Ayodhya, the fabled city built by King Dashrath is said to be one of the seven holiest cities in ancient India. This is where the fabled King and the iconic ‘Exemplar’ Ram was born and where he ruled.
In the seventh century it was also a major pilgrim centre for Buddhists as Buddha too had visited the city, which was then known as Saket. Chinese scholar Huen Tsang also refers to it in his chronicles.
Ayodhya indeed existed in a literary world in which myths and legends described in epics and folk tales, and songs handed down from one generation to another created an exotic city ruled by equally exotic rulers. Over the centuries the city of Ayodhya, like many other holy cities in India, has come to host what historian Rajanikant Ray called “communities of emotion.”
Around 1986, when the locked-up gates of the 16th century Babri Mosque were opened to allow Hindus to offer worship to the idol of Ram as an infant, the “communities of emotion” came alive and slowly grew militant and began opposing ‘The Other’.
Never mind that there was no historical proof of Lord Ram having been born at that particular spot in Ayodhya (neither 16th century poet Tulsidas nor the 19th century pilgrim Vishnu Bhatt made any mention of a Ram temple having been destroyed at the spot, where the Babri mosque stood by then). The idols that lay within the mosque had been placed within the mosque in the early 20th century and led to much tension; hence the locked gates.
By the 1980s, much water had flown under bridges of Ganga and Sarayu when the hitherto marginalised Right wing used a poetic license, quoted Valmiki and Tulsidas and raised a noisy and emotive call to build a temple to Ram at exactly his birthplace. “Hum Mandir wahin banayenge” (we will build the temple at that very spot) was raised. Hindus were told they must not accept any compromise and agree to build the temple at some other site in Ayodhya.
Pre-history of a political movement for creating a sovereign and national theocratic state usually enlists all available myths and rituals. In a land as vast as India, crisscrossed with various branches of religious thought and a multiplicity of languages, a few centralised and supposedly sacred ideas still helped invoke a specific religious identity and emotion.
The idea of a Hindu Ram Rajya has been around for several centuries. It is seen as a period when benign and benevolent rulers ruled in keeping with the best principles of kingship and people lived happy, harmonious and prosperous lives. To the anglophile ears of the post-Independence generations who grew up in egalitarian cities like Mumbai or Delhi, Ram Rajya may have had a remote and even a rustic aura in 1986, but it found fertile ground among ordinary people in small towns and villages who had grown up hearing mythical tales of Ram Rajya and of a glorious past. These were people who had grown up attending religious discourses and Ram Katha recitals besides the annual enactments of the Ram Lila, the story of Ram.
While the miniscule urban elite sniggered about the idea of a Hindu revival, in 1990 a pilgrimage on a chariot (Rath Yatra) in a Toyota van madquerading as an ancient, royal ‘Rath’ was organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a pre-Independence right wing body. The Rath Yatra set out from the restored temple of Somnath in Gujarat for Ayodhya, as a rite of national integration around the idea of rebuilding Ram’s birth place.
Sponsored by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and supported by other affiliates of the Sangh Parivar like Bajrang Dal, RSS and numerous sects of Sadhus. The Rath was one transnational symbol, Ganga Jal, water from the holiest river, being carried in a Kalash to sanctify, cleanse and reclaim the lost holy space, was another.
Scholarly controversies raising grave doubts about the claim and political objections soon had no traction as mass hysteria was deliberately and cleverly whipped up. All that culminated in the wilful destruction of the ancient mosque on 6th Dec 1992, and the rest is history.
A few years before people authoritatively began to rave and rant about Ram Janmabhoomi, my sister had visited Ayodhya. She told our grandmother on her return that the city was quite boring. Boredom in fact hung like a curtain over the city. There was an all pervasive smell of dust and decay. Even the big fortress built to honour the memory of Ram’s Bhakt Hanuman was more of a fortified space than a temple. Where was the throbbing community life of a holy city like Prayag or Varanasi, she asked.
My grandmother was from Awadh and had grown up between Faizabad and Lucknow. Ayodhya, she had replied, was a town cursed by Sita. People of the town had whispered slanderous rumours about her Charitra (character) after Ram brought her back from Ravana’s custody. When Ram bowed to public pressure and banished her from the kingdom, although she was pregnant at the time, Sita lost her temper. It is said she cursed the city that had spread rumours about its chaste queen. Ayodhya, she cursed, would always suffer from intrigue and infighting and be the target of rumour mongers. It would never know any peace!
Could faith in Ram Rajya, an ideal welfare state, survive my grandmother’s tale?
Assertive political messaging that seeks to relaunch a lost and mythical past in a backward area and dub it a miracle is audacious but also implausible. Clever copywriters and manipulative political advisors are adept at relaunching or refurbishing anything from a flagging product to a failing state.
It is not the saintly but the smooth event and publicity managers, who benefit from these exercises and create those oil guzzling “Dev Deepawali” and “Ganga Artis” in an area beset with the worst kind of poverty, both physical and intellectual.
They will again congregate in Lucknow and the holy city and plot behind closed doors in the best hotels in town to choreograph glitzy events. But can supplanting the iconoclasm of the past with destruction of India’s basic democratic principles set things right?
Blame it on plain bad governance or Sita’s curse.