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Digging Up Hallowed Ground

28 August 2003 (All day)
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Ground truth? Supporters of a proposed Hindu temple say their cause has been bolstered by what archaeologists have uncovered at the Ayodhya site (inset).

NEW DELHI--Religious conflict runs deep in India--and extends far underground. This week archaeologists reported evidence of an ancient "massive structure" beneath one of the country's most sensitive religious sites. The results are expected to bolster claims by Hindus that a temple occupied the site long before a 16th century mosque, and anger Muslims who see the results as another attack on their faith.

The Ayodhya site, excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is believed to be the birthplace of the immensely popular Hindu god Rama. In 1992 a mob tore down the Babri Masjid mosque, thought to be built in 1528 by the first Mughal king Babur, and activists have demanded that a Hindu temple be erected in its place. In March the Uttar Pradesh state court ordered ASI to research the claim that a temple predated the mosque in hopes of resolving the land dispute (Science, 28 March, p. 1958).

Barely 2 weeks after completing an excavation of the 6-hectare site, ASI reported uncovering evidence of 50 pillar bases characteristic of those found at remains of Hindu temples in north India. The 574-page report concludes that the pillar bases suggest a structure of at least 50 x 30 meters. The excavation also yielded a mutilated sculpture of a divine couple and carved architectural remains that include an amalaka (a cogged piece of carved stone exclusively placed on the spires of north Indian temples), artifacts bearing a lotus motif, and a circular shrine having pranjala or water chute (another typically Hindu temple artifact).

R. C. Thakran, an archaeologist at the University of Delhi, says that the pillar bases highlighted in the ASI report appear to be "very fragile" and not sufficiently strong to hold up such a large structure. But Swarajya Prakash Gupta, chair of the Indian Archaeological Society and veteran of previous excavations at Ayodhya, believes that "the report provides clinching evidence that a temple existed at the site."

Although the report stops short of labeling the structure a temple, Hindu activists are already celebrating. Lal Krishna Advani, deputy prime minister of India and a strident Hindu leader, says the ASI report "gladdens crores [tens of millions] of devotees of Lord Rama." But Muslim organizations are prepared to challenge the findings. "There is not adequate proof in the report to establish the existence of a temple below the demolished structure," says Qasim Rasool Ilyas, spokesperson for the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board.

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