The consecration has run to political and religious opposition due to the unconcealed electoral objective
On Monday, January 22, for the first time in the history of “secular” India, a Prime Minister of the country will be performing the consecration of an idol in a place of worship. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be consecrating the idol of Lord Rama, a much venerated deity and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, at a brand new temple in Ayodhya in the North Indian State of Uttar Pradesh.
The three-storied temple, which is yet to be completed, is being built in red sandstone in the North Indian “Nagara” style of architecture. It is set in a sprawling 70-acre complex that will offer a range of conveniences to an estimated 150,000 worshipers who are expected to converge on it daily when the construction is completed.
The temple’s main building will have a length of 380 feet, and a width of 250 feet, and a height of 161 feet. The estimated cost is INR 1800 crores (US$ 217 million) which will make it the most expensive temple in India.
The walls and pillars (392 of them) are intricately carved showing celestial figures as in other ornate temples of Central and South India. There will be five Mandapams (Halls) – Nritya Mandapam, Ranga Mandapam, Sabha Mandapam, Prarthna and Kirtan Mandapams.
At the four corners of the compound, there will be four Mandirs or smaller shrines dedicated to deities such as Surya, Bhagawati, Ganesh, and Shiva. In the northern arm there will be a shrine for Annapurna and in the southern arm will be a shrine for Hanuman.
There will also be shrines for Rishis (sages) Valmiki, Vashishtha, Vishwamitra, Agastya and Ahalya. It is said that iron is not used anywhere in the temple.
The temple in Ayodhya will be the first Indian temple to depict a pan-Indian Hindu culture through its carvings, murals and decorations, reflecting the pan-Indian nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Ayodhya Ram Temple Trust, known as the Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerths Kshetra said that it has received INR 3,500 crore (US$ 421 million) in donations given by people across India. A license to accept foreign donations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) has also been received
The architects plan to make the temple the epicentre of a new cultural universe in Ayodhya, transforming what is now a shanty town into an attraction for pilgrims and tourists from all parts of India and the world.
According to the BBC, the make-over of Ayodhya town, estimated to cost US$ 3.5 billon, will include a network of roads, including a 13 km “Ram Path” a road leading to the temple, a shiny new airport and a massive railway station. There will also be a heritage walk with 162 murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana.
The construction of the Ram temple is indeed a landmark in the history of India in more ways than one. It is the second grand temple built after independence. It is also the second temple built to “right a historic wrong”.
The first to be built under the category of “righting a historical wrong” was the Somnath (Shiva) temple in Veraval in Gujarat which was destroyed by the Afghan invader Mahmud of Gazni in the 11th., Century. The Somnath temple was rebuilt in 1951 after India became independent.
The second is the Ram temple in Ayodhya which was destroyed in 1528 by the first Mughal Emperor, Babar, to build a mosque which came to be known subsequently as the Babar mosque or Babri masjid.
But unlike the Somnath temple, the rebuilding of which was more less free from controversy, the Ram temple in Ayodhya has been steeped in controversy from the middle of the 19 th.Century.
Around 1850 the Hindus claimed that the site of the Babar mosque was the birthplace of Lord Rama and that they should have the right to offer worship there. The Muslims would not agree to that and the matter became a subject of acrimonious litigation which was resolved only in 2019.
Since the 1980s to this day, the Ram temple has been a subject of heated debate between Indian secularists and Hindu nationalists and between Hindu nationalists and Muslim radicals.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its forebears which had been on the margins of the Indian polity before independence and for more three decades after independence, made the issue a political rallying point to capture the public imagination.
Their perseverance paid off, but not without a hard and long drawn out struggle both within and outside the judicial framework.
BJP leader L.K.Advani, who later became a Deputy Prime Minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, led the politicisation of the temple issue on a pan-Indian scale with his “Ratha Yatra”, a long journey across India using a vehicle. But the Ratha Yatra culminated in mob frenzy at the Babar mosque site in Ayodhya in 1992. The Babar mosque was pulled down brick by brick by the mob of hooligans, the leaders failed to control.
The tearing down of the already ruined and unused mosque led to Hindu-Muslim riots across North India, in which approximately 2000 lives were lost.
The destruction and the riots only aggravated the temple-mosque dispute, though mercifully, the scene of action adjourned to the courts from the streets.
Litigation to get the mosque vacated began on 22nd December 1949, when an offshoot of the Hindu Mahasabha called Akhil Bharatiya Ramayana Mahasabha (ABRM) organised nine days of continuous recitation of the Ramcharitmanas at the mosque site. This led to an attack on the mosque and the installation of idols of Rama and his consort Sita inside the mosque.
The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the removal of the idols but a local official, K.K.K. Nair, refused to obey saying that it would lead to communal riots. The Police locked the gates and entry was banned for the public both Hindu and Muslim. However, Hindu priests were allowed to enter for daily worship of the idols.
The Sunni Waqf Board and the Mahasabha filed civil suits in a local court each claiming religious rights on the site. The litigation and the political mobilization surrounding it divided India into antagonistic Hindu and Muslim camps.
The Archaeological Survey of India’s excavation report on the disputed site in Ayodhya failed to conclusively show that a Hindu temple was demolished to construct a mosque at the spot.This kept the controversy alive.
Finally, the matter was brought to a close by the ruling of a bench of five judges of the Supreme Court of India in 2019. On 9th November 2019, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, ruled that the land belonged to the government on the basis of the tax records. It also ordered that the land be turned over to a trust for the construction of a Hindu temple and ordered the government to donate five-acres of land to the Muslim Waqf Sunni Council to build a new mosque.
The Supreme Court granted that the entire 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya to Lord Ram. It also declared that the 1992 demolition of the mosque was a violation of the law.
However, controversies surrounding the temple did not cease with the court’s verdict. Opposition parties accused Prime Minister Modi of using the temple’s construction for his re-election bid in May 2024 by making himself the centre of attraction at the consecration. Top Congress party leaders said that they would not attend the consecration and give it legitimacy.
Orthodox Hindus said that a consecration should be done not by laymen or politicians but by qualified priests. One of the Sankaracharyas (religious leaders) said that the date of the consecration was advanced to January even before the completion of the temple so that Modi could show it as an achievement in the run up to the May 2024 polls. He further said that idols could not be consecrated in an unfinished temple. And January 22 was not an appropriately auspicious date, he added.
Be that as it may, for BJP supporters and Hindu nationalists, the Ram temple will be a place of political pilgrimage and for others, Indians as well as foreigners, it will be a tourist attraction given its grandeur and novelty.
(A version of this story appeared in Sunday Observer on January 21, 2024)