Mir Baqi and the Babri Mosque: Some Historical Footnotes

Many of us who follow the issue of communalism in India have found ourselves somewhat vexed by the recent verdict by the Allahabad high court regarding the disputed Mosque at Ayodhya. I won't review the basic facts of the case: see Wikipedia for starters. With regards to opinions on the verdict, Siddharth Varadarajan's perspective in The Hindu seems pretty compelling to me. I do not think this is a very good opinion based on the merits of the case as I understand them (though it may be a good practical decision for the short run).

Instead of injecting more opinion, I thought I would add some material that may not be that readily accessible to readers regarding the archeological evidence. As is widely known, the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya (or Babri Masjid as it is generally known in India) is thought to have been built in 1528 by a general of the Mughal Emperor Babur, Mir Baqi. There are a number of historical and archeological questions at issue, but two of the most important ones I have been wondering about are:

1) Is there any evidence that there was a Hindu temple, or a Ram temple, at the site before the Mosque was built? If so, is there any evidence that that structure was in fact destroyed in order to build the Mosque? On the second part of this question, the Allahabad court did not accept any evidence that any previous structure was destroyed. But the first part of the question leads to a number of complex issues, which we'll discuss further below.

2) How clear is it that the Mosque was in fact built by Mir Baqi in 1528, given that Babur does not mention any Mosque at Ayodhya in the Babur-Nama, otherwise a very reliable and detailed historical chronicle of Babur's reign? Again, my historical sources lead in conflicting directions on this issue. The main evidence for the date and the builder come from an inscription left by Mir Baqi specifying the date and builder, discovered by Annette Beveridge, who produced the first English translation of the Babur-Nama. But some historians doubt the veracity of this inscription.

In its recent verdict, the Allahabad High Court judges questioned whether it can be proved that the Mosque was in fact built by Babur or Mir Baqi. Initially I presumed the idea that someone else (for instance, Aurangzeb) may have built the mosque to be an ideologically-loaded premise -- but as I began to dig further into the matter with a look at a few books relating to the history of the site, I began to have doubts myself as to whether the date and builder of the Mosque are really proven either.

Here is what Ram Puniyani has on the subject in Communal Politics: Facts versus Myths:

Mir Baqi, a nobleman of Babur's court built the mosque at Ayodhya in 1528. As was the custom most of the nobles used to implement things in the name of their king. The only source for these credits are the inscriptions on the mosque as the pages erelevant to the probably visit of Babur to Ayodhya are missing from the Baburnama, Babur's autobiography. There is no mention of this even in Tazk-i-Babri, Babur's memoirs. Babur had been forthright in this memoirs where he mentions that he ordered the mutilation of the nude Jain idols in Urwah Valley near Gwalior on the grounds of obscenity; he had no reason to hide the demolition of a temple had it been done on the grounds of religious conviction. [...]

[T]here are doubts about [Babur's] visit to Ayodhya itself. There are no contemporary accounts about this episode and one has to draw inferences from the fact that there is no mention of the demolition of any temple in any of the sources at that time. A medieval Persian chronicle, Ain-i-Akbari, written in the 17th century by Abul Fazl refers to Ayodhya as 'one of the holiest of places of antiquity'. It does not mention any demolition and replacement of a temple by a mosque. Even Tulsidas, one of the greatest Ram bhakts of all time could not have missed this. He lived just a quarter of a century after Babur and it is totally unlike him not to have mentioned this had it taken place just 25-50 years before his time.

I find Puniyani's reasoning compelling. (And later in this section of Communal Politics, he goes on to address the issue of the archeological findings of the recent excavations around the Babri Mosque, as conducted by B.B. Lal of the Archeological Survey of India. B.B. Lal was appointed to oversee the excavation by the BJP government, and his conclusions have been challenged by other archeologists. I took a look at his book, Rama: His Historicity, Mandir and Sethi [2008], and found it extremely problematic, even reading as a non-archeologist.)

On the Mir Baqi question and the dating of the Babri Mosque:

In a book called Hindu culture during and after Muslim rule: survival and subsequent challenges by a Ram Gopal, I came across an interesting objection to the idea that the inscription described by Beveridge in 1921 was actually present at the Mosque when the mosque was first visited by a western observer (the Austrian priest Joseph Tieffenthaler):

One of the names appearing in the Babarnama is Baqui Beg Tashkandi and not Mir Baqi as metnioned in the stone tablet containing the Persian inscription on the Babri Masjid. Joseph Tiefenthaler, an Austrian Jesuit priest who stayed in Awadh in 1766-1771 (just 50 years after the death of Aurangzeb) states in his History and Geography of India:

The Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed a fortress called Ramkot and built at the same place a Muhammedan temple with three domes. Others say it has been built by Babar. one can see 14 columns made of black stone 5 span in height which occupy the site of the fortress. 12 of these columns now support the inside arcades of the mosque.

Obviously the inscription bearing the name of Mir Baqi was not there. Had it been there, Tieffenthaler would not have the confusion [as to] to whether it was built by Auranbzeb or Babar.

Though Ram Gopal is clearly not objective, the objection seems worth considering. After reading, I'm now wondering whether anyone has looked closely at the inscription, and checked to see (if possible) whether the dating is accurate.

In a way the doubt about the time of construction of the Mosque may not matter that much -- at least, not as much as the question of what was on the site before the Mosque was built. It does favor the Hindu Mahasabha side if the Mosque was built more recently than 1527, especially if they also claim that the site was actively used by Hindus before a putative Ram temple there was destroyed. From the Hindu Mahsabha perspective, casting doubt on the history of the construction of the Mosque (which is concretely present) supports the case that something else (the evidence for which is very arguable) may have been on the site earlier.

However, irrespective of who it helps, I'm now becoming curious about the process by which it became generally accepted that the Mir Baqi inscription is true.

Another scholar who has some doubts about the inscription is Sanujit Ghose, who has the following in a book called Legend of Ram: Antiquity to Janmabhumi Debate.

One Mrs A.S. Beveridge translated from the original Turkish Babur Nama in English in 1921. She refers to an inscription according to which Mir Baqi built a mosque at the command of Babur in A.H. 935 corresponding to the period September 15 1528 to September 5, 1529. The identity of Mir Baqi is not known from any source and the inscription does not refer to any temple whatsoever. It occurs as an appendix inserted by Mrs. Beveridge while translating the Turkish text into English. She does not quote the source from which she got this appendix as in the original Turkish text the related pages in the memoir are missing. Amazing as it may seem, the great builders of the Mughal dynasty did not lend their names to the elegant mosques put up durign their reigns. Their wealth and period of reign were far more than Babur's!(Sanujit Ghose)

I checked the Beveridge translation of the Babur-Nama, and it turns out that Ghose not quite accurate; the inscription does refer to an 'alighting place of angels' -- which seems like a plausible euphemism for describing a mosque.

But looking at the original Beveridge text raises another important question, which is how Beveridge gets the date 935. Here is what Beveridge has in her "Appendix U":

Thanks to the kind response made by the Deputy-Commissioner of Fyzabar [Faizabad] to my husband's enquiry about two inscriptions mentioned by several Gazetteers as still existing on 'Babur's Mosque' in Oudh [Awadh] I am able to quote copies of both.

The inscription inside the Mosque is as follows:

[Quotes Persian] Ba farmuda-i-Shah Babur ki adilsash
Bama'ist ta kakh-i-gardun mulaqi
2. Banaa kard in mubhit-i-qudsiyaan
Amir-i-sa'adat-nishaan Mir Baqi
3. Bavad khair baaqi! chu saal-i-banaish
Iyaan shud ki guftam, Bavad khair baaqi!

The Translation and explanation of the above, manifestly made by a Musalman and as such having special value, are as folllows:
1. By the command of the Emperor Babur whose justice is an edifice reaching up to the very height of the heavens,
2. The good-hearted Mir Baqi built this alighting place of angels;
3. Bavad khair baqi! (May this goodness last forever!) (Beveridge 1921)

Curiously, the number 935 (1528 in the western Calendar) does not, if I understand Beveridge correctly, literally appear in her text. She gets that number by adding up the numerical values in the phrase "Bavad khair baqi" to 935. It seems like a rather strange way to get the number 935, given that the Persian script (like Urdu) certainly has its own system of numbers:

The third couplet begins and ends with the expression Bavad khair baqi. The letters forming it by their numerical values represent the number 935, thus:

B=2, v=6, d=4 total 12
Kh=600, ai=10, r=200 total 810
B=2, a=1, q=100 i=10 total 113
Total 935 (Beveridge 1921)

As I see it, this is a really bizarre interpretation by Beveridge. Of course, one could ask why Mir Baqi didn't just use the number "935" directly if he wanted to indicate that year (as she indicates it here, the actual number 935 does not actually appear on the inscription!).

In short, if I understand the chain of evidence correctly, the evidence that the Mosque was in fact built in 1528 under the orders of Babur is awfully thin indeed. Where is the inscription today? How was it situated at the site in 1921, when it was first described?

At the same time, the claim by B.B. Lal and the ASI, effectively accepted by the Allahabad High Court, that the brick pillars found in trenches dug near the site were actually part of the ruins of an abandoned Ram Temple or a Hindu Temple (and not, as some scholars argue, an abandoned Buddhist temple) -- is even more thin. By and large, I think the Allahabad High Court, along with the ASI under the BJP/NDA government in 2003, has simply accepted a canon of folk-beliefs about the site at Ayodhya, and selectively pulled evidence to support those folk-beliefs.

I'm out of time for the present, though I may return later with more material from Puniyani and his response to the ASI excavation if I have some time this weekend.