Today’s inauguration ceremony for the Ram Mandir will surely be a spectacular event. We look at the contested history of this janmabhoomi in part one—it’s not just about the Supreme Court ruling. In part two, we’ll look at the temple itself and why it matters—be it to Ayodhya or for the elections.
Remind me about this mandir?
Here’s a quick refresher on the Babri Masjid case—which laid the foundation for the Ram mandir. The core claim: Babur’s general destroyed the temple that marked Ram’s birthplace—and built a mosque in its place.
The earliest claim: dates back to the 19th century—when a mahant built a chabutra (raised platform) near the masjid soon after the Revolt of 1857. In 1861, the local administration built a wall to separate the mosque from the chabutra. In 1883, the mahant started to build a temple over the chabutra—but was stopped. He filed a case in 1885 asserting his right to do so—but was denied. The reasoning: Building a temple so close to a mosque will lead to violence.
Quote to note: The British judge rejected an appeal challenging the ruling, saying: “It is most unfortunate that a masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that event occurred 356 years ago it is too late to remedy the grievance." In other words, the rulings sidestepped the prickly issue of who had a historical/ religious right to the land.
About that Ram Janmabhoomi: At this time, the mahants claimed the chabutra—not the spot under the central dome of the Babri Masjid as the birthplace.
Idols in the night: The modest chabutra was sidelined in 1949. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Gobind Ballabh Pant—a Congress leader—conspired with the local magistrate to smuggle a Ram Lalla idol into the mosque at night. Hindus view this as a miracle—and begin to offer prayers. To stave off a violent confrontation, the local administration locked the doors.
More lawsuits were filed challenging the order—which resulted in a “temporary injunction” that left the idol in place: The order implied that Hindu “worshippers couldn’t go inside the mosque, but… could do darshan of Ram Lalla through the iron grills of the doors of the Babri Masjid.”
Birth of a movement: In the 1980s, popular history books in Hindi begin to promote the idea of Ayodhya as the birthplace of Ram. Example: Pratap Narain Mishra’s ‘Kya kahati hain saryu dhara? Sri Ramjanmabhumi ki kahani’ (What says the river Saryu? The story of Ram Janmabhoomi). According to Adrija Roychowdhury,
All these works, and several others mostly published in the “Organiser”, the organ of the RSS, said with firm conviction that a temple dedicated to Lord Ram existed at the very site where the deity was born and that it had been demolished by the local Mughal authorities to build a mosque. Further, as [author] Gyanendra Pandey notes, “all of it comes to be represented in a ‘scientific’ precision- of numbers, of dates, of geographical location- testifying to the literal truth of this ‘history’.”
Open sesame! In 1986, the local magistrate orders the locks on the masjid opened in response to a new lawsuit. The judge declares:
After having heard the parties it is clear that the members of the other community, namely Muslims, are not going to be affected by any stretch of imagination if the locks of the gates…are opened and the idols inside the premises are allowed to be seen and worshipped by pilgrims and devotees.
Enter Rajiv Gandhi: The real turning point is when the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) lays the foundation stone of a Ram mandir in 1989—with the blessings of the Prime Minister. The Lok Sabha elections were around the corner.
The bulldozer yatra: In 1990, LK Advani launches a rath yatra from Somnath (Gujarat) to Ayodhya (UP) to mobilise support for the mandir. As India Today noted at the time: "It whipped up a strong Hindu fervour and increased the party's vote bank from 85 in 1989 to 120 in the 1991 general elections." Mandir politics worked. Proof was in the electoral pudding.
Emboldened by this endorsement, Babri Mosque was razed by a mob of karsevaks in 1992—leaving a a make-shift temple in its place. The PV Narasimha Rao government acquired the land in 1993—essentially endorsing the new status quo: “It meant that the makeshift temple was to remain and puja was to be continued.”
The path to victory: First came the Allahabad Court ruling in 2010—which endorsed the claim that the “disputed land was Ram's birthplace”—and that the “mosque was built after the demolition of a temple.” But it still directs the government to divide the land in three: one-third going to Ram Lalla—for the construction of the temple—another third to the Hindu organisation Nirmohi Akhara. And the last third was awarded to the Islamic Sunni Waqf Board.
The Supreme Court ruling: In 2019, the Supreme Court says dividing the land between Hindus and Muslims “defies logic”—and awards all of it to a trust administered by the government. But, hey, it acknowledges that the demolition of the masjid was illegal. Most importantly, it affirms the Hindu claims re Ram’s birthplace:
[T]he court held there was both oral and documentary evidence to support the Hindus’ faith that the Janma Asthan was located where the Babri Masjid was constructed. It was beyond the ken of the court to probe whether this belief was justified. Judges cannot indulge in theology, but restrict themselves to evidence and balance of probabilities.
Hmm, but is it the birthplace of Ram?
There is no agreement on the existence of a temple beneath the mosque—leave alone a god’s birthplace. Here are the competing accounts—from liberal and rightwing historians. We leave you to decide which is more compelling.
Evidence for the janmabhoomi: rests primarily on a 1970s archeological project led by BB Lal—who pioneered the effort to map the places mentioned in the Ramayana: “Lal came out with his report in the end of 1990 to claim that certain brick bases he had excavated in the 1970s supposedly pointed to the existence of a temple like structure in the south of the Babri masjid.”
Also, historical writings: Others cite copious historical references to make their claim. Example:
The Babri mosque has always been called “masjid-i-Janmasthan” and the courtyard near the arch and pulpit within the boundary of the mosque was called “muqam Janmasthan ka”. The Bairagis had a raised platform in the courtyard, which the applicant wanted to be removed. He mentioned that the place of the Janmasthan had been lying unkept, in disorder (parishan) for hundreds of years and that the Hindus performed worship there (“Maqam Janmasthan ka sad-habaras se parishan para rahta tha. Ahl-i hanud puja karte thhey”).
Another popular source is writings of colonial administrators and travellers. Official Judicial Commissioner W Young flagged “the bigotry and tyranny of the Emperor Babur who purposely chose this holy spot according to Hindu legend as the site of this mosque.”
But, but, but: Liberal historians are unimpressed with the quality of evidence offered by archeologists. They point out that Lal simply made up “evidence” to meet a political agenda. His reports filed in the 1970s made no mention of any temple—but in 1990 he published a photo of a so-called temple pillar in an RSS publication—offering fodder for the Janmabhoomi movement.
They say the same is true of an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) excavation in 2003—which claimed to have uncovered “50 pillar bases.” Two archaeologists wrote a paper claiming:
Pillar bases are supposed to be foundations on which stone pillars stood. In turn, the roof would have been supported by these pillars. So, pillar bases are required to be load-bearing and stable in nature. It appears that the ASI in its excavations just followed Lal’s line of thinking and created 50 “pillar bases” as further evidence for the temple. It was necessary for the ASI to find pillar bases because, without them, the theory of a temple would fall apart.
The left/liberal academic view: These historians argue the following:
- The Ayodhya mentioned in sacred texts is not the same location as we know as Ayodhya.
- The reason: The dates mentioned in Valmiki’s Ramayana are much earlier than evidence of first settlements in the present-day city.
- In fact, the city was known as Saketa until the Guptas renamed it—to draw legitimacy from the Ramayana.
- Finally, the place was not popular with Hindu worshippers until the 13th century—and the first temples dedicated to Ram were built only in the 18th century.
Also this: According to Allahabad University professor Sushil Srivastava, these claims of Mughals destroying temples were circulated by the British—as part of their ‘divide and rule’ strategy.
Interesting to note: The Supreme Court hedged its bets in its 2019 ruling. It reiterated proof offered by the ASI report of a 12th century temple. But it also said there is no evidence that the temple was specifically destroyed 400 years later to build a mosque. FYI: It dismissed all evidence offered by historians put forward by the Sunni Waqf board as mere “opinion.”
The bottomline: As they say, history is written by the victors. 🤷🏾
There are a number of good pieces challenging the Ram mandir claims. The best is this EPW paper penned by two archaeologists—pulling apart the ASI survey. But it is a bit technical. NewsLaundry and The Wire offer opinion pieces. Firstpost, Outlook and Indian Express have the history. The Print is best at laying out the evidence supporting the Janmabhoomi claim—and there is more over at Moneycontrol.