BOOK EXTRACT: Drawing a blank in Ayodhya of 1957

While parties to Ayodhya dispute made claims to 4-centuries old facts, in this account from 1957 Amritlal Nagar tells how frustrating it was for him to find no information about the 1857 uprising

BOOK EXTRACT: Drawing a blank in Ayodhya of 1957
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Amritlal Nagar

(A prominent Hindi writer of the 20th Century, Amritlal Nagar (1916-1990) travelled through rural Avadh in 1957 to collect material for a novel he was writing on the ‘Ghadar’ of 1857. This extract is from his account published in 1957-58 by the UP Government. The travel proved frustrating, because he could find no document at all related to the Ghadar in either Ayodhya or in Hanuman Gadhi. This account assumes significance in view of the Ayodhya verdict.)

(Translated by Mrinal Pande from the Hindi original)

Ayodhya looks nothing like how one would imagine the capital of the legendary King Rama. The very name Ayodhya means a city against which no one can wage a war. But in the summer of 1957, a hundred years after the Ghadar, this city looked incredibly gloomy. Even the temples that had come up in recent years looked forlorn. The neighbourhoods were colourless and full of old ruins. Where was the prosperous and well-protected Kosala that poet Valmiki's epic Ramayana celebrates?

According to an article published in the Pioneer on 20 June 1902 (by a British author and excerpted in the Awadh Gazetteer), the 1853 communal clashes in Ayodhya originated from unsubstantiated rumours spread first by a certain Bairagi Sadhu of Hanuman Gadhi.

This sadhu had been expelled by the head of the sect (mahant) from its headquarters in Hanuman Gadhi for some misdeed and he therefore harboured a deep resentment against not just the mahant, but the entire Bairagi sect.

To avenge his humiliation, he first converted to Islam and then travelled from Faizabad to Lucknow, the capital of Awadh. After his arrival in Lucknow, he started a chain of ugly rumours about how the Bairagi Sadhus of Hanuman Gadhi had long been finalising a plan for mounting a sudden armed attack against the capital to avenge the earlier demolition of the temple at Ayodhya by Muslim invaders.

Upon hearing this, Maulvi Amir Ali of Amethi, a Muslim cleric residing in Lucknow, was said to have become so incensed that he in turn declared that he'd personally lead a jihad against the Bairagi sadhus of Hanuman Gadhi.

The article in the Pioneer also hints subtly that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah may have been playing a double game, since he had ordered an enquiry into the matter at Faizabad but also continued to patronise Amir Ali.

A fuming Amir Ali soon left for his hometown in Amethi, and having collected a large militant band of supporters, began leading a march against the Bairagi sadhus in Ayodhya. Somewhat taken aback by these sudden developments, the Nawab sent his trusted man Basheeruddin to try and pacify Amir Ali and bring him back to Lucknow.

But by then, Amir Ali and his jihadis were beyond reasoning and so the mission failed and the Maulavi and his Mujahideen continued their march towards Ayodhya shouting jihadi slogans.

The Nawab then sent another body of clerics to try and reason with the fiery Maulvi and his men, and help cool their tempers especially because incensed Bafragis in Ayodhya were gearing up for a violent fight. Sensing imminent danger, the Nawab requested General James Outram (resident chief commissioner of Awadh) to help quell a situation fast running out of control.

Although the clerics managed to calm most of the belligerent jihadis and talked them out of their violent plans, their leader Amir Ali refused to back down. A posse of soldiers was then sent under the command of Colonel Barlowe and in the violent clash that followed, Amir Ali and some two thousand of his men were killed. The year was 1853, four years prior to the ghadar of 1857.

VISIT TO HANUMANGADHI

As I left for Hanuman Gadhi, I hoped that I would learn from the present day Mahant of the Bairagi sect in that town about what exactly had transpired between 1853 and 1857 that had suddenly led to renewed goodwill between Hindus and Muslims. What, if any, were the reasons for Amir Ali and Ahmedullah `Danka' Shah, two Muslim leaders from the same area of Faizabad, for taking two dramatically different approaches to communal provocation emanating from rumours?

How come Amir Ali had been so incensed by rumours that he chose to lead a jihadi march against the Hindu sadhus, while four years later, in the same area, rumours about Indian soldiers being given cartridges laced with lard and cow fat had led Ahmedullah Shah to forge closer ties with Hindu leaders? What united them during the Ghadar, so much so that Hindus and Muslims fought the firangees together under the green flag (of Bahadur Shah and Begum Hazrat Mahal)?

Ayodhya has remained a somewhat edgy town for centuries. Several years ago, a Vaishnavite Tamil Brahmin friend, who was a great devotee of Lord Rama, had visited Ayodhya and told me that it did not resemble the reposeful Ayodhya of the scriptures at all. Whatever it may once have been, today it is a city of ruins and graves, he said.

He also felt that it was ironic that the statues of Rama and his family should be standing forlornly under a thatched roof upon an open platform, while the statue of his humble servant, Hanuman, should be housed within an armed fortress.

Hanuman Gadhi, from a distance at least, appears more like a fortress than an old monastery for sadhus. One can still see a few ancient cannons on rooftops of shops dotting the base of the fort, ostensibly placed there to fire at the enemy in case of an attack. Among the centres of pilgrimage in India, Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama, can perhaps be counted as one of the most forlorn and run-down spots today.

Truth be told, it is not Hanuman but circumstances that had the Hanuman Gadhi erected, segregating the devotee from his lord. Hanuman Gadhi was built in an age when buildings took shape under various real or imaginary threats posed to non-Muslims by Islamic rule.

Over centuries, Muslim rulers had displayed varying attitudes towards touchy sectarian issues. As a reaction to harsh measures that discriminated against non-Islamic subjects and threatened their religious spots, several Akhadas (organised sects) of sadhus who were fence-sitters in matters of Hinduism, and may have worshipped specific Hindu gods or non-sectarian reformist gurus, began believing, unlike mainstream Hindus, that they had a right to defend their faith, if need be, with arms.

The Sikhs were one such sect, and just like them, many armed sects of sadhus who remained outside the pale of the Brahminical (Sanatani) Hindu caste structures also considered themselves the guardians of all weaker sections of the land. The mainstream Sanatani Hindus, who may not have shared close ties of bread and daughters (roti-beti) with them, had come to see these militant men in saffron as rather noble, though somewhat deviant brothers.

HANUMAN ON THE FIRST FLOOR

As misrule in Awadh became more and more pronounced and these militant sects were deprived of the essential sobering discipline of larger associations of caste and clan, some sects became dangerously aggressive. Sworn to celibacy, many young members of such sects lacked family ties that could have tamed their youthful aggression and linked them to the larger society. One can find many instances where saffron-clad sadhus had been hired as mercenaries by rulers seeking revenge against each other.

The statue of Lord Hanuman stands on the first floor within the Gadhi. As I climbed up stairs, I remembered my Tamil friend's ironic quip again about the incongruity of the lord residing under a thatched roof whereas his humble servant standing tall within a palatial fort.

It was hard work dodging the milling beggars and greedy Brahmins asking for money and offering help for performing various cleansing rituals. Finally, I managed my way to the upper floor. Here I saw a platform, in the middle of an open yard that led to the temple, with a mattress placed over it. The elderly head-priest (mahant) sat not upon this mattress but on the bare floor. I repeated my usual queries to him, but he remained somewhat non-committal and said, 'We sadhus living here only sing devotional songs to the lord, we do not care for history or hearsay.'

I tried to soften him by talking about the religious past of the city and the militant version of dharma as interpreted by the then sadhus of his akhada, but he remained unmoved. The sole dharma for us sadhus consists of praying to Lord Rama and taking a dip in the holy river each day,' he said.

`How many sadhus live here, Maharaj?'

`About 500.'

`And how long have you been residing here yourself?'

`We sadhus do not keep track of time.'

understand. But even so? A rough estimate?'

`Must be at least forty or forty-five years.'

I thought it was safe now to come out with the real reason for my visit. I asked him if any old records or papers could still be available at the Gadhi that could tell us something about the past. The mahant made a face and said, Arrey baba, I told you, didn't I? We sadhus do not keep or preserve any record. All that is known about Hanuman Gadhi is that this land was given to the sect for free, sometime during the reign of the Yavanas.'

I was convinced by now of the futility of extracting any interesting information from the gritty sands of Vairagya. I stood up, folded my hands in a farewell gesture and left. Perhaps it was destined that I would not to be able to extract any information about the Ghadar and Ayodhya at least at this Gadhi.

RAJA OF AYODHYA

Of the two other likely sources lined up for us at Ayodhya, it turned out that one man had gone to Faizabad and the other had left town to attend a wedding. No, it was certainly not my day for gathering stories. In the end I decided that it would be somewhat more prudent to head for the district headquarters at Faizabad. So, having put off a detailed visit to Ayodhya for the next day, I got back into the car.

On the way, as he drove us to Faizabad, the old driver expressed his deep sympathy at my obvious frustration. 'You have come so far,' he said, 'and I feel personally humiliated that the place did not yield the information you sought. Perhaps we could look up Priya Dutt Ram Sahib at Ayodhya and also call upon Dadua Sahib, the Raja of Ayodhya. They are both eminent and learned men, and may be able to help you. After having come this far in search of material about the Ghadar, you deserve to get it,' he added. After mahant-ji's curt attitude, this old man's simple warmth touched me. 'I will go wherever you take me,' I told him.

We arrived at the large house of the Raja of Ayodhya. A high-ranking official from his secretariat, dressed like a pandit himself, met us and informed us that no papers were available with them nor did Dadua Sahib possess any special information regarding the matter.

Having drawn a blank at the palace, we left, somewhat disappointed. For some unexplained reason, I found us escorted to a local lawyer's residence. He was about to leave for work in his car and asked us to follow him to the district courts. There is a lawyer there, he informed us helpfully, who could introduce us to someone who hailed from the family of Raja Man Singh of Ayodhya (the ruler at the time of the Ghadar) and as a member of an old local family, he might be able to provide us with some answers to our queries. We chose not to follow him.

(Extracted from the book, ‘Gathering The Ashes’ by Amritlal Nagar; Translated by Mrinal Pande. Published by Harper Perennial in 2014)

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