The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) report of August 2003 is the fifth on the historical topography of Ayodhya. A.E. Cunningham conducted the first survey in Ayodhya in 1862-63 followed by another in 1889-91 by A. Fuhrer. Professor A.K. Narain conducted the third excavation in Ayodhya in 1969-70, and finally, Professor B.B. Lal conducted a more intensive and revealing study of the area in 1975-76.

The intention of Cunningham's survey was to re-locate Buddhist sites and to establish the Buddhist antecedents of Ayodhya. He accepted the association of Ayodhya with the traditions of Rama and asserted that the present-day Ayodhya was the Ayodhya of the Ramayana years. He also concluded that the cities of Visakha, Saketa and Ayodhya were the same (A.E. Cunningham, "Report of the Proceedings of the Archaeological Surveyor to the Government of India for the Season of 1862-63," in Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1865). Fuhrer's report is an extension of the earlier report. He tried to confirm Rajput presence in Ayodhya in the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. by referring to three copper-plate land grants reportedly found in the area (A. Fuhrer, Report of the Archaeological Survey of India (New Series), Volume II, 1891).

Surprisingly, of the three plates only one is known, the other two remain unknown and only facsimile copies of these grants were available to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Centenary Review of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, From 1784 to 1883, Calcutta,1885).

Narain observed that the excavated sites indicated human habitation as old as the 5th century B.C. He was also convinced that there was evidence of strong Buddhist presence in the area (Indian Archaeology 1969-70 - A Review, page 40). He fixed the antiquity of Ayodhya to early 17th century B.C. Lal excavated the mound of the Babri Masjid and observed "a fairly compact and working sequence for the antiquity of the place from its first settlement over the natural soil". His conclusions were interesting: "The occupational phases of the mound appears to have continued up to circa third century A.D., represented by several structural phases. In the earlier stages, the houses were of wattle and daub or mud, followed by those of baked bricks. In the Janma Bhumi area a massive wall of bricks was observed, which may perhaps be identified as a fortification-wall." Also, Lal arrived at certain interesting inferences regarding large-scale trade and commerce in Ayodhya in the early centuries of the Christian era. He also added that it was rather remarkable that the Gupta period was not significantly indicated at the sites in Ayodhya and "after the early historic deposits, there is a break in occupation, with considerable debris and pit formations before the site was again occupied around the eleventh century A.D" (Indian Archaeology 1976-77 - A Review, pages 52-53).

The voluminous ASI report pushes back human habitation in the area to the mid-13th century B.C. Again, unlike the earlier reports, it observes continuous human habitation on the site right from 1300 B.C. until the 16th century A.D. The report substantiates this observation by putting together a large number of cultural artefacts signifying different periods in history. However, it concludes the summary of its report with a tacit admission that this assumption may be erroneous: "Another noteworthy feature is that it was only during and after Period IV (Gupta level) onwards up to Period IX (late- and post-Mughal level) that the regular habitational deposits disappear in the concerned levels and the structural phases are associated with either structural debris or filling material taken out from the adjoining area to level the ground for construction purpose. As a result... much of the earlier material in the form of pottery, terracottas and other objects of the preceding periods, particularly of Period I (Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) level) and Period III (Kushan level) are found in the later periods mixed along with their contemporary material" (ASI Report, Ayodhya 2002-2003, Volume I, Chapter X, page 271).

Again, unlike Lal, the ASI report fails to inform us of any human activity other than settlement in the area. Further, the report makes no attempt to co-relate its findings with local history except when it identifies a complete stratum as belonging to Period IV, or the "Early Medieval Rajput level". This intervention in local history is both clever and deliberate, since the Rajput period in Indian history has somehow become synonymous with Brahmanical resurgence.

The process of constructing a history of India started in the early 19th century. The Asiatic Society of Bengal was a pioneer in this venture. Its efforts were determined both by colonial considerations and a serious interest in understanding the antiquity of India. It brought together source material that included local traditions, legends and myths, along with inscriptions and coins. The textual source material had in the words of Rajendralala Mitra, "in the course of many centuries, accumulated in the great epic poems, the Puranic cyclopaedias and provincial chronicles, written for the most part in scholastic Sanskrit language by authors for whom history and fiction seemed not to have been antagonistic" (Centenary Review of the Asiatic Society of Bengal From 1784-1883, Part I, History of the Society, Calcutta, 1885, page 82). With such limitations, the history of the early period was bound to be focussed on the ruling dynasties. Complications arose after 1830 on the issue of dating events related with Vikramaditya.

Both George Turnour and James Prinsep had come across new historical discoveries. Turnour reported the Pali Buddhist Annals of Ceylon and it became necessary to introduce a break in the Brahmanical period - a distinction was made between the Vikramaditya of the Mauryas and Vikramaditya of the Guptas. Cunningham carried forward the tradition introduced by Turnour and was able to demonstrate a strong Buddhist presence in early India. It was understood that the gradual decline of Buddhism was necessarily followed by the rise of Rajput ruling dynasties in different regions of north India, running concurrently with a resurgence of Brahmanism.

The origin of the Rajputs and their rule was always a serious concern of colonial historiography. The colonialist rationalised that there was a continuous state of conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India prior to the advent of British rule. In this it was imagined that Rajputs, the vanguard of Brahmanism, were necessarily the leaders of aggressive opposition to Muslim rule in India. As such, the Asiatic Society of Bengal engaged itself with the process of constructing a history of Rajputs. Several writings were compiled and by 1885 the Society believed that it had constructed a complete history of several Rajput dynasties in north India (Centenary Review of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, From 1784 to 1883).

The kingdom of Kanauj was the first Rajput principality that gained significance. This was probably because of the reported discovery in 1807 of a copper plate inscription. (The Society received several reports of such discoveries of inscriptions. These inscriptions were carved either on metal plates or stone slabs and they confirmed land grants. In the nineteenth century after the East India Company had expanded territorially, it made it necessary for those claiming land rights to demonstrate a basis for the claim. In these circumstances, several inscriptions asserting such claims were found to be fake.) H.T. Colebrooke received a facsimile copy of the above-mentioned land grant and he immediately declared it a fake. However, he found it interesting for it gave the genealogy of the ruling family of Kanauj (Miscellaneous Essays of H.T. Colebrooke, (ed). E.B. Cowell, London, n.d., Volume II, pages 213-280). Soon after, several discoveries of such grants were reported and after 1881, the Society constructed a history of the Rajput families ruling in the different regions of north India.

The ASI report cleverly and deliberately introduced the term "Rajput" to define a stratum. This is clearly an effort to correlate that dynastic period with the supposed shrine-like structure and a wall that allegedly predates the mosque. The ASI first suggests that the wall having decorated stone blocks appears similar to the "Dharmachakrajina Vihara of Kumardevi, Queen of Gahadwal ruler Govindchandra of the twelfth century A.D. at Sarnath" (Volume I., pages 52 and 56). It then attempts to show a close resemblance of the alleged shrine-like structure with some temples in north India and concludes: "Thus on stylistic grounds, the present circular shrine can be dated to c. tenth century A.D. when the Kalchuris moved in this area and settled across river Sarayu. They possibly brought the tradition of stone circular temples transformed into brick in Ganga-Yamuna valley" (Volume I., page 71).

It is surprising that the report should try to associate Ayodhya so closely with the Rajput kingdoms of either Kanauj or Banaras for there is no evidence to support the premise that any of these ruling families had their seat of authority in Ayodhya. Also, there is no reliable evidence to establish the presence of the Kalchuris in Ayodhya. There is some doubtful evidence regarding the Kalchuris control over Pratabgarh and Rae Bareli (Vishudanand Pathak, Uttar Bharat ka Rajnayatik Itihas, Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sansthan, Lucknow, 1990, pages 607-633). In history, the Kalchuris are understood as an insignificant clan limited to the Narbada area (A.C. Bannerjee, Lectures on Rajput History, Calcutta, 1962, page 24).

The Kalchuri kingdom extended as far as Rewa and on that basis it was assumed that they might have extended their influence into Pratabgarh and Rae Bareli. There is no reliable evidence of their presence in Ayodhya or Faizabad. Again, the reference to the Kalchuris is deliberate for they were said to be Saivas and the report obliquely suggests that the shrine could be a Shiva temple.

There is a common tendency, in the construction of the past, to overlook the contribution of people who lived in certain areas and influenced developments there. In Avadh, any construction activity during the so-called "Rajput" period, as alleged by the report, can only be attributed to either the Bhars, the Arakhs or the Pasis, who local tradition holds, ruled during those times. The gazetteers (both district and provincial) inform us that Ayodhya became a wilderness after the 5th century A.D. Local tradition relates that Rajput and Muslim settlers in the area expelled certain low caste tribes of Bhars, Arakhs and Pasis. Sir Henry Elliot wrote that the "Bhars overran the country after the loss of Ajodhya by the Surajbansi tribes. The country had then relapsed into primeval wilderness. The native's only conception of it is that of a vast uninhabited jungle in which none but saints and anchorites lived, who passed their time in prayer and meditation. Raja Janimijai, son of Parikshit, grandson of Raja Judhishtir, of mythical times, granted them the land in Jagir".

A significant presence of these people in the area can also be deduced with the foundation of several towns like Marion to Mandal Rikh, Mohan to Mohan Gir Goshain, Jaggaur to Jagdeo Jogi. In local memory, the Bhars are said to have ruled until the 12th century A.D. over an area that stretched in the south till the river Sai. The provincial gazetteer edited by W.C. Benet observed: "Their total extermination does not favour the belief that they could have belonged to the mass of people, but as a proprietary body their disappearance, with the loss of land, seems intelligible, and as a fact common enough." The presence of the Bhars in Avadh is attested by the presence of several dihs (mounds) that were built in bricks.

The presence of the Pasis in the area was attested by their huge population. In 1871 they numbered 700,000. In local folklore they are said to have ruled over vast areas. In Avadh their area of control stretched as far as Amethi. Also, local tradition related that the area in which the Pasis lived was known as the "ganjar plain, or plain of iron; so called from the warlike demeanour of the natives, and it seems to have given the name of Ganjaria to the whole of Oudh" (W.C. Benet, Gazetteer of the Province of Oudh, 3 Volumes, Calcutta, 1877, Volume II, pages 353-355. Also, H.R. Nevill, Fyzabad: A Gazetteer, Volume XLIII of the District Gazetteers of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Allahabad, 1906). In the absence of any reliable historical evidence or local tradition, it is difficult to assume an influential presence of the Rajputs in Ayodhya between the 5th and the 12th centuries A.D.

The ASI report fails to give the topographical features of the disputed area. (It provides a contour map of the disputed area and its environs but does not refer to it in the text.) It does enumerate some topographical characteristics of the district in the opening pages of the report (these being borrowed from the latest district gazetteer of Faizabad) but significant and immediate topographical realities of the disputed site have been overlooked. It does not say that the Babri mosque rested over an elevated area, that is, a mound, and that there was another mound known to the local people as the "Kuber Teela" immediately to the south of the Babri mosque. This mound was said to be 28 feet (8.53 metres) above the ground level (Cunningham's report in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, 1865).

Again, the ASI report seems not to have any use for the fact that the massive wall in the west supporting the mosque rested over the bed of a flowing river, which was reported dry in 1862-63 by Cunningham (Archaeological Survey Of India: Four Reports made during the years 1862-63-64-65, Volume I, Simla, 1871). B.B. Lal bears out the observation of Cunningham and writes: "The fortification-wall appears to have had a deep ditch, almost like a moat, just on its exterior, which was partly cut into the natural clay overlying the fluviatile sand bed" (Indian Archaeology 1976-1977 - A Review, page 52). The height of the massive wall in the west from the ground level to the base of the mosque was between 16 feet (4.88 metres) and 20 feet (6.09 metres).

The report commits the blunder of alleging the presence of a temple/shrine like structure below the "C" floor of the mosque. The alleged shrine is said to be 1.5 feet (0.46 metre) below the last floor of the mosque and its height from the base as shown in figure 17 in the report is about 3 feet (0.91 metre). This would mean that this structure was located between 4.5 and 5 feet (1.37 and 1.52 metres) below the "C" floor of the mosque. The difference in terms of time between the alleged shrine and the "C" floor of the mosque is very short. In such circumstances can we imagine a temple/shrine located at a depth immediately to the west of the mound on which the Babri mosque stood?

Again, the report apparently attempts to distinguish the structure found just below the three floors of the mosque on the basis of its shape and the material used therein. It says that two different sizes of bricks have been used. It suggests that the bricks have been put together using a mixture of lime as was evident from the block which it imagined as the threshold of the alleged temple/shrine. It is known that the admixture of lime was commonly used as a building material in India after the 10th century A.D. It is also known that the structures of both the temple and the mosque utilised different sizes of stones or bricks as is evident in the temples and mosques raised during or after the 11th/12th centuries A.D. in India. In the circumstances, with the time lapse between the two structures being small and the shape of the structure being unclear, it is difficult to infer with certainty that it was either a shrine or a temple. Also, it is difficult to distinguish any material as exclusive to any religious community in a mixed society where sharing and borrowing were common (R.S. Tripathi, Lectures on Early Medieval India, Allahabad, n.d.).

The presence of this controversial structure can be understood only in the context of the mosque. In the geographical reality of the area in which the mosque stood, it could be imagined that the builders meant it to be a kind of a dyke with an opening on one side, to hold the excess water that flowed in from the southeast. Also, as the structure remains attached by way of the walls with the outer enclosure of the mosque, it could be assumed that it might have been used to strengthen the hold on the outer walls enclosing the area of the mosque. An observation of the disputed structure before its demolition confirms that the outer wall running south to east was bent outwards. Surprisingly, this was not the case with the boundary wall running north to east enclosing the mosque. This confirms the assumption that accumulated water that entered the area from the southeast neither harmed nor destabilised the foundation of the disputed structure in the north as it did in the south.

The ASI report does not reflect on the construction of the mosque. In fact, with regard to the mosque, the report provides extensive details related with the pillars and pillar bases that were found either embedded or lying on the floors of the mosque. Although the report nowhere hints at any activity of destruction, it appears to suggest that the pillars were foreign to the structure of the mosque.

Again, the ASI report gives us several irrelevant details regarding objects that were found lying over the various levels of the mosque. It must be remembered that the site of the mosque had become extremely corrupt with the passage of time. The disputed site in Ayodhya was dug up several times. This happened for instance, in 1855, when a large number of dead bodies were buried and the burial place came to be known as Ganj-I-Shahidan. It was dug up again in December 1949 and then at subsequent intervals. The terracotta, figurines, glazed wares and other objects found littered on the floors of the mosque must be assessed for their significance against this background.

For all its blunders, the ASI report is significant for the light it sheds, unwittingly, on the technology applied in the construction of the mosque. It was said that in Ayodhya three mosques were constructed on the spots related with the life of Lord Rama. These were the Babri mosque and two others at Swargadwar and Treta-ke-Thakur. While the first was assigned to Babur, the other two were related to Aurangzeb, that is, there was a lapse of two centuries between the construction of the first and the other two. Despite this, the Babri mosque remained intact until the vandalism of December 6, 1992, though the other two mosques were reported to be in ruins by 1877. All the three mosques stood either on the bank or on the bed of the river. The Babri mosque stood on a massive embankment raised on the bed of the river in the west. There must have been immense problems in the construction of the mosque for there was a higher mound to its south. In the south the flow of water during the monsoon season must have been immense and rapid.

Cunningham's report says that most of the Jami Masjids or the main mosques in the area around Ayodhya were situated at a central place preferably on a mound close to the river. The Babri mosque too was centrally situated on a mound. A question arises: why did the builders of the mosque choose that location when to the south, on the Kuber Teela, they had access to a higher, central and more stable site? It appears that the Kuber Teela did not suit the builders of the mosque for there was a shrine-like structure on its top.

The construction of the mosque must have been a problematic issue with the builders and this is evident from the ASI report. The report observes three successive floors of the mosque. This would either mean that the mosque was raised on the first floor and after its fall, it was raised again by using two successive platforms to strengthen the base or that the mosque was raised on each floor where one succeeded the other after its fall. In the circumstances of the location of the mosque, it was inevitable that during the monsoon season, a huge volume of water would be accumulating under its floor. This would naturally disturb and harm the foundations of the mosque.

As such, a mosque must have been constructed on the first floor in the 13th century. It must have fallen after some time because of the flow of water effecting its foundation. Another mosque might have been constructed by raising two more floors over the first floor. It appears from the report that the last two floors were made to rest on pillars, where the rows of pillars in the north and south were more in number than in the other areas. The use of the pillars in the base strengthened the building for it allowed free movement to the water that apparently entered the area of the mosque from the southeast.

The ASI creates confusion by reporting stone columns and pillars representing Hindu, Buddhist or Jaina elements. In the first half of the 19th century, James Fergusson circulated the idea that Muslim invaders destroyed Indian places of worship and used its material to erect mosques. Later, in the early 20th century E.B. Havell revised this idea and made a distinction between the early Muslim constructions in and around Delhi and the later-day constructions in the regional areas where the Delhi Sultanate had expanded.

He wrote that Muslims in the early part of their rule wished to provide immediately a roof to the devotees to pray and therefore re-used the material of the destroyed temples. However, as the element of immediacy was absent in the case of regional buildings, several Indian artisans were employed for purposes of construction. The Indian artisans, who were admired for their skills, freely employed their indigenous art and technique to construct buildings for the Muslims. As such, it was natural to observe Hindu, Buddhist or Jaina elements in the carvings of the pillars or decorations in columns holding the wall. The presence of numerous Hindu, Buddhist or Jaina elements in the cutting of stone blocks and carving of stone pillars in Muslim buildings of that period is more of a tribute to the skill of the local artisan than a comment on the alleged iconoclasm of the Muslims.

Dr Sushil Shrivastava, a Professor at Allahabad University, is the author of the book The Disputed Mosque: A Historical Inquiry (Sage, Delhi, 1991).