The past week have seen celebrations across the global Hindu diaspora for the consecration, if not full completion, of the new Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Given the site’s flashpoint status over the past three decades and reconstruction of a temple on the site considered to be the place of Lord Ram’s birth being a decades-old political goal of the now-ruling BJP, there has understandably been robust media coverage.
In the West, however, the coverage from several mainstream outlets has often been what can only be described as an abject failure on at least one critical point.
The reason for this failure has not been getting contemporary first-hand impressions wrong — though CNN’s insistence that there are 500,000 Muslims in Ayodhya when the town’s entire population is a mere 76,000 and the entire district in the low hundred thousands, with Muslims making up roughly 6 percent of both cases, is certainly curious.
Rather, the failure falls into two buckets of omission: 1) failure to convey to readers the full history of the site, going back before a mosque was built for the first time; and, 2) failure to acknowledge at all what the Archaeological Survey of India found in regards to this history, which broadly vindicates what Hindus have said for generations about the site, which is one of the seven key sacred sites of Hinduism.
Before going into the details of what has been left out of the coverage of the Associated Press, BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and Time, here is why not discussing the full history of the site and accepting what the ASI has found matters so deeply:
If you start your story with a mosque pre-existing on a site that Hindus “claim” had an ancient temple on it — reporters always use the word ‘claim’ or ‘believe’ as if Hindus’ statements are matters of opinion alone and could never be proven or disproven — and which, following more than a century of communal tensions and court cases, was torn down by a mob of Hindus in the 1992, then the natural takeaway from readers is that it is Muslims today who are undoubtedly right in their grief.
However this is simply an incomplete story to be telling.
A fuller telling of the story of Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid rightly starts thousands of years ago.
Archaeology, done by the ASI in separate digs and done by independent multireligious teams, shows that the Babri Masjid (which was originally known by a different name, translating as ‘mosque of the birthplace’) was built on the remains of a dharmic place of worship.
Indeed Hindus and Sikhs are both documented to have worshiped at the site, including Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. In the mid-nineteenth century it was Sikhs who first pushed the issue of resuming dharmic worship on the site.
Epigraphic evidence found supports this dharmic history, as does the remains of previous structures, including a 50-pillared religious structure. The stratigraphy shows that the site had continuous non-residential or commercial occupation going back to the 2nd millennium BCE. That is more than 3000 years before a mosque was built on the site.
The archaeology indicates that the traditional Hindu beliefs about the site can’t be just brushed aside, as Audrey Truschke puts it, as “imagined historical wrongs”. (For Truschke it seems most complaints of Hindus are based on imagination and the remainder on inherent bigotry, it should be said.)
Now, archaeology doesn’t prove that the site was the birthplace of Lord Ram or that there was an in-the-flesh figure of Lord Ram. That would be overstating the level of certainty of what archaeological digs usually provide, certainly ones looking back some 4000 years. But it does corroborate the traditional Hindu view that the Babri Masjid was built over a dharmic sacred site, as well as backs up the stories of numerous foreign visitors, going back a millennia, who observed the prominence of Lord Ram’s worship there.
What’s more, archeologist KK Mohammed, who played a key role in the excavations, has repeatedly said that the ASI work has been distorted by Indian Marxist historians and the media, downplaying what the ASI found and for their own reasons amplifying community tensions.
In that, you have a key Muslim archaeologist from the dig telling the world that his team’s work isn’t being correctly interpreted, due to Marxist political motivations — a motivation that cannot see the Hindu as anything other than an oppressor — and this doesn’t register at all in the story being told to Western readers. If you had a bunch of Marxist historians telling you the life stories of those people buried in Westminster Abbey, or Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, or the history of the Cold War, or the religion of Ancient Egypt, or the influence African slave trading networks on China, you’d at least start considering how their political viewpoints influence their interpretation of the past. But in this case that these historians have a very particular ideological affiliation doesn’t in the slightest enter into the discussion. It boggles the mind.
Including the history of Ayodhya that the archaeology points to would tell a story not of Hindus destroying a mosque because of unfounded religious belief or “imagined historical wrongs”. Rather the story would be Hindus reclaiming one of their most sacred sites — albeit violently in at least one of a multi-chapter story that spans centuries; that can’t be ignored nor understated — which itself had been destroyed by Muslims attempting to assert, not any sacred connection to that particular site, but political and religious domination of an ancient place of worship for people seen as unbelievers.
Knowing this fuller history, you still could well find fault with violently tearing down of that mosque. The Indian courts certainly did. Some Hindus today do as well, even if they are at the same time celebrating a new mandir being constructed on the site.
Nevertheless, presenting this more complex and accurate story would result in many people having more sympathy for the Hindu perspective that today’s Ram Mandir in Ayodhya is most rightly seen as a restoration of a broken line of dharmic use of one of the key seven sacred sites in Hinduism. And that is a far different story than mainstream Western media is telling.