A chronological order through what several disciplines — archaeology, epigraphy and history in particular — have contributed to our knowledge of the ancient city of Ayodhya.
Ayodhya, also known as Avadh, Audh or Oudh, and variously spelt
Ajodhya, Ayojjha or Ayudha, is a city in Faizabad district of Uttar
Pradesh, India, situated on the bank of the river Sarayu–Gharghara,
modern Ghaghra or Gogra (Bhattacharyya 1999: 80).
Ayodhya is one of India’s seven sacred cities, an ancient seat of learning and an age-old pilgrimage destination. In Buddhist or Jain texts the site is referred to as Saketa, sometimes Vinita, by which is meant, as in the Ramayana, the capital of the country of Kosala, one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas or ‘proto-republics’ of the Ganges civilization. In Buddhist, Jain, Epic and Puranic literatures, Ayodhya is known as the great city of the Iksvakus, a line of kings of the solar dynasty. The Buddha is said to have stayed there for several years. According to Jain tradition, the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th and 14th Tirthankaras were born at Ayodhya into the Iksvaku line.
So was Rama, considered the very incarnation of dharma and the heart of the Ramayana epic, which paints a glorious picture of Ayodhya. Much of what follows applies to the spot traditionally associated by Hindus with his birthplace, or ‘Ram Janmabhumi’; located within an area known as ‘Ramkot’ (‘Rama’s fort’), it towers over the rest of the city. Having seen at some point of time the construction of a mosque known as Babri Masjid, this spot has been for centuries a bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims (we will often refer to it as ‘disputed site’).
This paper, the first draft of a work in progress, attempts till the close of the 19th century to collate in chronological order what several disciplines — archaeology, epigraphy and history in particular — have contributed to our knowledge of this ancient city, allowing important stages and events to unfold before our eyes.
Religious literature is of little help in this effort, in view of the near-impossibility of securely dating the texts. The Skanda-Purana, for instance, asserts that “One who visits Ayodhya the way enjoined sheds all one’s sins and finds one’s abode in the house of Hari (Hari-mandira). … For one who takes bath in the Svargadvara and visits the Rama temple (Ramalaya) nothing remains to be done here and he has fulfilled his duty.” (Skanda-Purana)
II, Vaisnava-Khanda (2), Badarikasrama-Mahatmya (3) 1.24) The text also “refers to Ramajanmasthana once, janmasthana twice, and Janmabhumi twice.” (Skanda-Purana II, Vaisnava-Khanda (2), Ayodhya-Mahatmya (8) 10.18, 19, 22, both references from Narain 1993: 12) But as these important references could have been composed at any time between the Gupta and the early medieval eras, we cannot use them for our purpose.
As regards archaeology, surveys and excavations at Ayodhya have been carried out on several occasions since the 19th century: Alexander Cunningham, first director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), conducted a survey of the region in 1862–63. A.K. Narain of Banaras Hindu University “excavated Ayodhya by laying three trenches at three different sites considerably away from the disputed temple-mosque in 1969 and 1970. Later, from 1975 to 1980, B.B. Lal, a former Director-General of the ASI, laid 14 trenches including one at the disputed site as part of a large Central Government project, ‘Archaeology of the Ramayana Sites’.” (Narain 1993: 48) Finally, from 12th March to 7th August 2003, following the directions of the Allahabad High Court, Lucknow Bench, 90 trenches were excavated (Sharma 2011: 46).
The 2003 excavations brought to light nine distinct periods:
- Period I: Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), c. 1300–300 BCE
- Period II: Shunga period, 2nd–1st century BCE
- Period III: Kushan period, 1st–3rd century CE
- Period IV: Gupta period, 4th–6th century CE
- Period V: Post-Gupta to Rajput period, 7th–10th century CE
- Period VI: Early medieval period, 11th–12th century CE
- Period VII: Medieval-Sultanate period, 12th–16th century CE
- Period VIII: Mughal period
- Period IX: Late and post-Mughal period
The senior archaeologist A.K. Sharma summarizes the stratigraphical aspect of the findings thus:
“At the site in question … right from the virgin soil, beginning with the circular Shiva Shrine [in Period V] up to the working floor of the disputed structure [the Babri Masjid], only religious structural remains associated with antiquities of religious nature have been found. The continuous nature of 10.80 metre thick deposit accounts for nine cultural periods beginning from N.B.P. level of 6th Century B.C. to 15th Century A.D. and clearly indicates that the site was never abandoned and was never used for habitational purpose. … When one temple fell into disuse either due to natural calamity or natural decay, immediately new religious structure was raised. … At the site there is no stratigraphical gap or any hiatus.” (Sharma 2011: 38, italics ours)
[A plan of Ayodhya (from the 2010 judgement of the Allahabad High Court). The pink rectangle represents the Babri Masjid – Rām Janmabhūmi’ complex]
1250–300 BCE – The ancient mound covers about a square kilometre (Dikshit 2003: 114), with a cultural deposit of 10.80 m divided into nine periods, testifying to a continuous occupation (Sharma 2011: 26).
Period I (2003 excavations): “The human activity at the [Ram Janmabhumi–Babri Masjid] site dates back to circa thirteenth century B.C. on the basis of the scientific dating method providing the only archaeological evidence of such an early date of the occupation of the site.” (Sharma 2011: 48)
People using Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), a pottery type generally associated with the urbanization of the Ganges plains, were the first occupants of the site in Ayodhya. Given the limited extent of the excavations, no structural remains have come to light; among the recent finds are terracotta figurines of female deities with archaic features, beads of terracotta and glass, wheels and fragments of votive tanks, and a round signet with a legend in Asokan Brahmi.
[A general view of the 2003 excavations conducted at the disputed site (here, southern area) by the ASI under the order of the Allahabad High Court, Lucknow Bench]
2nd–1st c. BCE – Period II (2003 excavations): The Shunga period: Ayodhya is conquered by the Shungas with the assistance of Indo-Greeks in 190 BCE. Finds include terracotta mother goddess, human and animal figurines, beads, hairpins, engravers, and a pottery collection including black slipped, red and grey wares. A stone-and-brick structure marks the beginning of the structural activity at the site (Sharma 2011: 46).
“During excavation … the remains of one primary and two secondary shrines which formed part of the whole Hindu temple complex, were found. … By primary temple, I mean the main ‘Deity’ to which the structure is dedicated. … Structurally some walls have been found even in 1st–2nd century B.C. thus the primary temple structure was at a lower level whereas the secondary temple structure was at upper level. The primary temple structure can be ascribed to 1st–2nd century B.C. …” (the Indian archaeologist and epigraphist R. Nagaswamy’s testimony of 2006, recorded in Sharma 2010, Annexure III: 172–73)
2nd-1st c. BCE – Kausambi (modern Kosam, Allahabad district, Uttar Pradesh): A terracotta figure depicts Rava:a carrying away Sita; she drops down her ornaments in the hope that they will help in tracing her (Lal 2008: 36). 1st c. CE A Tibetan text refers to the conquest of Saketa by the Kushan king Kanishka.
1st–3rd c. CE Period III (2003 excavations): The Kushan period, with the creation of large-size structures (Sharma 2011: 47). In 1992 a team of archaeologists including Y.D. Sharma, K.M. Srivastava and S.P. Gupta found, at the eastern periphery of the disputed site, the remains of at least three rammed floors datable to three different phases, one going back to the Kushan period, as well as two walls built of several courses of burnt bricks, and a number of terracotta images of gods and goddesses of the same period (Gupta 1995: 113).
“From Period III to Period IX there were non-residential structural activities of large dimension in the area.” (Sharma 2011: 26)
131-159 CE The Nasik (Maharashtra) cave inscription of the 19th regnal year of the Satavahana king Vasishthiputra Pulumavi eulogizes the king’s father, Gautamiputra Satakarni, whom it compares to Nabhaga, Nahusa, Janamejaya, Sagara, Yayati, Rama and Ambarisa in strength and splendour (Sircar 1980: 325-326, quoted in Jain 2013: 69).
Mid 2nd c. CE Kausambi: An inscription on a stone slab “records some pious act performed by a grhapati [householder] along with his son … in connection with Bhagavat (God) Rama-Narayana. The adjective Bhagavat being in genitive singular, it is apparent that the intention was probably to record the erection of a shrine of the god or installation of his image or some emblem.” (Shukla 1990: 207-12) According to the late epigraphist Ajay Mitra Shastri, “Although the date is lost irretrievably, the palaeographic features, the mode of dating and the employment of Prakrit clearly show that the inscription belongs to about the middle of the second century AD. This record is of inestimable value despite its highly damaged condition for the history of the Rama cult.” (Shastri 1993: 36) The Alexandrian astronomer, mathematician and geographer Ptolemy makes a mention of Ayodhya in his Outline of Geography, under the name of Sagôda (Saketa).
3rd c. CE Nachara Khera (Haryana): A terracotta figurine believed to have come from here (currently in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA) portrays Rama, whose name is inscribed in Brahmi characters of the 3rd century CE (Lal 2008: 37). Nagarjunakonda (Andhra Pradesh): A stone panel depicts Bharata’s meeting with Rama at Chitrakuta (Banerjee 1986, vol. II, pl. 77, reproduced in Lal 2008: 41).
3rd–4th c. CE Bagh (Dhar District, Madhya Pradesh): A copper-plate of Maharaja Bhulunda “registers the grant of five villages for the performance of the rites called bali, charu and sattra of the god Vishnu … who had broken the pride of Bali, Naraka, Namuchi, the Kesi horse, the Kaliya snake, Dasavadana (the ‘Ten-headed’, Ravana), Kamsa, Chanura, Arishta and Sisupala, who as Varaha (Boar incarnation) retrieved the lost earth…” (Shastri 1992–1993: 36, with reference to Ramesh & Tewari 1990). The mention of Ravana, killed by the divinised hero Rama, leads Ajay Mitra Shastri to conclude that “by the third quarter of the fourth century A.D., Rama had been completely identified with Vish:u.” (Shastri 1992–1993: 23, 36, 39)
4th c. CE Nachara Khera (Haryana): Several inscribed terracotta panels ascribable to the 4th c. CE depict scenes from the Ramayana (two of them reproduced in Lal 2008: 38–39).
4th to 6th c. Period IV (2003 excavations): Finds of “… typical terracotta figurines and a copper coin with the legend Sri Chandra (Gupta) and illustrative potsherds.” (Sharma 2011: 46)
423 CE Inscription of the Aulikara ruler Visvavarman, in Gangdhar (Jhalawar District, Rajasthan), describes the king as a standard of comparison even for Rama and Bhagiratha (Sircar 1979: 29, quoted in Jain 2013: 69).
5th c. Nachana-Kuthara (Madhya Pradesh): A stone panel depicts Ravana, disguised as an ascetic, at Sita’s cottage in Pañchavati (reproduced in Lal 2008: 38-39). The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-Hien (Faxian) visited Ayodhya.
6th c. Varahamihira in Brhat Samhita (57.30) spells out the respective heights (in angulas or digits) for various statues of gods; Rama is listed among the tallest images, which confirms the importance of his cult by that time: “Both Sri Rama, son of Dasaratha, and Bali, son of Virochana, should be made 120 digits high. The heights of other images, superior, medium and inferior ones, are less by 12 digits in succession, i.e. 108, 96 and 84 digits in order.” (Bhat 1982: 556)
636 c. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsüan-tsang (Xuanzang) visits A-yu-to, identified with Ayodhya; he mentions the existence of over 100 Buddhist monasteries and 3,000 monks, who were students of Mahayana and Hinayana, and ten deva temples; according to him, the non-Buddhists were few in number. (Law 1967: 77)
7th–8th c. Papanatha temple (Pattadakala, Karnataka): A stone panel depicts the construction of a bridge over the sea (reproduced in Lal 2008: 42).
7th–10th c. The circular shrine. Period V (2003 excavations): This is the post-Gupta to Rajput period, during which structures are mainly constructed of burnt bricks. Among them was found a small circular shrine (about 1.5 x 1.5 m), with a square inner chamber, an entrance from the east and a provision for a pranala or water chute in the north, “which is a distinct feature of contemporary temples already known from the Ganga-Yamuna plain.” (Sharma 2011: 32, 46-47)
“The existence of a circular shrine with pra+ala towards north proves the existence of a Hindu temple. … As this seems to be a secondary shrine dedicated to Shiva in his li+ga form, the shrine is built to smaller dimensions. Smaller dimensions of subsidiary shrines with just minimum entrance space are seen in some temples … [This shrine] proves beyond doubt the existence of a Hindu temple under the surface of the disputed structure.” (R. Nagaswamy’s testimony of 2006, quoted in Sharma 2010, Annexure III: 166–67)
[The circular shrine of Period V, seen from the east]
752–53 Kasakudi plate inscription (Tamil Nadu): One of the predecessors of Nandivarman, namely Narasimhavarman, is mentioned as having “surpassed the glory of the valour of Rama by (his) conquest of LaBka”. Again (in verse 29), Nandivarman himself is stated to “resemble Rama in archery”. (Lal 2008: 1)
9th c. Prambanam temple (Indonesia): A stone panel depicts the subduing of the sea by Rama (reproduced in Lal 2008: 47).
950 Sri Kalyana Varadaraja Perumal temple (Paruthiyur, Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu): one of the oldest icons of Rama in the form of an early Chola bronze statue (Bakker 1986: I-65, quoted in Sharma 2010, Annexure IV: 18).
950–970 Jaina temple of Parsvanatha in Khajuraho: Two images of Rama are depicted on the outer wall. The first one represents Rama holding the bow and arrow; the other “shows him with four arms, holding the arrow … in his upper right and lower left hand, with his lower right-hand blessing Hanumat and his upper left hand embracing Sita.” (Bakker 1986: 1-63, quoted in Sharma 2010, Annexure IV: 17).
Continued in Part 2