The reawakening of an ancient city | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

The reawakening of an ancient city

Jan 18, 2024 12:21 AM IST

Days ahead of its tryst with history, Ayodhya is a town in a hurry, abuzz with the aspirations of people. But the shift goes beyond its gleaming facelift

Faint red smudges have begun to dispel the mass of darkness in the eastern sky above Hanuman Garhi when Seema Yadav sets out from her hotel. Her seven-year-old son Atul’s arm firmly clasped in one hand, she is sprinting up a maze of crumbling alleys. There is a kilometre-or-so left, and despite her knowledge of the backlanes of Ayodhya that lead to the makeshift Ram Temple, she is still going to be late for the morning arati prayers. The battered box of aluminium and steel on wheels that the less faithful might call dangerous dropped the family from Bihar off in Ayodhya hours after schedule, throwing her routine haywire. Atul tugs at her hand, lured by the triangular piles of besan ladoos peeking out from under half-shuttered shops but is sharply rebuffed. The 45-year-old gasps for breath as she runs up the concrete steps to the orange grilled counters, where she’ll have to deposit her belongings. The security bandobast that accompanied every devotee for 30 years, when the plot was disputed, has fallen away, the loops-upon-loops of iron patchwork walkways are gone, but phones are still not allowed. “It’s a shame, I wanted to click the new temple,” she rues.

To millions, the transformation of Ayodhya with the Ram Temple at its epicentre is an endorsement of the strength of their faith and cultural nationalism. PREMIUM
To millions, the transformation of Ayodhya with the Ram Temple at its epicentre is an endorsement of the strength of their faith and cultural nationalism.

This is her third visit this decade, but the first with her younger son. Her fears are overblown – the route only has a smattering of pilgrims this morning, walking past carcasses of hulking rods of fibreglass and steel. She gets the darshan, extra time for her son to see Ram Lalla, and a third packet of prasad for her mother-in-law who couldn’t wake up on time. Yet, her voice is tinged with regret. “I am a Ram Bhakt but couldn’t convince my elder son to come here. He keeps saying there’s nothing to do in Ayodhya,” she says. “But once the Ram Temple comes up, the town will transform – and isi bahane (this way), his life will also be purified.”

Yadav’s hopes are shared by the 90,000-odd residents of the ancient town which is being hurtled from its myth-cloaked divinity into a future where it will occupy pride of place in the heart of the Hinduism and become a badge of a new India unflinching in its championing of the majority faith. To some, it’s a deeply divisive portent that signals a break with an imagined pluralistic past, but to millions of others, it is an endorsement of the strength of their faith and the cultural nationalism over the past decade. “I remember the Ayodhya that neglected Ram; barricades everywhere, police frisking people, not letting us worship our god, and a dingy town unfit to be the centre of our astha (faith). Now look at it – it is as if Ram has blessed us,” said Yadav.

Harbingers of that metamorphosis are everywhere – the guttural rumbles of earth movers adding a constant background hum to the chants wafting out of loudspeakers, the roads being widened, the newly built footpaths polished, the facade of buildings washed in a uniform cream-and-yellow hue, temple motifs being painted on shopfronts, and smashed skeletons of buildings feverishly being worked upon. A jumble of e-rickshaws, bikes, scooters and cars is awash with neon lighting beckoning tourists to a new homestay, hotel, or “pure vegetarian” restaurant, all jostling to name themselves with some metaphor of the temple they serve.

At its centre is the cavernous 2.77 acre plot – the size of two football fields – where the pink sandstone temple towers above the town. Built in the Nagara style of architecture, it is held up by 392 columns and accessible through 44 doors, 14 gilded in gold. The 380-foot-long and 250-foot-wide temple – the ground floor is complete and work on the first is nearing its end – will be 161 feet tall when it is ready in early 2025.

Mindsets are changing too. Right down from temple trust general secretary Champat Rai hailing the temple as the new nave of faith, to autorickshaw driver Akhil Mishra hoping that the town will sever its hyphenation with twin city Faizabad forever, Ayodhya is abuzz with plans and aspirations of a people in transition. Nowhere is this shift more apparent than among those handful who fought the case that characterised the city to the world for close to 30 years. Across Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid is a fading memory – referred by the majority not even as a mosque but as a dhancha, structure – and its razing (arguably among the darkest periods of Indian democracy) no more than a blip in the march towards a Ram Temple. “That era is now over. We fought the case but now it’s gone, and we have to look forward,” said Iqbal Ansari, the son of the first petitioner in the case. Earlier this month, he accepted an invitation for the January 22 ceremony, presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Reimagining history

Lord Ram ranks among the most important gods of Hinduism; his name is enmeshed into everyday life in north India, especially in the Awadh region where Ayodhya stands. References to the divine Ram are suffused through greetings, metaphors in Hindi and Sanskrit, and common idioms and phrases.

“As a son, as a brother, as a husband, as a friend and as a king, Ram personified the highest ideals. For generations, people have been inspired by them,” said poet Yatindra Mishra.

Tellings and epics that centre him, the Ramayana, hold tremendous diversity – the scholar AK Ramanujan notes that in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama’s character is not that of a god but a god-man who has to live within the limits of a human form with all its vicissitudes, while in other renditions, he is the divine saviour of all beings.

The range of languages in which the Ramayana is found and read – Assamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, in addition to western languages – and the forms that these tellings take, such as epics, poetry, old mythological stories, plays, dance-dramas, sculpture, mask plays and puppets are testament to its remarkable impact.

“By land, the northern route took the story from the Punjab and Kashmir into China, Tibet, and East Turkestan; by sea, the southern route carried the story from Gujarat and South India into Java. Sumatra, and Malaya; and again, by land, the eastern route delivered the story from Bengal into Burma, Thailand, and Laos,” wrote historian Santosh Desai.

For decades, this scholarship was cited to underline how the legacy of Lord Ram was heterogeneous, too vast to be encompassed in a single temple, a focal point. But now, there is a churn, as a raft of new claims are being disseminated through books, pamphlets, social media, smart phones and even television channels; these see Ayodhya as the eternal abode of Lord Ram, an irreplaceable aspect of his legacy. So, even as cranes carefully place statue guardians on the colossal, marbled entryway to the temple, myths, stories and facts about the divine are unlocking – or reawakening – a new history.

“It is a pity that many Hindus didn’t know the complete history of their own god. It is for everyone’s benefit that the narratives of invaders are being dismantled in favour of our own story, our faith,” said Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Sharad Sharma.

In this view, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is but a trice, a minor irritant in the glorious seat of Ram worship. The fracas isn’t 150 years old – documents record 1855 as the year the first disturbance occurred – but is 550 years old, likely dating back to the Babri Masjid’s construction.

In this view, the English were not opposed to giving the plot away but actively supported the Hindu claim that this was the birthplace of Lord Ram, whose history begins not in the modern era, but in the 12th century BC. “Not just once, on several occasions, British officers chanted the name of Ram. British travellers only saw Ram in Ayodhya,” writes Hemant Sharma in his book, Ram Phir Laute (Ram Returns Again), now part of the bouquet of literature that the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra aims to disseminate among devotees. In another book, Kya Kehti Saryu Dhara (What the Saryu says), the writer, Pratap Narayan Mishra, describes the history of the Ram Janmabhoomi as one continuous arc beginning during the time of the legendary king Vikramaditya, during which foreign invaders attempted to damage the edifice of faith, only be repulsed valiantly by Hindu monarchs and heroes. “In ancient times, the temple was spread over 600 acres… and its tallest spire was visible from Mankapur in Gonda [across the river, a distance of 30km],” the book says. The VHP now plans to mobilise 500,000 temples across the country in prayers and distribute similar material.

Many historians dispute this sequence of events. But for its proponents, the opening of the Ram Temple is a civilisational moment – not just in the modern sense, but also for the imagination of Hindu faith shaping the nation-state. “It is the beginning of Ram Rajya,” said Satyendra Das, the chief priest of the makeshift temple.

Dawn of a new Ayodhya

Ayodhya is in a hurry; the debris of its mofussil past are stacked by the sides of its newly widened roads. Shrunken, uniform shops line the 13km-long Ram Path, the avenue that now bisects the temple town, awash in the white glow of trident-shaped streetlights. At either end of this avenue are twin behemoth gates shaped like Ram’s bow laid on its side. Four more Ram Dwars will come up. The new central square, Lata Mangeshkar Chowk, boasts of a 14-tonne Veena sculpture. Brown pillars with carvings that support giant sun-shaped lights line the road where a Ramayana-themed amusement park is also planned. Shutters are painted with motifs of the conch, mace, saffron flag, bow and arrow, or Jai Shri Ram in ornate lettering.

From his vantage point just around the corner to the Ram Temple, Udaykant Jha has been chronicling the rapid changes. The 62-year-old sells miniature replicas of the temple from his pushcart, one of many that line the now gleaming road up to the under-construction Mandir. Standing at the spot for 40 years, he has seen Ayodhya’s transformation, from a clogged satellite town to Faizabad to the latter now being reduced to a footnote even in billboards and shop signages. “I have been offered a shop too, but it’s far away, and I need to pay a few lakhs in advance money to take possession,” he says. Around him, rents have risen fourfold since construction began, even for shops on the road.

Since the 2019 Supreme Court judgment, the government, too, has poured in time and investment into the region. Ayodhya divisional commissioner Gaurav Dayal said 178 projects worth 32,000 crore are currently underway. “Out of these, four major projects, the Ayodhya airport, Ayodhya railway station and four pathways have been completed,” he said.

Ayodhya sits smack in the middle of a relatively impoverished belt in the heartland and is ringed by districts with relatively low incomes and industrialisation. The administration admits it is battling a twin challenge – attracting high net-worth tourists the way other temple towns such as Tirupati or Vaishno Devi-Katra are able to, and then convince them to spend the night in town, not drive back to Lucknow, two hours away by road.

The government, though, has a plan. “Religious tourism has gained momentum in Ayodhya. This overall development of the city with increased amenities will encourage tourists to stay back in Ayodhya,” said state tourism and culture minister Jaiveer Singh. The new airport and the facelift of the railway station, once a nightmare with leaky roofs and broken platforms, is one part of the puzzle. A second chunk is the hospitality industry – a mesh of homestays, budget hotels and a clutch of premium offerings. Dayal said 30 hotel applications have been cleared, as have been 1,000 proposals for homestays. “In addition, 160 houses have been selected where tourists could stay…rates will be decided by individuals according to facilities provided by them. We will make sure that tariff is reasonable.”

As of now, room rates for the dates of the consecration ceremony are between three and five times more than the usual rates. Offline, rooms priced at 1,500 are going for more than 30,000 a night. Hotels, big and small, are cashing in on the boom. “After the January 22 ceremony, we are hoping to get a manifold increase in footfall and are accordingly getting ready,” said Anup Gupta, owner of Shri Ram Hotel, Ayodhya. A Holy Ayodhya app by the government can help pilgrims make bookings and check distances – with properties largely under 2,500 a night.

The dearth of rooms, the authorities hope, will also be supplanted by the six tent cities coming up around the city with a capacity of 80,000 people. Many of them are stark boxes of tin and aluminium stapled together on the grounds of local temples, with a pile of blankets to survive the cold, and a commode in a walled-off enclosure. But that’s not all of them.

On the banks of the Saryu stands a gleaming new luxury encampment, fitted with white air-conditioned tents, LED televisions, open-air seating and sumptuous upholstery – a rarity in the city’s shoestring aesthetic. “We have built this 30-room facility and another 40-room one nearby. The key is comfort, for high-end devotees,” said Krishan Kant, manager of the Praveg tent city. A new Radisson property in Faizabad will further cater to this segment.

The third piece of the puzzle is real estate. Two years ago, Brij Agarwal was planning to sell his two-storey house and move in with his son in Delhi but saw that property rates were going up in anticipation of the tourism boom. “Rates are now up from 1,000 per square feet to now about 3,000. I’ll hold out for a little bit more to see how the boom goes,” he says. Among the splashiest entries into this space is that of the Mumbai-based firm, House of Abhinandan Lodha, which is building a 25-acre development which overlooks the Sarayu. “We have announced a massive investment of 1,200 crore solely dedicated to the economic development of the city… Over and above that, our plan is to invest 3,000 crore to develop integrated townships for the development of Ayodhya,” the company said in its promotional material.

Across the Saryu, a new greenfield township is being planned, according to the 2031 Ayodhya Master plan. This 1,200 acre township will include ashrams, mutts, high-end hotels, state bhawans, and guest houses. “The CM has directed officials to expand Ayodhya Master Plan, 2031, up to the boundaries of the 84 kosi Parikrama marg. The 84 kosi parikrama route passes through five districts, including Basti, Ayodhya, Ambedkar Nagar, Barabanki and Gonda,” said Dayal.

Finding space in a new city

As the city is wrenched from its messy past, not everyone is happy. In the twilight hour, four men have gathered outside a shop on Ram Path for an adda. One of their shops was pushed back from the road during the widening project, its front facade smashed and then remade. “But only 50% of the shop is left. The demolition was unmanaged, unplanned. Houses that were 200 years old were destroyed,” said Shakti Jaiswal. In the scraps of bricks and cement heaped across Ayodhya, there are many such stories. Compensation has been paid, but since many didn’t own the shop, or have the papers to show that they were legal renters, they’ve received little money.

Ram Kumar is one of them. The Dalit man has a family of six, but only a couple of crumbling rooms to accommodate them. Living across the road from the Prayeg complex, Kumar and his brothers saw their land being taken over and houses partially razed. “We’ve lived here for 50 years but didn’t have pucca papers; the babus told us that this was najul zameen, or government land given on lease,” said Kumar. The eldest of four brothers, he now hopes for a job when tourism booms. “I have a masters; do you think they’ll keep me at the hotel?”

Across the city, concerns waft like whispers – will crime increase? Will outsiders take over? Will there be enough from tourism for everyone to get by? And will Ayodhya still be the centre of frugality and piety, as the holy books describe it? “The madness of business changes a place… In Ayodhya, it was our tradition that whenever someone came to a temple, they’d be given a place to stay and meals for three days, no questions asked,” explained Mithilesh Nandini Sharan, one of the seniormost priests in the city. “Do you think the new Ayodhya will continue this legacy?”

But enthusiasm is palpable – young men from Gonda out for a joyride and a splash at Ram Ki Paidi ghat shout Jai Shri Ram into the camera, as do groups of school children in e-rickshaws crossing each other. Even those aggrieved by the process take pride in it. “We spilt our blood, it’s our mandir,” said Jaiswal.

In this city in transition, fact and fiction often fuse together, held together by faith and the weight of history. Take a left from the chowk named after Vibhishan’s son Matgajendra and you reach Guptar ghat, where Ram is believed to have taken Jal Samadhi (water burial). Or you could go to Kanak Bhavan, said to have been gifted to Sita by Kaikeyi, or Nageshwar Nath, believed to have been built by Ram’s son Kush. Yadav is overwhelmed – it’s her last day in Ayodhya, and there’s so much to do. “And if I don’t get prasad from each temple, my mother-in-law won’t be happy,” she says. Her bus leaves in the morning, but she is used to its tardiness, hoping to sneak in one early morning darshan. “I’ll be back soon, and this time, I’ll bring my elder son,” she says, inundating her plate of rice with rajma.

“For us Hindus, this will be our new centre of faith.”

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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.


    Pawan Dixit has been a journalist for over a decade. He has extensively covered eastern UP for around five years, covered 2012 UP assembly polls, 2014 Lok Sabha polls while being stationed in Varanasi. Now, in Lucknow, he covers outstation political assignments, reports special cases from district court, high court and state information commission

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