How the First Battle Over a Place of Worship Began in Ayodhya

Editor’s Note: ‘Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord’ is a comprehensive biography of the sleepy city of Ayodhya, which has been a place of reverence for many faiths for millennia, but has also been a place of violence, bloodshed and ill-will.

Ayodhya lodged itself permanently in the national consciousness with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The destruction of the mosque was the climax of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that has been at the heart of Indian politics for a quarter century.

Here is an excerpt from the book. 

By Valay Singh

The year 1855 was momentous in the history of Ayodhya. It is often cited as the year in which the recorded history of the Ram Janmabhoomi–Babri Masjid dispute commences. It should also be seen as a marker of the half-truths that have come to systematically shroud the vexed issue. This is because in 1855, the bloody conflict that took place was not over the supposed birthplace of Ram. It was over the Hanumangarhi temple and the claims by certain Sunnis that the Bairagis of Hanumangarhi had destroyed a mosque that existed atop it. The Muslims charged on the Hanumangarhi but were repelled and routed. They hid inside the mosque of Babur that lay at a distance of less than a kilometre from Hanumangarhi. In this way, the site of the Babri Masjid became embroiled in the dispute over Hanumangarhi. At the time of the 1855 riot, the Bairagis had not claimed the Babri mosque as the birthplace of Ram. It was only much later that the conflict of 1855 came to be associated primarily with the Babri Masjid instead of the Hanumangarhi temple. Today, it is widely believed that the

first recorded Hindu struggle for Ram’s birthplace dates back to the events of 1855.

It is ironic that despite voluminous British and other contemporary records of the incident, it is this falsified version that is accepted as the ‘truth’. There are however, some incontrovertible facts about it: Firstly, that the Muslims claimed that there was a mosque on Hanumangarhi and that it was destroyed by the Bairagis. Secondly, that there took place a bloody battle in which Muslims were routed and that they took shelter in the Babri mosque. And finally, at least till the 1855 dispute, the Babri Masjid had not been claimed as Ram’s birthplace.

What are the events of 1855 that are fairly well documented? Hanumangarhi, a temple of Hanuman, Ram’s most devout devotee, is built atop a small hillock that also happens to be the highest point in Ayodhya. Today, it is a well-fortified temple, with fourteen cannons adorning its ramparts. At its foot live hundreds of Bairagis, the more important ones live in modern buildings equipped with all conveniences. It is the most favoured temple for the lakhs of devotees who visit Ayodhya every year. For them a trip to Ayodhya has always meant a dip in the Sarayu, followed by a visit to Nageshwarnath and Hanumangarhi. Hanuman is special even to Ram; therefore it is no surprise that for Hindu pilgrims too, he is sometimes revered more than Ram himself.

Even though Hanuman is identified with Ram by most lay devotees, he is claimed by both Vaishnavas and Shaivas (in fact to lay devotees, Ram, Shankar, Vishnu, Hanuman and Ganesh are all forms of the same god). Devdutt Pattanaik, in some ways a modern version of Valmiki himself, explains Hanuman’s all-round appeal thus:

According to Shaivites, Shiva himself descended as Hanuman to destroy Ravana, an errant Shiva-bhakta. They said that Ravana had offered his ten heads to Shiva and obtained boons that made him very powerful. But as Rudra, Shiva has eleven forms. Ravana’s offering of ten heads satisfied ten forms of Rudra. The eleventh unhappy Rudra took birth as Hanuman to kill Ravana. Hence Hanuman is also Raudreya.

To establish their superiority, Vishnu-worshippers argued that Hanuman, hence Shiva, obeyed instructions given by Vishnu. To counter this, Shiva-worshippers said that without Hanuman’s help, Ram would never have found Sita. In many stories, it is Hanuman who enables the killing of Ravana. For example, in one Telugu retelling, despite knowing that Ravana’s life resided in his navel, Ram shot only at the head of Ravana as he was too proud a warrior to shoot below the neck. So Hanuman sucked in air into his lungs and caused the wind to shift direction causing Ram’s arrow to turn and strike Ravana’s navel. Association with Shiva, and with celibacy, was reinforced by Hanuman’s association with the various ascetic schools of Hinduism, from the Nath-jogis who followed the path of Matsyendranath from around 1,000 years ago, to the Vedantic mathas who followed Madhva-acharya from around 700 years ago, to Sant Ramdas who inspired many Maratha warriors 400 years ago. The latter sages, especially during the bhakti period, introduced the idea of connecting celibacy with service; you give up your worldly pleasures and work for the worldly aspirations of society. Just as the hermit Shiva becomes the householder Shankara for the benefit of Humanity, they spoke of how the ascetic Hanuman became Ram’s servant for the benefit of society.

So, irrespective of whether it was the Bairagis or the Shaiva Sanyasis or Nath-Yogis who were the orginal founders of Hanumangarhi, at the time of the 1855 conflict, Ayodhya and Hanumangarhi both had become centres of the Ramanandis.

Land was first allotted to one Abhayaram Das of Hanumangarhi in the time of Saadat Khan, who, as we have seen earlier, was the first governor of Awadh, between 1722–1739 ce. Subsequently, his successors, Safdarjung as well as Shuja-ud-daulah, supported the temple’s construction with more revenue land grants. Finally, in the time of Asaf-ud-daulah, the Hanumangarhi temple was completed. It is important to note here that according to tradition, the first land grant made to Hanumangarhi was after the Galta conference of 1718 ce, and the completion of Hanumangarhi happened only in 1799 ce under Diwan Tikait Rai during Asaf-ud-daulah’s governorship of Awadh. Asaf-ud-daulah, as we have seen, moved the capital even further away from Ayodhya—from Faizabad to Lucknow. Earlier, Safdarjung had moved the capital from Ayodhya to Faizabad. Some writers find the shifting of the capital as evidence of the Muslim nawabs recognizing the Hindu pre-eminence of Ayodhya. There is no evidence to suggest that this was the reason, but from a strategic point of view, Faizabad would have made more sense as it was more suited for the founding of a capital with its vast plains and the river Sarayu’s wide channel protecting it in the west.

(The following excerpt has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company. Written by Valay Singh, the paperback of the book Ayodhya : City of Faith, City of Discord costs Rs 799.00)

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