Archaeology and tourism have become handmaidens of Hindutva
BY OMAR KHALIDI
|In 1970, the ASI allowed a kum-kum sprinkled stone on the southeast corner of Charminar in Hyderabad to be converted into a Bhagya Laxmi temple.
Justice DV Sharma’s judgement in the Babri Masjid case said that “the disputed structure was constructed on the site of an old structure after its demolition” and “the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has proved that it was a massive Hindu religious structure”. What Justice Sharma was referring to was the 2003 ASI report that is of dubious value. What the ASI claimed to be the bases of pillars that held up the temple, turned out to be something else. The Shiva shrine at the lower level adds no strength to the claim that a Ram temple ever existed. The terracotta from different levels had been so jumbled up that it could be linked to no particular stratum and period. Moreover, the presence of animal bones and glazed ware at the site makes it difficult to claim that a Ram temple existed on this site between the 12th and 16th centuries. It is the right time to assess ASI’s role as a handmaiden of Hindutva in gathering dubious evidence to support the Ram temple’s existence. Indian archaeology has been marked by some characteristics since colonial times: it is a monument-specific archaeology based on geographical surveys, literary traditions and Orientalist scholarship. These characteristics combined to form a traditionalist, location-driven excavation agenda that privileged some sites to Hindus without regard to the historical provenance of the site or monument.
The characteristics privilege ancient references to monuments, whether in legend or literature, as authentic while all medieval and modern ones are perceived as tales of depredations.
The ASI’s colonial origins are transparent in its philosophy and operation. Mortimer Wheeler, Director General of ASI between 1944 and 1948, advised Indian archaeologists, “Partition has robbed us of the Indus Valley. Therefore, we now have no excuse for deferring the overdue exploration of the Ganges Valley. After all, if the Indus gave India a name, it may almost be said that the Ganges gave India a faith.”
His student BB Lal (Director, ASI between 1968 to 1972) took up his advice. He excavated at Gangetic sites in search of evidence for the mythical periods described in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, identifying two kinds of pottery: northern black polished ware as an indicator of the former and painted grey ware as an indicator of the latter, and attempted to match archaeological sites with places named in the epics.
The ASI used this ‘evidence’, to propagate the myth that underneath the 16th century Purana Qila built by Sher Shah Suri lay the site of Indraprastha, the mythical ‘Hindu’ city. This spurious theory of Muslim rulers building over ‘Hindu’ structures has certainly gained ground.
In the 1990s, most publications about India’s capital describe Indraprastha as the first of the “seven cities of Delhi”. Lal used similar ‘evidence’ at Ayodhya to support his claim of the identification of Ram’s birthplace, which was used as the justification for the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992.
The Ayodhya story became the prototype for the Hindutva clan’s claims on the innumerable mosques, mausoleums, dargahs and eidgahs, all of which to be reclaimed as former Hindu sites or temples. In ASI terminology, ‘Hindu’ is a catch-all, homogenised category for all schools of Sanatana Dharma - Buddhism, Jainism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, etc. The ASI deploys such a convenient term to efface the long and bloody Hindu sectarian wars or Shaivite appropriation of Buddhist sites. The ASI’s methods serve to perpetuate the myth of Muslim depredation of Indian heritage.
The ASI has been looking for a Hindu temple under every medieval monument. The unearthing of Jain idols in the vicinity of Fatehpur Sikri in the 1990s was the occasion to blame Akbar for destroying temples. When the annual meeting of the World Archaeological Congress in New Delhi coincided with the second anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, its Indian organisers barred discussion of the event because they were closely associated with the Ayodhya movement.
Numerous examples of the ASI’s role in transforming medieval heritage can be seen from various parts of the country: In 2007, the ASI cooked up history at the Chittorgarh fort in Rajasthan by claiming that an underground passage was the location of Padmini’s jauhar (self-immolation), based on a myth to highlight Alauddin Khilji’s alleged atrocities. Now, numerous modern temples abound the medieval fort. In 2003, the ASI virtually converted the 15th century Kamal Maula Masjid in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, into a temple by allowing Hindu worship. Since 1977, the ASI has allowed construction of three Hindu temples in the premises of Sher Shah Suri’s mausoleum in Sasaram, Bihar. These bathroom-tiled temples with their calendar-art frescos mar the magnificent mausoleum’s vistas.
In 1970, the ASI allowed a kum-kum sprinkled stone on the southeast corner of Charminar in Hyderabad to be converted into a Bhagya Laxmi temple. A modern temple is protruding out of a major medieval monument in defiance of the rules. At the turn of the 21st century, almost all the grand gates in the historic Golconda fort and Hyderabad are riddled with Hindu temples, signs and icons flying in the face of ASI’s preservation mission. In 1948, the ASI converted the Jama Masjid in the Daulatabad Fort into a Bharata Mata temple. The name is so candidly, crassly contemporary to make a mockery of a medieval site.
The ASI’s representation of India’s archaeological legacy in Hindu terms has had a direct impact on heritage tourism, which has vast appeal to the increasingly rich, upwardly mobile, tech-savvy upper-caste Hindus at home and abroad.
The ASI’s representation of archaeological sites as essentially Hindu is revealed by a close scrutiny of its website, tourist guides and promotional literature. Even in official tourism websites and literature, India’s past is invariably described as the “Hindu Golden Age”; all subsequent eras as the age of Muslim tyranny. Such representations are blatant in the Incredible India campaign directed at the diaspora in North America and Europe.
At the tourist sites, the self-appointed touts and guides provide a spicy supplement to the official narrative of Muslim vandalism. The wide appeal of Hindutva among the diaspora can be partly explained by their experiences at these sites.
The growing Islamophobia in the west further adds to the mental images of Muslims as violent bigots. As India reinvents itself through archaeology and tourism, official bodies such as the ASI, the state archaeology departments and tourism bureaus lend themselves as handmaidens of Hindutva.
Khalidi is the author of Khaki and Ethnic Violence and Muslims in Indian Economy