The Supreme Court is hearing the Ayodhya case on a daily basis with a view to be able to pronounce its judgment by November 17, when Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is due to retire. The court has, of course, shown an interest in the official records of the plot on which the Babri Masjid stood until it was demolished in 1992 by a mob which claimed that the mosque stood on the site on which the god Ram had been born. The court has also shown interest in Ram’s ancestors and descendants.
There are two distinct traditions associated with Ram. The Puranas recognise him as a historical person who was a prince and later king of Ayodhya. He is also considered to be an avatar of Vishnu.
While the Vedic corpus comprises priestly books, the Puranas are another set of texts that contain, among other things, genealogies of rulers and gods. There are 18 major Puranas, dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva. Various Puranas give royal dynastic lists but these are not individually complete. Generally when a dynasty went into decline, its kings were not listed. Various lists can be critically collated to arrive at a composite list for each dynasty. There are some obvious errors in the lists. Still, in the absence of anything better, genealogical information must be extracted from them.
Ram’s ancestry goes back to King Ikshvaku. While Ikshvaku can be presumed to be historical, his own origins are decidedly mythical. He is said to be the son of Manu, who in turn is the son of Vivasvan, the sun. Because of the male line, Ikshvaku is said to be the founder of solar dynasty or Suryavansha.
Many celebrated Puranic kings belong to this dynasty, including Prithu (after whom the Earth is called Prithvi), Bhagirath (after whom the river Ganga gets another name, the Bhagirathi), Harishchandr and Raghu. Ikshvaku’s junior son Nimi founded the Videha line. The kingdom’s capital was named Mithila after an early king of this line, Mithi Janaka. Ram’s wife Sita belongs to this dynasty. Gautam Buddha’s lineage is also traced back to Ikshvaku.
Manu also had a daughter whose name was Ila (or Ira). She was married to Budha (planet Mercury), who is said to be the son of Chandra (the Moon). Note the astronomical connection at the progenitors’ level. Accordingly, the various dynasties emanating from Ila are known as Chandravansha. Budha and Ila’s son was Pururavas. His two descendants are particularly noteworthy: Puru who carried the main line, and Yadu.
Puru’s descendant is Bharata, after whom the country is named. Further down the line is Hasti after whom Hastinapur is named, and Kuru. The Mahabharata battle is so called because it was fought to claim the right to be called Bharata’s descendants. Lord Krishna is a descendant of Yadu.
Rama’s lineal descendant Brihadbala fought in the Mahabharata battle on the side of the Kauravas and was killed by Abhimanyu.
No ancient text provides absolute chronology. The Puranas do however contain some chronological clues. There are said to be 30 generations from Ram to the Mahabharata. It also says that Buddha came 23 generations after the Mahabharata battle. If we arbitrarily but reasonably assign 16-18 years per generation, the Mahabharata precedes Buddha by 400 years.
This would assign the date about 1000 BCE to the Mahabharata, and about 1500 BCE to Ram. Given the uncertainties in the data and assumptions employed to interpret it, this date can only be indicative. Dates assigned to the Mahabharata on different grounds remain in the bracket 3000BCE-1000 BCE. The earlier date would push back Rama’s period to 3500 BCE.
In a major initiative in 1975, respected archaeologist Brij Basi Lal began excavations at sites named in the Ramayana such as Ayodhya, Sringaverapura, Bhardwaja Ashrama and Nandigram. In their report dated 1978, Lal and his associate KN Dikshit wrote that at all these sites, Northern Black Polished Ware burnished pottery constitutes “the lowest common denominator”. Northern Black Polished Ware culture originated in about 700 BCE and continued till the beginning of the Christian era. Thus, Buddha belongs to the earlier Northern Black Polished Ware culture while the later part saw the beginning of Indian historical period.
Northern Black Polished Ware was preceded by Painted Grey Ware, which began in 1000 BCE or somewhat earlier. Before taking up work on sites named in the Ramayan, BB Lal undertook excavations at sites mentioned in the Mahabharata. He found that the sites such as Hastinapur (Meerut) and Indraprastha (Delhi old fort) are Painted Grey Ware sites. In other words Ramayana sites are younger (and more easterly) than the Mahabharata sites. The question of why archaeological chronology should contradict the Puranic tradition has not received the attention it deserves.
To sum up so far, the oldest inhabitation in Ayodhya cannot be much older than say 700 BCE, which is just 100-200 years before Buddha. Also, intriguingly, archaeologically, Sringaverapura, located upstream on the Ganga 35 km from Prayagraj, is older than Ayodhya.
By no stretch of imagination can the period of Ram be brought down to 700 BCE. The problem in fact is more acute. Ayodhya is said to be the ancient capital of the Ikshvaku. It should therefore have been much older than Ram himself.
On archaeological grounds, the present Ayodhya can be ruled out as the Ayodhya of ancient sacred texts. It is very likely that the present Ayodhya was founded in the Northern Black Polished Ware era and the attributes of the ancient capital were transferred to it.
The writer is the author of The Vedic People: Their History and Geography, published by Orient BlackSwan.