Updated: January 4, 2022 11:35:10 am
Ram, the crown prince of Ayodhya, was born in Chaitra, the first month in the lunar Hindu new year. Ever since, chaiti songs have Ram’s name woven into them. His mother’s lament still resounds all over the Indo-Gangetic plains in popular chaitis: “Kin more Awadh ujaari ho, bilkhain Kaushalya/ Ram bina mori sooni Ayodhya, / Kou samujhavat naahin … (Queen Kaushalya cries, ‘Who has ruined my Ayodhya and banished my Ram?/Why is no one trying to talk sense?’)”
After being banished to the forest for 14 years, Ram’s life begins to correspond to the life cycles of most epic heroes, from Odysseus to Beowulf to Gandhi. The young hero goes on a long journey to alien lands to defeat a monster or wild beast. He kills the demon, rescues a captive lady, and is rewarded with a throne. But now he must rule over near-strangers, constantly squabbling among themselves and gossiping about him. Ram created a Ram Rajya as Gandhi created independent India — at great personal cost. Finally, he handed his throne to his sons and entered a cave, never to emerge. Ayodhya was left rudderless a second time. Still, in folk songs, Ayodhya blames Ram’s sorrows on his stepmother Kaikeyi. The father, who gave the order of banishment, escapes direct blame.
This is unsurprising, given the history of the region. In Awadh, the heartland of Uttar Pradesh, electoral verdicts show how the forces of custom, tradition, money and institutions have remained firmly supportive of the demolition of a mosque and erection of a mandir for Lord Ram in Ayodhya. As for Sita, the temple makers tell you that her statue will be duly placed inside, but the temple is a Ram temple. Lord Ram loved her enough to place a golden statue of her next to him while performing rituals. What more could he do? A king must be mindful of majority opinion, no?
But it is not Sita alone. We find other instances of princesses, queens and queen mothers banished or robbed of their riches here: Kaushalya, Sita, Lakshman’s wife Urmila, and, last but not the least, the begums of Awadh led by Bahu Begum, whose coffers were looted by the British. No one here will speak truth to power: “Kou samujhavat naahin.”
There is no recorded evidence of Ayodhya’s origins, one of the seven holiest cities in India. Puranic lore simply says it emerged all on its own and came to be called Saket. Kalidas says that by King Dashrath’s time, Awadhpuri was a rich, beautiful, and well-fortified city. As Kosalapuri, Saket and Ayodhya, the holy city has changed names over the millennia and hosted major Hindu and non-Hindu religious sects: Shaivism, Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism.
By the 19th century, the British were firmly in the saddle. They snuck into nearby Faizabad, where Bahu Begum, the disgruntled widow of the late governor of Awadh, had retired with her considerable fortune. She promised the British resident a generous grant of money for protection. But in 1858, after the Mutiny, her treasuries were looted. Next-door Ayodhya too faced a barbaric retaliation by the British since most rebel soldiers had been recruited from this area. The pilgrim town of Ayodhya reverted to dereliction.
My sister, who visited the city a few years before the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan, asked our grandmother why Ayodhya had such a sad, unkempt air. Nani’s eyebrows met in a frown. “It’s a town, my mother said, that bears Sita’s curse, also Kaushalya’s.”
A decade ago, I began translating two works on the 1857 Revolt. Marathi Maajha Pravas was written by Vishnu Bhatt Godshe, a Konkani-speaking Brahmin who came up north to earn some money but was trapped in the 1857 uprising. The other was Ghadar Ke Phool by Hindi writer Amritlal Nagar, who a hundred years later collected tales about 1857 from local villagers. As a journalist, I had never looked closely at the history of Ayodhya before Advani’s Rath Yatra laid the foundation for an entire ecosystem of a militant and authoritarian Hindutva.
Ayodhya has been built, decimated and rebuilt multiple times. And after each rebuilding, it emerges changed. The frightened city Vishnu Bhatt saw in the winter of 1858, was certainly not the glittering mythical Ayodhya of Treta Yug. The Ayodhya that Amritlal Nagar saw in 1957, with its monuments overgrown with weeds and people reluctant to share humiliations they had suffered after the ghadar, was still different. The only constant seems a repeated affirmation of the superiority of men. Even Sita was subjected to Ayodhya’s laws that demanded the chastity of the king’s wife be proven in public.
Poets from Valmiki to Bhavbhuti and Vidyapati and the nameless creators of folk songs have questioned the system of justice in Ram Rajya that punished Sita, an innocent woman. The Bhavya Ram temple being built by the right wing in Ayodhya, however, does not include women in its top policymaking body. Once again, the Ayodhya temple has dissociated Sita from Ram. In 2022, Ram too is not the benign gentle creator of a fabled Ram Rajya, but a militant alpha male.
Perhaps, grandmothers were right. Cursed by Sita and a million chaiti singers, Ayodhya is doomed to remain glum and controversial, despite its latest glamourised version. Vishnu Bhatt writes of Ayodhya in 1858: “I was told that a curse was put on Ayodhya by Sita … that said the city would be wiped off the face of the earth.’ Bhatt found that Ram’s actual birthplace was by then derelict and full of weeds, marked by a raised brick platform with a short wall around it. The Kale Ram ka Mandir, where Vishnu Bhatt’s local guide and mentor Shastri Baba served, was gone by 1957, writes Amrit Lal Nagar.
At the beginning of 2022, bits and pieces of this complex history flutter around like half-burnt coded notes. As the new year dawns, like Kaushalya, we find ourselves becoming uneasily aware of the fragility of human relationships in a land where no one still talks sense to the powerful: “Kou samujhavat naahin…”
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2022 under the title ‘A city that forgets its goddess’. Democracy’s work in progress’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati
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