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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Ayodhya ‘Bigger temple, 3 domes, double the sandstone’

The Ram temple has been on Chandrakant Sompura’s drawing board for close to 30 years. As the plan begins to take shape, with a bhoomi pujan planned for Aug 5, The Sunday Express meets the Ahmedabad-based architect.

Written by Leena Misra |
Updated: July 26, 2020 2:12:36 pm
Ayodhya ‘A matter of great pride and happiness for us’ A computerised 3D view of the Ram temple

Sometime in 1990, Chandrakant Sompura first visited Ayodhya with then chief of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Ashok Singhal. Then 47, Sompura, from a family of temple architects in Ahmedabad, recalls how the disputed site resembled a “military camp”. “I had to go inside without any measuring instruments, and take the dimension of the sanctum sanctorum by counting my footsteps,” he says.

That was the first time “a temple at the birthplace of Lord Ram” — by then a symbol at the centre of a movement that would go on to redefine Indian politics — took shape in Sompura’s head. “That place certainly had some vibration…,” says Sompura, now 77 and the patriarch of the family-run firm, ‘C B Sompura, Temple Architects’, which is at the helm of the Ram temple project.

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After decades of tumult that witnessed the destruction of the Babri Masjid and led to protracted court battles, in November last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the entire disputed land be handed over to a trust to be constituted for the construction of a Ram temple. The trial in the demolition case continues to be heard in a special CBI court.

Ayodhya ‘A matter of great pride and happiness for us’ The Sompuras — Chandrakant Sompura (in pink kurta) and his sons Nikhil (on his left) and Ashish (far left) — have built over 200-odd temples. (Express Photo by Javed Raja)

With the temple project set to be inaugurated with a bhoomi pujan on August 5 that is expected have about 200 people in attendance, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Sompuras admit to a sense of “relief” — that “things are finally moving”.


The long road

The Bhoomi Pujan at Ayodhya marks the laying of the first brick amidst an altered political reality in India. Coming as it does after a protracted legal battle that ended in the Supreme Court handing over the disputed land to the Hindu side, will this mark the end of one of the most turbulent chapters in Indian politics? Or does it lay open new insecurities?

At the Sompuras’ office in a commercial part of Ahmedabad, a couple of men work on a 3D design on their computer. It is the design of the new, bigger Ram Mandir.

Read | In town, waiting for tourists as much as temple

The new design was finalised in a meeting of the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, the body formed to facilitate construction of a Ram temple, on July 18.

A huge bust of Prabhashankar Sompura, Sompura’s grandfather who is credited with building the Somnath temple at Prabhas Patan, greets visitors at the reception.

Sitting in his cabin, Sompura’s son Ashish, 49, who handles the site plan of the temple project and was at the July 18 meeting of the Trust, says that while the family began working on the temple soon after his father’s visit to the site in 1990, as a temple project commissioned by the VHP, it was much smaller in ambition and scale.

Admitting that the project picked pace after the demolition, he says, “Height tab aaya jab dhancha gira (the peak came after the mosque fell on December 6, 1992). The publicity…(the movement got)… that’s when we realised it’s a big deal.”

Back in Ayodhya, between 1992 and 1996, work went on in full swing at the workshop run by the VHP-affiliated Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.

But soon, the VHP ran out of funds and also got bogged down with the cases, says Ashish, as a result work slowed down.

It was Ashish, who trained in architecture at the BC Patel School of Architecture in Anand, who moved the Sompura drawing board outside of their home in Naranpura area of Ahmedabad for the first time.

“When we were growing up, the Ram temple was just another of the various projects my father had designed, not such a big deal,” says Ashish. “Clients would drop in late because they knew he would be there. Ashok Singhalji once remarked, ‘Sompuraji, how many temples must you have built from this 10×12 feet room!’” he says, adding that the senior Sompura still does the design and takes the final call.

While Sompura says he picked his architecture skills from his ancestors “who were taught the art of temple building by the divine Vishwakarma”, his sons and grandchildren have relied on more formal training. Ashutosh, 28, son of Sompura’s elder son Nikhil, is a civil engineer and has now joined the family business.

Sompura remembers the late prime minister P V Narasimha Rao calling him to ask if a Ram temple could be built without destroying the mosque, which was the stand of the Congress government of the time.

Says Sompura, “We made a model, with the three domes of the mosque intact, and the temple on the side. Devotees could offer prayers at the janmasthan on the disputed site and then come to the temple, like in Mathura. But VHP argued that a birth place is just a 6’x3’ space. 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.”

That their project will take shape where the Babri Masjid once stood, that its demolition set off communal violence and loss of lives across the country, that earlier BJP governments agreed to shelve it in the name of coalition dharma — these seem to be water under the bridge.

“The violence in which so many lives were lost, should not have happened,” he says when asked about it. “But it is also a fact that foreigners invaded us, destroyed our homes (ancient temples) and tried to spread their religion. That was also wrong. Look at how many times Somnath was destroyed…”

The senior Sompura then sits down to talk about the new version of the temple — “so grand that I have forgotten the old design” — one that will be built in the Nagar shaili style, with a temple tower over the sanctum sanctorum. Sompura says Ashish has been invited to Ayodhya on August 5 to make a presentation on the temple plan.

In the new design, three domes have been added — one in front, and two at the sides; the number of columns have gone up from about 160 to 366; and the width of the stairway has been expanded from 6 feet to 16 feet. The height of the temple has been increased from 141 to 161 feet.

The sanctum sanctorum will be octagonal in keeping with the design by shastras for temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

Four other shrines dedicated to Sita, Lakshman, Ganesh and Hanuman, and other deities, will be part of the complex.
While the original design would have used up to 3 lakh cubic feet of sandstone, that will now have to be doubled, says Ashish.

While the Sompuras estimate the construction to be completed in three-and-a- half years, they fear the pandemic will push the deadline back by another 6-8 months.The VHP had outsourced the building of the temple to three contractors, who have now been replaced by Larsen & Toubro.

Ashish says that when he last visited the site on July 18, L&T had already evened out the land.

While the temple is undoubtedly the most high-profile of the 200-odd temples that the Sompuras have built, they say that for them, emotionally, the Somnath temple is as special. “Our family is connected with both these temples. For us as a family, that is the biggest source of happiness and pride,” says Ashish.

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