By Yoginder Sikand
December 2008. I am back in Ayodhya after almost twenty years, but little seems to have changed since my last visit. If only, the town is definitely filthier and more chaotic, and I can spot several dozen new garishly-painted temples as the shared tempo that I‘ve taken from Faziabad, ten kilometers away, twists down the rutted road that, at this early hour, is already busy with activity.
I get off at the foot of a lane that leads off the main road and up into the warren of temples ahead—several of them claim to stand on the very precise spot that their Brahmin pujaris, in cut-throat competition with each other for clientele and their money, claim is where Ram was actually born. Ram-dhun blares out in a deafening cacophony from tape recorders in filthy roadside eateries. Bearded men in ochre-colored rags squat in the pale sunshine in the courtyard of a roadside shrine slurping chai from cracked saucers or smoking ganja from clay chillam pipes. A cow, its horns tied up in a garland of frayed marigold flowers, its buttocks caked with dung, ruffles through an enormous festering pile of garbage along with a pair of painfully emaciated dogs, whose ribs threaten to tear out of their stretched, heavily-blotched skins. Groups of bleary-eyed pilgrims trek up the lane, every now and then spurting out shrill cries in praise of Ram. ‘Jai Shri Ram!’, they angrily bellow as they raise their clenched fists, as if heading for a political demonstration or even a battle. The air is enveloped in an overpowering stench of urine and dung mixed with ghee.
No sooner have I stepped out of the tempo than I am accosted by a scrawny man in his late 20s. He is dark, almost purple, and his teeth are stained a deep yellow. A moon-shaped red disc smears his narrow forehead. He bears an enormous top-knot that trails down his neck. Visible through his perhaps deliberately unbuttoned shirt, a thin cotton rope—his janeo, or what the Brahmins consider a ‘holy’ thread—provocatively snakes down his hairless chest.
‘Yes, sir, see, I am a Brahmin’, he obsequiously announces, plucking out his janeo and shoving it almost into my face. An overpowering stench emanates from his arm-pits. ‘Myself is Satish Pandey. I am Brahmin from Ayodhya. I am guide. You come with me. I will take you around. Won’t charge you much at all. Please, please, only one hundred rupees’, he begs.
I oblige, and begin to follow Satish up the narrow lane. The lane is lined on either side with open drains, heavily clogged with fetid water, plastic bags and rotting fruit, releasing an overpowering sulfurous stink—and this is meant to be the most holy tirath or pilgrimage centre in all of India, if the Hindutva-walas are to be believed. Dozens of beggars, emaciated and pathetic-looking, some limbless with leprosy, others widows with shaven heads and dressed in torn white cotton sarees, throng the lane, importuning alms. Even at this early hour (it is hardly eight in the morning) hundreds of stalls do brisk business, selling gimmicky pilgrim memorabilia—cheap brass lockets and tacky key-chains embossed with faces of figures from the Ramayana, framed pictures of Ram, his family and their retinue, plastic blonde-haired dolls, and ‘holy’ powders, in a range of hues, piled up in little cone-shaped hillocks. Some stalls specialize in hardcore Hindutva ware—booklets that insist that the mosque in Ayodhya was a temple marking the birth-place of Ram, tomes decrying Islam and the Muslims, others that claim that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple—the ‘Tejo Mahalya’, if you please—, that Christianity is actually Krishna-Niti and so on, and VCDs that relay the gory events of 6th December 1992, when Hindu hordes tore down the mosque and hurriedly set up a make-shift temple that still stands its place.
Particularly popular among visiting pilgrims, Santosh tells me, are what he calls ‘Dharmik Cartoon Videos’. We stop briefly at a stall where a knot of pilgrims amusedly watch one such cartoon on a giant television screen, witnessing a scantily-dressed Radha and Krishna dancing to a snazzy disco number. The stall-owner snaps another ‘Dharmik Cartoon’ on. This time, the pilgrims are regaled with Ganesh stuffing his face with an enormous pile of laddoos and getting spanked for being naughty by his mother. The scene then suddenly shifts to Lanka, where Hanuman and his Vanar army generally monkey around, in simian glee, in a idyllic tropical grove.
‘You must be careful of pick-pockets, sir’, Satish advises as we move ahead. ‘Many thieves in this town, even criminals and murderers dressed as sadhus.’ He leads me to the sprawling Hanumangarhi, one of the largest of Ayodhya’s more than five hundred (or did he say one thousand?) temples. This temple is hidden behind an enormous wall, pierced with Mughal-style turrets and domes and cannons that point in every direction. An awe-struck bunch of pilgrims falls into a collective swoon as the pujari waves a plate, containing incense, fruit and a lamp, above a block of stone, presumably Hanuman himself, painted a deep vermillion, its silvery-black eyes angrily peering out of the rows of garlands that it is buried under. The pilgrims swing this way and that, muttering prayers and singing hymns, but my attention is riveted on a bunch of monkeys swinging at the ledges and generally making a nuisance of themselves. As the arti gathers tempo, one of them leaps into the crowd and, snatching a banana placed on a leaf-plate that a woman circles about her head, scampers off with it. The woman lets out a flustered howl, but the monkey greedily stuffs the fruit into his mouth before she can retrieve it.
The stench in the temple is overpowering, and its floors are filthy, littered with fetid pools of water. I quickly make for the exit, shoving past droves of women and men who truly believe they are being graced by a vision of the monkey-god Hanuman in flesh and blood. Just then, I slip on a blob of blue-green dung—monkey-poo probably—but Santosh saves me in time from making a monkey of myself by tumbling into the army of sadhu-pilgrims rushing up the stairs as the arti begins to gather a throbbing momentum.
I am back in the lane, and struggling to keep up with Santosh. We head towards the Dashrath Gaddi, believed to stand on the spot once occupied by the palace of Ram’s father. Santosh takes me to be a devout Hindu, and keeps up a steady barrage of anti-Muslim abuse as we trudge ahead. ‘The Hindu whose blood does not boil at the thought of all the crimes committed by the Muslims is no Hindu at all’, he tells me. ‘If a Hindu is of no use to Ram, he is of no use at all’, he exclaims. ‘We should kill those who kill the mother cow’, he angrily snorts. He has obviously memorized these (and many other similar) slogans, which he chants, ritual-like, to regale and further enthuse his clients. ‘We Hindus should teach those cow-eating Muslims a lesson, sir,’ he announces, his voice dripping with hate and disdain. I wish he would shut up. If we were anywhere else I might even had dared to tell him to. But not here, in Ayodhya, in the very heart of the deadly Hindutva beast.
We slip under the palatial gate-way of Dashrath’s supposed palace and into a dark chamber, where, through the gloom, I spy an enormous Hanuman stretched out on his back and painted a bilious ochre. Santosh tells me—it sounds like an order—to do what he calls the parikrama—walking around the idol five or eleven times, which, he promises me, would wash away half my many accumulated sins. The idol, so he claims—and of course this I know is perfectly and maliciously false—was unearthed when the debris from the torn-down Babri Masjid was being cleared. It is on such crass superstition and fanciful beliefs that much religion is based, and on which Hindutva propaganda thrives, I muse as I reply that I don’t do murti puja, or idol worship. ‘Don’t say that!’, he irritatedly retorts, ‘this statue is god himself. A Hindu must strictly abide by all the dharmik rules.’
Santosh appears, it now strikes me, to have noticed that I am not a devout Hindu pilgrim, definitely not one of the several thousand fanatic devotees of Ram and the Hindutva cause who flock to Ayodhya every day. He indicates to me several hundred marble plaques lined along the walls of the shrine, etched with names of donors and figures, in tens of thousands, of rupees, and says, ‘See how committed these noble men are to the Hindu cause. They gave so much money for the sake of Shree Ram. You, too, must help in this noble cause. Donate liberally. Think of the divine blessings you will get from this act of piety!’ I shrug him off by remaining silent.
‘I’d rather donate to the poor,’ I answer the Brahmin pujari with a cauldron-like belly when he tells me and a bunch of pilgrims sitting before him in the temple in an adjacent chamber to empty our purses for what he calls the bhavya mandir, the enormous temple that, he says, his master, Nritya Gopal Das, head of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, plans to erect on the spot earlier occupied by Babar’s mosque. ‘God would rather us help the needy than to help the priests,’ I make so bold as to say, amazed at my courage.
‘No, no. Don’t say that. Don’t say that’, the pujari angrily retorts. ‘You educated people have lost your Hindutva, your Hindu-ness’, he says. ‘Look at Indira-ji’, he adds, pointing to a large framed photograph of the erstwhile Indian Prime Minister, among whose many notorious achievements were her patronage of various obscurantist Hindu outfits. The pujari’s master, sporting an obsequious smile, nudges shoulders with Mrs. Gandhi, who is shown as engaged in a puja for building a temple. Around her, and sharing the same wall, are portraits of sundry leaders of the RSS and its various offshoots. ‘Indira-ji was a true Hindu, despite being educated abroad. You should learn a lesson from our leaders’, the priest blabbers on, caressing his hairy belly.
I do a quick round of various other temples, whose names I do not care to note. Many of these are of palatial dimensions, circled with ornate gateways, and housing the opulent homes of their Brahmin pujaris and owners. Others may be over four hundred years old, and in various stages of ruin. Some of them betray a very definite Muslim influence, with graceful half-moon domes, scalloped arches, and slender minarets, and even sport the royal insignia—a pair of scaly fish—of the House of the (Shia Muslim) Nawabs of Awadh above their entrance doors. Many of these temples were built on land donated by successive Nawabs, but that Santosh hastens to deny. ‘Muslims are simply incapable of doing any good,’ he thunders when I suggest this. And when I ask him to take me to the temples in the town that were once Buddhist shrines he angrily shoots back, ‘That is just propaganda. We Hindus are a peace-loving community, and can never steal the shrines of others. Buddhists who make such claims talk nonsense. The Buddha himself was stupid. He denounced the Vedas and only a stupid oaf could do that. He was not a buddha, but a buddhu, stupid.’ I curse Santosh in my mind and force myself to keep shut.
Finally, we arrive in the vicinity of the former Babri Masjid, this being indicated by layers of barbed wire, sand bags untidily heaped on each other, and rows of policemen loitering about and acting busy. I join a serpentine queue a mile from what is euphemistically termed the ‘disputed site’, but it takes a good one hour, and several rounds of frisking, before I finally stand before the miserable little knoll for whose sake tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, and probably many more will in the days to come, as Hindus and Muslims lay claim to its possession all in the name of the divine and communal identity. Nothing at all remains of the original structure that I saw two decades years ago—the three breast-shaped domes with their nipple-like tips that balanced on massive black stone pillars carved with round bottomed kalashes and flowers. In its place now stands a decrepit hut built on stilts, flimsily covered with a canvas sheet, rendered inaccessible by an enormous wire walls and layers of metal railings.
The pilgrims around me—several thousand of them—cling at the mesh that stands between them and the shrine, appearing now to me like crazed caged animals in a zoo. I see their lips quiver in prayer as they gaze upon what they have been led to believe is the most hallowed patch of earth in the world. I see their hands go up in front of their awe-struck faces in salutation. I see some of them fall to the ground and miserably sob in utter submission. And thus I see before me how inseparable religion can be from collective insanity.
While everyone else is muttering prayers or emitting full-throated hails and militant odes in praise of Ram, I stand in silence, somewhat amused, and, at the same time, not just a bit disgusted. I know I am being watched, being the only one in that massive crowd who does not share in that collective euphoria bordering on madness. A man in uniform—probably a low-ranking police or intelligence officer—notices me as I walk ahead, and quickly overtakes me. He wants to know my name, and my religion as well.
‘Are you not a Hindu?’, he says when I give him my name, which appears to confuse him as he pronounces the Sikh surname ‘Sikand’ as ‘Sikander’, which he probably thinks (as many others do) is Muslim.
‘No. I’m just me,’ I reply, trying to shrug him off. ‘I don’t identify myself with any religion or community.’
He has probably noticed that I did not bow before the makeshift shrine, nor folded my hands in salutation to the idols that it houses. I suspect he finds my behaviour odd, and that is why he has singled me out from the crowd.
‘God owns the entire world and whatever is beyond’, I say, feeling suddenly emboldened, but still a bit hesitatingly. I am not at all sure how he will react—he is obviously yet another Hindutva fanatic. ‘Is God homeless that we can we presume to build a house, a mosque or a temple, for Him, and to contain Him, here in Ayodhya, or anywhere else?’ Not waiting for his reaction, I walk on.