Commonwealth Games Blogs

Digging into India's religious controversies (and sport)

LOTHAL, GUJARAT - The Commonwealth Games disappeared from the headlines yesterday to make way for a ruling in one of India's longest and most impassioned legal, political, historical and socio-religious debates.

In short, Hindus and Muslims have been fighting in India for hundreds of years. And the Indian city of Ayodhya, northeast of the capital Delhi, has come to embody this ongoing conflict.

Shortly after a Muslim emperor, Babur, took control of the region in the 1520s, a mosque was built in Ayodhya, a centre of the Mughal Empire. The clash is that the mosque was built on a site devout Hindus believe to be the birthplace of their Lord Ram, the protagonist of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.

It was a story I read and re-read with my grandmother as a child, and it culminates with the victory of good over evil (as usual), and Lord Ram returning to Ayodhya following a string of oil lamps set out by the kingdom's residents to guide the way. If you have ever seen your neighbourhood's resident Hindus putting candles outside their homes on an evening called Diwali in October/November, you now know why.

But to some Hindus, Ayodhya is less about lamps and fireworks and more about ownership of land. These groups claim that a temple for Lord Ram was razed when the Babri Masjid (as it is called) was created.

There are historic accounts attesting to the fact that well into the 19th century, the area was used by both Hindus and Muslims for worship (side-by-side). So the real problems seem to have only developed in the last hundred years, with various legal suits launched claiming ownership of the 2.7-acre disputed site. To complicate the issue, in 1992, tens of thousands of people involved in the Hindu nationalist movement destroyed the Babri mosque. Riots exploded around the country and more than 2,000 people were killed.

Decades of legal wrangling (and archeological excavations) later, the decision whether the land belongs to Muslims or Hindus, was to be released - specifically three days before the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.

Great timing, right?

Going back 4,000 years

So what does a five thousand-year-old brick ruin in rural Gujarat and an equally old game involving small terracotta discs have to do with yesterday's controversy? Well a couple things, really.


First I should explain that I found my next traditional sport - called Pittu (regional names: Lagori, Lingorchya, Sitoliya, Yedu Penkulata, Chatti) - in an ancient ruin in rural Gujarat.

The site - called Lothal - is surrounded by fields of rice and wheat. The only traffic out there is caused by herds of cattle and water buffalo led by lanky men in white dotis, with upturned grey moustaches that gave them a worn but cheeky air.

The archeological site was created by the Harappans, which inhabited the region (Western India and Eastern Pakistan) from about 3300-1300 BC. Lothal in particular was constructed using perfectly cut kiln-fired bricks - millions of them. And among the ruins (and the usual pottery and beads), distinct circular terracotta disks very similar to those used for Pittu today were found.

You can check out my photo essay of the Lothal site as well as some of the area's residents playing Pittu beside the site here

The ebb and flow of civilizations

Lothal wasn't continuously inhabited over the centuries, though. There is at least one significant flood that wiped out the city and by the time people had resettled there, their entire economy had shifted. Today the area around the cordoned-off site continues to be lived on - by pastoralists, agrarians and the like.

The point is that there are hundreds, thousands of places like this in India where it's almost impossible to tell how far back people were living there, thriving there, building cities and tearing them down. There have been winners and losers, as various societies took over from another, razing the past and setting their own cultures in motion.

In Ayodhya we are talking about a mosque from the 16th century A.D. In the ruins under the mosque, there may be Hindu idols, true. But if you kept digging, I'm sure you'd find more. That the Hindu temple before the mosque was built on anther sacred site, and that on another - maybe even all the way back thousands of years to Harappan times.

So how far back do you dig?

Case ruling

As Salman Rushdie said in a television commentary yesterday, India can't let itself be "crippled" by the past. India today is different than it was 18 years ago, let alone 500 years ago. And frankly, most Ayodhya residents just want the issue to be done with, so tourists and worshippers come back to visit (with their wallets).

In the end, the ruling yesterday split the 2.7 acres of land three ways between the Hindus, Muslims and another Hindu sect. I'm sure we've not heard the last of the debate, as some parties have already announced plans to take the issue to the Supreme Court. But to most, the compromise was a sigh of relief, and perhaps a sign that India is growing forward - with its high rises and tourist trade, cricket and soccer. In the process, Ayodhya, Lothal and games of Pittu will be remembered as where India came from and went through along the way.

NEXT UP: Jaisalmer, Rajasthan - a journey into India's desert games.

If you like what you are reading, check out Anjali's cross-India journey on Twitter: