No Pushpak viman for the Ayodhya-waasi

The Lok Sabha contest is between sitting MP Lallu Singh of the BJP and sitting Bikapur MLA Awadhesh Prasad of the SP.
File photo of devotees gathered near Sarayu river in Ayodhya.
File photo of devotees gathered near Sarayu river in Ayodhya.(Photo | PTI)

Last of a four-part series

AYODHYA: “Ram maryada purushottam, Rajputo ka Rajput,” says the man in saffron regalia as a throwaway line, while putting a tika on those walking towards the temple. Whoever thought of Ram in caste terms? That idiom-like Hindi phrasing combines the old philosophical ideal with a medieval-modern folk twist. Ram, the ideal man, is also “the Rajput among Rajputs”.

In the polling booth-bound Ayodhya of 2024, much of it boils down to just that. The caste equations of candidates. The mammoth new temple notwithstanding, the Ayodhya that is voting today is not quite the Ayodhya of the Ramayana. The various textual versions of the epic were anyway accessible only to the privileged scholar. For the ordinary Indian, it was mostly received as oral literature—subject to the fashion and predilections of the day. So it figures that, in today’s rendition, local caste factors hold as much sway as any grand project of religious-cultural reclamation.

File photo of devotees gathered near Sarayu river in Ayodhya.
Amethi: A tryst with destiny that wasn’t to be

For the rest of India, the Ram temple may have held out high symbolism, but right in the heart of Ayodhya, what they think about while queuing up in the heat wave to exercise their franchise is how to try and turn the little epics of their own lives towards small victories. The constituency, unlike the district, still bears the charming but humdrum name Faizabad, and they have no Pushpak viman that can take their ambitions soaring beyond the question of rozi-roti, or basic economic sufficiency.

That acquires some paradoxical resonance when you consider that whether the BJP wins or not depends as much on Ram and the Modi and Yogi factor “as it depends on Karl Marx”. The Lok Sabha contest is between sitting MP Lallu Singh of the BJP and sitting Bikapur MLA Awadhesh Prasad of the SP.

Will Lallu Singh overcome anti-incumbency and triumph a third time in a row? That could hinge on how many votes Arvind Sen of the Communist Party of India pulls away.

File photo of devotees gathered near Sarayu river in Ayodhya.
The city that is no longer Allahabad

The new temple elicits something akin to the reaction a grand museum would among the crowds — a hushed awe. It is religious in clothing, but functionally it is tourism. For actual puja and fulfilment of prayers, secret and loud, it’s still the Hanumangarhi mandir that calls them. The crowds there are of the familiar sort — organic, pushy and spontaneous, literally falling over each other to get the best darshan. The footfalls at Hanumangarhi have increased manifold ever since the new temple came up a mile down the road, with those coming to Ayodhya from across India adding to the throng.

The new temple complex is still not complete. Giant cranes and other mammoth beings from the world of modern construction are putting together this ode to ancient India. The town too, in a proper sense, is still under construction. Hotel reservations are not easy to come by, you need ‘influence’ to get a room if you don’t plan early enough. What with a steady stream of Bollywood celebrities turning up every day.

File photo of devotees gathered near Sarayu river in Ayodhya.
Kashi: A date with the present

Voters, visitors struggle to adjust to grandness of new temple

Curiously, the INDIA coalition is not united in Ayodhya-Faizabad seat. Says Jai Shankar Pandey, general secretary, Samajwadi Party, “The Left should not have put up a candidate. Arvind Sen won’t win, but will cut into our (SP-Congress combined) votes.”

The once sleepy town of Ayodhya, the epicentre or ‘epic centre’ of the biggest political upheaval of contemporary India, now bustles with activity — what with a refurbished railway station, airport, five-star hotels in the making.

Both the voter and the visitor struggle to adjust to the grandness of the new temple, almost reduced to Lilliputs by its architectural scale — the shine of gold on the temple doors, the shining diamond-and-Burmese ruby tilak on the dark marble Ram Lalla, even the tempered steel barricades controlling the crowds into regimented queues. Hindutva here is organised, a far cry from the mobs of 1992, all synthetic sarees and saffron bandanas and sandal paste ‘Jai Shri Ram’ stamps on the foreheads.

The banks of the Sarayu are spruced up, decked boats float around to take those interested in taking a joy ride from being pilgrim to tourist. The shops leading up to the ghats are orderly and clean, so are the roads. No stray cattle canters around, there’s no cow dung on the walkways. Calendar art frescoes adorn the walls, as do images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Yes, even amidst all the time-travel, you are recalled to the electoral contest. Lallu Singh is deemed to have a chance, “despite his arrogance”. Not because of the temple or its economic spinoffs but the fact that the BJP leaves nothing to chance — from campaign to booth management — says Prof Anil Kumar Singh of the local Saket college. There has been a bit of local discontent suppressed in the birthing of a new Ayodhya. The Ayodhya-waasi of 2024 has no time to look at the giant sculpted veena at the streetcorner and imagine a sweeter music.

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The New Indian Express