Eternal Ayodhya: The city of Lord Ram could soon be a modern terminal of faith
The political dust has settled on Ayodhya. The foundation of a new India has been laid. Since December 6, 1992, the imagination of an entire generation has been subsumed by repeated conflict and resolution.
The city of Ram shaped the careers of national leaders and redefined politics. It inspired a legendary yatra that politically legitimatised Hindutva and changed the country’s destiny. Thousands of pages of judgments were written. Jail sentences were awarded.
It made heroes and discredited villains. Hundreds of people were killed in bombs set off by criminal fanatics in Karachi. Devotees died in police firings. All in the name of this ageless city upon the Sarayu River and hardly distinguishable from many other similar towns.
But it’s now a symbol of ancient India’s reincarnation in the modern world. The next few years could see the emergence of global Ayodhya firmly rooted in its past ethos. Will it be the catalyst in making India a Vishwa Guru? It’s time to examine the future of Ayodhya, and how it will play a role in the future of India and the world.
Ayodhya was Adipuri or the first city of the world. Its origins go back to Manu. Sri Ram was born more than 60 generations after Manu. Ayodhya has been the capital of many illustrious kings of Suryavansh, or the solar dynasty. In fact, the dynasty gets its different names from some of the kings like Ikshvaku and Raghu. Kalidasa in his magnum opus Raghuvamsam talks about the long line of kings and chooses to name it after Raghu, the great-grandfather of Ram.
Raghu lent the dynasty his name as Raghukul. Story goes that he won the whole earth, came back to Ayodhya and donated everything. At this point, Rishi Kautsa walks in and demands 14 gold coins as Guru Dakshina. Raghu plans to attack Kubera to get coins but scared of his might Kubera rains gold coins in Ayodhya. Raja Harishchandra, known as Satyavadi for always speaking the truth and keeping his word, was also a king of Ayodhya.
King Bhagiratha, who is believed to have brought down the Ganga from the heavens, belonged to the same dynasty of Ayodhya. Chinese traveller Huan Tsang speaks of Buddhist monasteries in this region, which he identifies as Saket. Gautama Buddha came from the same solar dynasty so his roots are also in Ayodhya.
Five of the 24 Jain Tirthankars were born in the city, including the first Tirthankar Adinath, also known as Rishabh Dev. His temple with a huge idol can be seen in the city. At Brahma Kund, a gurdwara commemorates the visit of Guru Nanak Dev, who also traces his lineage to Sri Ram.
Not just most Indians but half the population of Korea traces its lineage to Ayodhya through Surya Ratna, the princess of Ayodhya who travelled to Korea to marry into the Kara dynasty. Ayodhya is also called Vishnupriya, because it sits on Vishnu’s Chakra. It’s his Adipuri.
Agent of Change
The India across which the prince of Ayodhya travelled on the path of probity and justice is no Ram Rajya today. The criminal records of 40 percent of MPs include rape and murder. The land of Sita is unsafe for women; according to latest NCRB data, 3,78,277 crimes against women were reported across the country in 2018 with Uttar Pradesh topping the dismal tally. Twenty Indian women are killed for dowry every day.
One in two Indians has paid a bribe in the land of the Maryada Purushottam. In the country where a royal son bowed to the wishes of his father, over 70 percent of aged people, or every second old citizen, face violence. Ram Rajya has never been as significant as now. The Ganga is dying, like so many other Indian rivers, from pollution, industrial effluents and encroachment: the rotting harvests of development.
It took Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister-monk Yogi Adityanath to save Ayodhya from complete ecological degradation; the city marked a Guinness World record in 2019 when six lakh lamps were lit on the banks of the Sarayu on Diwali eve, just ahead of the Supreme Court ruling that recognised the historical authenticity of Ram Janmabhoomi. The Adityanath government has released `600 crore for the cleaning and beautification of the Sarayu.
An Righteous Idyll
Ram Rajya, to the average Indian, stands for a Utopian Bharat with Ayodhya as its capital. Since the terminology comes from ‘Ram’, it is assumed that Ram waved a magic wand and the world of dharma rose from the ashes of the past. Yet for Tulsidas, Ram Rajya is the perfect metaphor for social harmony and ethical conduct. His definition of Ram Rajya is:
When everyone works as per their dharma and role in the society as described in the scriptures, they all get happiness and live without any fear, grief or disease. A life without fear, sickness and grief is the land of Ram. All wishes come true. In the epic, Ram Rajya covered whole of Bharat.
Tulsidas imbues vocabulary with different meanings; for example, ‘dand’ stands for the yogi’s staff and not punishment. Language is known to reflect the times. As Ayodhya prepares to host visitors from around the world, it hopes to change the meaning of ‘hate’. Its scriptural significance lies in the power of renunciation for the larger good as Rama’s vanavas shows; a prince who keeps his word to his father and follows the righteous path of dharma.
The most popular kings of Ayodhya such as Harishchandra, Raghu or Ram renounced their kingdoms, wealth and their comforts to uphold dharma. Renewed Ayodhya has the power to teach the importance of abandoning entitlement for righteousness.
Politician and writer Pavan K Varma says, "Ram Rajya is a Utopian concept. It is something that is always there in dreams and cannot be realised. So, the temple will definitely not usher in an age of benevolence. However, what it would succeed in doing is erasing to some extent the historical memories in the minds of many Hindus of their temples looted and destroyed at the hands of invading armies. One hopes that there will be some sort of peace between all communities. Ram was Maryada Purushottam. While we cannot have another such time in our present, we can look forward to better days politically."
Power of Plenty
Tulsidas envisions an ideal society where people are pure in both thought and action. They lead long, harmonious, respectful lives. They are beautiful, healthy, intelligent and smart. The environment is sacred. Gardens and orchards of Ayodhya are redolent with flowers and fruits. Tree and terraces come alive with birdsong; in Ayodhya, it’s always Basant Ritu. The breeze is pleasingly mild, cool and fragrant.
Distant mountains yield gems. Oceans don’t cause floods, instead they give up their treasures such as pearls and fish. Ram Rajya has a thriving economy. Crops are abundant. The streets flow with honey and milk. The river bank is lined with tulsi groves and temples. Society is clearly defined. The Sarayu has special enclaves for Ayodhya’s inhabitants. The
banks are home to sanyasis. Common citizens can swim in its waters. It quenches the thirst of animals. Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsam mentions water sports on the river. The Ayodhya Mahatmya of Skanda Purana mentions a series of ponds with exact corresponding dimensions girdling the city in the shape of a dhanush (bow) along the perennial River Sarayu.
Such evidence shows that the ancients knew the principles of local water-harvesting, ground water recharging and conservation across India. Ayodhya represents local solutions for local needs. It has the potential to be the ambassador for 'Vocal for Local' Mission.
Tulsidas uses the city as the allegory of ecological balance, political responsibility, administrative excellence, city planning and social responsibility. The environment has been degraded by greed and ignorance because the stakeholders are ignorant of the symbiosis between human behaviour and Nature’s needs.
The easy method adopted by governments and organisations is to address environmental problems by treating the symptoms while ignoring the cause. Despite having the latest technology to measure air quality on multiple parameters, our five senses aren’t attuned to the poison gathering in our blood. Only during the occasional visit to distant mountains or a seashore does the realisation come that a healthy environment is a basic quality of life index.
The afflictions of the Yamuna or the Cauvery don’t bring out the protesting poet in us. Ayodhya can be the harbinger of much-required ecological balance as it starts its journey from being a sleepy small town to a self-sustaining global city.
"The Ramayana is the earliest surviving literary expression of our civilisational quest for dharma—righteousness. Rama was an exemplar of dharma: Perfect Man and Righteous King. He suffered in this world for dharma, not political power. After centuries of exile, He is returning to the sacred place that is divinely His. This is a moment of healing and regeneration for our society," says political scientist and historian Meenakshi Jain.
The Family Way
Tulsidas, though briefly, concludes that good administration lies in observing Indian familial principles. Roles for man and woman are clearly defined as per the mores of the 16th century India when he lived and wrote his classic. The man is in charge of external affairs while the woman is the domestic nurturer. Sri Ram’s governance isn’t arbitrary; instead he seeks the counsel of his brothers to take daily decisions. As both their king and older brother, he guides them, too.
The home is under Sita’s purview. To run the house and minister to the elders, she foregoes the advantage of palace helpers and prefers to take charge personally. Tulsidas lays down a perpetual charter of personal behaviour as exemplified by the royal family—in the current context our politicians and administrators—to be followed by the populace. In Ramcharitmanas, Ram’s story ends with his coronation without mention of Sita being exiled from Ayodhya again.
The beginning of global India began with the Ramayana which travelled to almost every nook and corner of the world. It has been the torch-bearer of Indian culture to the rest of the world for centuries. YP Singh, Director, Ayodhya Research Institute, says, "It is not just a temple spread out in 70 acres, it is the beginning of the cultural renaissance in India that would fuel the cultural tourism, small-scale industries like handicrafts and strengthen the soft power diplomacy of India. The cultural exchange would provide a platform to many local and national artists globally and many global artists will get introduced to India."
The Ramayana panels on the 9th CE Prambanan Temple complex in Java is proof of that voyage of faith. Thais believe that Ayodhya is their ancient capital and recreated Ayodhya city. Tales of Hanuman have been found in Honduras and China.
The Ramayana has been translated in hundreds of languages, is retold by myriad kinds of performing arts and has been painted in numerous styles. The story of Ram continues to inspire and lay down personal and civilisational goals. It’s the simplicity of Ramayana that gives it the universal reach it enjoys today.
Learning scriptures like the Vedas demands rigorous training. The Upanishads are meant to be imbibed at the Guru’s feet. The Puranas are a treasure trove of interwoven stories. The Mahabharata has multiple sub-plots and leaves to the interpretation too many open-ended, unanswered questions. The Ramayana is simple, yet carries the scriptural template of Bharat.
It is relatable and easy to understand, making it the ideal medium of communication with diverse cultures and communities using a common language. The soft power of Ayodhya can bring people from diverse backgrounds together through the simple message of Ramayana.
Veteran swayamsevak Seshadri Chari says, "The Ayodhya temple construction and the wider sociopolitical support that it is eliciting can herald a phase of new and contemporary interpretation of the concept of Ram Rajya and probably set a new agenda for all the political parties to work towards consensus and all-round development of the nation."
The resurrection of Ayodhya’s exalted status and keeping the promise of building the Ram Temple on its Janmabhoomi have brought attention to its future and role in reconnecting India, especially the youth, to their roots.
Congress spokesperson and economist Gaurav Vallabh says, "We as a party have never questioned the importance of Ram. I know that someday I too will visit this grand temple, as will thousands of others. But whether this moment will herald an era of grandeur is doubtful. Ayodhya alone cannot bring about economic stability. This is a historic moment, and the ruling government will do well to take inspiration from Ram’s teachings - once you commit on something, you have to see it through. The government's promises on good governance have been empty words so far. It is time, they learn from Ram."
BJP spokesperson Shaina NC calls it a historic moment, which proves that faith triumphs. "Millions of Hindus across the world are looking to Ayodhya today. At the same time, I must commend the Muslims for living up to the ‘unity in diversity’ nature of our country and let bygones be bygones in the hope of a united future," she adds.
Adityanath has big plans to put Ayodhya on the world map. A new Ram Setu will connect the lakes of Shabri Vatika and Ashoka Vatika. The Sri Ram International Airport is being fast-tracked and Rs 640 crore has already been released for construction. Rs 647 crore has been allotted to build a 251-metre tall Ram statue with a digital museum underneath. This year, the county’s biggest theme park will come up in Ayodhya on 100 acres showing a simulated version of the Ramayana.
Chari says, "Given the sense of achievement, increased awareness and assertiveness coupled with a conducive political atmosphere, Ayodhya could well pave the way for a more peaceful and amicable settlement of other contentious issues concerning Hindus that are deeply politicised and drawn into the vortex of controversies."
The door has opened for a long-forgotten cultural fountainhead to send India’s cultural gestalt across the oceans to interact with other world cultures. With the consecration of the temple at Ayodhya, another long exile of Ram comes to an end. The next focus will be on Ram Rajya.
Places to See
Ram Janmabhoomi is and will always be the focal point of Ayodhya. Till it comes up, there are many more places to be explored in the city. The Sarayu remains an inseparable part of the city. Its ghats buzz with activity early morning and evening.
In the morning, Sadhus and pilgrims take a dip in the river, chanting mantras. Priests with their unique jhanda line up on the ghats to help with puja. In the evening, Sarayu Aarti takes place on the lines of Ganga Arti in Varanasi. Roughly 2 km of ghat walk takes one through many important landmarks such as Lakshman Tila and Swargdwar. From the bridge over the Sarayu, a lovely view of Ayodhya riverfront can be enjoyed.
Guptaar Ghat is believed to be the place where Sri Ram took Jal Samadhi. A small boat ride takes one here to see some temples, including the Chakrahari. The boat ride offers a good view of the Ayodhya riverfront. The Hanuman Garhi Temple on a hill is home to the most important Hanuman temple in town. Its roof is ideal to have a great top view of Ayodhya.
Kanak Bhawan, built more as a palace than a temple, is the most popular temple in Ayodhya. It is believed to be the palace that Kaikayee gifted to Sita as Muhn Dikhai (wedding gift). Most pilgrims like to attend the aarti here and eat the temple food at Kanak Rasoi.
Valmiki Mandir is a unique temple with all the 24,000 verses of Ramayana engraved on its walls. It is one of the rare temples that celebrates the storyteller as much as it celebrates his story. Other old temples to explore are Nageshwar Nath, Treta ka Thakur, Kale Ram Mandir and Badi Devkali.
Bharat Kuti at Nandigram is slightly away from the town; it is a place where Bharat stayed for 14 years when Sri Ram was in exile. Here you see the kadau or footwear of Sri Ram ruling in his absence. Tulsi Smarak Bhawan has a collection of art works associated with Ramayana from all over the country and the world.
They also have free Ramayana shows every evening, where troupes from different parts of the world perform. Ram Katha Museum is a new museum with Ramayana storytelling traditions from around the world. Raj Sadan is the residence of the royal family of Ayodhya.
Though a private property, at chosen times visitors are allowed in the Darshaneshwar Mahadev temple, which has lovely paintings inside besides the sprawling lawns. Gumnami Baba Samadhi is believed to be of Subhas Chandra Bose who by some accounts spent his last few years here.
Ram Katha Museum has a gallery on him. The Litti Chokha, Bhunja and Doodh-Jalebi along with Kulhad Chai are a must-try in the streets. Monkeys rule in Ayodhya, so be aware of them while eating in public, specially the bright yellow laddoos of Hanumangarhi.
Global Destination of the Future
For decades, Ayodhya is seen through the lens of dispute. Visiting Ram Janmabhoomi was like entering a war zone with traffic stops, police barricades, heavily armed soldiers and barbed wire fences. The city, expecting an influx of pilgrims and tourists, will have to gear up its present moribund infrastructure to host them.
At present there is no tourism infrastructure in Ayodhya. The Ram Temple and its proposed auxiliary attractions like the Eye Theme Park and the Bhajan Sandhya Sthal can kick off an experience-based Indic tourism model.
A feeling of being in Ayodhya and in India has to be intricately woven into this experience. A case in point being designing accommodation rather than replicating the standard model of hotels. There needs to be community kitchens where people can volunteer, to invoke the Seva Bhav.
Ayodhya stands for equality, so can that begin with a model that treats every visitor equally. Anyone visiting Ayodhya should be soaked in the essence of the holy city, that should stay with them for the rest of their lives. Global Encyclopaedia of Ramayana project has already been launched to document the Ramayana traditions from around the world.
It would be great to see a global confluence of performing arts, folk arts and creative arts telling the story of Ramayana in their own way. Kathavachan—the storytelling sessions telling Ram Katha—can revive the oral traditions of India.
Imagine sitting in Ayodhya and listening to stories of Ramayana and being able to visit many of them mentioned. Couple it with the Ramayana Yatra trail already launched by Indian Railways, and you have a new tourism product ready. Key would be an integrated holistic experience design.
Temples in Ayodhya have a tradition of singing Ram Dhun. Some of them have an unbroken tradition of non-stop 24x7 singing going on for decades at least. Visitors can be made a part of it, by allowing them or where required teaching them to chant Ram Dhun.
It’s hoped that the UP Tourism or Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra will think of a holistic experience for the visitors of Ayodhya. It’s not very often that one gets to completely redefine the tourism model like India is getting now when it recreates an ancient city that is bound to be a global attraction.
Brick by Brick
1885: Mahant Raghubar Das files suit to construct a Ram Temple at the disputed site. Trial court rejects the petition.
1934: A mob damages part of the structure. Muslims continue to offer prayers and Hindus worship at the Ram Chabutra and Kaushalya Rasoi.
1949-1959: Idols are planted inside the central dome. Both sides file cases; site is locked. Nirmohi Akhara claims to be the true custodian.
Dec 18, 1961: The Sunni Central Board of Waqf claims ownership
1984: VHP launches campaign for construction of a temple at what it claims to be the birthplace (Janmabhoomi) of Lord Ram.
1986: The Faizabad district court orders the gates of the mosque be opened and Hindus be allowed to worship there. Muslims form the Babri Mosque Action Committee
Nov 9, 1989: VHP lays the foundation of a temple on the land next to the Babri Masjid after receiving permission from the Rajiv Gandhi government
Sep 25, 1990: BJP President LK Advani launches Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya
Dec 6, 1992: The Babri Mosque is razed to the ground, sparking nationwide riots
Apr 2002: A three-judge Bench of the Allahabad High Court begins hearing to determine ownership
2003: ASI finds evidence of the presence of a temple under the mosque
Sep 30, 2010: The HC rules that the disputed land should be divided into three parts. Parties move Supreme Court.
May 2011: The Supreme Court stays the Allahabad HC order
May 30, 2017: Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharati and Vinay Katiyar are charged with criminal conspiracy in the Babri Masjid demolition case
Dec 5, 2017: The SC says it will hear the appeals filed by various parties challenging the 2010 verdict
Jan 8, 2019: The Supreme Court sets up a five-judge Constitution Bench to hear the case
Mar 8, 2019: The SC refers the Ayodhya case for mediation
Aug 1, 2019: The mediation panel submits its report
Nov 9, 2019: After a marathon 40-day hearing, in a unanimous verdict, the Supreme Court Bench led by CJI Ranjan Gogoi orders that the disputed land be given to Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas for construction of a temple. The Bench also rules that the Muslim side be compensated with five acres of land at a prominent place in Ayodhya for a mosque.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
"Ram stands for modernity, openness of thought. He is omnipresent, belongs to all humanity. Ram is the thread of India’s unity in diversity. Just as August 15 symbolises the end of our struggle for freedom, today symbolises the culmination of the fight for a Ram Mandir for centuries."
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
"Our country believes in 'Vasudeva Kutumbakam' i.e. world is our guest. We believe in taking everyone along. There is a wave of joy in the entire country today. There is a pleasure about the fulfilment of centuries of hope. So many people had sacrificed but they couldn’t be here physically."
BJP veteran LK Advani
"Destiny made me perform a pivotal duty in the form of the Ram Rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990, which helped galvanise the aspirations, energies and passions of the countless participants. It is my belief that this temple will inspire all Indians to imbibe His virtues."
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
"Today is also an occasion to mark the beginning of Ram Rajya. People have struggled for 500 years for this day. Generations have waited for it and many have made sacrifices for this moment. It is a highly emotional day for us and also a day of joy and happiness."
(The author is is a columnist, founder of IndiTales and an editorial member of the Global Encyclopaedia of Ramayana project)