It is unfortunate that Ayodhya has come to occupy space in public discourse only with the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi conflict. Historically, the city of Ayodhya, literally meaning, ‘to fight’, goes much deeper than many of the more celebrated cities of India. Often respected as a sacred city for Hindus, the city also has an indelible association with Buddhism. And according to Sufi lore, even with Islam.
It is claimed that in Ayodhya lies the grave of Hazrat Sheeth (or Seth), son of Adam, believed to be the first man on earth. Also in Ayodhya is the grave of Hazrat Ayub (Prophet Job to Christians) and innumerable Sufis, including Shah Ibrahim.
Historian Irfan Habib wrote in ‘Medieval Ayodhya (Awadh), Down to the Mughal Occupation’, “The importance of these tombs lies in the fact that they were represented as those of the two prophets already in the sixteenth century. Emperor Akbar’s minister Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari, written in 1595, contains the following passage in its notice of Awadh or Ayodhya: ‘Near this city two large graves have been made, six and seven yards (gaz) in length. The common people believe them to be the resting places of the prophets Shis (Seth) and Ayyub (Job) and legendary tales are related about them’. For such legends as this to develop normally takes much time, and these graves must therefore have already existed long before Abul Fazl wrote in 1595.”
Larger than life
The claims about prophets’ graves are likely to be legends, but the crucible of history is not exactly the strong point of Ayodhya. It is a city which lives, breathes and emits belief. Indeed, Ayodhya’s story is one of folklore, mythology and faith. Ayodhya, in Valmiki’s Ramayana, is a city with palaces, mansions, wide streets and everything plentiful.
On the same lines, we have a booklet, The Blood-Soaked History of Shri Ram’s Birthplace by Ranjana Sarvesh where the author paints a fanciful picture of Lord Ram’s city, stating, “Mountain-like palaces adorned the site, which also had leisure homes for women, the beauty of which was so enthralling that it seemed this city is the city of god. The royal palace was of golden colour and heaps of gems could be found lying everywhere.”
It is left to the dispassionate reasoning of author Valay Singh in Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord, to separate faith from fact. Singh writes, “It would be simpler to imagine Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh as the lively source of the propagation of the Ramayana, where temples and monasteries have churned out priests, stocked libraries and trained reciters so that they spread the Ramayana to the ends of the world. Ayodhya, either abandoned or ignored for most of known history, has not been as fortunate as the Ramayana story, which was propagated by bards, traders and kings. While towns like Shravasti, Banaras and Pataliputra boast a rich and long history of kingdoms, Ayodhya’s glory emanates from being the city of Ram on paper. It was a paper-capital, a paper-city, an abstraction to most who heard the story.”
Historian Romila Thapar alluded to the region in her popular book, A History of Early India. Writing about the expansion of population, first from Indus Valley, then from Doab (roughly western Uttar Pradesh), she wrote, “From staying close to the banks of rivers, some settlements moved into the interior where they cleared land for cultivation...The small settlements linked to Ochre Colour pottery were more frequent to the upper Doab. The painted Grey Ware settlements had a wider distribution.”
Noted archaeologist H.D. Sankhalia, quoted by Singh in his book, talked of Ayodhya in The Ramayana in Historical Perspective, wherein he wrote, “Whatever be the nature of the first or earliest Ayodhya, a village or a city, its description, as it appears in the Critical Edition of the Ramayana, is of a well laid-out city with arterial roads — a rajamarga or a patha, fortification all round...There were checkposts, parks and gardens, besides drinking houses, houses for recreation. There were shops or bazars, where all sorts of things could be had, and the godown stacked with paddy.” The description reminds one about the well laid out cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation where roads are said to have intersected each other at right angles, there was a public granary and well-planned houses.
What’s in a name?
Was Ayodhya always known by this name? Well, it was probably called Saket, the city that Lord Ram set out for; Jain and Buddhist texts too refer to it. Nobody knows when and how Saket became Ayodhya, or even if Ayodhya became Saket, except that history books talk of Ajatshatru, the Magadhan king who annexed Saket before the Mauryas.
Singh gives us the details, “Around the fifth-century BCE, in the kingdom of Kosala, lay a busy town at the intersection of two major routes, one going from Sravasti in the north to Pratishthana in the south, and the other going to Taxila in the west from Rajgriha in the east. This town was Saket and its king was Prasenjit, who ruled from the capital Sravasti, about 80 kilometres from Saket. Prasenjit is also known as the king of Kosala which is now acknowledged to be yet another name for Ayodhya.”
Ayodhya is said to be the capital of the Ikshkvaku’s Kosala kingdom in the Ramayana. Yet again, facts and faith, history and mythology merge in Ayodhya. Along with Saket, Kosala, Ayodhya, add to the mix the medieval Faizabad district and you have the picture of a place coveted by rulers, exalted by believers and embraced by history.
Away from the deemed exploits of Prasenjit was the alleged pillage and plunder of Sunga king, Pusyamitra, the successor of the Mauryas. Thapar wrote, “Buddhist sources claim that he persecuted the Buddhists and destroyed their monasteries and places of worship, especially those which had been built by Ashoka.” This is likely an exaggeration. Not so the association of Nawab Asad-ud-Daulah during whose time Hanumangarhi was built. Be that as it may, Ayodhya’s greatest claim to immortality comes from faith.
If Munshi Jagannath Lal Khushtar’s Urdu Ramayana called Khushtar Ramayana begins with the words, ‘Bismillah ir Rehman ir Rahim’, Brij Narain Chakbast describes Ram’s departure from Ayodhya in poignant words, “Rukhsat hua woh baap se lekar khuda ka naam/Raah-e-wafa ki manzil-e-awwal hui tamam (He took leave of his father taking the name of God/And thus the first stage of the path of loyalty was crossed).” Belief remains paramount.