaeological material from the walls of the Masjid, including three inscriptions. The largest, in chaste Nagari script of the 11th-12th century, clearly states that a beautiful temple of Vishnu-Hari was constructed in the city of Ayodhya, Saketamandala, by Meghasuta, vassal of Govinda Chandra. Lal dismisses the allegation that the slab was brought from elsewhere and sneaked into the Masjid at the time of demolition as ferrying so much material to Ayodhya would require many trucks, and would have been detected by the print and electronic media and security personnel present in hordes there.

The book is such a mine of information that it is impossible to do it justice in a brief review. Lal concludes with a scientific examination of the landmass from Dhanushkodi on the Tamil Nadu shore to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, noting the literary and other references to the Setu. He concludes that after the end of the last Glacial Period 10,000 years ago, the sea levels rose worldwide by a conservative estimate of 2 metres per 1000 years. Thus, around 1000 BCE the sea level was possibly 6 metres below current levels, which matches the period ascribable to Rama. This means the land-mass from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar would be exposed sandbanks, whose gaps could be filled with shoals and evened to facilitate the march of an army. It does not require an engineering degree at all.

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