Saturday, January 20, 2024

Travels in the Year of the Ram Mandir

"Jai Shri Ram!" All day long, the cry surfaces and reverberates in Ayodhya. It is the rallying call of the public along the wide walkway leading from the main road to the Ram Janambhoomi temple complex, hazy with construction dust and lined by workers with electric drills installing large pink concrete panels to screen off the mottled facades of the decrepit buildings on either side. It erupts with particular intensity among the shoals of devotees as they jostle on the narrow steps leading up to the Hanuman Garhi temple. It is spoken more gently after the moving morning aarti, offered to statues of Ram and Sita swaying gently on a swing, in the courtyard of the hundred-year-old Amava Ram temple with its crest of a giant bow -- and inside, its own glass-walled shrine to Ram Lalla, installed in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court judgment of 2019 -- where people gather in long rows at lunchtime a generous lunch of rice, dal, pooris and sabji provided for free by the temple's Ram Rasoi.

And even closer to the new Ram Mandir, it sounds thrice a day inside the small temporary shrine for Ram Lalla set up in 2020, approached through a winding barred corridor after multiple security checks, after the aartis of morning, afternoon and evening to which only 30 people are admitted by a very democratic first-come-first-served system. When after several attempts I manage to land an aarti pass, several family members send me WhatsApp messages of congratulation.

Many people on the streets, and almost all those walking on the Ram Janambhoomi Path to gaze at the new temple complex from afar, have the words "Shri Ram" or "Sitaram" stencilled on their foreheads in red on a base of yellow. This is the one mark of uniformity connecting a thrillingljy diverse array of tongues -- Hindi, Avadhi and Bhojpuri; Marathi and Gujarati; Telugu and Tamil -- dressing styles, and faces on Ram Janambhoomi Path. A substantial share of them are the weathered, statuesque faces of old India -- people who seem to have dipped their feet only lightly in the waters of modernity, and appear to possess a correspondingly large store of psychic space for the adoration of Ram and the moral universe of the Ramayana. 

The traveller looks at the faces around him and thinks: our paths will likely never cross again. When a boy comes running up and offers to stencil Ram on my forehead for 10 rupees, I do not refuse the badge of the moment. The stencils are themselves part of a giant new economy 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, Hanuman maces, Jai Shri Ram pennants, and Jai Shri Ram charan padukas.

All temple towns have two orders of reality: the shabby and clamorous world of the lok, and the ethereal and consoling universe of the dev lok. Ayodhya feels like it has three: the newest layer resembles a film set of an unsubtle blockbuster. The shutters of shops for several kilometres on the road from Faizabad to Mangeshkar Chowk are now painted with saffron trishuls, maces, and bows. New bus shelters broadcast pictures of Ram about to let fly an arrow. On the ghats of Ram ki Paidi can be heard the belligerent beat of Hindutva pop (including the hit "Yeh Rama Lalla Ka Dera Hai" by Shahnaaz Akhtar) blaring from loudspeakers to go with the traditional bhajans and kirtans. And there are locals kitted out as Ram, Lakshman and Sita by TV channels keen to provide a dash of theatre to their debate stages.

Under the grey winter skies of January, then, Ayodhya -- already steeped in the language and lore of Ram -- awaits its tryst with destiny. 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 most of the mass media, are avid to transform themselves into Ayodhyavasis, as perhaps they were not to become the self-ruling, difference-cherishing people of a republic, reminded by Gandhi (always such a pressuring soul, and especially towards Hindus) that real ramrajya begins within oneself, that it requires great introspection and the abjuring of violence. 

That privilege, that legacy -- which for decades seemed a great gift -- now seems banal when compared to the chance to be the fervid, righteous praja of a new state and a new epoch, the fortunate generation chosen by Lord Ram to restore order and purity, a single source of authority, to a mongrel millennium.

Amidst the hail of Jai Shri Rams! in Ayodhya, one hears the murmur of the mild-mannered old town saying goodbye to itself. Its destiny is to be the beacon of a renaissance: to make India Hindu again, epic again.

“Bahut kasht hua hamarey sarkar ko”

On the banks of the Saryu, I come across a group of 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 the local sants of Ayodhya -- many of whom, like Mahant Raju Das of Hanuman Garhi, spew insult and innuendo and espouse a Manichaean worldview in which all who are not for (their) Ram are against Ram -- this lot have the light-hearted and bantering manner of guests at a wedding out on a bit of sightseeing. 

And indeed that is who they are. They belong to a contingent of more than a thousand sadhus just arrived from Janakpur dham in Nepal, "jahan Sita mata ka janambhoomi hai," emissaries from "Ramji ka sasuraal," 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 gas stoves. 

The events of the Ramayana may be from another epoch, but to most in Ayodhya they are not remote. The trails of Ram, Lakshman and Sita are still imprinted everywhere in the geography of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Nepal, and are part of a luminous and eternal present of a different dimension from the mundane past, present and future of the human soul sojourning briefly in this world in the body and on the river of history. With the men from Janakpur, as with so many others I meet, the Ramayana is the foundation and frame of reality; the life of this world merely a state of reflected light, as the moon to the sun. 

Our paths seem, paradoxically, to intersect at the same moment in history without us being part of the same age; this is the intractable jumble of samay and kaal that the post-independence Indian state, itself the product of a certain historical conjuncture and committed to contemplating time in secular terms, has found so difficult to accommodate and harmonise without capsizing under the current of cosmic time. To their way of thinking, both archaic and arresting, the world of men and women in society and history was once and forever aligned by Ram, with Ram, and was then cruelly uprooted. As the family members of Sita, they feel the feel the pain of their brother-in-law, exiled from his birthplace not for 14 years but five long and dark centuries.

"Bahut kasht hua hamarey sarkar ko! Panch sau barees...panch sau barees kasht kiye," exclaims Deen Dayal Saran, 62, barrel-chested, bearded, tilaked, turbaned, missing two front teeth, and all in all as charming a litigant as one could imagine. Very quaintly, Saran insists that Janakpur has an even deeper relationship to Ram now than ever before, because, being deprived of his own kingdom, "Ramji toh Janakpur mein hi reh gaye." He may have long been a resident of Janakpur, but seen the indelible contours of lineage, family, and marriage in Hindu thought he was nevertheless always first and foremost a visiting son-in-law, a "pahunwa."

To these men, as to millions of Indians, the new Ram temple represents the undoing of a traumatic rupture. The architects of this redemption are very clear.  “Ashirbaad dete hain Yogiji aur Modiji ko ke aaj hamari behen Sita apne ghar mein padhaar rahein hain. Kot kot hriday se dhanyavaad de rahey hain.

Thankfully, their manner is triumphant without being gloating; they seek the return of a lost utopia, but are without the hubris, partly encouraged by the moral schema of the Ramayana itself, of those who would believe that good is all on their own side and evil is entirely outside there somewhere. For now, it is a time to shower praise on the entire universe, to create a mood of mischief and laughter, singing and taking videos of one another, as one would at a wedding. 

As we float down the river in the company of the boatman and a life-size pink teddy bear (every boat in Ayodhya seems to have a cuddly toy), every man produces a new item for the litany:

"Sarju Mata ki...!"
“Janakpur dham ki...!”
“Janaki Maharani ki...!”
“Janak ke jamai ki...!”
“Ramji ke babu ki...!”
"Ramji ki bahin ki..." (laughter)

Heard in Ayodhya and Varanasi in the first half of January

"Pachas saal angreji saasan mein kuch bhi nahin kiya. Aur oo! Dus saal rahkar bhi kitna kuch kar diya." 

An RSS worker and a seller of nimboo chai on the ghats of Banaras, of Prime Minister Modi

"If you do not accept the ideology of Hindutva today, you are immediately seen as being the product of a colonial mindset."

Young journalist from Delhi, at a cafe in Ayodhya

"The credit for bringing the Ram Mandir project to fruition rests with only three people. First, Ashokji Singhal. Second, Narendra Modi. And third, Narendra Modi. Of course, the credit for awakening the Hindus and turning the Mandir movement into a mass cause goes to LK Advani. But Advani was not prepared to embrace the consequences of his own rath yatra. Advani and Vajpayee were both cowards. They could not take the matter the whole distance despite coming to power. For daring to do that, the credit goes to Modi."

Retired professor, Varanasi

"Even after gaining access to education, the people of India did not learn to think logically. They remained highly emotional. So we could not become a real democracy. We remained only a representative democracy."

A schoolteacher, Ayodhya

"More and more people are coming to my shop these days asking for history books about India. But of the right kind -- not the leftist or Romila Thapar kind of Indian history."

Rakesh Singh, owner of Harmony Bookshop, Varanasi

"Papa! Bachava! Bandar ghoom rahey hain."

Young boy, Ram ki Paidi, Ayodhya


Anonymous said...

Loved it 👏👏

Kamalji Sahay said...

This is a great chronicle of an event that we have been witnessing currently at a mega level. History is being created and also being experienced by the lucky population that is gathering around Ayodhya. Well done Chandrahas

Anonymous said...

The description gives impression of picturisation. Content, context, imagism and effortless flow combination are uniquely Chandrahaasivian.

Salil said...

Thanks so much for these despatches.

Anonymous said...

You have beautifully given a pen pictutre of the fervour and resurgence of Ayodhya - the Ram Janma Bhoomi
Jai Shri Ram

Anonymous said...

There have been a million ways in which people have celebrated Ram, even by way of pointing out his mistakes. That tradition is rejected by the new movement. For those who don’t take sides, life has changed. I am still hopeful that this rajya will have enough space for those who are not like us. Congratulations on a great narrative!

Anonymous said...

There have been a million ways in which people have celebrated Ram, even by way of pointing out his mistakes. That tradition is rejected by the new movement. For those who don’t take sides, life has changed. I am still hopeful that this rajya will have enough space for those who are not like us. Congratulations on a great narrative!