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Ayodhya Gets a Makeover       

A new species of pilgrims has changed religion into an industry that follows pilgrims’ algorithms keenly and creates bespoke exclusive packages.
Ayodhya. Photo: Ananta Jain

In the fall of 1812, having successfully chased away Napoleon’s armies, Russian Czar Alexander the First decided to construct a grand temple for Christ in Moscow by way of thanksgiving. With the completion of the magnificent temple to Christ the Saviour, Moscow became the third Rome for the Russian public, writes Psakov, a sage and visionary. The holy temple project took 45 years to complete. It was consecrated in May 1883 in the presence of the then czar, Alexander the Third, as a timeless sacred spot. It was a really divya bhavya piece of art, more than 30 stories tall with walls covered with frescos, a giant iconostasis that used 422 kilos of gold, and a main bell weighing 24 tonnes. Its interior was dazzling with gold silver and gems.

The goddess of history it seems, had her own plans. The Bolshevik Revolution happened in 1917, the czar and his family were exiled and then killed. And then in 1931 the all-powerful leader Stalin decided to raze it and erase the memory of the temple altogether.

Mrinal Pande

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Overnight the temple was made out of bounds, surrounded by barbed wire. When the demolishers had done whatever they could, only the shell remained of the once magnificent temple. All gold and gems and silk and velvet vestments embroidered with gold and silver threads were removed .

The cycle of erection and after some time shattering of grand places of worship and then again their re-erection has a long history in the world. Ayodhya, the latest city to be re-energised by the building of the Ram Mandir, too has been through this cycle. Today few know that the holy site even pre-dates Ram. The Atharva Veda (second chapter) calls Ayodhya by its earlier Buddhist name, Saket. Buddhist text Divyavadaan corroborates this and says that Saket  created itself (Svayamagata, swayamagata Saket iti uchyate).

According to ancient folklore, the city that King Dashrath had built was buried under Sita’s curse. Several centuries later it was rediscovered by King Vikramaditya through a dream wherein the goddess of the city requested him to unearth her city. The king had it dug out from the depths of the earth.  The vast pan-Indian popularity of the cult of Ram and Ayodhya as his holy birth place began only in the 14th century with the Bhakti movement and its arrival up north in latter half of 16th century CE. Thereafter the Vaishnavite Ramanand sect and saint poet Tulsidas popularised it by their devotional poetry that portrayed Lord Ram of Ayodhya as the ideal Man-God (Maya Manushyam Hari). Linking this with the recent makeover of Ayodhya by the Narendra Modi government and its formal installation of an idol of Ram as a young boy on January 22 is actually a journey into time.

Establishing an area as a holy spot and building and rebuilding monuments needs clever negotiators and publicists. So after the Ram cult got going, Hanumangarhi, the fortress of Ram’s most important emissary, came up and by the 18th century became the natural meeting place for representatives of a slowly dying monarchy in Delhi, the empowered Awadh Durbar and the East India Company officials. All made important power-sharing deals with local mercenaries and bands of armed sadhus for years.

Also read: In Ram’s Hailing, Sita Was Forgotten. Her Revival Would Have Symbolised Healing for Men and Women

The latest rebuilding of the Ram Mandir at Ram’s birthplace began as an idea with immense political potential in 1992, the year of razing of the Babri mosque said to have been built by a general, Mir Baki, who had replaced an existing temple to build a mosque named after the victorious Mughal king Babar. Since 1992, Ayodhya became a political petridish in Uttar Pradesh. The mega 2019 victory in the general elections, the rhetoric turned towards erecting a bhavya, navya, divya (grand, new and holy) temple there to Ram, both by way of thanksgiving and declaring the imminent arrival of a Hindutva-driven state. Soon it got the necessary judicial green signal to go ahead. Work was then speeded up to try and coincide the opening of the temple in January 2024 with general election rallies scheduled just a few months later.

The Sangh parivar, aided by the Prime Minister’s Office, led everything from the front and at the installation ceremony of the Balak Ram statue, it was announced that Ram Lalla has returned after 500 years to his rightful place. As conch shells sounded and a thousand throats sang bhajans, it was repeated again and again that Hindutva was the future and the core of India and the Ram Mandir would draw thousands of pilgrims from not just India but also foreign lands where diaspora Hindus still follow Hindutva. It was also underscored forcefully how this would invite capital investment in the state and Ayodhya in particular and generate jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs and the tourist industry as a whole.

We who hail from Uttarakhand, recently christened Dev Bhumi, learnt early on how this works. The new pilgrims are religious tourists. The pilgrims had been coming to Ayodhya even earlier, but they were mostly simple rural folk or a few old couples with limited spending power and not much interest in worldly pursuits. The new tourists are young and will visit round the year in droves provided that pilgrimage trails have been made user friendly. No more smelly dharmshalas with bed bugs and bad food and temperamental Pandas for them. Photos of hotels and home stays, spas and food courts all along the routes must be available online for ‘customers’ before the group bookings begin. And yes, it will bring in heap big bucks.

But the new species of pilgrims has also changed religion into an industry that follows pilgrims’ algorithms keenly and creates bespoke exclusive packages. Old-style darshan and immersion in holy rivers are passé. The bespoke packages promise you “a mystic experience of a temple/city old-as-time!” along with chances to do a bit of river rafting and air diving. The tourism promoters hand you addresses and coupons for buying souvenirs and holy waters and prasadam, even send you maps dotted with selfie points. And of course, should the customers so wish, there will be camera crew available to capture the pilgrims’ waggish ego. Honoured pilgrim/tourists face none of the earlier multiple checkings by petty officials or long waits at toll plazas. Difficulties, as and when they arise, can be easily negotiated with some exchange of money and flashing official (read party) badges.

Also read: When Ravan Triumphs in Ayodhya

The jury is still out on whether Amitabh Bachchan and sundry others who have already bought properties to go live in Ayodhya, will actually stay there. But the millennial pilgrims’ progress in the age of global meltdowns, works along the evolution of the Amritkaal economy that has hard-wired them for planning for the coming year as they don their itinerant pilgrims’ robes and get into their SUVs or leave for the newly built airport. Damn the carbon footprints or local water shortages that are routine now in temple towns. The neo-converts to Hindutva: scientists and engineers, doctors, IT czars and environmentalists, both desi and NRI, are all happy singing and partying to pop bhajans. The built in obsolescence within such tourism models does not interest them.

In Uttarakhand, we see the results clearly. As more and more pilgrims flock to Gangotri and Yamunotri, the glaciers  recede. The broader the roads, the bigger the landslides during monsoons. Snow has already thinned to a stop in the entire Himalayan region. So watch out, Ayodhya; if you do not watch out, the place will lose its endearing  informality and become another industrial city inviting skyscrapers, vast traffic jams and malls with food courts.

Everybody knows this, but we are still witnessing the genetic inability of the rich and the powerful to deny the alarming reality of global warming. Inaugurating the first grand Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi built by the BAPS (Swamin Narayan sect), the prime minister described himself as a “priest of Ma Bharati”, and added how the grand temple in Abu Dhabi has enhanced Ayodhya joy. The BAPS, he predicted, will be a centre of communal harmony and global unity.

That is about as good as it is going to get.

Saakhi is a Sunday column from Mrinal Pande, in which she writes of what she sees and also participates in. That has been her burden to bear ever since she embarked on a life as a journalist, writer, editor, author and as chairperson of Prasar Bharti. Her journey of being a witness-participant continues.

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