Nominated | Book Awards 2019 | English Non-fiction
Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord is the first comprehensive biography of a sleepy city in northern India, which has been a place of reverence for many faiths for millennia, but has also been a place of violence, bloodshed and ill-will.
Ayodhya lodged itself permanently in the national consciousness with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The destruction of the mosque was the climax of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that has been at the heart of Indian politics for a quarter century since the BJP first campaigned on the promise of building a Ram temple at the site of the mosque. The demolition was followed by large-scale riots that killed thousands of people and permanently communalized the polity of the country.
In the first section of the book, the author tells the complex story of a city holy to many faiths—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Jainism. Through a comparative analysis of the various versions of the Ramayana in which it features, Valay Singh goes back almost 3,300 years in time to when Ayodhya is first mentioned. He then traces its history showing its transformation from being an insignificant outpost to a place sought out by kings, fakirs, renouncers and reformers. He looks at the propagation of an aggressive Hindu cultural and religious consciousness in the city that was exacerbated during the period in which the East India Company became a military power in north India in the eighteenth century.
The second section seeks to bring together the disparate events and developments after India’s Independence in 1947 that were responsible for launching Ayodhya to centre stage in Indian politics and the political imagination. This section goes deep into the violent years leading up to the demolition and its aftermath through which the right wing gained decisive ground in electoral politics.
Drawing on archives, current scholarship, numerous interviews with key players from various castes, communities and religions in the city and the surrounding region, Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord is a balanced chronicle of faith, fanaticism and the war between secularism and religious fundamentalism in a key battleground in modern India.
VALAY SINGH is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He began his career with NDTV 24×7 as a researcher and editor.
He has been widely published in newspapers and magazines like the Economic Times, Himal Southasian, The Wire, DailyO, and Outlook. Ayodhya is his first book.
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Before I start my review, I must mention that I belong to Faizabad, have spent first 20 years of my life there and still visit my hometown at least once a year.
To summarize, Valay Singh has dwelled on Buddhist, Jain and Muslim heritage and past of Ayodhya, rather that Hindu. He has emphasized upon the plurality and ambiguity of Ramayana by writing at length about its Buddhist, Jain, Folk and Tribal versions thereby questioning its integrity. He has also written at length about significance of Ayodhya for Muslims, writing about abundance of Mazars and graves of Muslim peers and fakirs, and about 45 mosques being in Ayodhya. The book attempts weaken the Hindu cause by portraying them as provocateurs; highlights the violent rivalry between Vaishnava and Shaiva sects (thus implying that Hinduism lacks unity and cohesion). It’s also full of incorrect information.
The author starts with Iron Age and mentions that there’s no proof of urban settlements during pre-historic times. He instead highlights Buddhist inscriptions being found during later period.
Then he explains about different version of The Ramayana- Thai, Tamil, Jain, Tribal, Folk as well as the Ramcharitmanas. In the chapter ‘The Ramayana in Tribal and Folk Traditions in India and Beyond’ Valay Singh has written that in Avadhi folk songs, Sita is said to be the daughter of Ravan. I haven’t heard of any such folk songs. However, the author’s approach to a scientific analysis and chronology of Ancient History is laudable.
In the chapter 4, ‘Scripture Myth and Reality’, page 52, the author says that poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal wrote the national anthem of Pakistan. Allama Iqbal didn’t write the national anthem of Pakistan. It’s first national anthem was written by Pt Jagannath Aazad and the second one was written by Hafiz Jallandhari, adopted in 1950. In the same chapter, on page 56, the author writes about a picnic spot in Ayodhya (without naming the spot) from where ‘Awadh ki Shaam’ can be enjoyed. He explains that Awadh ki Shaam (evening of Awadh) means beautiful sunsets.
‘Awadh ki Shaam’ actually refers to the gathering of poets, nawabs, courtesans, musicians and nobility in Lucknow city under the rule of Nawabs. The Nawabs who made Lucknow their capital and used to organize such gatherings and events during evenings, and thus evenings of Lucknow became famous as ‘Shaam -e- Awadh’.
On page 57, the author mentions that poet-saint Kabir was a disciple of Tulsidas, another great poet and saint. The fact is that Kabir (1398-1448 or 1440-1518) was never a disciple of Tulsidas (1511-1623). Anyone hailing from UP or who has interest in Hindi literature can confirm this.
Throughout the book, Valay Singh has questioned on Ayodhya being a seat of Vaishnava sect, Brahminical belief and worship of Lord Ram, but with confidence emphasizes on Ayodhya’s significance for Jain and Buddhist faith. The author also questions relying on Hindu texts such as Puranas and Mahatamyas as a base for Ayodhya’s significance in Hinduism and Hindu mythology, but also the Ramayana.
In ‘Changes to Ayodhya’s Religous Landscape’ (chapter 5), the author mentions that Nawab Sa’adat Khan built Qila Mubarak, which is supposed to be a mud fortress on banks of River Saryu in Ayodhya. The author is absolutely wrong. As per ‘Guzishta Lucknow’, written by Maulana Abdul Halim Sharar, Sa’adat Khan did built a fortress and it was never in Ayodhya, but in Faizabad which he made his capital city. The remains of this fortress cannot be found today, however a locality in Faizabad is called Dilli Darwaza, named after entrance gateway of this said fort (Maulana Sharar mentions that a gateway of this fortress was named ‘Dilli Darwaza’).
The mud fortress the author has written about is ‘Lakshman Qila’, which was actually built by Nawab Shuja ud Daula, after his defeat in battle of Buxar in 1764. The actual name of this fort is Fort Calcutta and lies on the banks of Saryu in Meeran Ghat area. An edict of this fort can still be found, though the area of the fort where the edict is now out of bound for civilians- it lies in cantonment and is close to the firing range. This fortress is know as Lakshman Qila by ignorant uneducated locals who know a little about the history of town and associate every unidentified old building with Ramayana. It appears that Valay Singh has simply interviewed local tea shop owners and herdsmen for this book.
The paragraphs that follow he writes about history of Ayodhya under the Nawabs of Awadh (Oudh), which is actually the history of Faizabad, Ayodhya’s twin town and district and zonal headquarters.
Again on page 100, the author says that Nawab Safdarjung moved the capital of Awadh(Oudh) from Ayodhya to Faizabad. The fact is that this never happened. Ayodhya was never capital of Awadh under the nawabs; it was at Faizabad that the first capital city of Awadh under the Nawabs was established.
On page 124 (The Indian Rebellion of 1857, chapter 7) the author has written that Safdarjung was the first Nawab of Awadh. The fact is that it was Burhan-ul-Mulk Sa’adat Ali Khan who was the first nawab.
Valay Singh has profusely written about the violence and enmity between the Vaishnava and Shaiv traditions of Hinduism. Not just Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions, but he also highlighted the rift between the Ramanandi and Ramanuji schools within Vaishnava tradition. He has blamed the Bairagis (followers of Vaishnava tradition) of starting the violence with Muslims during the rule of Nawabs.
The book has concluded that the Ayodhya dispute of Ramjanmabhumi and Babri Masjid as we have now today started with Hanuman Garhi (a fortress temple of Lord Hanuman which stands till today), with muslims claiming that it was a site of a mosque (though the author is honestly admitted that muslim claim of such a mosque was entirely false and baseless). This dispute resulted into a communal riot and the local Muslims (during the riot) took refuge in a mosque. This mosque, Singh says in this book, is dubbed as ‘Babri Mosque’. However the book has no proof, reference or citation about this claim; though everywhere else in the book the author is profuse with sources and citations of his findings and claims.
Rather than presenting the facts, Valay Singh has many times presented conclusions of his own e.g.- on page 141, he writes ‘the expansionist Ramanandi Bairagis’. The author has never presented any proof or source of this conclusion, just only writes that Ramanandi Bairagis started laying claims to newer lands.
At certain places he has not only made conclusions, but has exaggerated details on his own. E.g. on page 143, is written : ‘the petition made by the muezzin of a mosque (calling it Babri Masjid) says that a platform has been made, an idol has been placed and ‘Ram Ram’ has been written with coal on the platform.’
What the author has done is to just write on his own, that one Mahant Balram Das colluding with Raja Man Singh during the British Raj, had forcibly occupied and built the platform in the masjid’s premises and to substantiate this claim the author has quoted the muezzin’s petition. The text mentioned in the book of this petition only states ‘that a platform has been built and an idol has been placed.’ The actual quoted text of the muezzin’s petition on the book never blames or names the individuals that the author has mentioned.
Then again on page 281, about the riots that broke out in Faizabad on 24 Oct 2012 the author writes “during the Durga Puja procession, violence erupted against Muslims and their businesses in Faizabad. A prominent mosque in Faizabad Chowk was vandalized.” The violence actually started when the said procession was passing through a Muslim neighbourhood, a stone was thrown at an idol of Goddess Durga. Its arm and shoulder were damaged. Thus riots broke out and in its aftermath, the mosque at Chowk was indeed vandalized. But what the author has either deliberately omitted or maybe doesn’t know that dozens of Hindus were burnt alive in a place called Bhadarsa during the same riot.
In the preceding page 280, theft of the idol from the Badi Devkali temple (Devkali is supposed to be guardian goddess of Ayodhya and Faizabad) has been written about. The book informs us that the guilty who were caught were Hindus. But the Valay Singh has forgotten to write about bomb blasts in Sabarmati Express train at Rauzagaon station (bordering Barabanki and Faizabad districts) in 2001 when a Muslim man from Faizabad, Aqil was found guilty.
The author has also ridiculed methods of promoting devotion by local Ayodhya seers even when there’s nothing communal, anti-Muslim or political about them. The Ram Naam Bank- on page 342, the author has linked this institution – where people are simply asked to write Lord Ram’s name as many times as they can on free stationery given to them- to VHP and BJP, as a method of promoting fundamentalism.
The book is heavily biased, full of incorrect information. I WOULD NOT CONSIDER THIS BOOK A RELIABLE SOURCE ON AYODHYA’S HISTORY.