Is Ayodhya really the birthplace (janmbhoomi) of Lord Rama?
A lot can be written about the Ramayana being an epic inspired by myths and fantasies that should not be taken literally. Some historians argue it was written as a counterpoint to the teachings of the Buddha and Mahavira and was meant to be seen as a moral code for rulers, their families, and subjects — the concept of maryada (dignity) being the central theme. Renowned Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger argues that it is a collection of war stories narrated over a long period of time by charioteers who participated in battles during the day and then discussed the events in the evening.
But, for the moment let’s believe that Rama wasn’t a mythological figure and he actually walked this Earth in flesh and blood as the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. To figure out his birthplace, we first need to find out when he could have been born.
Before answering questions related to his time and place of birth, we need to remember the timeline of evolution and the history of civilisation—especially the transition of humans (sapiens) to farmers from hunter-gatherers. Because the story of Rama is in many ways a metaphor for both evolution and humanity’s march from forests to urban settlements.
The age of Rama
Humans evolved around 2.5 million years ago in East Africa. Through years of evolution, most of the species belonging to the genus Homo were gradually replaced by the intelligent man (Homo sapiens), whose origin is traced back to the Savannahs in Africa around 70,000 years ago. By around 15,000 BC, the modern man was the only species to have survived from this genus; the dwarfs on the Indonesian island of Flores, the only other variety of the genus, had also become extinct by then.
Even this period between the evolution of sapiens to their complete dominance of Earth can be narrowed down to a smaller range on the basis of two important events in the history of humans — the beginning of farming that laid the foundation of society and the rise of organised settlements with a political order with a functional head, in this case a king.
There is plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest that humans took to farming around 12,000 BC and started settling down in groups around this time instead of living like hunters and gatherers who were always on the move. Since human settlements and, subsequently, organised societies evolved just around 14,000 years ago, it can be argued that kingdoms and kings were unknown concepts before that. So, a king named Dasratha would not have been around till 12,000 BC and, by inference, neither would have been his four sons, including the eldest called Rama.
Notice the name Dasratha — literally the one who owns 10 (das) chariots (ratha). Believing the name to be true and inspired by the king’s affluence, we can further narrow down the age of Dasratha to the time after the invention of wheels — the prerequisite for a chariot.
Carriages mounted on wheels and driven by domesticated horses were first used probably around 2,100 BC. This is supported by both archaeological evidence and etymological analysis of the Proto Indian European language. The first picture of a horse with a human rider dates back to 2,040 BC and comes from Mesopotamia. (The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization, Asko Parpola). Since pictographic evidence is a reliable archaeological tool, historians believe humans would have started riding horses only around the time they were depicted. Ergo, horse riding and, thus, chariots are just about 4,000 years old. And, Dasratha, logically, would not have existed before this.
If we assume that Lord Rama was born around 4,000 years ago, in a kingdom whose owner had at least 10 chariots, his birthplace certainly would not have been Ayodhya. Simply because, Ayodhya did not exist 4,000 years ago. Around that time the Gangetic Plain was an uninhabitable forest with not even a hint of the Vedic people who were to later clear the woods and make it their homeland.
Rama, the alternate theories
Some of the Indian religious literature suggests Rama was born in the Treta Yuga—a period that lasted around a million years and was replaced by the Dwapar Yuga of Lord Krishna, making way for the current Kali Yuga, which together account for another million years. Since Homo sapiens evolved much later, these epochs should be seen more as metaphorical periods for the dominance of a particular culture or a group.
Some intrepid astrologers have read the scriptures to calculate the exact date of Rama’s birth. The consensus within them is that the day Rama was born, the Cancer sign was on the ascending on the horizon and five planets were in their signs of exaltation. On the basis of this information culled from mythology and Puranas, by looking at the placement of various stars and planets, they have calculated Rama’s birthdate as January 10, 5114 BC. You’ve got to read a primer on astrology to understand this better but, for the moment let’s consider their primary argument on face value (in spite of the contradictory evidence) and believe that Rama was born around 7,000 years ago. In this case too he couldn’t have been born in Ayodhya.
Doniger (Hindus: An Alternative History) believes that the Ramayana was composed between 200 BC and 200 AD. This era, incidentally, saw the rise of the Shunga dynasty when Pushyamitra, a Brahmin, killed the Maurya ruler and patronised the Vedic priests (similar to the story of the rise of Parshuram, stated as the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu in the Puranas). Then followed a long period of chaos, wars and foreign invasion, or, as mythology tells us, paap and adharma. All these themes run through the Ramayana, suggesting that the epic may have been inspired by its backdrop.
But, Doniger says, the Ramayana may have begun as a story way back in 750 BC and reached its present form through various additions, alterations and iterations over a period of at least 500 years. If this is true, Rama is just a symbolic figure cast as a hero of story that evolved over a millennium. He could be a representative of various kings, nobles and leaders who dominated or influenced that era. (One versions says he made the Gangetic Plains that were uncultivable– the parable of A–halya, literally not fit for ploughing— ready for agriculture.)
Rama is seen also as a figure who ushered in a period of great prosperity— the proverbial Ram Rajya— by making the animals, ogres and humans accept his suzerainty over them and ensuring unity, prosperity and peace. This could again be a metaphor for a period of the dominance of the Vaishnava sect—Rama is after all an incarnation of Lord Vishnu—as the Vedic people settled down over the Gangetic plain and co-opted animists– those who worshipped animals (Hanuman could have actually been the leader of a tribe that worshipped monkeys)– and other local deities. Animism, again, is a concept that predates cities like Ayodhya.
Ramjanmabhoomi, India or elsewhere?
None of these versions conclusively suggest that Rama—if he were a flesh and blood person—was born in today’s Ayodhya. The idea that the deity was born in Awadh (the region around modern-day Ayodhya) was popularised first by Tulsidas, the poet who wrote the Ramcharitmanas in the 16th century. His choice of Rama’s birthplace was not surprising considering that he wrote the epic in Ayodhya, Chitrakoot, and Varanasi (which, incidentally, was already taken as the home of Lord Shiva).
People in many other countries claim Rama was born amidst them. The Thais believe Ayutthaya (near Bangkok) is associated with Rama’s birthplace mentioned in their epic Ramakein. Ayutthaya, which is now in ruins, was founded in the 14th century by descendants of the Lavo Kingdom, named after Rama’s son Lava.
In a book titled The Vedic People—Their History and Geography, Indian scholar Rajesh Kochhar argues that the Ramayana was not set in the Gangetic Plain since it transpired before the Iron Age. He says the epic is from the Rig Vedic period (around 1,200 BC) and is set around the rivers Saraswati and Sarayau that once drained the present day Afghanistan.
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