Archaeologists have found that an ancient structure existed at a religious site that is claimed by both Hindus and Muslims and has been the cause of thousands of deaths, lawyers say. But the experts were divided over whether the structure was a Hindu temple.
The report on the Ayodhya site, opened by a court on Monday, added a new layer of dispute to an issue that has been a flashpoint in India's Hindu-Muslim divide. Hours after its release, twin car bombings blasted through a jewelry market and a tourist site in the city of Mumbai, killing 46 people.
It was not immediately known whether the blast was connected to the Ayodhya dispute. Mumbai has seen other bombings blamed on Islamic militants seeking revenge in the dispute.
The site, Ayodhya, a Hindu holy city 500km southeast of New Delhi, housed a Muslim mosque from the 16th century until 1992, when Hindus tore it down. They claimed that the Babri mosque was built over a Hindu temple marking the 7,000-year-old birthplace of the Hindu god Rama.
More than 2,000 died in the nationwide violence after the mosque's razing. Last year, riots killed nearly 1,000 Muslims in western Gujarat state after Muslims incinerated a train car carrying 60 Hindu pilgrims from Ayodhya.
Predominantly Hindu India has a Muslim minority of 140 million. Hindu nationalists are pressing to build a Rama temple at the site, a step vehemently opposed by Muslims. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party used the dispute -- and a promise to build a temple -- to win power in 1998 elections. But it has since deferred the building plan.
Now a court is holding trial to decide the history of the site. The report was presented under seal to lawyers in the case on Monday.
Hindus and Muslims interpreted the report, released after four months of digging, in vastly different ways.
"The findings, like human figurines, earthen stoves and the pillar bases in a particular alignment show it was a temple on which a mosque was built," said Vireshwar Dwivedi, lawyer for the Rama Birthplace Trust -- which has prepared columns and statues to immediately erect a new temple.
But the Muslim attorney disagreed.
"The report is not categorical that a temple existed at the site," said Zafaryab Jilani, attorney for the Babri Action Committee. "The report talks about some structure which may be a temple," he said, though it stood far from the area where Hindus claim Rama was born.
Considering India's long history, and the way countless cultures have built atop the ruins of the last, what lay under the mosque could have been a Hindu temple, a Buddhist shrine, a house, a kitchen -- or all the above.
One fundamentalist group, the World Hindu Council, whose leaders acknowledge their members destroyed the mosque, says if the court does not declare that a temple lay beneath the mosque, they will protest and build a temple anyway.
"The temple is a question of faith, not a legal battle," the group's general secretary, Praveen Togadia, said. "We will go ahead with construction of the Rama temple in Ayodhya. If the court does not deliver orders in our favor, we will stage protests."