In the first half of January, I spent a few days in Ayodhya. I wanted to experience the city for myself, and to think about what it meant to be an Indian and a Hindu (or, as seems to be the changing paradigm in our times, a Hindu and an Indian) in the weeks leading up to an event, which over the last four decades has become central to our political discourse. I also wanted to spend a few days immersed in the Ramasphere—that religious culture, mainly in north India, steeped in the language and lore and pre-eminence of Ram—to understand how it was changing in the light of the new Ram Mandir; whether it was becoming deeper or more superficial, whether Hinduism itself is morphing into something new and more centralised under the influence of a Ram whom we are told was returning to his people for a second time in history.
“Jai Shri Ram!”
“Jai Jai Shri Ram!”
All day in Ayodhya, the cry surfaces in a city abuzz with electric drills and bulldozers as much as katha and kirtans. Ayodhya is freighted with the fervour, the tension, the anticipation, the ecstasy, of the return of Ram, now but the blink of an eye away. The coalescing belief among millions of Hindus from Delhi to Denver is that a new era in the history of Indian civilisation is to spring forth here on 22 January. If so, then these hazy sunless days of early January 2024 must be the last breaths of a godless age, clouded by ideas and values soon to be discarded because not authentically Indian.
Therefore, Jai Shri Ram! To spur our nation towards a second Independence Day, towards Ram rajya, to its destiny as Vishwaguru, Jai Shri Ram! It is the rallying call of the public along the 2-kilometre-long Ram Janmabhoomi Path leading from the main road, Ram Path, to the Ram Janmabhoomi temple complex. It erupts with particular intensity among devotees as they jostle and sway on the narrow steps leading up to the Hanuman Garhi temple a few hundred metres away. It is chanted more gently after the moving morning aarti, offered to idols of Ram and Sita swaying gently on a swing, in the courtyard of the hundred-year-old Amava Ram Temple, where people gather in long rows at lunchtime, a generous lunch of rice, dal, pooris, sabji and kheer provided for free by the temple’s Ram Rasoi. The temple has a striking crest of a giant bow, and inside, its own glass-walled shrine to Ram lalla, installed in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court judgement of 2019.
And even closer to the new Ram Mandir, where helmeted workers and Larsen & Toubro cranes work overtime, it sounds thrice a day inside the small temporary shrine set up in 2020 for the six-inch idol of Ram lalla said to have materialised overnight side the Babri Masjid in 1949—setting off a chain of events whose reverberations lead us to this moment. Getting to this Ram is not easy. The enclosure is approached through a winding, barred corridor after multiple security checks. The aartis take place in the morning, afternoon and evening. Only 30 people are admitted to each one by a very democratic first-come-first-served system run out of a small office at the intersection of Ram Path and Ram Janmabhoomi Path. When, after several attempts, I manage to land an aarti pass, several family members send me messages of congratulation.
All temple towns combine two orders of reality: the grubby and congested world of the lok and the ethereal and consoling universe of the dev lok, often tied together by loping and chuntering monkeys. Right now, Ayodhya has three. The newest layer resembles a film set of a Disney-style blockbuster. The shutters of shops for the 17 kilometres on the entire stretch of road from Faizabad to Naya Ghat, along which demolition and road widening continue apace, are newly emblazoned with maces, tridents, and bows. The brand-new bus shelters feature pictures of Ram about to let fly an arrow. On the ghats of Ram ki Paidi by the Saryu River, where scores of TV channels set up their nightly debates, can be heard the belligerent anthems of newly minted Hindutva pop (“Yeh Ram Lalla Ka Dera Hai,” “Kisi Ki Baap Ki Nahin Ayodhya”). And the stage clothes and matted wigs of Dussehra Ramlilas have been dusted off by Ayodhya wasis kitted out as Ram, Lakshman and Sita and rumbling through the city in chariots, or summoned by TV channels to provide a dash of wonder to their debate stages.
Many on the streets have the words “Shri Ram” or “Sitaram” stencilled on their foreheads in red on a base of yellow. The stencils are themselves part of a giant new industry of Ram paraphernalia flooding the puja samagri shops of the city: wooden replicas of the new Ram Mandir, Jai Shri Ram plaques, Jai Shri Ram ballpoint pens, Jai Shri Ram car dashboard standees, golden Hanuman maces, Jai Shri Ram bhagwa dhwajas and Jai Shri Ram charan padukas. The Ram-anointed maatha is the one touch linking a magnificent Republic Day-style parade of visiting faces, dressing styles, and tongues: Hindi, Avadhi and Bhojpuri; Marathi and Gujarati; Telugu and Tamil.
Most of the faces on Ram Janmabhoomi Path are the weathered, statuesque faces of old India. Some carry bags of tightly packed luggage on their heads; almost all are too thinly clad against the searing cold. Stoic and taciturn for the most part, perturbed by the high prices of things, they are suddenly moved to cries of happiness, sometimes even to song and dance, when they encounter Rama and Sita at Dashrath Palace and Kanak Mahal, the most-visited shrines of the pre-Ram Mandir era. These Indians seem to have dipped their feet only lightly in the waters of modernity, and seem to possess a correspondingly large psychic space for the adoration of Ram.
In the here and now, their sense of shraddha and bhakti sweetens and subdues the militant, menacing edge of the “Jai Shri Ram!” heard in so many other sites and situations in India over the last four decades. When a boy comes running up and offers to stencil my forehead for a tenner, I do not refuse the badge of the moment. Jai Shri Ram!
Under the grey winter skies of January, then, Ayodhya awaits its tryst with destiny. But will the city be able to bear the weight of aspirations suddenly invested in it? After all, almost overnight the actual residents of Ayodhya are fated to become a minority in their own city. Millions of Indians and NRIs, not to mention the ruling party and large sections of the mass media, are suddenly avid to become Ayodhyavasis, as perhaps they were not to become the self-composed, difference-cherishing people of a multifaith republic, lectured by Gandhi (always such a pressuring soul, especially towards Hindus) that just like swaraj, Ram rajya begins within oneself.
That privilege, that legacy—which even till a decade ago seemed a great gift—now seems banal compared to the opportunity to be the fervid, righteous praja of a new state and a new epoch. We are the fortunate generation chosen by Lord Ram after 500 years to restore order and purity, a single source of authority, to a mongrel millennium.
“Bahut kasht hua hamare sarkar ko”
Like Varanasi, Ayodhya is closely packed with few open spaces. For peace and perspective, you head to the river. The Saryu is where Ram is said to have ended his earthly life by taking samadhi in its water. On its banks, I am drawn to a group of eight sadhus clad in shades of saffron, ochre and white, marching from the main road towards the river in a file, like ants on a trail, to take a boat ride. Unlike prominent local sants such as Mahant Raju Das of Hanuman Garhi, who spew anti-Muslim innuendo at the drop of a gamchha (he keeps referring to the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh as “Akhileshuddin”) this jhund have the light-hearted and bantering manner of guests at a wedding out for a bit of sightseeing.
And indeed that is who they are: visitors from “Ram-ji ka sasuraal.” More than a thousand sadhus have just arrived from Janakpurdham in Nepal, “jahan Sita Mata ka janambhoomi hai,” bearing truckloads of gifts from the kingdom of Mithila to celebrate the return of their king to his birthplace. What have they brought? “Gehna zevar, sona chandi, bartan bhara, chaul-daal, chappan sattavan rang ke mithai” and, with a delightful touch of anachronism, even some gas stoves.
Under the grey winter skies of January, then, Ayodhya awaits its tryst with destiny. But will the city be able to bear the weight of aspirations suddenly invested in it?
The events of the Ramayana may be from another epoch. But to most in Ayodhya they are not at all remote. To the sadhus from Janakpur, as to so many others I meet, the Ramayana is the foundation and frame of reality; our life merely a state of reflected light, as the moon to the sun. (Valmiki achieved the dream of every writer: to tell a story that seems more real than the world itself.) The tracks and traces of Ram, Lakshman and Sita are still imprinted everywhere in the geography of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Nepal. They could have passed by last week. Sabir, a taxi-driver in Ayodhya, explains that when Ram, Sita and Lakshman left Ayodhya for the forest, the people of Ayodhya trailed them for a long time, weeping profusely, unable to say goodbye. Finally, 20-odd kilometres west of Ayodhya, Ram asked them to stop crying and turn back towards home. This incident is what gives that village its name: Raunahi.
“Bahut kasht hua hamare sarkar ko! Panch sau baras...panch sau baras kasht kiye,” exclaims Deen Dayal Saran, 62, barrel-chested, bearded, tilaked, turbaned, missing two front teeth, and all in all as charming a brother-in-law as one could imagine Ram ever having. “Our master experienced so much pain. Five hundred years is how long he struggled.” To his way of thinking, at once archaic and arresting, the world of men and women, family and society, raja and praja, was once and forever aligned by Ram, and then cruelly pulled up by its roots by an invader. Inevitably, the light went out of the world.
Very quaintly, Saran insists that Janakpur has an even deeper relationship to Ram now than ever before, because, when he deprived of his own kingdom five hundred years ago, “Ram-ji toh Janakpur mein hi reh gaye.” Even so, by the indelible rules of family and marriage in Hindu thought he was nevertheless always first and foremost a “pahunwa,” a visiting son-in-law. The right place for him and Sita is Ayodhya.
Many times this month, I have the feeling of sharing the same historical moment with another human being without us being part of the same age in history. This is the bewildering jumble of samay and kaal, old time and new time, that the postcolonial Indian state, itself the product of a certain historical conjuncture and committed to contemplating time in secular terms, has, unsurprisingly, found so difficult to order and harmonise. Secular time is a river; mythic time an ocean.
To the sadhus from Nepal, as to millions of other Hindus, the new Ram temple represents, even if not the beginning of a new Golden Age, at the very least the undoing of a traumatic rupture in history. And the architects of this redemption of Ram-ji are very clear: Modi-ji and Yogi-ji. “Ashirbaad dete hain Yogi-ji aur Modi-ji ko ke aaj hamari behen Sita apne ghar mein padhaar rahein hain,” says Saran. “We thank Yogi-ji and Modi-ji for allowing our sister Sita to return to her marital home.”
Mercifully, although they are not without their share of anti-Muslim prejudice, their manner is triumphant without being gloating. Ram and Sita are on their way. It is a time to shower praise on the entire universe, to create a mood of laughter and celebration. As we motor down the river, each man improvises a new item for the chorus:
“Sarju Mata ki...!”
“Janakpur dham ki...!”
“Janaki Maharani ki...!”
“Janak ke jamai ki...!”
“Ram-ji ke babu ki...!”
“Ram-ji ki bahin ki...” (laughter)
“Ram ki kripa toh Bhajpa pe hai”
Every teashop and street corner in Ayodhya hums with debates about the meaning of the coming world-historical moment, often garnished with a shloka from the Ramayana or chaupai from the Ramcharitmanas. The frames and hinges of the discussions wax and wane with tremendous speed: 2019, 1528, 1992, 1949. It is not thought at all unreasonable to assert a direct line of influence between the Treta Yuga and the 22nd of January 2024.
For a few days from January 10 onwards, the leading theme of town tea-talk is the decision by the Congress Party to reject the invitation to attend the pran prathistha ceremony of the Ram Mandir. This is projected by much of the media, following the lead of the ruling party, not a decision to maintain a boundary between religion and politics, but as a repudiation of the sanctity and power and grace of Ram.
In a discussion hosted by a news channel at the Ram ki Paidi Ghat on 12 January, Acharya Satyendra Das, the head priest of the Ram Mandir, is asked what he makes of this matter. “Dekhiye, unhoney nimantran nahin thukraya. Bhagwan Ram ne hi unko thukra diya hai,” he replies. “Aur is liye woh sadak par ghoom rahey hain.” “The Congress did not refuse the invitation. Ram himself made them do so. And that is why they are on the streets today.” He quotes from the Aranyakanda: “’Jaapar kripa Ram ki hoi/Taapar kripa karey sab koi.’ Ram ki kripa toh Bhajpa pe hai, jis se woh satta mein hain.” (lots of clapping and Jai Shri Rams!) (Those whom Ram blesses, are blessed by all. Ram has bestowed his blessings on the BJP, which is why they are in power today).”
The good Acharya is right. Ram is indeed a patron of the Bhajpa.
The Ram of the Ram Mandir, much though he is presented as all-encompassing, cannot quite shake off the legacy of the Ram of Hindu nationalism.
How could he not be? We may not be able to establish the exact date of the reign of the historical Ram, king of the Ikshvakus. But the Ram most often seen and heard today is, at best, three weeks older than me. He was born somewhere between April 6, 1980, when the BJP was founded out of the ashes of the old Jana Sangh with the support of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar, and 1984, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched its Ram Janmabhoomi movement to such startling effect. His martial nature and his Hindu-first manifesto were carefully crafted by the virtuosos of Sangh Hinduism. This Ram wanted immediate justice for himself, the right to his janmabhoomi, justice for Hindus who felt like a minority despite being in the majority. Unless Hindus mobilised in their millions now to agitate for his cause, they would always remain disunited and vulnerable. Whatever his long-term agenda, his immediate project was to bring the forces of Hindutva to power so that they could fully restore to him his own lost glory.
And so the Ram of the Ram Mandir, much though he is presented as all-encompassing, cannot quite shake off the legacy of the Ram of Hindu nationalism.
But just as Ram in the Ramayana often forgets his divine nature, this Ram, too, seems to have lost access to some parts of himself. He is a solitary avenger and redeemer, resplendent on the saffron bhagwa with his raised bow and sheath of arrows. He is hectoring and hypermasculine, but also hypersensitive to insult and continuously in need of validation. He wants non-Hindus to chant his name to prove that they belong in Ayodhya.
This Ram wants his many-sided life and changing faces in Indian history to be replaced by the figure of an eternal and unchanging Maryada Purshottam, and the history of Hinduism itself to have very neat, clear, proud, unambiguous lines, with himself at the centre. He sends the Congress and other opposition parties into a spiral of self-destruction for failing to support the cause of his temple. He speaks for millions of Hindus acutely conscious of injustices done to them for hundreds of years. But strangely he never engages them on the question of injustices done by them to others, including those within their own fold. If anything, because he was a perfect human being, he gives us the luxury of believing that we too are naturally dharmic (admittedly, a hard feeling to refuse). The Ram of Sangh Hinduism does not care particularly for inclusion; the distance between him and others is their problem. On the morning of the 22nd, walking by the river in Varanasi, I hear a song by Dinesh Lal Yadav “Nirahua” being played on past Dasashwamedh Ghat: “Jo mere Ram ka nahin/Woh kisi kaam ka nahin.”
The differences continue to proliferate. The Ram of the Ramayana gains his moral stature and authority by his willingness renounce power when it comes into conflict with some higher principle. The Ram of Hindutva, in contrast, seems, through the actions of his followers, eager to gain power by any means possible, as though to make up for “panch sau baras” of exile. The Ram of the Ramayana often experiences anguish and pain, self-doubt about the justice of his cause, unease about the way in which his code of Kshatriya dharma requires the use of violence. The Ram of Hindutva cannot be allowed to let ambiguities seep into his own power and glory by indulging these emotions.
The Ram of deep time has a sophisticated moral compass; he shows us, like many tragic heroes, that life often involves difficult choices between right and right. As far as I can tell, the Ram of Hindutva has yet to set any limits or norms for himself, other than to reclaim his lost kingdom and make his people united and jaagrit again. Nor has he been able to offer any meaningful contribution so far, as Gandhi’s Ram did, to the problem of how to bring an end to communal violence and religious enmity.
This question has certainly exercised some minds. “What will change in India after the 22nd? I will tell you,” says Sanjay Tripathi, a security guard at the Brijrama Palace Hotel in Varanasi. We have set up a little tradition of debating for a few minutes each day as I pass. “Because of what happens on the day, many people will become inspired to read the Ramcharitmanas and the Hanuman Chalisa. Our society has lost these habits. As a result, they will start to live more mindfully, trying to realise the dharmic values of these books. If even 10 or 20 per cent of Indians do this, our society will be transformed.”
Well said, Sanjay-ji! We should try to make ourselves more like Ram, not to make Ram more like ourselves.
And that is why, not just as a citizen of an India that cannot be simply reconciled with the idea of Ayodhya, but speaking equally as a Hindu, I find I cannot accept the unearned authority, moral complacency, and majoritarian political project of the Ram of the BJP and Hindutva.
“Ram rajya ki shraddha ko sakaar karne ke liye hi Modi-ji ka janm hua hai”
If anything, the Acharya’s point of view—much though, perched on his seat in his humble orange robes and woollen cap, he resembles a benevolent and venerable Old Father Time, and even though Ram, Lakshman and Sita can suddenly be seen walking around him as if to endorse his reading of history—shows just why the founders of the Indian republic invested so much energy in trying to constitute a public sphere removed from matters of religious faith.
All too often in history, God, whether in the form of Ram, Allah or Christ, seems to side, very obligingly, with those in power. To be a secular society—as we have in the past decade proudly ceased to be—is not just to require the state to maintain a principled distance (the phrase is the scholar Rajeev Bhargava’s) from religious institutions. It is also to honour the norm that reasoning in the public sphere about human institutions and human conflicts, about history and politics, be this-worldly, not otherworldly.
Millions of us may harbour an image of Ram in our hearts as a source of hope, fortitude and transcendence, as do the scores of Hindu pilgrims shivering in the cold in Ayodhya. But once we believe ourselves to be his agents on earth, we shunt our multifaith society onto a dangerous track: a state of ease and self-congratulation precisely when we should be asking ourselves searching questions about our place in history, about our duty to redeem many other injustices of the past, not just the one done to Ram.
It is in this more colloquial, but no less crucial, sense—the eclipse of secular and constitutional reason by a divine authority who communicates his power and policy via a proxy on 7, Lok Kalyan Marg—that the rise of the Ram temple spells the end of secularism in India. In a TV interview, former BJP MP Ram Vilas Vedanti summarises this thought perfectly: “Ram rajya ki shraddha ko sakaar karne ke liye hi Modi-ji ka janm hua hai” (It was only to realise Ram rajya that Modiji was set down on earth).”
We should be asking ourselves searching questions about our place in history, about our duty to redeem many other injustices of the past, not just the one done to Ram.
Nor is the issue, to my mind, merely one of the mass repudiation in India today of republican political norms and empirical reason. In the light of the last four decades, the Ram Mandir issue is also about moral expedience. About the manipulation of historical memory. The refusal to take responsibility or feel remorse for violence. About a dramatic upsurge of self-congratulation, stoked by the mass media, that is not accompanied by any evolution in the capacity for self-reflection and self-critique.
Suppose we embrace the providential notion—as millions of Hindus, following the lead of the Prime Minister and his party, are avid to do—that Lord Ram himself is the divine hand behind the new epoch beginning 22 January, 2024. Then is it to Him, too, that we should attribute the violent and tragic events of 6 December, 1992? Would a Maryada Purshottam have been at peace with his birthplace being returned to him by a Supreme Court judgement that also noted that the acts that razed the space for the Mandir constituted a “serious violation of law”?
Was the Babri Masjid destroyed by Ram, or by human beings of a certain militant ideology? And if we are prepared to believe that it was the former, that what else will today’s jaagrit Hindu, newly liberated from the shackles of a cross-eyed secularism, demand next by way of reparation? Will anything less than a full-fledged Hindu rashtra, its bhagwas fluttering and its anthems booming on the ghats of Ayodhya and Varanasi and on the streets of every Indian city, as they do now, be enough for our project of a civilisational renaissance? In a small teashop in Ayodhya, a perceptive young journalist says to me, “If you do not accept the ideology of Hindutva today, you are seen as being the product of a colonial mindset.” Why should the people of India be trapped in this false binary?
Amidst the hail of Jai Shri Rams and the frenzy of the massive makeover in Ayodhya, then, one hears the murmur of the mild-mannered old town saying goodbye to itself. Its destiny henceforth is to make India see itself as Hindu again, epic again. Without a doubt, the pran pratishtha of the newly made moorti of Ram is the first truly global event in the history of Hinduism, drawing a response from all Indians and indeed Hindus in six continents. But it also inaugurates an era of magical thinking in which the citizens of India are invited to participate not just in the consecration of the idol of Ram lalla, but the fusing of the celestial and the mortal realms, the Treta Yuga and the Neta Yuga, the Maryada Purshottam of the Ramayana and the Yugpurush of the BJP.
“Sita Ram Sita Ram, Sita Ram Jai Sita Ram, SEEE-ta Raa-am, Jai Sita Ram”
In so many ways, these are the last days of an era in Ayodhya. The city will never be the same again. Property prices have gone up 300 to 400 per cent in the last four years. Fifty million tourists are expected to visit annually—a boon to the real estate, tourism, aviation, hospitality, and pandit sectors.
I stay at the Ramalayam, a very pleasant new hotel, with a view of fields that will surely soon be bought up, run by Arun Kumar Dwivedi, a long-time resident of Ayodhya and a serious student of history. It is very refreshing, after the days steeped in Ram, to spend dinnertimes talking about other forces and currents in Indian history. In the mornings, I wake up to the sound of a chant floating over the rooftops with their monkeys huddled in the mist.
“Sita Ram Sita Ram, Sita Ram Jai Sita Ram, SEEE-ta Raa-am, Jai Sita Ram.” The same words, repeated in a deep, hypnotic drone in a 15-second cycle: 12 seconds for the words, and three seconds of silence before it begins again. It sounds like the murmur of Time itself, drifting over the centuries with Ram and Sita as its double engine ki sarkar and bubbling up here like an underground spring.
One day, just before noon, I follow the sound to its source 300 metres away. This is the Chaturbhuj Mandir, as distinctive as can be in this city said to contain 7,000 temples, its courtyard dominated by a giant statue of many-armed, many-headed Vishnu smiling beatifically beneath a peepal tree.
Inside the temple, where to my surprise I am the only person present, are many sublime friezes of scenes from the Ramayana, and, to one side of the garbhagriha, the chant of “Sitaram” emanating from a loudspeaker. In the low light, I do not see a figure seated against a wall until I almost stumble over him. It is an old, frail, dhoti-clad pandit with a microphone in his hand. It is he who has been chanting since morning, never losing focus, keeping perfect time hour after hour.
There is no argument or thesis in his flow of words. They, too, are just an assertion. But there is a perspective and a poise, a strength and a sweetness, a humility and a conviction, in his manner that seems worthy of emulation.
That is the kind of Ram I would like to see realised in India.
(Photographs & Text by Chandrahas Choudhury)
Chandrahas Choudhury is a writer and journalist based in Bhubaneshwar