Thus begins the age of Ram

From domes to dust, and from sleepy backwater of a newly independent country to centre of gravity of a 21st century nation, Ayodhya is where India’s new age begins
People celebrate the Ram temple
People celebrate the Ram temple

That morning was cold and bright like invader’s steel. December cold. December 6, 1992, cold. Terraced buildings surrounded the crowded, barricaded square below the elevation upon which squatted Babur’s bloody legacy; its yellowed walls invaded by insolent vegetation, its three domes blackened and age-spotted. The terrace of the building facing it brimmed with a restless crowd; men, old and young, wearing saffron headbands, jostling for a glimpse of the domes of atavistic hatred. It was D-Day. Demolition Day.

The air was charged with the static of history. As the slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram!’ reached a pitch the crowd became one, in body and spirit. The excitement was infectious. A young man, wearing a saffron headband and a saffron gamcha around his shoulders raised his fists to the sky. Suddenly, there was no stopping the crowd. It surged uphill, scaled the walls and clambered on to the domes. Young men planted saffron pennants on all three cupolas, and the assault began. An old man, with his grandson on his shoulders, did a little jig on the terrace.

Pointing at Babur’s mosque which crouched above holy Ayodhya like an ancient insult, he cried out, “Look beta, Ram Lalla is being freed.” Tears streamed down his wrinkled cheeks. The boy did not understand his grandfather but clapped his little hands nevertheless. I grabbed a saffron gamcha from the teenager next to me. I wound it around my head and rushed down to join the wave of kar sevaks scaling the rise. I was participating in unprecedented history.

Inside, the domes wept dust. The air was thick with pulverized debris and falling mortar.

Yogi Adityanath performs a puja
Yogi Adityanath performs a puja

A sadhu’s figure emerged in the smoky haze, hair wild and untied, beard fanned out like white fire as he struck at an already crumbling wall with a gleaming trident. His eyes were fiery with triumph. He thrust the trident forward and screamed, “Come on son, grab this! Strike! Strike, in the name of Ram!” The blows struck then; tridents, pick-axes, hammers and even bare fists brought down a hated symbol of Islamic conquest. The domes were gone. The sky was clear. Ayodhya lay spread below, dreaming of resurgence.

Three decades and a change later, a grand, sprawling edifice of pink Bansi Paharpur stone is rising up to erase old memories of shame and redeem the past. A group of sadhus wandering on a gigantic maidan on which makeshift yagyashalas of various ashrams stood, looks happy like children unexpectedly given candy.

One of them, gap-toothed, a smile showing through a thick confusion of white moustache and beard, declares grandly, “The Ram temple is the victory of Hinduism. What we began that day has borne fruit.” He had participated in the demolition when young. The group had come to Ayodhya from various parts of Uttar Pradesh: Gorakhpur, Chitrakoot, Shahjahanpur—Ayodhya unites people. “Anyone who comes here on these days are blessed, they must have done a lot of punya in their past life,” is another’s opinion.

The portly Lallu Singh, the government contractor-turned MP from Faizabad squats on a charpoy in a shed of his godown and echoes their sentiment. “Prabhu Shri Ram is the embodiment of Hindutva, which is now gaining significance in the country. Bharat used to be the jagat guru of the world, it was a ‘sone ki chidiya’. The upcoming temple is a step towards reiteration of that age-old ethos,” he said. His workers, busy attaching saffron pennants to iron rods for the occasion, nod in agreement.

The city is a canvas of colours. Yellow kites emblazoned with Ram’s weapons frolic in the crisp air. Schoolchildren draw rangolis on the pavements. The hawks observe it all, riding the thermals far above, and the memory of Jatayu comes unbidden to the mind. January 22 is Hinduism’s biggest day of the century. All of Hindutva’s main organizations are on sacred steroids, preparing Ayodhya for its holy hour. Up to four lakh pilgrims are expected by the weekend and all arrangements have been made for their stay. Numerous bhandaras have been set up; food and drink is free. The Sundar Kand is being recited continuously at all holy sites. The RSS has deployed hundreds of its cadres to ensure all arrangements go without a hitch. The VHP is present in force, both symbolically and literally.

At Karsevakpuram, the outfit’s Ayodhya HQ—a poster of Ashok Singhal greets you with folded hands at its entrance. The great bells—made of ashtadhatu, an alloy of eight metals—to be installed inside the Ram temple await their hour. The largest bell weighs 2,400 kg and the seven others weigh 51 kg each. Observing the ongoing frenetic work to finish the Singh Dwar where the red carpet to receive Ayodhya’s exalted visitors starts, it becomes obvious that Uttar Pradesh’s austere chief minister Yogi Adityanath—he still sleeps on the floor—means business.

Special DG (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar elaborates on the immense security challenge which is being handled effectively. “There is round-the-clock security in Ayodhya on January 22. All the roads from Lucknow, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Gorakhpur and Gonda will be sealed, creating a ‘green corridor’,” he says.

Yogi has razed all previous reminders of history’s toxic memories in Ayodhya. Instead of the slaves of Babur’s commander Mir Baqi, the temple is being erected by a legion of workers in crash helmets and windproof jackets. Gigantic iron scaffolds dominate the skyline and massive earthmovers and bulldozers rumble about raising dust. The temple itself is vast, occupying all of 2.77 acres.

It is not only the politicians or itinerant sadhus who are satisfied about the final outcome of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement which the VHP began in the 1980s, and Advani’s Rath Yatra imprinted on the national consciousness. The organisation’s soft-spoken, iron-willed international president Alok Kumar who has refashioned its unruly image into a Hindutva political force, is jubilant—on December 21, 1992, in Faizabad, Advani had expressed the opinion that the VHP was a fringe outfit. Kumar exclaims, “It isn’t only the VHP which is celebrating. All Hindus are. Most important is the fact that Lord Ram has been installed in every Hindu’s heart.”

Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh which is the heart of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, is the first introduction to Ayodhya. The city is in celebration mode. Its streets are festive with colourful illumination; every wall and bunting bears images of Ram, Modi and Yogi. Ram is everywhere, both as a godly warrior slaying evil and a serene king protecting the idealistic nation. Saffron pennants imprinted with his image and the salutary slogan flutter in the wind.

Meanwhile, a random poster welcoming Bhupendra Modi—a local wit suggested he put them up himself—the man who filed the petition to get Rahul Gandhi disqualified from the Lok Sabha provides some comic relief. At the entrance to new Ayodhya on Ram Path, stand two large back-to-back statues of Hinduism’s most worshipped warrior god, welcoming and bidding a safe journey to visitors. Dharma Path sports all the signs of a New Age metropolis: 470 massive solar streetlights shaped like yellow suns and straddling tall, engraved columns look futuristic in this timeless town. “The CM’s intention is to make Ayodhya a global city,” reveals Kumar.

The Ramayana is a recurrent theme that runs through the capital of Ram Rajya. Scenes from the epic depicting various adventures of its divine hero are displayed in murals along the highway and the town: Ram consecrating a Shivalinga by the sea for it to part; the slaying of Shurpanakha in her demonic form; Jatayu’s last stand. Billboards advertise Ram Kathas by many veterans and ashram heads. One was going on to the rapt attention of a large group seated in an expansive, newly-erected auditorium at Bhaktmall ji ki Bagiya.

Despite the Shankaracharya controversy, Modi is seen by Ayodhyaites as a yogi adept at performing the arcane rituals of Hinduism and yoga. “Never in the history of Ayodhya has a king consecrated a temple as was the custom in the old days,” observes Vimalendra Tiwari, a shopkeeper who plies his trade by the Naya Ghat on the Saryu River. “Now that too will be completed in Ayodhya,” he says referring to the prime minister.

On January 22, Narendra Modi, the mascot of new Ayodhya, marks a new milestone in his journey as the torchbearer of global Hinduism. The Ram temple is guaranteed to bear his imprimatur as god’s supreme warrior in the Modiayana of the future. Since Modi’s visit to Ayodhya just over three years ago, work to transform the town into a modern city is proceeding at manic pace in three 24/7 shifts. Supercop Prashant Kumar, who is part of the committee that oversees the reconstruction, says, “Ayodhya was a sleepy little town. The government has made it vibrant, by widening roads and scaling up infrastructure. The public is participating in the effort. Ayodhya looks after its wellbeing.”

The streets of Ayodhya
The streets of Ayodhya

Before 2019, Ayodhya was just a small town which occupied a mere four sq km of land; now it has spread to 63 sq km. The city plan of modern Ayodhya is based on the proto-structure of the ancient town and is constructed along the line defined in the Atharva Veda. Interestingly, no street, building or public place will be named after any character from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, but are being taken from the Vedas.

Central Ayodhya, which is seeing most of the reconstruction is choked with traffic, though surprisingly well managed in the face of the ordinary Indian’s disrespect for road rules. SDG Kumar explains that he is expecting more than one lakh pilgrims on January 22 alone, which is expected to grow exponentially afterwards. Says Praveen Kumar, IG, Ayodhya, “We have ramped up personnel and intelligence, and allotted more police vehicles. About 400 CCTVs of the total 10,000 in the district have AI capabilities.” River security on the Saryu has been boosted with more patrol boats and guards. The police have also conducted a survey of all the residents of the temple neighbourhood to prevent unexpected disruptions.

The revival of Ayodhya’s ancient glory is expected to help the BJP politically and electorally but is by no means the first attempt. The Raghuvansham by Kalidas refers to Kush, Ram and Sita’s son, arriving in Ayodhya on a mission of restoration.

The Gupta emperors had promoted the city in the 5th century AD and changed its name from Saketa to ‘Ayodhya of Lord Ram’.

The Ram aesthetic pervades the town; his flags adorn rooftops, the Jai Siya Ram slogans pierce the winter air, bow and arrow motifs adorn pillars in glowing shades of sacred neon. Despite the ongoing work, worship at the janmabhoomi hasn’t stopped. Long lines of pilgrims snake through the exterior site—the temple construction can be glimpsed through the barricades—to reach the makeshift temple for a darshan of Ram Lalla and his three brothers, and Hanuman paying obeisance to them. The idols were installed in the bulletproof, fibre glass, makeshift temple on August 5, 2020, when Prime Minister Modi performed the bhoomi pujan for the temple. The temple, when finished will have 13 smaller temples. Finally, after centuries of neglect, Lord Ram officially gets his pantheon.

Narendra Modi, his modern general, is the leitmotif of Ayodhya, as its restorer and political high priest. His visage is ubiquitous from Lucknow to Ayodhya, from the walls to the posters to the hoardings. So is Yogi, the supreme mahant of Gorakhnath Math which has been at the forefront of the struggle to establish the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It was his guru Mahant Avaidyanath who had led the VHP’s Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yatra; his guru Yogi Digvijayanath had played a significant role in the nascent movement which began in 1949.

The involvement of the Gorakhnath Math in the Janmabhoomi agitation is a long story. The ‘Gaddi Nasheen’—the Urdu name given to the high priest of the Hanuman Garhi temple—had led Avaidyanath’s Yatra. Tradition forbids him from leaving the temple premises, and the fact he did to participate in Advaidyanath’s Yatra shows how deeply Ram is imbedded in Ayodhya’s multicultural language of accord. “There is no need for fear in Ayodhya now. Instead of the sound of gunfire, there will be the voices of people singing praises to Lord Ram,” is Yogi Adityanath’s take. Now that the temple objective has been achieved, Yogi’s serious mien occasionally gives way to a smile of satisfaction. He choppers to Ayodhya regularly to oversee preparations. On Makar Sankranti, he braved the fog and landed on the temple premises, freshly groomed in his trademark saffron clothes to conduct Swachchhta Abhiyan by cleaning the premises.

Where Ram is, can Sita be far behind? Sita’s dowry—actually two of them—arrived in Ayodhya with great clamour and rejoicing early last week. There is a long-standing tussle between Janakpur in Nepal and Sitamarhi in Bihar; both claim she was born in their town. The competition between them is about who brought the biggest number of gifts for the royal daughter-in-law. The winner this time seems to be Sitamarhi, which has sent at least five trucks loaded with fine garments, gold and jewellery, grain and other household items to fill Sita’s marital homesite, while her holy husband is consecrated in a permanent abode after a wait of five centuries.

But if Ayodhya is blessed by Ram, it is cursed by Sita. Before the agnipariksha forced on her by accusations of a laundryman in the town was to begin, she had cursed that the town would always remain poor and that Goddess Lakshmi will abandon it, never to return. Parts of the old town still bear the stains of her fury. The twisting warrens of its inner streets, flanked by repainted buildings are interrupted by flaking facades of fossilised houses. Winding lanes as narrow as a bigot’s mind, and thin, bumpy roads, the women squatting on the threshold of their tiny homes to gaze at the passing show of the day, the malnourished children playing in the streets, the shikhars of temples new and old pointing to the sky in supplication to the divine, Hanuman’s chattering army racing down the tree trunks and squatting on rooftops with twitching tails; all reflect the truth that little has changed. Old Ayodhya remains pretty much the same as when the masjid still stood, perhaps, going back even centuries.

But is the curse being lifted and the goddess of prosperity back to smile on Ayodhya again? Going by the frantic construction, the widening of streets, a swanky new airport and railway station, electric buses emblazoned with Modi and Yogi portraits and newly constructed houses and buildings, Ayodhya has finally stepped smack into the 21st century at last. To lure the goddess of prosperity back, Swamy Raghavacharya is conducting a round-the-clock yagna on the banks of Saryu.

Ayodhya has become a town of holy fires. In another massive makeshift yogshala, one of the many set up by various Hindu organisations advertising their spiritual heads on large billboards, countless havan kunds have been laid out in long neat rows. Endless amounts of ghee have been brought to light homa fires in the city of 4,000 temples. Groups of young acolytes—both children and teenagers—dressed in saffron dhoti-kurtas, socks and matching caps are conducting the pujas and reciting the incantations specific to each deity each row is allotted; 25,000 temporary yagna sites have been erected across Ayodhya.

Some acolytes are from a Rajasthan gurukul. What do they want to be when they grow up? Doctors? IT engineers?

A bright boy with a shaven head nods a negative. “I will continue in this Order. I will become a teacher myself,” he elaborates.

The timeless Saryu, which has claimed and rebirthed Rama’s city for millennia flows serenely beside Guptar Ghat where Ram is believed to have taken jal samadhi by walking into its timeless waters to embrace his immortal destiny. Where forests once stood, now TV crews have set up cameras and kitsch is splashed on the walls. Lord Ram’s vanvaas is finally over. Modi has declared pran pratishtha day as a second Deepawali, asking all Indians to light lamps on that day.

The rebuilt ghats which are illuminated by lakhs of clay lamps every Diwali, will dispel darkness on the new, sacred night. The age of Ram dawns.

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