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Lok Sabha elections 2024 | Ayodhya ground report: Sheer devotion not assertive aggression

Mar 03, 2024 12:14 PM IST

In Ayodhya, fervour is almost as if devotees had rediscovered a world that was lost for a long time. There is nothing that reminds you of unapologetic Hindutva.

The sky was so smothered in fog that visibility was near zero at a little beyond 5 am. As we hustled beyond the first set of barricades, I heard a family chatter excitedly in Marathi about their “pilgrimage”. A few dozen steps later, a lady was screaming at her partner in Bangla for carrying such a large bag to the premises. About a minute later, there was a loud announcement in Telugu asking Sharmila to quickly reach the police assistance booth where her family members are waiting eagerly. Then there was a large group of family and friends from Gujarat chanting and alternatively talking about the fog.

The crowd at the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. (Reuters)
The crowd at the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. (Reuters)

The author understands more than half a dozen spoke Indian languages and could hear devotees talk in all of them and many more. There must have been about 5,000 visitors forging ahead for the morning Aarti. A policeman, one of hundreds deployed there, loudly said “Jai Shri Ram” to an old lady who was being taken inside the temple courtesy volunteers with her family members. She responded with a flurry of words in a semi-tribal dialect from Chattisgarh that the author understands. A huge group around the author erupted into joyous chants of Jai Shri Ram.

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The author was not just astounded with this but simply taken aback. I am a man of faith. But I have always been someone deeply uncomfortable with the militant face of Hindutva seen and heard over the last few decades. Expecting more of that assertive aggression, the author was astounded by the sheer devotion. The emotions on display were as powerful, perhaps more, than what the author has seen in the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu, the Jagannath temple in Puri, the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai and many more. Many devotees were weeping. Any more were just chanting as they trudged ahead.

Clothes do not make a person, but the author could clearly see the devotees were a spread between the very poor to some adjusting their Gucci bags. In this explosion of spirituality and faith, I saw class distinctions dissipate and disappear, at least for a while. There was nothing militant about this swarm of devotees. Nothing aggressive. And nothing that reminds you and me of unapologetic Hindutva. Rather, the author sensed an unapologetic display of Hinduism. The fervour was almost as if the tens of thousands around the author had rediscovered a world that was lost for a long time.

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According to the cops posted at the temple and warming their hands on some gas fired gadgets, about 200,000 devotees are still pouring into Ayodhya everyday. By the time the author reached the Saryu Ghat, the fog had dispersed to a point he could see the cops were not exaggerating. As the sun tried to break through, the entire area around the ghat was resonant with bhajans in praise of Ram.

An e-bus comes to a halt as the author walks towards the ghat (about a kilometre plus from the car parking) and disgorges a large group of Tamil devotees. When the author politely asks a lady where they have come from, she responds in flawless English that they are from Madurai and thereabouts. Every single of the 40 or so of them wears a saffron scarf, with many males displaying even more markers of their faith. The bus has stopped just next to a mural that shows Ravana abducting Sita and felling Jatayu. The author too wanted a picture clicked there but moved on as so many Tamil devotees lined up for group photos and selfies.

At the ghat, hundreds were taking a dip in the river in what can be described as cold but not freezing water. Like everywhere else, hustlers and vendors were peddling their fares everywhere, including memorabilia for Queen Heo Hwang of Korea who is believed to be originally from Ayodhya. She must have approved from wherever she is now because the temple premises and the Saryu ghat were so spotlessly clean that it was unbelievable. There were workers constantly cleaning the streets and sidewalks and scores of washrooms were visible everywhere.

So where did Hindutva go? The hundreds of thousands of devotees that come to Ayodhya every day come not for politics, but for faith. But the locals in the city are a lot about political assertion and Hindutva. Virtually everyone I spoke to talked about how Modi has done what they had believed was never possible: built a temple for Ram. I don’t know about other parts of India, but there is little doubt that a Ram wave is very visible in these parts.

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As with things so enchanting and graceful (the devotion and spirituality of pilgrims), there are some things that disturb. Basant Kumar Dubey is a middle-aged security guard in the hotel where the author stayed. He proudly says he was there with his grandfather as a teenager in December 1992 when “history was made”. He is still proud of that event and has no problems clicking his picture. Frankly, the author doesn’t really know what to make of this.

(This is the fourth in a series of 40 field reports from all corners of India in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections that aim to understand how the country is changing in fundamental ways.)

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