Ayodhya’s new avatar

Against an opulent Ram temple, Ayodhya is brimming over with a new and brash brew of faith, politics, and commerce.

Published : Jan 22, 2024 11:48 IST - 9 MINS READ

A devotee chants “Jai Shree Ram” while waving a flag at Lata Mangeshkar Chowk on January 19.

A devotee chants “Jai Shree Ram” while waving a flag at Lata Mangeshkar Chowk on January 19. | Photo Credit: Amit Sharma/ANI

It was the second week of January and Ayodhya was in a race against time. The government machinery and the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra, a trust set up for the construction and management of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, was leaving no stone unturned to transform the once quiet town of temples, dharamshalas, as well as of Buddhist, Jain, and Muslim sites into what is being described as India’s “cultural capital”. Elaborate arrangements were under way amid a feverish religious fervour, with barely any corner left untouched by demolition, construction, or renovation. The city’s heartbeat seemed to be keeping time to temple bells, loudspeakers blaring bhajans, and the cacophony of stone cutters, earth movers, and road rollers.

The finished temple, fashioned of Makrana marble in the Nagara style on a built-up area of 57,400 square feet, will have three floors, each floor 20 feet high. For the inauguration, it was the ground floor, the compound, and the gardens around it that were being given final touches. Statues of elephants, lions, and gods, made of sandstone from Rajasthan’s Bansi Paharpur, were being installed along the pathway leading to the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of the temple, the site of the pran pratishtha or inauguration ceremony. A 51-inch idol of a five-year-old Ram, sculpted in dark stone, is the garbhagriha icon.

Also Read | What about Ayodhya’s mosque?

Having missed the December deadline, the Uttar Pradesh government’s Rajkiya Nirman Nigam was struggling to complete two giant stone pillars, costing an estimated Rs. 11 crore, for the entrance to the temple site, which measures 2.7 acres (1.09 hectares). From this gate to the Janamsthali, the site of the Ram Mandir, huge pink sandstone sheets with intricate artwork have been fixed on iron frames along both sides of the pathway. The opulence and grandeur of the site could pass off as a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film set.

City getting a facelift

Soon after a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in 2019, permitted the construction of a Ram temple at the site of the 16th century mosque, the agricultural fields in and around Ayodhya have been growing concrete buildings. The city is sprouting new roads, roundabouts, and gardens. Thousands of houses and shops along Ram Path, Bhakti Path, Dharm Path, and Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Path have been fully or partially demolished, redesigned, and painted over in light peach colour.

Saffron flags bearing images of Ram, Hanuman, and the grand temple on display along Ram Path in Ayodhya on January 12.

Saffron flags bearing images of Ram, Hanuman, and the grand temple on display along Ram Path in Ayodhya on January 12. | Photo Credit: Kunal Dutt/PTI

The BJP-led State and Central governments, which have branded the event as the culmination of 500 years of waiting, have said they will make Ayodhya a pilgrimage metropolis. As per an Uttar Pradesh government advertisement, it has spent more than Rs. 31,000 crore on 178 developmental projects in Ayodhya and plans to spend Rs. 85,000 crore in the next 10 years to make Ayodhya the “world’s best city”.

A state-of-the-art airport, Maharishi Valmiki International Airport, budgeted at Rs. 1,450 crore, and a redeveloped Ayodhya Dham railway station have been inaugurated. The hospitality industry has exploded, with both five-star brands such as the Taj, Radisson, and ITC, and budget players such as OYO rushing in to set up hotels.

WATCH:
Iqbal Ansari talks about the communal relations in Ayodhya. | Video Credit: Reporting by Ashutosh Sharma, Edited by Sambavi Parthasarathy

Other temples are trying to cash in with homestay experiences. One such is the ancient temple of Teen Kalash at Naya Ghat. Its chief priest is BJP leader and Ayodhya Mayor Mahant Girish Pati Tripathi. The construction of “Raghav Inn” is in full swing on the premises of the grand old temple.

“At least 100 chartered planes will land in Ayodhya airport on January 22. Alongside religious faith, it will bolster economic growth,” Chief Minister Adityanath told reporters recently. A senior journalist from Uttar Pradesh, Indu Bhushan Pandey, told Frontline, “Aisa lagta hai Ayodhya dharmik ke saath saath dhan-dharmik zyada ho gai hai” (It seems that more than a religious capital, Ayodhya has become a business capital).

Features of the temple
Style of architecture: Nagara
The foundation: a 14-metre-thick layer of roller-compacted concrete.
The four corners of the “parkota” (rectangular compound wall) will be dedicated to the gods Surya, Bhagwati, Ganesha, and Shiva.
The temple complex will have shrines to the four maharishis Valmiki, Vashishtha, Vishwamitra, and Agastya, besides others.

The cost of the new temple is estimated at Rs.18,000 crore. According to the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), the consecration ceremony will generate business worth Rs.1 lakh crore across the country. The Teerth Kshetra trust has urged devotees to stop sending gold and silver after having received quintals of the precious metals since 2019.

People’s lament

A recent viral video showed the general secretary of the temple trust and senior VHP functionary, Champat Rai, admonishing a devotee who brought a thousand silver roses as offering. “What do you want me to do with them? Shall I sell them? This is Ayodhya, here people slit your throat and rob your money.” Rai continues: “We have gold-plated the temple doors. Each door is worth Rs.60 crore. Now, who will guard them? I’ve already said they will cut the priest’s neck…” His comments inadvertently pointed to the economic distress in Ayodhya, where headlines are invariably about thefts in the temples.

The golden doors of the Ram temple on January 11. Thirteen such doors, each 12 feet high and 8 feet wide, will be installed on the upper floor of the sanctum sanctorum. A total of 46 doors will be installed in the Ram temple, out of which 42 will be coated with 100 kilograms of gold.

The golden doors of the Ram temple on January 11. Thirteen such doors, each 12 feet high and 8 feet wide, will be installed on the upper floor of the sanctum sanctorum. A total of 46 doors will be installed in the Ram temple, out of which 42 will be coated with 100 kilograms of gold. | Photo Credit: ANI

Even as people pin hopes on Ayodhya transforming into an economic powerhouse, many young men lament that the upcoming businesses are owned and run by non-locals. As always, those who have been ejected for the various beautification projects complain of inadequate or non-payment of compensation. Thousands of slum dwellings near the Ram Ki Paidi were wiped out, displacing families who say they had been living there for over 60 years after the Saryu changed course the last time. People who were cultivating land along the Saryu have also been dispossessed. They seem to be echoing Tulsidas, the 16th century Bhakti poet and composer of the Awadhi Ramcharitmanas, who said in one poem: “kahan jai, ka kari” (where to go, what to do).

A street near Lata Mangeshkar Chowk on January 18.

A street near Lata Mangeshkar Chowk on January 18. | Photo Credit: Shrikant Singh/ANI

“Over 80 per cent of the land in and around Ayodhya is nasool or state land. A part of the remaining land belongs to the families of raja-maharajas. Therefore, the government in most cases has paid only the demolition cost or a small compensation to people who now have limited or no access to livelihood opportunities,” said a senior resident, requesting anonymity.

Speaking to Frontline, Rajendra Yadav, a retired bank employee from Beniganj at Ram Path, said his forefathers had registered the land in 1938. “We built a house and shop with a bank loan that I am still repaying. The authorities falsely claim that it is nasool land.” Mohammad Issa, who sells utensils, and other neighbours of Yadav had similar grievances.

Highlights
  • The BJP-led State and Central governments, branding the inauguration of the Ram temple event as the culmination of 500 years of waiting, plan to transform Ayodhya into a pilgrimage metropolis.
  • Inauguration of the state-of-the-art Maharishi Valmiki International Airport, with a budget of Rs. 1,450 crore, and the redevelopment of Ayodhya Dham Railway Station have been key infrastructure milestones.
  • Ayodhya is witnessing the emergence of new roads, roundabouts, and gardens. But locals lament the dominance of non-local ownership in upcoming businesses, while some residents have lost their land to the ongoing development spree, which includes the demolition of old temples.

Devoid of Ram’s ideals

At Wazirganj in Faizabad, residents have lost their land to a railway bridge. “Eight shops and six rooms on the floor above were demolished. We won’t get this property even if we offer Rs.2 crore, but the government only gave us Rs.51 lakh,” said a resident, Abdul Rehman. His neighbour Brijesh Agarwal lost three shops, one boundary wall of his house, and a part of the compound. “The property is worth crores but the government gave us just Rs.33 lakh,” he began, but his mother, Revti Devi, interjected: “Hoi he soi jo Ram rachi Rakha” (Only what Ram has written will happen).

The District Hospital, Ayodhya, has been painted saffron.

The District Hospital, Ayodhya, has been painted saffron. | Photo Credit: PTI

With the government declaring that Ayodhya would become a climate-smart city, owners of diesel autorickshaws and taxis are complaining. “The authorities are not allowing us to work. At least 1,000 drivers have lost their livelihoods. No one is concerned about their families,” lamented Girish Chandra Yadav, a taxi operator.

According to Shailendra Mani Pandey, a local Congress leader, the new Ayodhya is devoid of Ram’s ideals. “We too want the grandeur of Ayodhya to increase. But the concerns of residents, daily wage earners, shopkeepers, and artisans are being ignored,” he said. Claiming that the State government has taken possession of the vacant lands around Ayodhya, he said, “The government is selling these lands to non-local businessmen at dirt cheap rates. It wants to widen 84 streets. But it doesn’t have any rehabilitation plan for those who will become homeless.”

Also Read | Whose Ayodhya?

Priests and religious leaders, including some of the Shankaracharyas, have accused the BJP government of rushing to inaugurate an unfinished temple only to gain electoral mileage. The Shankaracharya of Jyotish Peeth in Uttarakhand, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, said, “In India, there has always been a clear separation between kings and religious leaders. But now the king is being made the religious leader.” He added: “Raja raaj karain, dharam ka kaam dharmacharya par chhod dein” (Leave governments to kings, leave religious matters to religious heads).

A staffer at a manufacturing unit displays a model of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple in Faizabad in Ayodhya district on January 1.

A staffer at a manufacturing unit displays a model of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple in Faizabad in Ayodhya district on January 1. | Photo Credit: Manvender Vashist Lav/PTI

The Benaras-based astrologer, Ganeshwar Shastri Dravid, who determined the January 22 date, said in a TV interview that he had been asked to pick a date before February this year.

Blurred lines

Among the scores of old temples demolished to make way for the Ram Path and to expand the new temple is the 300-year-old Dashrath Mahal, demolished in 2020. The historic temple is said to have been constructed on land donated by a Muslim zamindar. “Ayodhya is known for renouncing and not grabbing state power. Ram happily went into exile; his brother ruled with Ram’s sandals on the throne; Ram defeated kings but didn’t annex their lands,” said an Ayodhya-based seer, requesting anonymity. “Those trying to capitalise on Ayodhya and Ram don’t understand their character.”

On January 11, this reporter visited the Ram Ki Paidi ghats on the banks of the Saryu. The Uttar Pradesh government has spent Rs.105.65 crore to beautify the ghats. There are spaces for live-streaming media debates and cultural programmes on large TV screens as well as stages for shows. A line of old temples in the backdrop offers a panoramic view at night. It was afternoon, and a woman was singing on the stage as a group of artists dressed as characters from the Ramayana danced around her. She sang about Ram’s homecoming and praised Narendra Modi and Adityanath in the same breath.

Gods of a single shade
The fear is that a communal mentality might wipe out the rich heritage of the Awadh region
The image of Ram, the Maryada Purushottam, is being recast in Ayodhya, held aloft on a wave of new bhajans, cut-outs, flags and books that showcase a battle-ready adult Ram and not the child consecrated in the temple. At night, cut-outs on lampposts along a long stretch of highway blaze forth a Ram with arrow on stretched bow.
Most of the saffron flags are of the new, post-2014, angry Hanuman. The older images of a serene Ram sitting in the durbar with Sita, with Laxman and Hanuman at their feet, are barely seen anymore. Speakers and devices blare out the latest Hindutva pop hits that defy the old idea of Ram as the most merciful god. But narrow interpretations of Ram do not really fit Ayodhya’s history and culture. When Tulsidas was criticised by Sanskrit scholars for composing the Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi, he wrote a poem declaring, “Maang ke khaibo, maseet mein soibo” (I will eat from alms, I will sleep in a mosque).
A septuagenarian resident of Mohalla Qaziana said, “Hindus and Muslims have peacefully co-existed here for centuries. Muslims respect Lord Ram and the majority of visitors at the Sufi dargahs in Ayodhya happen to be Hindus. Hindutva supporters who live outside Ayodhya have no understanding of our local culture and history.” Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claims that Ram belongs to the entire country, a chowk on Ram Path was named after Lata Mangeshkar last year, while Ayodhya’s famed singer Begum Akhtar has been overlooked. In 2018, Faizabad and Allahabad were renamed as Ayodhya and Prayagraj. It is this communal mentality that fuels fears that the cultural heritage of the Awadh region will be wiped out.

Another stage next to her was hosting a TV debate where religious figures denounced the Congress and Samajwadi Party. As they labelled both parties as “Ram Virodhi” (rivals of Ram), they recounted how the then Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had ordered the police to open fire on the karsevaks (volunteers) gathered in Ayodhya on a call given by the VHP, RSS and BJP on October 30, 1990.

Devotees show off a tattoo of Ram in Nagpur on January 8.

Devotees show off a tattoo of Ram in Nagpur on January 8. | Photo Credit: PTI

Another stage had Hindu saints taking turns to praise Modi and Adityanath for heralding “Ram Rajya” even as they labelled opposition parties as being against Sanatana Dharma.

On India’s political map, Ayodhya represents the increasingly blurred line separating religion and government. The new Ayodhya is being projected as a manifestation of Hinduism’s reassertion, but, as observers point out, it is a political party’s road to a third electoral win that actually passes through Ayodhya.

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