Power of symbols, symbols of power: ancient Ayodhya makes way for designer Ayodhya

The streets I had seen were almost gone, the roads had become four-lane. A flyover had been built. After all, Ayodhya is going to be Vatican City, writes Aniket Anand

A typical street in the Ayodhya that used to be (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A typical street in the Ayodhya that used to be (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Aniket Anand

Ayodhya. Came here for the first time about two years ago. It was a traditional city then, full of glimpses of antiquity. There were a lot of streets, most of them narrow. The houses were of all sizes, big and small, of every colour. There were all kinds of people too, ready to talk.

There was a tailoring shop on Hanuman Garhi Road belonging to an elderly Muslim, whose name I can't remember at the moment. During our conversation, he told he had been stitching Ram Lalla's clothes for several years. His house was somewhere behind Babri Masjid. Once upon a time, his father used to offer namaz in the mosque.

Do you believe in Ram Lalla, I had asked a little hesitantly. He smiled and replied, "What is there to believe in this? He is our king. Of all of us. We all live under his shadow." I was reminded of Allama Iqbal, who had once described Ram as 'Imam-e-Hind' in his own language.

Well, this time when I went to Ayodhya two days before the consecration, that elderly tailor was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he had set up shop somewhere else, perhaps his eyesight was no longer good enough for the job. Anyway, Ram Lalla will no longer wear tailor-made clothes, he now has designer clothes.

Ayodhya, too, is no longer an ancient city steeped in tradition. Ayodhya is now a designer city. The streets I had seen were almost gone, the roads had become four-lane. A flyover had been built. This is all progress... so is it wrong? Should there not be development? After all, Ayodhya is going to become Vatican City.

Many houses now no longer have facades or balconies
Many houses now no longer have facades or balconies

That was my impression on this visit. For example, houses were demolished in to widen the roads, with the facades of many houses still lying scattered around. I asked 60 or 65-year-old Ramvati, "Did you get compensation for the demolition of your house?" She said she had been told that the house was built on najul land (government land used for nonagricultural purposes), so compensation was not an option.

So how would she build a house now? Ramvati looked at her broken balcony and said, "I will not get it repaired. Let it remain like this. The children will see later. Our house is broken, it doesn't matter... Ram Lalla's has been repaired." Finally, Ramvati smiled.

I saw something else that seemed special this time. It was once said that India is a country of diversities, with different cultures and colours. But some people don't like variety. That is why all the houses and shops in Ayodhya are now painted in one colour — light saffron. The outlines of the windows and doors are a darker saffron. Some houses or shops, however, are of different colours, as if there is a clear dividing line — they are not part of us, we are not part of them.

People have been painting symbols on their shops and homes. Figures of Ram and Bajrang Bali, trishul (trident) and tilak (mark on forehead). Big and loud. This is a new man-made Ayodhya in which religion is everywhere. Not least in the songs at the police booths and played by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) band. Songs like 'Ram Lalla aayenge, Hindu rashtra banayenge' playing on repeat mode. They may still be playing, loud enough to drown out both the azaan (call to prayer) from mosques and temple bells alike.

"Our house is broken, it doesn't matter... Ram Lalla's has been repaired."
"Our house is broken, it doesn't matter... Ram Lalla's has been repaired."

Met a photojournalist from Kolkata on the banks of the Sarayu, photographing the bathing and other rituals on the banks of the holy river in the month of Magh. He had already been to Prayag Raj (Allahabad), he told me, and had now come to Ayodhya.

When I asked him what photographs he had taken, he said, "What is there to take? So many old buildings have collapsed, all the domes are hidden behind hotels. All the temples are in one colour. The entire skyline is finished."

Oh. So that means Ayodhya is missing not only from the land but also from the sky. Obviously, when the hotels came up, the old buildings which housed the glory of Ayodhya were hidden behind them. Many simply fell, some were pulled down. And then the photographer said again, "I couldn't even eat properly. Everything is closed here right now."

Closed, i.e. for meat and fish. Not even the egg carts were visible. Perhaps they may never have been sold here anyway, or had been removed in the build-up to the pran pratishtha (consecration). But butter chicken was available in a newly built four-star hotel. People were eating it, too. Then what was the problem selling it on the road?

Since I couldn't ask these questions of anyone, I found the answers myself. Look, if Raju, Billu or Ismail sell eggs from a cart, that's irreligious. If four-star hotels sell chicken, that's business.

Shades of saffron
Shades of saffron

Had a conversation with a religious tourist, too, who asked with great interest how far Lucknow was. He had come from South India, and wanted to eat tunde (mincemeat) kebab. I said, perhaps the next time you come, you will find tunde right here in Ayodhya. The tourist wondered how that could be possible. How could one sell kebab in Ayodhya? I said, look, Domino's is open, it is selling chicken pizza, so why can't it sell tunde kebab?

Met another photographer, from a newspaper this time, who told me he had been in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, and said it was still difficult to describe the scenes from that day. "Somehow, my life was saved. Kar sevaks were breaking our cameras. We thought, even if our heads broke, our cameras shouldn't. Because if the camera broke, how would we ever repair them?"

So had his head been broken or saved? He said no, theirs were saved, though a friend's had been broken. This friend wanted to pick up a brick and take it back home to his mother (amma), so she could place it in her temple. So we picked up the brick for him, and then got him treated too. This photographer, by the way, was Muslim.

I also asked him what differences he could see between the Ayodhya of 32 years ago and Ayodhya today. A lot, he said. For one, all the temples had been destroyed. The last time he was here, there was several rows of small temples, which he couldn't find this time, despite a long search. I asked again, "You saw the mosque being demolished, now you seen the temple being built. What difference do you feel?" He said it made no difference to him. Running a household was difficult then, and is difficult now.

Power of symbols, symbols of power
Power of symbols, symbols of power

The good thing is that some paan shops are still left in Ayodhya. If you wait for a while at the paan shop, you get to know the condition of the city. The same happened at this shop too! I heard, and I understand.

Markets have prospered in Ayodhya. Big brands have arrived. The retail industry, food industry have progressed. Local people have also got work. Obviously people are happy with this.

Of course, people have also maintained tradition. The shopkeepers are still letting you sit, allowing you to charge your mobile. But they are also warning you. A shopkeeper says many mobile phones are disappearing and pockets are also being picked. Caution is necessary. And then they laugh, "Tell me, Ram Lalla has come, yet all this is happening!"

Somewhere, though, there is a sense of hesitation. People do feel that progress is being made, it seems to be happening, but will it last? The manager of a big hotel told me he had heard that a Taj hotel was coming up, and the Oberoi group had also bought some land but was now refusing to build a hotel. Why?

As manager sahib put it, "See, there is a gathering of VIPs now, celebs are coming, this will go on for some time. Then Ayodhya will be back to normal. People will come for darshan, but these will be more middle-class people. Not the kind to stay in Oberoi or Taj. We may need more dharamshalas or budget hotels."

I had moments of confusion about whether Ayodhya is growing like a religious city or a business city. And then I remembered that Ayodhya is becoming Vatican City.

But this was even more confusing, because Vatican City is not a city but a country. The world's smallest country, a country with its own government and administration. Will this happen in Ayodhya too? Vatican City has its own Constitution, and international rules are followed there. Will we see this in Ayodhya? The total population of Vatican City is between 700 and 800, and that of Ayodhya? The Pope himself, one of the pillars of the Roman Catholic church, lives in Vatican City. Shankaracharya, a similar pillar of the Hindu religion, did not even come to the Ayodhya event.

Can we live in Vatican City? No. Only those who are part of the city's functioning or security can. Can we live in Ayodhya? Absolutely we can. Can we stay in Vatican City as tourists? No, there are no hotels or guest houses. You cannot spend the night there. But hotels are opening day and night in Ayodhya. You cannot drink alcohol in Vatican City. There are liquor shops in Ayodhya, and a bar in the hotel too, only the license is yet to come through.

Perhaps Ayodhya will become like Vatican City at the economic level? But there is no economy in Vatican City. All expenditure is officially financed from the sale of tickets, stamps and emblems, but money comes unannounced from many places. There is no such thing as commerce there.

There are many such questions, but Ayodhya is not thinking at the moment. There is no think tank in Ayodhya. Ayodhya is just feeling. Excitement, joy, and lots of shoving and jostling.

Evening had fallen. Some lamps were glowing on the banks of the Sarayu. I asked a couple who had come from Maharashtra, how did they like Ram Lalla? He said the deity looked South Indian, not much of a North Indian touch.

Met a South Indian professor living in Uttar Pradesh. He was very happy, saying now, Hindus are "safe". When I asked who they were safe from, he said "Muslims". I wanted to ask him whether the politician who made life miserable for South Indians in Mumbai in the 1990s was Muslim.

Knowingly or unknowingly, a feeling was floating through Ayodhya. A greater feeling than devotion and reverence. The feeling that India is becoming a Hindu nation. Hindus will live peacefully in a Hindu nation. Hindus where? The answer, in Ayodhya. In North India. In the entire country.

Even in Manipur? A Ram temple has been built in Ayodhya, but will any Ram Setu be built between Ayodhya and Manipur?

I remember the line by Faiz Ahmed Faiz sahab where he writes: "Mujhse pehle si mohabbat meri mehboob na maang (my love, do not ask me for the love that used to be)…" And I think, if someone asks me for Ayodhya as it used to be, where will I get it from?

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