Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir: A temple, 169 years in the making | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir: A temple, 169 years in the making

By, New Delhi
Jan 22, 2024 07:28 AM IST

Through decades of design and reworks, hurdles in engineering and construction, HT pieces together how the grandeur of the Ram Temple was reclaimed.

Dappled slats of winter sunlight light up Snehlala Devi’s face as she sits on her haunches on this early January day, a small stone encircled in her fist, vigorously scrubbing the grime off an intricately carved slab of sandstone between her knees. Around her are her mother and sister-in-law and neighbours, all filing away decades-old slabs of varying sizes, using paper and stones to scour clumps of black soot gathered in crevices, their smudged faces shimmering with pride when an edge or a rim shines. In this workshop that she shares with 25 others, she has spent the last 1.5 years painstakingly scrubbing stone slabs clean, each of them taking between 15 and 30 days. Yet, there is little sign of fatigue as Devi’s nimble fingers dance around the slab balanced between her knees. “Who else can tell their children that we did something for Ram?” she says, her family members joining in choral agreement.

The trust has been careful to imbue the construction process with symbolism, showcasing the temple as the syncretic coming together of India.
The trust has been careful to imbue the construction process with symbolism, showcasing the temple as the syncretic coming together of India.

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A resident of Ayodhya, Devi comes to the karyashala or workshop – a three-acre compound run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) strewn with carved blocks, slabs, plates and columns, all in pink sandstone, all waiting for years to be used at the Ram Temple. Work continued here even when the 2.77 acre plot in question was mired in one of India’s most fractious religious disputes. The mass of stone slabs piled up – their colour dulled, carvings chipped. Now workers such as Devi are racing against time to restore them to pristine condition, for earthmovers to transport them to the construction site, where they’ll be lifted into place by hulking cranes. Some labourers work on designs and figures by hand, a second group uses bigger tools to clean slabs, and a third uses machines to scrape deposits from columns. “I have been coming here every day for 17 years, but never seen the campus so active,” said Ram Naresh Yadav, part of the second group of workers.

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The Ram Temple that opens January 22 marks the culmination of not only a contested history that spanned colonial and independent India, but is also the first stage of a gargantuan construction effort that will go on till early 2025. Not since the opening of the Somnath Temple in 1951 – an event attended by then President Rajendra Prasad and one that sparked a similar political controversy with then home minister Vallabhbhai Patel backing the reconstruction and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru staying away – has India seen a religious project of this scale and importance. The main temple sits on a 2.77 acre plot – the size of two football fields – and the larger complex stretches across a cavernous 70-acre area, comprising at least seven other temples, a 732 metre-long circumambulation path, known as a parkota, greenery and a bevy of smaller shrines dedicated to other figures in the Ramayana. But the Ram Temple is also the first such project in the modern era, and its making was fraught with challenges and innovation. Using conversations with the architects, engineers, designers, priests and members of the trust that is overseeing the construction, HT pieces together how the temple came together.

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The expansive design

The modern dispute for the temple dates back to 1855, when the British recorded the first religious fracas over the plot, but the confrontation snowballed once the locks of the then-barred Babri Masjid were opened in 1986. Suddenly, Uttar Pradesh was aflame, and the VHP sensed that the time to push for a mandir had arrived. By 1989, Hindu groups were readying for a symbolic shilanyas, or foundation laying, of the temple even as negotiations under then PM Chandra Sekhar’s aegis proceeded in Delhi. But there was a lingering question – who would design a temple that was destined to become one of the nodes of Hindu faith? Then VHP chief Ashok Singhal had only one name in mind.

Later that year, he travelled to Ahmedabad to meet Chandrakant B Sompura, the grandson of the man, Prabhashankarbhai Sompura, who had envisioned the Somnath temple. By then, Chandrakant was a renowned temple architect in his own right, having built around 100 temples across the world. “Singhal had come to me through GD Birla because we had designed some of the Birla Mandirs. He said we want to build a temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram,” Chandrakant said. Months later, he was in Ayodhya, walking around the then disputed plot, locked away behind layers of barbed wire fences and steel-cage corridors.

“The structure was there and there was lots of security so taking any measurement wasn’t possible. Singhal ji was determined that he wanted the temple at the very site, so I said I’ll see as per my calculations, but you first should show me the place.”

“We walked around the site, and measured our footsteps to get an estimate of how big the temple needed to be. I then went back to the drawing board,” he added.

As the year drew to a close, Chandrakant had a blueprint in mind, three in fact. “But what was chosen was a temple with two mandaps. We chose the Nagara style of architecture (where the temple is built on a stone platform and one central spire or shikhara directly over the sanctum), because this was in north India and Nagara was the predominant style in the Gangetic plains,” he said.

In 2019, after the Supreme Court paved the way for the construction of the temple, Chandrakant received another call. “It was felt that the earlier plan was not grand enough to encompass the importance of building a temple at the birthplace of Ram Temple. So, we expanded the temple, added four more mandaps and the circumambulation path, so parkota. What you see now is this expanded plan.”

‘A matter of pride’

Now 81, Chandrakant is clear that the Ram Temple is the pinnacle of his career. “It incorporates some elements of the Dravidian style as well, such as the parkota. We wanted to add new elements to the temple, so we made the first eight-cornered mandir in north India. But the true strength of this temple design is that it is coming up in the place where Lord Ram was born.”

“My grandfather made the Somnath temple. We designed the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura. And now, we have also contributed to the Ram Janmabhoomi. It is a matter of pride for us.”

On site, construction is helmed by his two sons, Ashish and Nikhil, and managed by other members of the family who look after the phalanx of workers and supervisors swarming the plot. One of them, Yogesh Sompura, for example, starts his day at 8am in the karyashala, where he first checks whether the group of 25 women have managed to use emery stones to scrub off the more adamant blemishes, and then heads to the back where the bigger pillars are being cleaned with machines.

“We reach the temple site by 10am, where we start checking the stones being lifted by cranes. The plan of the mandir is etched in our heads, but we have strict instructions to inspect every stone before it is placed in position to check for structural deformities, or chipped edges. Those stones have to be rejected on the spot,” said Yogesh.

In this building made entirely of pink sandstone from Rajasthan, putting together each layer takes between five and seven days. “Much of the technology we use has been handed down through the generations and innovated by us – for example, the use of copper pins and three-inch keys, we call them male and female based on their orientation, to steady the pillars,” he said.

His son, Mayank, also a key part of the team, has been here for two years. His children go to a local school and his wife has moved from Gujarat to build them a home. “The last few weeks have been the most hectic. We’re often at the site till 3am,” said Mayank. Much of their time goes in ensuring that the breakneck pace of work doesn’t compromise the quality of the building. “In my lifetime, no other temple has been built this quickly. But this is our calling,” said Yogesh.

Overcoming hurdles

In September 2020, the temple hit its first hurdle. As engineers from Larsen and Toubro dug up the earth underneath where the temple was supposed to stand, they dredged up clumps of loose, alluvial soil mixed with sand. It was a disaster; the planners were hoping to build a shrine that stood for 1,000 years, and here were confronted with a site where even sinking a basic foundation would prove challenging. The trust overseeing the temple assembled experts from IIT Delhi, Bombay, Guwahati and Madras, in addition to specialists from NIT-Surat, Central Building Research Institute-Roorkee and the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad.

“After months of talks, they decided to remove all the sand. And when the debris was finally removed, it was like standing at the foot of an ocean,” said Champat Rai, general secretary of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra.

To fill up the 14-foot-deep trench, engineers opted for roller-compacted concrete, reinforced with stone dust and fly ash to increase binding force. “56 layers of this concrete were laid to fill 14 feet,” said Rai.

In any other mega project of this scale, planners would have the luxury of choosing the site, explained Girish Sahasrabhojanee, design and construction manager. “But here, the selection of the place was done by Ram. We calibrated our engineering and expertise accordingly,” he said.

Engineers overcame three major hurdles – negotiate the sloping land, make the structure resilient to occasional tremors given that it stands in seismic zone 2, and ensure that the materials used to build the temple should withstand the elements for centuries, if not more. “The brief was clear – the temple should stand for 1,000 years,” said Sahasrabhojanee.

The construction

After deliberating with experts, the engineers decided to build 40-foot retaining walls, at the same level as the Saryu, to forestall any erosion around the concrete foundation. To check porosity and bolster the foundation, a 21-foot-long plinth made of granite from Telangana was built to support the huge superstructure above it. “Granite isn’t porous so it was the natural choice,” said Sahasrabhojanee, adding that they hope the structure will withstand a quake of 7 magnitude.

On the choice of the material for the temple, there was a debate. “We had to meet the expectations of the people that the temple will stand for 1,000 years, so we didn’t want to use modern materials such as steel,concrete, fibre or glass rods. Hence, we fell back on stone – the one material that has a solid track record,” said Sahasrabhojanee.

The trust has been careful to imbue the construction with symbolism, showcasing the temple as the syncretic coming together of India — marble from Makrana in Rajasthan, iconography from Odisha, woodwork from Andhra Pradesh, carpenters from Tamil Nadu, brassware from Madhya Pradesh and wood from Maharashtra.

“At a time, 800 pilgrims will be allowed into the temple in four queues, and no outside flower or sweet offerings will be allowed as bhog. The trust will distribute prasad free of cost,” he said.

Rai flagged that the complex is self-sufficient (atmanirbhar) with two sewage treatment plants, a water treatment plant and a direct power line to the state grid. “A toilet complex with 100 washrooms, a pilgrimage centre that can handle 25,000 people and a health care centre will also be built,” he added. The temple is equipped to handle around 200,000 visitors a day.

In addition, an archaeology museum will hold artefacts that were unearthed during controversial digs by the Archaeological Survey of India at the then disputed site. “We found four different layers – the first from the Vikramaditya era, the second from Chandragupta Maurya, the third from Skandagupta and the fourth from around 1,300 BC. We found artefacts, columns and formations that confirm that Lord Ram’s temple existed here. It has been carbon-dated,” said Aphale.

As men who helmed this mega project, January 22 is an emotional moment for Sahasrabhojanee and Aphale. “We used modern materials and ancient-era techniques. India’s collective engineering wisdom was behind this building,” said the former. “I have no doubt that this is one of the greatest feats of engineering in independent India.”

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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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