A court order to carry out archaeological excavations in the holy Hindu city of Ayodhya is expected to accelerate a long-running legal battle between Hindus and Muslims in what has become India's bloodiest property dispute.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a government organisation, is to carry out excavations on disputed land to determine whether a Hindu temple stood at the site of a 16th century Mughal mosque that was torn down by Hindu zealots in 1992.
Hindus say the mosque was built on the ruins of a temple which marked the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
The razing of the mosque in 1992 led to nationwide riots in which 2,000 people died.
The surprise decision by a high court in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to order the dig will raise more dust in an already contentious situation.
The order came on the eve of a crucial hearing which began yesterday in the Supreme Court in New Delhi to determine whether a large part of the land, now fenced off and under federal government control, should be handed over to Hindus.
The property case is before the Uttar Pradesh court, but the Supreme Court was forced to enter the picture as the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seeking to expand its support among Hindus, seems determined to revive its 'build the temple' campaign, which helped the party to power in 1998.
The government has asked the Supreme Court to allow a partial land transfer to Hindus even before the Ayodhya dispute is settled.
Archaeologists believe the excavations will almost certainly show that a temple is buried at the site of the demolished mosque.
A study by a geological survey company in January revealed that an underground structure exists at the site where the Mughal mosque once stood.
Excavations carrid out by the ASI in the 1970s near the mosque also uncovered temple pillar bases.
'Archaeological excavations will throw up uncontestable material only if an image of Ram is found, or a stone inscription is uncovered which identifies the buried structure as a Ram temple,' said historian and archaeological expert B.D. Chattopadhyaya.
'If something is found, it will not be for the first time,' he said. 'Previous digs have uncovered various antiquities, but none had anything to do with Ram.'
But radical Hindu organisations allied to the BJP are delighted.
The hope is that if the excavation uncovers the remains of a temple, even if it is not dedicated to Ram, it would put intense pressure on the courts and the government to hand over the site to Hindus.