Archaeologists Begin Hunt for Disputed Hindu Temple

Dig follows court order granting researchers four weeks to look for temple where Hindus believe the god-king Ram was born.

The Independent - London

March 13, 2003 - ARCHAEOLOGISTS BEGAN digging in northern India yesterday for the remains of an ancient Hindu temple whose disputed existence has triggered some of the nation's most violent Hindu-Muslim clashes. Government archaeologists used chisels and sifted mud by hand in the search for remnants of the temple in Ayodhya. Many Hindus contend that Muslim invaders razed it in the 16th century to build a mosque. The mosque, Babri Masjid, was destroyed in 1992 by a Hindu mob, setting off a round of religious violence in which 3,000 people died.

The 14 archaeologists were armed with a radar survey of the area indicating buried pillars and other objects. The excavation site was covered by a tent and surrounded by 1,200 police, some carrying rifles. The dig follows a state court order granting the Indian Archaeological Society four weeks to look for the temple, which Hindus believe was built where the god-king Ram was born.

Muslims, who make up 12 per cent of India's population, say there is no proof that the temple exists. But leading Muslim organisations have said they would abide by any Supreme Court decision. If proof of a temple is found, Hindu militant groups could use it to try to persuade the court to allow the construction of a new temple. A makeshift Hindu shrine has been set up near the site but the Supreme Court has banned any permanent structure until the dispute is settled. The archaeologists were digging at four sites within an area of 930sq metres in the centre of the ancient holy town. But experts said that even if signs of an earlier structure were found, details such as the architectural design and carving patterns would have to be studied before further action could be taken.

Some Muslims have questioned whether the dig would be impartial. But Zafaryab Jilani, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board who was an observer at the site, said he found "nothing to object to". He added that he doubted whether a month was long enough for the archaeologists to complete their work. The dig comes as Hindu militant groups allied to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have renewed their push to build the temple. Critics have accused the BJP and affiliated groups of exploiting the issue to gain support before national elections due next year.

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