A construction crew works on Ram Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024.

‘Religious triumphalism’: A grand Hindu temple opens on a controversial site in India 

On Jan. 22, a temple of Lord Ram will open its doors in Ayodhya, in northern India. The temple stands where the Babri mosque once existed, before it was torn down by a Hindu mob. The occasion marks a victory for Hindus and a sorrowful reminder for Muslims of the ongoing tensions between the two groups in a Hindu-majority country.

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In northern India’s small town of Ayodhya, Hindu hymns are interspersed with the constant thud of construction work these days. 

Workers are pouring cement into newly laid sidewalks and adding the final touches to a wide boulevard that leads to a grandiose, pink sandstone structure with intricately carved pillars. 

This temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Lord Ram. To many Hindus, reclaiming it after years of controversy with the Muslim community over rights to the site represents victory.

The temple opens on Jan. 22, but even a glimpse of the shrine under construction leaves Hindu pilgrims overjoyed. 

“Feeling is like a miracle. It’s a very pure feeling that we can’t express by words — pure devotion,” said teenager Kritika Chaudhary, who traveled over 350 miles to see the temple with her family. 

 Tourists take selfies on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya as Hindu pilgrims take a holy dip.
 Tourists take selfies on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya as Hindu pilgrims take a holy dip. The small town about 400 miles from Delhi is seeing a tremendous spike in tourism due to its newest Hindu temple.Sushmita Pathak/The World

The faith of millions of Hindus is tied to the temple, said Ram Chaudhary, who is named after the deity.

“We are so excited. We believe in Ram and to pay regards [and] respect to Lord Ram — that’s why we are here,” he said. 

The temple is also a win for Hindu nationalist politics in India during a crucial election year. 

“The opening of the Ram temple months before general elections underlines its political and religious significance in building a Hindu nationalist momentum ahead of the polls,” said Zoya Hasan, political scientist and professor emerita at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

Hindu pilgrims walk on a newly-constructed boulevard in Ayodhya, northern India, that leads to a grand temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram.
Hindu pilgrims walk on a newly-constructed boulevard in Ayodhya, northern India, that leads to a grand temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram.Sushmita Pathak/The World

Ayodhya, some 400 miles southeast of Delhi, is where Hindus believe Ram was born thousands of years ago as the son of an emperor. 

According to Hindu sacred texts, he is the ideal man. He obeys his stepmother when she banishes him from the kingdom. When a demon king kidnaps his wife, the warrior prince fights valiantly to save her and then returns to Ayodhya. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, celebrates Ram’s triumphant return.

The mood now in Ayodhya is just as festive as Diwali, if not more, because Lord Ram is returning to Ayodhya once again, said local shopkeeper Suchi Kumar, who sells sweets near the new temple. 

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for 500 years,” he said. 

Hindus believe an ancient Ram temple existed in Ayodhya, at his exact birthplace. But in the 16th century, they say Mughal ruler Babur displaced their beloved deity by destroying it and built the Babri mosque instead. 

Despite little evidence to prove that the Babri mosque was built atop temple ruins, it became an epicenter of Hindu-Muslim tensions — which exploded on Dec. 6, 1992. 

Spurred by Hindu nationalist politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered in Ayodhya to reclaim what they believed was the birthplace of their god. 

On that winter day in 1992, protesters jumped police barricades and attacked the mosque with pickaxes and metal rods, flattening the three domes of the 16th-century mosque. Riots broke out in Ayodhya and spread across South Asia, killing hundreds in one of the bloodiest incidents in the region’s history. 

The fight later shifted to the legal arena, where it dragged on for nearly three decades. In 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the disputed site would go to the Hindus. It is on this 2.77-acre patch of land that Modi will consecrate the imposing new Ram temple next week in a religious ceremony. 

“I’m fortunate to witness this blessed moment,” Modi said recently. “I’ve never been so emotional in my life.”  

Hindu priests conduct evening prayers on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya where a new Hindu temple has replaced a 16th-century mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992.
Hindu priests conduct evening prayers on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya where a new Hindu temple has replaced a 16th-century mosque demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. The temple is a symbol that India is increasingly becoming a Hindu-first nation.Sushmita Pathak/The World

The temple draws emotions of a different kind among Ayodhya’s Muslims. 

Mohammed Shahid is filled with sorrow every time he passes the temple. His grandfather was the last imam of the Babri mosque. As the mosque fell and riots erupted, Shahid, who was 22 at the time, took refuge in a police station, but other members of his family weren’t as lucky. 

“The rioters killed my father and uncle,” he said. They attacked his family’s shop and other Muslim shrines, tearing off pages of the Quran, he said. Dozens of Muslim homes were set on fire, including that of Azim Qadri, who was eight years old at the time.

Azim Qadri has painful memories of the day in 1992 when a Hindu mob demolished the 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.
Azim Qadri has painful memories of the day in 1992 when a Hindu mob demolished the 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.  Sushmita Pathak/The World

Sensing the turmoil, Qadri’s father had sent him off to relatives in the next town a day earlier. He remembers feeling like his neighborhood had been hit by an earthquake when he returned. 

Qadri is now an activist and a member of several organizations working for the welfare of Muslims in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located. 

He said local Muslims don’t want any more trouble. 

“Our mosque was snatched from us, but we have accepted our fate. Ayodhya’s Muslims want peace now,” he said. But he has an appeal for the prime minister: “Look after India’s Muslims, too. We are also your subjects.” 

Modi and his party insist that the temple in Ayodhya is not just for Hindus but for the whole nation and is part of India’s cultural renaissance.

Some Muslim families in Ayodhya are leaving town next week out of caution as Hindus flock to the temple from across the country. Hotel prices in and around the small town have skyrocketed. Chartered flights are crowding its recently opened airstrip. 

“There’s a lot of craze among people; people are waiting for the temple to open. They’re running out of patience at this time because this is a big, big civilizational moment,” said Ravi Karkala, a member of the temple’s trust.

Hindu pilgrims walk on a newly-constructed boulevard in Ayodhya, northern India, that leads to a grand temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram.
Hindu pilgrims walk on a newly-constructed boulevard in Ayodhya, northern India, that leads to a grand temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram.Sushmita Pathak/The World

It’s also a big moment for Modi’s party, the BJP, which led a grassroots movement in the 1980s and 90s to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The party rose to prominence in the years following the demolition, promising voters that they would build a Ram temple on the controversial site. 

While other parties dithered on the issue, “the BJP’s commitment for Ram temple, BJP’s commitment for the cause of Hindus has been unchallenged, and there has been no wavering,” said Sanjay Kumar, a political scientist with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

Souvenir stalls in Ayodhya display miniature models of the new Hindu temple.
Souvenir stalls in Ayodhya display miniature models of the new Hindu temple.Sushmita Pathak/The World

The BJP has delivered on its promise — just in time for polls. Kumar said the Ram temple will greatly influence the upcoming electoral contest where Modi seeks a third term. 

“There are other factors which will help BJP, but if you compare the standalone Ram temple as an issue…this is going to be the biggest factor,” he said. 

In the days leading up to the temple’s inauguration, media networks are carrying wall-to-wall coverage about the preparations in Ayodhya, much of it gleeful and celebratory in tone. 

Some of India’s top industrialists and celebrities are set to attend next week’s ceremony alongside Hindu nationalist leaders. In neighborhoods across India, residents are organizing streaming parties to watch the consecration ceremony live and going door-to-door to distribute sweets and grains of rice considered auspicious. 

This sense of euphoria would have been unimaginable in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kumar said, when not many Indians approved of the demolition of the Babri mosque. To defuse tensions, many citizens wanted a hospital to be built on the disputed site, he said. 

That has changed. The political mood has shifted to the right, and the fringe ideology of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, is front and center. 

“Hindutva politics is the mainstream politics. Hindutva is the way to move ahead. All political parties are trying to toe that line,” Kumar said. 

Multicolor laser beams light up the night sky on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya. The town is gearing up to welcome huge crowds of pilgrims seeking blessings at its newest Hindu temple.
 Multicolor laser beams light up the night sky on the banks of the Saryu river in Ayodhya. The town is gearing up to welcome huge crowds of pilgrims seeking blessings at its newest Hindu temple.Sushmita Pathak/The World

The shrine is “a symbol of religious triumphalism, a sign that this is becoming ever more a Hindu-first country,” author Ramachandra Guha, a vocal critic of Modi, wrote in a recent op-ed

Along with the consecration of a temple, “it’s also the consecration of religion in politics,” political scientist Hasan said. It “marks a decisive moment in the creation of a majoritarian nation.”

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