Ayodhya: Long before the bitter Babri Masjid-Ram temple issue began to cause social fissures and trigger sectarian violence in India, Muslim rulers of Avadh region built, patronised and protected Hindu temples, a powerful Hindu priest and historians told Gulf News.
One of the 12 provinces under the Mughal empire, the Avadh region included Ayodhya and was ruled by Nawabs from 1722 onward from capital Faizabad. During the rule of Shuja-ud-Daula, the third ruler of Avadh, relations between Hindus and Muslims were harmonious and official gazettes and history books have recorded examples of rich bonding between the two communities. At a time when the dominant narrative seeks to widen fissures in the society, researchers and writers told Gulf News that the glorious history of Avadh Nawabs must be retold to fight attempts to divide people.
Mahant Gyan Das, the head of priest of Hanumangarhi, Ayodhya's most important temple, is a strong proponent of Hindu-Muslim harmony. As the head of the temple since 1962, Das is widely respected by residents and his opinion and guidance is sought by politicians and high ranking officials on several issues. "This temple was built in 1774 on the 52 bigha [over 20 acres] land gifted by Shuja-ud-Daula," he told Gulf News in an interview at his house on Monday evening.
"The nawab had once fallen ill and his representative Tikait Rai requested him to take blessings of Hindu saint Baba Abhay Ram Das. The Nawab recovered from his illness after the saint visited him for eight days. Shuja-ud-Daula then gifted the land and built a fortress-type temple that you see here today," says Das. Later, his son Mansoor Ali also visited the temple on many occasions and donated generously, he says.
This donation was recorded in royal documents to avoid any disputes in future. Das presses a buzzer to summon an aid: "Bring the Taamra Patra." "The documents were being damaged by termites so we have made copies to preserve them," he says while fondly posing for photographs holding the copies of royal decrees written in Persian language.
Since then, the temple has continued a tradition of promoting harmony between the two communities. "There is an old mosque built over the land owned by Hanumangarhi temple. Since a Muslim ruler had built the temple, a piece of land was given to Muslims to build a mosque. Two years ago, I received a notice from Ayodhya municipality asking us to demolish the mosque as the structure had become weak. I refused to demolish the mosque and offered to have it renovated. At that time, I faced resistance from some Muslim hardliners who said the mosque would become impure if Hindus' money is spent for renovation. I asked them whether the mosque had become impure when we built it," says Das recalling the events.
"Then I asked my friend Sadiq Ali to take charge of the renovation and I offered to pay for it. Still, when some Muslims continued to object, Sadiq Ali told me that he would get the mosque renovated by collecting funds from the community. Today, a grand mosque exists at the site," he adds. The temple management remains the legal owner of the mosque.
"A few years ago during Ramadan, I organised an iftar for Muslims at my house. I invited 100-150 people but more than 1,000 Muslims showed up at iftar."
The Muslims broke fast and prayed at the house located inside the temple compound. "Soon after, some Hindu politicians and hardliners accused me of violating the sanctity of the temple by inviting Muslims. I said you had no objections from accepting a temple from a Muslim Nawab," adds Das. Not satisfied with his logic, some hardliners then dared Muslims to organise a Hanuman Chalisaa at the mosque. Sadiq accepted the challenge and organised a prayer chanted by hundreds of Sadhus at the mosque.
"I am a Sadhu who left his home, loved ones and I have remained a staunch opponent of hardliners and strongly believe in humanity," he says, adding, "You call Him Khuda, I call Him Ishwar."
I cried when Saddam died
Mahant Das is well traveled and visited Dubai, New York, Washington and other cities. But he has a lot to say about his visit to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. He fondly remembers a meeting with Saddam Hussain in 1992. "He warmly hugged me and when I presented him a copy of Ramayana, he kissed it," says Das. "I was very upset when Americans caught Saddam Hussain and cried when he was hanged." Das also recalled his visit to Saudi Arabia and Brunei.
What historians say
Gulf News spoke to Lucknow based historian Roshan Taqui who said the Avadh Gazette is replete with instances of Muslim Nawabs building and donating money for upkeep and repairs of Hindu temples. "The Hanumangarhi still has a Persian plaque proclaiming that the temple was built by Shuja-ud-Daula who ruled Avadh region from 1754 to 1774," says Taqui. "The history of Avadh is replete with examples of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and all the Nawabs had Hindu administrators for smooth governance," he says.
"During my research on conservation of old buildings, I had seen the royal decrees kept in Uttar Pradesh state archives. The royal decree recorded gifting of the land and construction of Hanumangarhi temple," he says. "Moreover, during the rule of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, an attempt to take over Hanumangarhi and Sita Rasoi by some Muslim hardliners was crushed by the Avadh ruler's soldiers. The hardliners led by a Muslim cleric Amir Ali were killed by the Nawab's Muslim soldiers during an assault in Bhelsar, near Rudauli. Over 300 Muslim soldiers of the Nawab also died in the assault," he says, emphasising that Avadh rulers provided protection to Hindu temples.
Author and researcher Yogesh Pravin says Shuja-ud-Daula's father Saadat Ali Khan also patronised Hindu temples. "All these examples are well recorded in government archives and libraries and available for reference," says Pravin. "The rulers of Avadh worked for harmonious relations between the communities and their work is well recorded in history," he adds.