Babu Lal Tailors is a small hole-in-the-wall shop with two noisy sewing machines and shiny cloth strung from clotheslines. Yet, in a low-business season amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Bhagwat Prasad Pahadi, 55, and his younger brother Shankar Lal, 50, are among the busiest in Ayodhya. They are, after all, the Lord’s tailors – and now, they have a deadline.
With the August 5 bhoomi pujan date for the construction of the Ram temple approaching, they have to ensure Ram Lalla and other deities at the makeshift temple have their attire ready.
Ayodhya, Aug 5 | PM at Ram temple event will be live on DD
In Ayodhya, a town catapulted to the centre of India’s politics with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the long, legal battle in courts, life has largely revolved around the makeshift temple site, a string of other small temples, and the shops selling devotional cassettes and puja paraphernalia near the site. The Covid pandemic had brought this economy to a halt, with the tourists, who used to number 60-70,000 a day, now reduced to about a hundred. But now, the August 5 date has briefly lifted spirits.
“For decades, we have been waiting for this day. It’s finally here,” says Bhagwat.
He says the deities’ attire are ritually changed every day, with colours assigned for specific days of the week. With August 5 a Wednesday, the deities are to be clothed in green. A set of clothes for all the deities, including the cloth on which the idol is placed and the curtain behind, costs between Rs 2,500 and Rs 5,100, says Bhagwat. This year, they have been paid by one Rama Dal Trust, a private religious organisation that is among several joining in the celebrations.
Despite the enthusiasm among small-time organisations, the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust itself is tight-lipped, only letting out that a total of 200 people, including 150 invitees, will be allowed for the ceremony, with the “muhurat” lasting 32 seconds starting 12.15 pm.
“Prime Minister Modi will be given chandan and prasad and if he wishes to worship at the temple, we will help him do so with flowers to be offered to Ram Lalla,” says chief priest Satyendra Das.
With the makeshift temple site being levelled, the Ram Lalla idol has moved to a spot around 300 metres away. The idol itself now sits in a cabin of wood and glass — an upgrade from the tent it was in for decades.
“We have been told there will be 200 people. We will have to ensure that social distancing norms are followed,” says a senior official in the district administration.
Around a kilometre away, at the karyashala (workshop) of the VHP-affiliated Shri Ram Janambhoomi Nyas, where workers have been chiseling away since the 1990s, the moss-covered bricks and sandstone pillars are being moved around, possibly for the first time in years.
While a team of restoration experts from the Delhi-based KLA Construction Technologies has been working at the site for 40 days, another team has arrived from Surat.
Says Sanjay Jadia, Project Manager of KLA, “We have to use different chemicals depending on the extent of damage — it may take a few hours or even six-seven days.”
Kameshwar Chaupal, a member of the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust says it was recently decided that the temple would be grander and bigger than originally planned — from the earlier planned constructed area of 27,000 sqft to 52,442 sqft.
Walking on the empty road leading to Hanuman Garhi temple, Abhishek Pandey, 16, a tourist guide, says the pandemic has been “terrible” for Ayodhya’s economy.
As on July 24, the district had recorded 743 Covid cases, with 524 recoveries and nine casualties. The district recently established an Integrated Covid Command and Control Centre.
Wearing a green mask that hangs loosely around his chin, Pandey says, “Ya toh corona se marenge ya bhookh se (One of the two will get me – corona or hunger). Before the pandemic I used to find around 10-15 tourist groups and earn Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,500 a day. Now I can’t even earn Rs 100,” says Pandey.
On either side of this road, there are shops with no customers. Here, with the August 5 date approaching, there is another deep unease: that the plan for a bigger temple will push them out.
“We hear authorities will widen roads. If that happens, our shops will have to go. My shop is all I have,” says Vijay Dubey, who sells religious texts.
An official in the district administration said there are no such orders yet.
But Mahant Rajkumar Das, who heads the Ram Ballabha Kunj, a religious institution, believes widening of roads will be inevitable. “The streets in Ayodhya are so narrow that even with 10-20,000 visitors, there is no space to walk. What will happen when devotees arrive in lakhs?” he wonders.
Says Chaupal of the temple Trust, “We expect 3.5 crore devotees every year at the temple. We are not going to compromise on the grandeur of the temple,” he says.
Among the Muslims of Ayodhya, however, there is no such grandstanding.
When asked about the August 5 event, Iqbal Ansari, one of the main litigants in the Ayodhya case, said, “What do I say? Not just me, no Muslim in India has anything left to say. The temple is coming up… good.”
Around 30 km short of Ayodhya town is Dhannipur village. The five acres that the state government handed over to the Sunni Central Waqf Board lie here.
There is nothing on the land to signify that status. The state agriculture department continues to grow wheat and rice and in the middle of the fields is a shrine to a Sufi saint.
The village is now mostly identified as a containment zone — after a villager tested positive. A district official confirmed that neighbouring Lakhauri village has 13 cases and is a growing hotspot.
In Dhannipur, where Muslims make up 60% per cent of the population, locals say they last heard of the proposed mosque in February when officials of the revenue department had come to measure the land.
In February and then earlier this month, the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board had confirmed that it had accepted the 5 acres allocated to it and would set up a trust to build a mosque. When contacted, Board members said there has been no significant development since then.
Back in Dhannipur, the August 5 bhoomi pujan date triggers few responses; even reactions to the proposed mosque are tepid.
Among the few who have an opinion is Shaban Khan, a 34-year-old electrical engineer who says he worked briefly in the US. “There are enough mosques in the village. If it is just about alternative land, why not build a diploma college or a hospital?”