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The race is against time, both Sri Lanka and Ayodhya: to dig out incontrovertible archaeological proofs of long held claims and beliefs of respective perceptions of strong men: Raavan and Ram.

Sri Lanka’s Raavan-based mythology needs proofs other than folklore and legends of Raavan’s legendary greatness, wealth and knowledge. Long held as the great king with so much learning of the Vedas and other ancient texts of knowledge that he needed ten heads to contain all of it, Lankans firmly believe that he was not ogre he is painted in India, for which his effigy is horrifically burnt every year.   There is a festival called Dushera which massive efficgies are put up in numerous cities and towns, to be ceremoniously ignited, along with his brother and son as symbols of the vanquishing of evil by the good.

In North India, he is particularly reviled as the man who defiled the wife of Maryada Purshottam Ram who was gracious enough to agree to accept her,  after she came through a test in a burning fire unscathed, to prove her innocence. Yet, later she was still thrown out to survive the wild forests on her own when she was pregnant, all at the say-so of a washerman.   It is another matter that South India celebrates Raavan as a scholar and a Shiva devotee, and celebrates the day as homage to goddess Durga.

Ayodhya too needs concrete archeological proof,  of the real birthplace of Lord Ram in the city that purports to be his birthplace but boasts of numerous temples, each of whose attendants insisted that theirs is the original birthplace.

In Lanka, regular archaeological evidence is needed as proof of the glory of Raavan, the greatest devotee of Lord Shiva of his time,   the man who offended and then appeased Shiva with his mastery over the Shiv Tandav dance; who created the intricate musical instrument, the veena from his own body parts and mastered the art of playing heavenly music on it;  who ran an immaculate, efficient and stupendously prosperous kingdom at Lanka that he got from his step brother Kuber; with connects going all the way to Pataala Nagri which was across oceans (in Brazil)!

Raavan  plays a key role in the tourist trade that  now oils the economics of Sri Lanka, that legendary ‘Pearl in the Ocean’.   Being a small island, with resources, it was not too long after Independence that succeeding governments got their act together to bring about a turnabout in the situation of their people.   But barely had some headway been made, when world economic jostling and divisive troubles fomented between the Buddhists and the Tamil lobbies, resulting in a prolonged civil war that emptied out the coffers and worse.

Tourism helped play a revival role, especially the Ramayana trails that are extremely popular. South and East are riddled with recreations of places connected with the epic, the grove where Sita lived, the pool where she bathed, the quarters of those who looked after her, the scorched soil of the landing site where the Pushpak vimaan in which she was flown to Lanka,  the battlefields, the mountain with medicinal herbs that Hanuman brought to treat Lakshman, forest trails, tunnels, riverine sites etc. These find place in the tourist circuits, quite apart from the numerous modern resorts showing off Lanka’s natural beauty.

Now the hunt of that one kingpin proof that Raavan was truly that gifted ruler who made all things possible to make Lanka the real Pearl!   Not the evil despicable who stole another man’s wife. It is of course, another matter altogether that on mainland India, there are writings that indicate that perhaps, just perhaps Raavan was the biological father of Sita.  Perhaps he abducted her to separate her from Ram, perhaps to test the virginal puppy love bred by a handsome Prince, now in deep trouble?

Hence sensitive archaeology before too much history is submerged under modern development projects and building activities to accommodate global interest in Sri Lanka’s vantage location in the Indian Ocean.

At Ayodhya, the stakes are different, although archaeology is the name of the game here too.  The crux of the argument for the claim on the disputed site has been that “people believe and have believed for centuries that this was the site of Ram’s birthplace”.

The city, earlier Ajodya, was a major trade centre that found mention as the capital of the Ikshvaku kings. Earlier digs had revealed that it was abandoned around 1426 BCE; later temples were rebuilt but fell into disrepair. Then Buddha taught at Savatthi 58 km from Ayodhya, attracting numerous pilgrims including Fa Hien and Hieun Tsang from China. The city was then called Oudh.  Later it developed into a great Buddhist and trade center for centuries, before Buddhism went out of favor in India.

It is indeed unfortunate that unlike the archaeological evidences of the places mentioned in the Mahabharat,  empirical evidence of Ajodhya, Chitrakoot, Dandakaranya, Panchavati, Videha, Kosala remain elusive. Hence the urgency in digging to unearth concrete  aka physical bolsters to the arguments for the purported Birthplace, apart from “people believe”. What is available is that which was consecrated after Tulsidas’ Ramayan, centuries later, with the controversies actively fostered under colonial rule.

When the focus shifted back to the Valmiki Ramayan, (the original) scholars saw an exciting ray of hope.  There were intriguing mentions of distinct landmarks in the four pronged hunt for Sita in confinement after her abduction by Raavan.  Closer examination revealed that most were related to sites that may possibly be out of the Subcontinent, from east to South America to west beyond West Asia, perhaps the Urals in Russia?

Those studies apart,  the issue at hand remains the similar concerns for archaeological proofs of the authenticity of  Ram’s birthplace over which much bloodshed has happened in the recent past; and of validation of the numerous legends that question the evil mantle conferred on Raavan, which find mention in not only Lanka  and South India, but also our other neighbors and some of the numerous Ramayans.

Kusum Choppra is Ahmedabad-based author and journalist.

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