AYODHYA, India (RNS) — It has been 11 years since Mihir Sharma, a 29-year-old software engineer from Australia, visited this northern Indian city that is considered the birthplace of Rama, the most exalted of Hindu deities.
Sharma, an observant Hindu wearing a starched cotton dhoti, has opted for a few personalized tours around Ayodhya’s historical sites, visiting ashrams where saffron-clad seers hold forth. He also wants to take in Ramlila, the dramatic folk re-enactments of the Hindu epic Ramayana, telling the story of Ram’s life on earth.
Sharma's presence in Ayodhya represents a success for the local Hindu nationalist government, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is attempting to make the city a mecca for Hindus from India and beyond — and to change the subject from the bloody anti-Muslims riots with which Ayodhya's name has been synonymous for a quarter century.
Ayodhya seized global attention 26 years ago when Hindu nationalist mobs, mobilized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organization of Hindu clerics, hammered to rubble the 16th-century Babri Masjid, a mosque named after a Mughal emperor, during a period of religious polarization in India.
The demolition sparked some of the bloodiest riots in recent history, killing over 2,000 people. It also led to waves of retaliatory attacks across India.
“We only know Ayodhya for the Babri Masjid demolition and the communal riots it sparked in 1992,” said Sharma. “Today, it’s our new-age pilgrimage destination.”
Brij Pal Singh, the regional tourism officer of Ayodhya, said: “We had over 10 million pilgrims in 2018. The numbers are going to increase this year due to increasing footfalls in hotels, restaurants and pilgrim shelters.”
The beautification program isn't aimed only at luring outsiders. With India’s general elections a few months away, the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government is also hoping that overhauling Ayodhya will help the party maintain its majority.
In justifying the destruction of the Babri mosque, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its allies in the BJP claimed that the emperor Babur had destroyed a Ram temple that had occupied the site. Building that temple's replacement immediately became an an emotive cause for Hindu nationalists, who saw it as not just an “act of revenge” but also a “religious duty.”
Aggressive support for the Ram temple has been part of every election since, and litigation is continuing over a plan to divide the site of the destroyed mosque between Muslim and Hindu groups. This week, India's Supreme Court urged the parties in the case to resolve the fate of the sacred ground through mediation.
Remaking Ayodhya is the latest stroke in this ongoing battle. In March 2017, a firebrand Hindu monk named Yogi Adityanath became BJP’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, the state where Ayodhya is located. Adityanath has used incendiary rhetoric to argue that India’s identity and culture were inherently Hindu in character, and he vowed to buttress that identity by putting Ayodhya on the international tourism map.
Backed by Hindu seers, Adityanath advocated for better civic amenities such as pilgrim shelters, clean water, promotion of vegetarianism and a ban on alcohol to “maintain the sanctity” of Ayodhya. He called for refurbishment of the steps down to the banks of the river Sarayu, where Hindu priests perform rituals in the golden glow of earthen lamps every Diwali.
Just this month, the BJP government approved over $90 million for an airport in Ayodhya to draw tourists from across the world and expand its global footprint. The government also initiated reforms to boost the temple town’s economy.
The stirrings around town have vaulted Adityanath to the status of a modern-day champion of Hinduism, and a favorite within his party.
“Yogi is the modern-day avatar of Lord Rama,” said Parmanand Mishra, the general secretary of BJP in Ayodhya. “He will defend Hinduism from his bastion and give it a modern flavor.”
The BJP recently announced plans to build a 221-meter (725-foot) bronze statue of Rama in Ayodhya over a massive 50-meter (164-foot) pedestal, topping the still-new Statue of Unity in Gujarat, which, at 182 meters (597 feet), has been touted as the world’s tallest.
A rendering of Ayodhya's statue shows the deity as a battle-ready avatar, ready to defend his fortress. The government has also raised the possibility of a museum below the statue's base that would showcase Ayodhya’s history from its mythical past to modern-day conflicts over Rama’s birthplace, but details haven’t been disclosed.
Rishikesh Upadhyay, the mayor of Ayodhya, said the Hindu nationalist movement is restoring India's true culture.
“We want to rewrite India’s history starting with Ayodhya,” said Upadhyay. “Indianness is about faith in Hinduism, ancient texts, purity and vegetarianism. Ayodhya will be emblematic of these.”
The director of the Ayodhya Research Center, Y.P. Singh, said the ruling BJP government is renovating “both tangible and intangible heritage” that make up the temple town.
“We are hoping for a smart city over 1,000 acres of land where religious education will be emphasized and ancient traditions will be safeguarded,” said Singh.
Some locals doubt that the shiny updates will be enough to change the city's image. “The BJP is making these promises only to appease voters. But how can we erase Ayodhya’s bloodied past?” said Vikram Kushwaha, a resident of the town’s old quarters who saw the Babri Masjid being demolished.
Sachin Dubey, a medical representative at the town's recently opened Raja Dashrath Medical College, said that naming and renaming of institutions is just part of the government’s strategy for cultural appropriation.
“Our medical college is named after Rama’s father, Dashrath,” said Dubey. “In a way it’s to recall the ancient ayurvedic systems of the Indian sages who had the best cures to illnesses.”
BJP officials say the efforts go far beyond locking in voters. Singh explained that the government’s remodeling efforts are in full swing due to “a spiritual awakening among Hindus” from around the globe.
Last November, the government renamed a passenger train Ramayana Express to encourage religious tourism across prominent Hindu pilgrimage sites, starting with Ayodhya.
“We knew people with a shared interest in Rama’s life would come together through this initiative,” said Siddharth Singh, a joint general manager of Indian Railways. “There were 800 pilgrims on our first trip. They read out verses from Indian epics and sang devotional songs throughout the journey.”
The BJP government has said that its push to revive Ayodhya as a Hindu center has helped popularize traditions such as Ramlila through the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Fiji. And across India, literary festivals, traditional handicraft and vegetarian food festivals now form a part of the cultural axis on which BJP’s Hindutva politics revolves.
But the government’s nationalist zeal to remodel Ayodhya has also brought criticism from minorities, secularists and nonconforming monastics.
Santosh Dubey, president of the nationalist Dharam Sena and an accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, said, “BJP politicians are duping India with their fake promises.
“Ayodhya’s roads are a mess; pilgrim shelters and toilets are filthy. Development is just an eyewash,” said Dubey.
The chief priest of the famed Hanuman Garhi temple of Ayodhya, Mahant Gyan Das, said he believes Ram has been reduced to a political pawn to be trotted out before every election season.
“The Ram temple will be built only when Ram wants it. There’s no point in this hullabaloo,” said Das. “Ayodhya is exactly where it was 25 years ago, only the politicians are hungrier for power.”
Iqbal Ansari, one of the main litigants in the Babri Masjid court case, said the government has done little to develop Ayodhya, and he doesn't think building the Ram temple will make a difference.
“Progress can’t happen by building statues and temples,” he said. “The government needs to create jobs and include people of all faiths. That’s development. This is polarization.”