It’s a walkway without parallel, the strangest approach to any temple in the land. Through a caged passage, people move single file, watched by gun-toting security personnel, and monkeys prancing overhead. Four body searches later — no belonging can be carried, no belt, no wallet, not even a pen — and after walking at least 15 minutes, they are told to hurry for a glimpse of the lord.
The darshan point is a small opening in the iron fencing, and the priest points to the idol of Ramlalla, the infant Ram, placed some distance away, beneath a tarpaulin canopy that has been his home for a quarter century now. Prayers are mumbled in seconds, and the pilgrim line moves on, single file.
The canopy wasn’t there until December 6, 1992. That day, shortly before noon, Hindu kar sevaks began scaling the walls and domes of the Babri Masjid which had stood there, by most accounts, since 1528. Ramlalla, seated beneath the central dome, was removed and the kar sevaks, allowed free run by authorities who looked the other way, razed the Babri Masjid in a matter of hours. A makeshift temple was built hastily on the debris mound, and Ramlalla was returned to his new home.
As the country burned, security forces moved in. The disputed 2.77-acre site — in September 2010, the Allahabad High Court split it among three parties, awarding a third each to the Nirmohi Akhara sect, the Sunni Central Wakf Board, UP, and Ramlalla Virajman — and the surrounding 67.7 acres acquired by the government a month later, were cordoned off. The Supreme Court begins final hearings in the title suit case from December 5.
An iron fencing painted yellow runs around the entire acquired area with a three-tier security arrangement in place. The disputed site is in the red zone, guarded by CRPF personnel including women. The PAC is deployed in the yellow zone while the peripheral green zone is patrolled by UP policemen and home guards. CCTVs monitor the entire area, no photography is allowed. Security arrangements, an officer said, were tightened after militants made an abortive attempt to storm the disputed site in July 2005.
Plaster has peeled off most temples and rest houses in the acquired land. There are no people inside, and the emptiness is surreal. Manas Bhavan, which overlooks the disputed site, and from where most journalists watched the demolition of the Babri Masjid 25 years ago, has a ghostly look. In the dugout between Manas Bhavan and the makeshift temple is a concrete platform, the foundation for the temple laid by the kar sevaks and Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Across the road from the first security checkpoint is the Ramlalla Mobile Centre. There since 2005, Ghanshyam no longer recharges mobile phones or fixes SIMs. “It’s bad business, you can do everything online now.” He sells prasad and bottled water instead. The Ramlalla Mobile Centre now has little compartments — he calls them lockers — where pilgrims can deposit their belongings before crossing the road for the first body-frisk.
Ask him about the Ram temple, and pat comes the reply: “Puja is on. What we want is a grand temple. It will happen. Ab nahi, toh kabhi nahi (If not now, then never),” says Ghanshyam. He believes the gods played a role in bringing together the BJP governments of Narendra Modi at the Centre and Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. “Now if the gods didn’t want it, would this have happened? Where else will you build the Ram temple? In Pakistan? It has to happen here, it’s now or never.”
Metres away, in the lane from where people exit after the darshan, Ramcharitmanas translations in Telugu and Bengali are flying off the shelves. As are copies of ‘Shri Ram Janmabhoomi ka rakt-ranjit itihas (The Bloodsoaked History of Shri Ram Janmabhoomi)’. Penned by the late Pandit Shriramgopal Pandey ‘Shadad’, it offers a somewhat bewildering account of bloody battles for the disputed site, detailing the “attacks” of Babur and Aurangzeb. “I wouldn’t be stocking these if there were no takers,” says Jagannath, the shopkeeper.
In another shop, a VCD is being played on a TV screen. It’s a video of kar sevaks scaling the walls of the Babri Masjid, and of police firing on kar sevaks in November 1990. Awestruck, pilgrims from Guntur watch, the elderly with hands folded, praying the kar sevaks make it to safety. Shots of bodies being lifted draw gasps and looks of horror. Meanwhile, the shopkeeper, realising people are only watching and not buying the VCD, pushes his ware: “Aaiye, aaiye, Ayodhya darshan kijiye.” Come, it’s time to take a tour of Ayodhya.