The Ram Temple in Ayodhya, whose ‘bhoomi pujan’ will be performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday (August 5) is being built by the Sompura family of temple architects, led by the patriarch Chandrakant Sompura who first visited the site where the Babri Masjid once stood more than 30 years ago.
From Somnath to Ayodhya, a family of temple builders
Chandrakant Sompura, 77, had started work on the temple to Ram Lalla in Ayodhya 30 years ago, after he first visited the site with then Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) president Ashok Singhal. Industrialist Ghanshyamdas Birla asked him if he would take up the Ram Mandir project, and introduced him to Singhal. Sompura had worked on several of the Birla temples then.
From then to today, August 5, is the longest time a project commissioned to the Sompuras has taken for the ground-breaking, says the patriarch, whose family has designed around 200 temples in India and abroad. “Usually we see the bhoomi poojan happen within 2-3 years,” says Sompura, who will be watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi perform the shilanyas of the temple live, on television.
Sompura has decided not to go to the site because of his age and the coronavirus pandemic. But his son, Ashish, 49, who has made the site plan of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple, is in Ayodhya to work out the details with Larsen & Toubro, the company that has been awarded the contract to build the temple.
The art of temple building came to Ashish largely from his father and great grandfather Prabhashankar, who built the Somnath Temple in Prabhas Patan on the Gujarat coast inaugurated by the first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, in 1951. Prabhashankar, who was later honoured with the Padma Shri, lost his son, Balwantrai, who was then 51, in an accident while Balwantrai was returning from a renovation project of the Badrinath temple.
But for the family, the Somnath temple is the closest to their heart. The Sompuras believe that their ancestors were taught the art of temple building by the divine architect Vishwakarma himself. The Sompuras, who come from Palitana town of Bhavnagar, consider themselves to be ‘residents of the moon’ (Som = moon and pura= city).
Their ancestor Ramji built the Jain temple complex on the Shetrunjay hills of Palitana, commissioned to him by a sugar merchant from Bombay who named the main dwar ‘Ram pol’ after him, says Sompura. He did not go to any formal school of architecture, having learnt it from his grandfather and father and the shastras, he says — his sons and others who joined in the temple project are, however, trained engineers or architects.
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Three decades of work, starting with pencil sketches
From the time when Sompura first went inside the garbha griha at the site in Ayodhya, measuring it with his footsteps as he was not allowed to take any instruments, the site was out of bounds — and restrained the architects from drawing up plans for the future temple. Back then, Sompura would make the primary pencil drawing, and the inking would be done by experts, on tracing paper. Just as Sompura himself had assisted his grandfather Prabhashankar when he built the Somnath temple and the Krishna Janmasthan in Mathura, Ashish too, joined his father around 1993.
Sompura had drawn up 2-3 plans for the temple, one of which was approved by the VHP, which had then taken up the task of building the temple. A wooden model was made, and at the Kumbh Mela that followed, the model was placed before the assembled sadhus, who gave their approval. Sompura recalls that before the Babri Masjid was razed, then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao had called him to ask if he would make an alternative plan for the temple to Lord Ram while keeping the mosque.
An “Ayodhya Cell” had been set up in the Prime Minister’s Office at the time, according to Rao’s autobiography, ‘Ayodhya, 6 December, 1992’. Sompura built a model with the three domes of the mosque intact, and with the temple by its side — an arrangement similar to the one at the Krishna Janmasthan in Mathura. But the VHP, Sompura had told The Indian Express, was adamant: “If the temple is not built at the actual site, it doesn’t matter to us whether it is built on the banks of the Sarayu or in Ahmedabad.”
The demolition of the Babri Masjid plunged the country into communal violence. The temple project, however, got a boost — now that the mosque was no longer there, the possibility of building the temple at the site believed to be the actual birthplace of Ram Lalla had opened up.
Between 1992 and 1996, work on the temple went on in full swing in the ‘karyashala’ in Ayodhya, and components of the temple were crafted. But then the VHP ran out of funds, got engaged in litigation, and work slowed down. At that stage, there would be just 8-10 artisans at the site, Sompura recalls. Hope skyrocketed last November, after the Supreme Court awarded the entire land for the building of the temple.
The last time Sompura himself went to Ayodhya was around five years back. His sons Nikhil, 55, and Ashish have taken over the execution of the project, and Ashutosh, 28, the civil engineer son of Nikhil, has joined them after training for two years in temple architecture through site visits and home schooling.
Among Ashish’s projects has been the private temple in the Ambani home at Antilla in Mumbai. The family has built the Akshardham temples in the country, as well as the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purshottam Swaminarayan (BAPS) Sanstha temple in Neasden, United Kingdom. The head of the BAPS, Mahant Swami, is among the seven saints who have been invited for the ‘bhoomi pujan’ on Wednesday.
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The temple has been planned in the Nagar ‘shaili’ (a style of temple architecture where the temple tower is built over the sanctum sanctorum. The other major style is the Dravidian, which includes gopurams), and is far bigger than what had been originally planned.
Three more spires have been added, one in front and two at the sides, to extend the gudh mandap (the covered porch); the number of columns has gone up from around 160 in the original plan to 366 (160 on the ground floor, 132 on first floor, 74 on second floor); the width of the stairway to the ‘Ram Darbar’ on the first floor has been expanded from 6 feet to 16 feet. The height of the temple has been increased from 141 feet to 161 feet, its width from 160 feet to 235 feet, and its length from 280 feet to 360 feet.
The expansion was made because the government wanted space for “more people”, says Ashish. As per the plan, each column will have 16 idols, which will include the ‘Dashavataras’, the ‘chausath joginis’, all the incarnations of Shiva, and the 12 incarnations of the Goddess Saraswati.
The unique feature of the Ram Mandir will be the octagonal shape of the sanctum sanctorum, in keeping with the design provided in the shastras for a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
The Ram temple, will be on a raised platform, and will have the four features of a typical Hindu temple: the ‘chauki’ (verandah), ‘nritya mandap’ (semi covered porch), ‘gudh mandap’ (covered porch), and ‘garbha griha’ (sanctum sanctorum), aligned on a single axis. The original would have used up to 3 lakh cubic feet of sandstone; an additional 3 lakh cubic feet will now be needed, which will be mined at Bansi Paharpur in Rajasthan.
The Sompuras had initially estimated the construction to be completed in three and a half years, but the pandemic could push it back by another 6-8 months. The VHP had commissioned the building of the temple to three contractors, who have now been replaced by L&T.