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For whom the bells toll

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on October 26, 2018 Published on October 26, 2018
God is in the details: The day after Dussehra, a grand procession of the Ramlila cast wound its way through Faizabad, with almost the entire town in attendance

God is in the details: The day after Dussehra, a grand procession of the Ramlila cast wound its way through Faizabad, with almost the entire town in attendance   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

Ayodhya’s fabled Ram Mandir — the plank on which the upcoming general elections are likely to be fought — continues to divide communities across the country. For those who live in Ram’s birthplace, however, the dispute is getting in the way of opportunities and development

Singer Sandeep Acharya’s voice — with the able support of Anupam Pandey’s lyrics — rules the winding lanes in Ayodhya that lead to the shrine of Ram Lalla or infant Ram. “We won’t nurse the serpent hidden in the sleeve,” he sings in Hindi. “Ayodhya belongs to Ram; and this is where his temple will be…”

Among the listeners are large groups of non-Hindi speaking tourists, their guides, surly police and paramilitary personnel, frisky monkeys in hundreds and a handful of well-fed cows.  The popular song seems to be sending shivers through a tiny speaker perched atop a stack of slim, glossy booklets on Ram Janmabhoomi.

 

Number talk: Ayodhya sees a large number of tourists from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

 

For someone who plays fiery songs in a loop, shopkeeper Vinod Gupta is calm and benign. His interest in the temple is dictated solely by business. Gupta makes money from the safekeeping of watches, mobile phones, wallets and handbags that belong to visitors who cross several security points for a glimpse of the child deity. The sun, almost always in good form at this controversial religious site, ensures a degree of dehydration by the time one returns to Gupta’s shop after darshan. Bottles of mineral water and glucose biscuits are always in demand, other than aerated drinks, guidebooks and plastic hand fans. Acharya’s songs are also a draw.

Life in the Uttar Pradesh temple town, about 130 km from its capital Lucknow, goes on as usual, but there is a palpable sense of excitement, too. From Monday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court (SC) is likely to hear appeals against the 2010 decision of the Allahabad High Court to divide the disputed 2.77-acre area among the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and Ram Lalla. Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi — the new master of roster — will also take a call on who will replace his predecessor, CJI Dipak Misra, on the Ayodhya bench.

“Just a few days more, dear god, and you will be out in the open,” says 78-year-old Jeetu Bhai, a devotee from Vadodara. He has been admonishing his wife and daughter-in-law for being sluggish in walking up to the temple. “Lalla is waiting for us, hurry up,” he says.

It takes his family 25 minutes to reach Ram Lalla. The view is far from clear, with several barricades between the two parties. With folded hands and a quivering voice, Jeetu Bhai addresses the deity who has drawn him to Ayodhya. He dismisses the grandson’s query on a “controversial masjid”. “There was no masjid to begin with. This is Shri Ram’s abode and will always be so,” he declares as he takes one last look at the spot where he hopes to see the sprawling Ram Mandir. It seems that the remnants of another structure, right next to where his god is seated, are invisible to his otherwise keen eye.

An illustration of Ram — in a youthful, muscular avatar — watches over the devotees from a huge banner on the other side of the lane from Gupta’s shop. A bright earthen lamp levitates near the god’s legendary dhanush (bow) while a cluster of Hindi words in saffron proclaim the advent of the fabled Ram Rajya. This is what Jeetu Bhai is waiting for.

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Compared to its twin Faizabad — the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) now wants it rechristened Shri Ayodhya — Ram’s native town looks rather unkempt. Air-conditioned bakeries and coffee shops haven’t mushroomed yet, so the neighbourhood chai stall and halwais are a dime a dozen. Decrepit havelis — many of them abandoned — are as common as stray cattle. And the dust, thanks to long stretches of a dry period, doesn’t ever seem to settle.

This is the site that has been the centre of a communal divide. The Babri Masjid, razed by hordes of kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, was built over a Ram temple, sections of Hindus believe. “Mandir wahi banayengey — we will build a temple right there” has been the rallying cry of Hindutva forces ever since.

Ready for the act: Pillars and columns of the Ram Mandir at a Vishva Hindu Parishad workshop in Ayodhya   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

 

 

Barely 15 minutes away, in another part of the town, stacks of marble and pink sandstone slabs from Rajasthan bask under the hot October sun. Some of these bear carvings in floral patterns while others are etched with figures and panels that tell the story of the Ramayana. A group of elderly singers, inside a large temple on the premises, recites verses from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. If all goes well, according to some believers, every little detail described in the epic will soon be part of the “dream temple” that Acharya sings of.

However, more than the expensive marble or the tireless singing, a “wall of faith” at this VHP compound commands the attention of every visitor. Local tourist guides claim that there are more than 3 lakh bricks in there, each one inscribed with the name of the god that defines Ayodhya.

The exterior wall of this compound, known as Pattharwala Mandir among locals, tells yet another story: Of Hanuman’s visit to Ravan’s kingdom Lanka as Ram’s emissary. The paintings on the wall are courtesy of a three-day Ayodhya Art Festival held earlier this month. More than 200 artists from all over India left their impressions of Ramayana — more specifically, eight major episodes from the protagonist’s life — across the holy town. Musings among the locals seem to suggest that it is a small step towards readying Ayodhya for the hallowed structure. The queue at the counter for contributions towards its construction has also been growing steadily.

Art for Ram’s sake: The three-day Ayodhya Art Festival had artists from across India paint episodes from Ramayana on the walls around town   -  PTI

 

Outside Ayodhya, the clamour for the building of the Ram Mandir is growing louder. With six months left before India goes to polls, this house of worship is likely to play a crucial role in deciding the future of the incumbent NDA government at the Centre.

 

Give and take: Ex-VHP leader Praveen Togadia has said that the BJP would lose the 2019 polls for not giving the Hindus the temple it had promised in 2014   -  PTI/NAND KUMAR

The growing impatience among the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its allies and sympathisers over the “delay” in construction is finding its way out through various statements to the media. Chief among them is RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s demand that the Narendra Modi government enact a law to pave the way for the temple. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray also announced plans to visit Ayodhya and “question” the Prime Minister for not “keeping his promise” in the matter.

Within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, members have joined the chorus, demanding the temple be ready by 2019. Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy has asked for an ordinance to facilitate matters while former VHP head Praveen Togadia led an agitation in Ayodhya earlier this week. His supporters clashed with the police in their attempt to break the barricades at the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site. Togadia even went as far as to say that the BJP would lose the polls for not giving the Hindus the temple it had promised in 2014.

The conclusion, however, doesn’t rest in the hands of the ruling party and its allies. From October 29, the issue may be taken up by the SC.

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Away from the shadow of debates and demands, Lord Ram and his retinue continue to reign over Ayodhya. On Dussehra this year, days after the first public expressions of displeasure by government allies and partisans, the town went about the festival with good cheer and mirth. Durga immersions kept locals busy in the afternoons while the evenings were spent at Ramlila performances.

The audience at the year-round show at Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan (also known as Ayodhya Research Institute) trickled in from the neighbourhoods: Grandparents with grandchildren, young married couples, groups of school friends and neighbours. The episode that evening was about Dharitri (Mother Earth) entreating the Holy Trinity of Hinduism — Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — to save her from the torture of Mahishasura. The gods eventually put their heads together to create the all-powerful Durga, who slays the ruler of demons. It is also Durga that Ram is said to have invoked before he proceeded to kill Ravan.

In black and white: Ravan and his men await their turn to go up on stage   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

 

Later that night in Faizabad, a glittering display of fireworks and effigy burning marked the symbolic victory of good over evil. Hundreds of locals turned up to watch the annual extravaganza at a ground near Chowk. Before Ravan went up in flames, a crew staged the battle in which Ram vanquishes the king of Lanka. On their way out of the venue, people in the audience relished halwa-puri from a temple around the corner. The police on duty discussed security measures being taken to prevent kar sevaks from entering Ayodhya once again — as they did in thousands during the razing of the mosque — but the mood at the maidan is more festive than militant.

The day after Dussehra, a grand procession of the Ramlila cast wound its way through the town, with almost all of Faizabad in attendance. A lavish chariot was erected for Ram, his siblings, his consort Sita and his disciple Hanuman. The vehicle, the last in the train of several other floats, stopped every five minutes, allowing passersby and shop owners from the congested lanes it rolled through to offer prayers and aarti. Onlookers joked as the actors politely refused to be force-fed in the name of being offered bhog. Sita was heard asking for a cola.

As “Ramji ki sena” walked alongside, trying to control two-wheelers and cattle from coming in the way, volunteer Vishal Gupta’s voice captured the anxiety that the resurgence of the temple issue has birthed. It is a fear that plagues many of those who were born after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

“I was an infant when the mosque was razed and curfew followed. I have heard my mother say that many families suffered due to loss of business. Even we went without food for days,” Vishal Gupta says. A state-level coach for taekwondo, the 27-year-old works with three schools in Ayodhya-Faizabad for a living. The money, however, is far less than what he would like to take home. And his hometown, he fears, seems stuck in a time warp. “I plan to move to Delhi or Noida next year,” he says while trying to help an elderly woman up the steps of the chariot that is a part of the pageant.

He is a Ram bhakt, he stresses. “I have even played Bharat and Lakshman in Faizabad’s Ramlila, but just this won’t be enough to help the town grow. The future lies elsewhere.”

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Guide Lav Kush Pandey (25) is equally sceptical about how a Ram temple would change Ayodhya’s fortunes. The sole earning member of a family of five, he requests his clients — mostly tourists from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Kerala — to find him a job outside the town. “A temple for Shri Ram is fine but can it give me a job that will take care of my family’s needs?” he asks.

Lav Kush has been in the tourism business for the last four years, banking on group leaders of large travel agencies for assignments. The earnings, however, are both inadequate and unstable. “For a four- to five-hour trip, I might get ₹50 per head. Sometimes that can go down to ₹20 a head, and if the group is not that big then you can well imagine how little I earn,” he says.

Keep the faith: Ayodhya is said to have over 7,000 temples, and each one has a story   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

 

 

It’s been only two months since science student Rajeshwar Pandey (19) moved to Noida for work. An apprentice at the Lava International’s manufacturing unit, his ticket to a life outside the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid conundrum came with the newspaper one morning. “I saw an ad in Dainik Jagran, for an interview for apprenticeship. I knew this could change my life,” says Rajeshwar, who is among the 90 candidates chosen from Ayodhya and Faizabad. He now earns a stipend of ₹9,000, shares a two-room apartment with five colleagues and looks forward to getting a full-time job at the end of the year-long apprenticeship.

Rajeshwar, who is back home for the Dussehra holidays, wants his younger sister to finish college and take up a job. He plans to send her to Kota for higher studies.

Eighteen-year-old Dharmendra Pandey, who comes from a family of tour guides, is less pessimistic about a future in his birthplace. His father and his 16-year-old brother are also in the business. “Ayodhya has more than 7,000 temples and each one has a story,” he says as he walks down the steps of the ghat to River Sarayu. “Shri Ram is what Ayodhya is all about, we cannot do without him. We need the big temple to get more tourists,” he says.

Five minutes after he has paid tribute to Sarayu, Dharmendra shows a group of tourists around Ram ki Paidi, a series of bathing ghats in Ayodhya. The water is a shade of moss green, indicating that it isn’t fit for a dip. The steps are coated with cement and sand, with piles of bricks crowding the sidewalks. Renovation work is in full swing with less than two weeks to Deepotsav — UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s pre-Diwali bonanza.

According to Ram Tirath, administrative officer of Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan and employee of the state’s culture department, the three-day event from November 4-6 will also be held in Lucknow and Chitrakoot. But the grandest treatment is being reserved for Ram’s birthplace, which will see Ramlila performances by artistes from Thailand, Indonesia, Laos and Sri Lanka. Some 3 lakh earthen lamps will light up the steps of Ram ki Paidi while a Ramayana-themed pageant will also be held on the concluding day. The couple that comes closest to the popular image of the Ram-Sita pair will grace the podium, after being flown in a helicopter around the town. Tirath puts the number of participants in the Ayodha event at around 800 and adds that all hotels and dharmashalas in Ayodhya-Faizabad have been booked for the three days.

United we sing: Young students training in Ram katha — readings from the epic — at a gurukul-like school in Ayodhya   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

 

Siblings Deepak (20), Deepanshu (17) and Priyanshu (15) are excited about performing at the Deepotsav, in the presence of the chief minister. Students of Awadh Adarsh Ramlila Mandal in Ayodhya’s Vasudev Ghat area, the Choubey brothers have been training in classical music and Shri Ram katha — readings from the epic — from the time they were three or four years old. Similar to the gurukul tradition, they live with their four teachers and fellow students in a sprawling but crumbling mansion.

The brothers have just returned from a series of performances at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. Rehearsals for the Deepotsav show, which could even stretch to three hours without a break, are eating into their sleep and relaxation hours. Deepak, however, has no problems with that: “Our music is of a different kind. It is not about getting a certificate, a diploma or a medal. Training in Ram katha is a life-long process and one has to make sacrifices if one is serious about the art.”

He concurs that his lifestyle is vastly different from that of his contemporaries, but “if you are in Ayodhya, then Shri Ram is a part of your life. One has to accept traditions as a way of life.” The brothers, however, are clear that Ram katha may not be what they will do all their life. “Playback singing is an option. We are also watching Indian Idol closely,” says Deepanshu.

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Sharad Kapoor, the 53-year-old proprietor of the 145-room Shane Awadh hotel in Faizabad, doesn’t share much of the enthusiasm around Deepotsav and other Ram-related events and developments. He has seen the worst of the divide from before the 1992 demolition. “My hotel had just 28 rooms at the time and I had journalists from the world over staying at Shane Awadh. People slept on the floor, on the couch, adjusted with limited supplies of food and even survived physical assault by kar sevaks,” he recalls. “The whole place was a sea of saffron. No one had quite seen anything like it. No one here wants to see such a thing again,” he says, adding that Ayodhya and Faizabad need schools, colleges and hospitals more than another place of worship.

He says he is lucky to have his two young sons by his side, helping him run the family business. They left Faizabad for higher studies and then decided to return and work here. “Not many parents here can say this for their children — there are no jobs for the young and people have had to let them go,” he adds.

Kapoor, however, won’t let anyone question Ayodhya-Faizabad’s secular character. “Whatever we have suffered was the doing of outsiders. People flooded our streets and tarnished our image. Barring that one unfortunate incident, we have never had any communal problems here. I just hope there is no repeat this time. It will be too heavy a price to pay,” he says.

The businessman’s pride in this secularism may come across as romanticism to anyone who has only seen the Ayodhya dispute being used to whip up communal frenzy. Yet, while polarisation over the temple and mosque is perhaps at its highest outside the region, there is a message to take home from some of the Dussehra festivities in the twin towns. Scores of Muslim families — with children perched on the shoulders of grandparents — had come out of their homes to watch Shri Ram’s chariot in motion. The elderly are heard answering questions about the “gods” on stage. As the hotelier says, this is the spirit of Ayodhya-Faizabad.

Published on October 26, 2018
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