Restore ancient cities with a sense of tradition, aesthetics

I was in the temple town of Ayodhya for a literature festival last week and had the good fortune of soaking into its vibes for three days, and what a hue of vibes it has.

Published: 16th April 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th April 2023 02:58 PM   |  A+A-

I was in the temple town of Ayodhya for a literature festival last week and had the good fortune of soaking into its vibes for three days, and what a hue of vibes it has. It is a place with many layers. In the mind of any Indian who has not visited it, Ayodhya evokes the image of a mystical place. Ramayanas, especially Kamba Ramayana, give a colourful description of a city that was ancient even in the times of Ramayana and was glorious, aesthetic, prosperous and holy. There is the Ayodhya of films and television with spectacular gardens, majestic highways and streets paved with gold. 

All these Ayodhyas represent the aspiration of Indians over the ages about how they want to see one of the holiest places of Hinduism. Then there is the real Ayodhya, and it is heartbreaking to see it. It is unfair to single out one holy city and say it is far from what one aspires it to be. In all fairness, enormous efforts are being made to set years of neglect right. I spoke to many residents and common people there, and almost everyone is hopeful about the future. Electric vehicle driver, one Saddam, who took me around the city for a day, said business was good and would improve multifold once the Ayodhya corridor is complete. One holy man at the steps of Hanuman Gadhi, the ancient temple in which the monkey god sits on a throne, as the lord of Ayodhya—a unique Hanuman—told me there are over 7,500 temples in the city. The sceptic in me would have brought an unintentional smile to my face, for he quipped that 10 lakh people make a living out of this holy place and you ‘city people in pant-suit’ will never understand how faith can not only fill the soul but stomachs too.

As I walked through the dusty narrow lanes, I started looking at the profound ugliness of this holy city with a new eye. It  provides more employment than any IT park in Bengaluru or Chennai. Not just Ayodhya, other sacred cities that dot the country like Kashi, Mathura, the Shakti Peeths, Puri, hundreds of temple towns of Tamil Nadu, the colourful annual temple festivals of Kerala, the Kumbh Melas, and Ganesha and Durga pandals are powerhouses of economic activities. How much of the GDP would be driven by the financial activities of our festivals?

As the holy man on the steps of an overpainted, hopelessly loud, yet soothingly holy temple said: “Do we know how many stomachs faith feeds?” Yet, how much neglect we have offered to such places. Is it because, unlike the malls, swanky IT parks or financial districts, such dusty little towns that throb with history, tradition and culture don’t discriminate and offer asylum to all—the rich, the poor, the destitute, the cows, the monkeys—and fill everyone’s stomach and mind, and thus offend our ‘city-bred pant-suit’ sense of superiority? India is sitting on a gold mine, dotted with many Ayodhya-like holy towns steeped in history. Tourism and pilgrimage can provide many job opportunities and change the lives of hundreds of such places across India. 

It is wonderful that, after years of neglect, such ancient cities are getting the attention they deserve. Considerable efforts have gone in to clean up the ghats and build new ones by the River Saryu. But as 
I walked through the lanes, I was filled with a sense of unease. For now, the corridor that cuts across the labyrinth of Ayodhya looks like the footage of a World War II-bombed zone. Decades of lawlessness, hotchpotch development and jugaad are visible, but if one cares to look deeper, one can see breathtakingly beautiful medieval mansions. Every window, stone and pillar—now covered with slime—was once carved by someone with an eye for aesthetics. Should our idea of developing them be the mindless destruction of organically grown cities with thousands of years of history and replace them with the design of an office complex? Instead of bulldozing through these maze of streets with such treasure troves of culture, one wishes the authorities had considered restoring them to their past glory with architecture that stays true to the city’s history. Why would one go to a city as old as humanity to see a street of vitrified tiles and LED lamps? 

This isn’t the case of Ayodhya alone. The Devasom board of Guruvayur has built a monstrosity of an industrial shed-styled mandap, marring the aesthetics and view of the exquisitely designed temple. The ancient temples of Tamil Nadu are now decked with a generous coat of synthetic paints of garish colours. Most ancient and medieval temples have industrial-looking sheds in the name of queue complexes. Where has our sense of aesthetics vanished? These are our national treasures, the jewels of our civilisation, markers of faith and providers of the livelihood of millions. They must be restored and maintained with a sense of history and tradition. 

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy


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