Rituals begin as Ayodhya counts down to August 5
Ahead of the ceremony, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath visited the Ram Janmabhoomi site with senior officials to review preparations.Updated: Aug 04, 2020, 01:01 IST
At 9.30am on Monday with the chanting of Vedic hymns, a group of 21 Hindu priests began a holy ceremony that will culminate with Prime Minister Narendra Modi laying the foundation stone of the Ram temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya town two days later, marking a key milestone as a 135-year conflict that sparked riots and left thousands dead heads towards closure.
The two-hour Gauri Ganesh Puja, in honour of Hindu god Ganesh, was helmed by Vanarasi-based priest, Jai Prakash Upadhyay, as the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Tirath Kshetra Trust, which is overseeing the temple’s construction, confirmed that 175 guests were invited for Wednesday’s ceremony.
“Before any auspicious work, lord Ganesh is worshipped. So, before the construction of Ram Mandir, this ritual was performed,” said Mahant Kamal Nayan Das, designated successor to Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, the temple trust chief. The 175 guests include top politicians, religious leaders, Hindu seers and eminent people from Ayodhya town.
Ahead of the ceremony, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath visited the Ram Janmabhoomi site with senior officials to review preparations. He also went to the Hanuman Garhi temple, where Modi is expected to offer prayers before the ceremony on Wednesday.
“It is not only a historic but also an emotional moment as after 500 years the Ram temple work will start. It will be the foundation of a new India,” Adityanath told reporters.
The temple trust released the main invitation for the ceremony that listed PM Modi, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, Adityanath and UP governor Anandiben Patel as guests. The invitation, which had an image of Ram Lalla, or infant Ram, on the obverse, was issued in the name of Mahant Nritya Gopal Das.
“Sacred soil from more than 2000 teerth sthan [pilgrim spots] and water from more than 100 rivers has been brought to Ayodhya for Bhumi Pujan,” the trust tweeted.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 16lives in Ayodhya, has cast a shadow on the ceremony. On Monday, Prem Kumar Tiwari — part of the team that conducts the daily rituals at the existing makeshift temple — was found infected by the virus, confirmed head priest Satyendra Das. Just last week, another junior priest and four more staff were infected.
“Of course it is worrying,’’ Das said over the phone. “We all stay in the same area in the temple. I also have some other conditions and I’m not a young man,’’ added the 82-year-old.
The pandemic has forced authorities to keep invitees to a minimum but senior officials were confident of Covid protocols and social distancing guidelines being followed. We have tested a large number of people and we are taking all precautions. I don’t think this event has any risks at all,’’ said a senior district official who didn’t want to be named.
The state government appealed to people to remain indoors and not travel to the temple site.
“Covid-19 protocol will be strictly followed at the event. As the Prime Minister will be here representing 135 crore people, I appeal that only those who have been invited should visit Ayodhya. The rest should remain at their respective places,” Adityanath said, adding no laxity will be allowed.
Two leaders who were an integral part of the Ram temple movement – former deputy prime minister LK Advani and former education minister MM Joshi --- will not be there. The decision was taken keeping in mind their advanced age and the threat of the coronavirus disease, trust general secretary Champat Rai said in a press conference.
”We didn’t invite those over 90. How could Parasaran ji [K Parasaran, the lead counsel for the Hindu side in the Supreme Court] come from Chennai? How could Advaniji come from Delhi in these corona times?’’ he said.
The city, roughly 130km from Lucknow, is cloaked in security with 4,000security personnel manning the site and 75 check posts blocking approach roads. The district borders will be sealed from Monday night. “Over 300 police personnel, who are younger, fit and healthy as well as tested negative for Covid-19 infection, have already been handpicked for deployment in VVIP security,” said a senior police official on condition of anonymity.
Still, it is not a dampener on enthusiasm among local residents with people saying they will light earthen lamps at home and participate in small-scale rituals in every neighbourhood to mark the building of the temple. The city has been decked with 150,000 lamps, many buildings sport a fresh coat of paint and murals from the epic Ramayana on walls, and evenings are dedicated to chants of hymns in praise of Ram. As many as 5,100 urns will be decorated by local artists and placed on the road that Modi will travel on.
“Lot of activity is going on in Ayodhya. Many projects are underway. We are hopeful that Ram Mandir will also bring development to Ayodhya,” said Satyendra Gupta, 32.
Political opposition to the temple has been muted in recent years with leaders of the Congress party laying claim to the legacy of the temple movement. “The foundation stone has already been laid, Rajiv Gandhi ji did it,” senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said on Monday. In 1986, the then Congress government had allowed the locks of the disputed structure to be opened and in 1989, allowed a ceremony to take place adjacent to the site.
Elsewhere, Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Kamal Nath said he will lead party workers in reciting the Hanuman Chalisa on Tuesday and the party-led Chhattisgarh government announced development of three separate tourist circuits linked with Ram’s exile.
The temple’s groundbreaking ceremony marks the beginning of the end of a religious dispute that dates back to 1885, when a Hindu priest petitioned the local court to build a temple where the 16th-century Babri Masjid stood.
Religious tensions, simmering since Ram idols appeared under the central dome of the mosque in 1949, exploded on December 6, 1992 when thousands of Kar sevaks, or Hindu religious volunteers, scaled the mosque and demolished it. A political upheaval ensued that resulted in the dismissal of the state government even as a wave of communal riots swept India, killing thousands. The government took control of the site and surrounding areas and the battle for the site moved from the streets to the courts.
The construction of the temple was cleared in a landmark verdict by the Supreme Court last year in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. A five-judge bench of the apex court awarded the 2.77 acre disputed site to the representative of Ram Lalla and instructed the Centre to set up a trust to oversee the construction of a temple. It also gave the main Muslim litigant, the UP Sunni Central Waqf Board, five acres of land at an alternative site in the district for a mosque.
A separate criminal suit for the mosque demolition – where Advani and Joshi are accused – is being heard by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court, which completed recording statements of all 32 accused people on July 28.