As the long-awaited temple rises in Ayodhya, Open gets exclusive access to the site where an ancient city is being rebuilt
Construction underway for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, June 30, 2023 (Photos: Ashish Sharma)
IT’S AROUND NOON and there is a brief break in the incessant rain that has held up work at the Ram Mandir site. Under heavily overcast skies marking the monsoon’s spread across central Uttar Pradesh (UP), the musical cadence of temple bells accompanies chants of “Jai Shri Ram” that rise in the moisture-laden air. Undeterred by the inclement weather, hundreds of devotees throng the narrow passage leading to the Ram Lalla idol adjacent to the ongoing construction, a continuous stream since the morning. The sense of anticipation as pilgrims peep around barricades for a glimpse of the temple architecture now rising across Ayodhya’s skyline is palpable. The wait for the Lord’s return to his rightful residence has been interminable and now the faithful are counting weeks and days with bated breath, eager to see him in due pomp and glory.
The garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) that lies at the centre of a devotee’s faith is a square chamber at the western end of the first level of the Ram Mandir which sits on an east-west axis. The precise site of the idol is presently marked by a saffron flag and devotees will receive darshan of the deity at a distance of 20 feet. Bound by three doors with gold and teak inlays, the main idol will be a new one, that of a four-five-year-old child Ram, and the older Ram Lalla (infant) idol will be placed a few feet ahead. Three idols are currently being prepared and one will be chosen for the pran pratishtha (rite of consecration) slated to begin on January 14 (Makar Sankranti) next year, marking the final countdown to the temple being finally opened to worshippers who will enter from the eastern gate with large statues of Hanuman and Garuda standing in welcome, one level above the Gaj and Singh dwars (doors). The view from the east entrance, despite a renewed drizzle, provides an elevation with a top-down vantage of guard towers and excavation at the site where machines and vehicles have left deep muddy tracks.
Ayodhya in rain is not quite a sight to behold. Neglected for long, the temple city’s houses and buildings often seem worse for the wear and stand cheek by jowl. But the frenetic pace of construction at the Ram temple complex with earthmovers and towering cranes scooping out the earth and moving massive stone blocks has turned parts of the city into a giant assembly site. And out of this gigantic heap of gravel, brick and stone, something majestic is taking shape and is now plainly visible to the naked eye. Steadily, the long-delayed and much-anticipated Ram temple is taking shape. Brick by brick, pillar by pillar, the Nagara-style temple now has a ground floor that sits on a high rectangular base with imposing flights of stairs on three sides for worshippers to enter and exit the five mandaps (halls). Its religious and cultural symbolism is striking; the homecoming of Lord Ram seems no less momentous than the Ramayana’s account of his return from Lanka—ever after celebrated as Deepavali. Only, in this case, the vanavas (exile) has stretched much longer than the 14 years recorded in the epic. Along with the rise of the temple’s ramparts, Ayodhya is getting a makeover too with the banks of the Sarayu being redeveloped and hotels and modern tourist facilities in the works. It seems the ancient city is being reborn—a new Ayodhya that recreates its older glory.
Open, which was granted exclusive access to the sprawling construction site, spoke to Nripendra Misra, chairman of the temple construction committee, construction supervisors and workers to piece together the effort to ensure that the first phase deadline of December 2023 is met. “Devotees from all parts of the world are waiting to hear the news that the Lord has returned to his rightful place. It is part of a national rejuvenation and carries Lord Ram’s universal message that is beyond religion,” says Misra, standing under an umbrella in driving rain that has once again picked up. The design and construction of the temple required consultation and consensus among leading religious luminaries, architects and engineers on an almost daily basis. Misra points to a marble umra (a raised slab) in the passage that leads to the sanctum. The slab is part of temple architecture and considered integral to traditional designs. Yet it poses a risk for devotees, particularly elderly ones who might stumble and fall. It has been decided that the slab will go but not before a mini-religious debate. The placement of LED bulbs that will highlight sculptures on pillars in the mandaps was discussed at length before the positions were decided such that they will be protected from casual or deliberate manhandling. The roof of the first level of the complex, where column stubs on which the upper floors will be built stick out, offers an uninterrupted rain-swept view of the temple’s surrounds. To the east lies the spire of the Hanuman Garhi temple and in the west, beyond nearby residences, lie the waters of the winding Sarayu lined by lush green fields. The languid saawan (monsoon) season seems to heighten an air of spirituality which suffuses this ancient temple town that even the casual onlooker would be hard put to miss.
Construction on the first floor, which will house the Ram Darbar, showcasing Ram’s rule after his return from Lanka, will take some time. The initial time taken to begin construction was due to the committee having to meet the mandate that the temple should stand for 1,000 years, says Misra. “This meant no iron can be used as it corrodes over time. Finally, a 15-metre deep excavation covering the area where the temple will be located had to be carried out and engineering fill put in it as advised by IIT, Madras.” Around the temple will be what is described in Hindi as a parkota, roughly translated as a wall-like structure marking the perimeter of the complex. Amenities like a pilgrim facilitation centre and other facilities will be constructed in due course as the temple construction proceeds beyond this wall. The parkota, which will be about 800m in perimeter, will not just be a boundary but have six-by-six feet murals that reflect the ideals of Lord Ram drawn from accounts prior to 1850. Bronze sculptors will craft the murals which will also include depictions of saints, grammarians and mathematicians from ancient and medieval India, such as Tulsidas, Aryabhatta and Panini who reflect, in some way or the other, the values represented by Ram. First these will be made from fibre before being cast in bronze. There will be around 100 murals. This work will take time and pass beyond December 2023. Around the main temple, beyond the parkota, will be seven temples devoted to Maharishi Valmiki, Maharishi Vashistha, Vishvamitra, Nishadraj, Shabari and Ahalya. These are well-known characters and participants in the divine drama of Ramayana but temples dedicated to them also carry a social message of harmony since they hail from different sections of society, conveying Ram’s inclusive message and his relevance to all.
Devotees from all parts of the world are waiting to hear the news that the Lord has returned to his rightful place. It is part of a national rejuvenation and carries Lord Ram’s universal message that is beyond religion, says Nripendra Misra, chairman, temple construction committee
Sunil Tiwari, who hails from Bihar, and is a supervisor, helps explain the approach to the sanctum which is criss-crossed with iron lattices. A barrier will mark the closest devotees can approach the idols but the doors to the garbha griha are wide and when open allow an unhindered view of the deities. “I have been here for the past seven months and I can see how the temple is taking shape. Now there is a roof on the ground floor and if you look up from the sanctum, you can see a gap which will be covered by a spire,” he says. The spire, the highest point of the temple, will rise 161 feet. A rain-enforced break sees groups of workers gathering around and chatting. Anil Srivastav and Paramhans Nishad are happy to work at the site, saying it felt special to be part of the Ram Mandir project. “I was working at a site in Delhi before I came here. This is much better and more rewarding,” says Srivastav. Nishad agrees that the temple is “God’s work” and along with others says the amenities provided for workers by way of residences and work conditions are satisfactory. The workers point out that putting up the pillars in the halls by placing block on block did not take much time but was the crucial part of the job to get the ground or the first level ready on time.
The temple will have two floors above the ground level. The first floor, apart from having the Ram Darbar, will be open to pilgrims and be a place for religious programmes and ceremonies and also where devotees can meditate. “It is up to the devotees whether they want to leave after the darshan or go to the next floor,” says Misra. The second floor will be restricted for use of religious and other functionaries permitted by the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra, the temple trust. The temple plans have grown beyond its 71-acre area. “To keep up the all-India tradition we will also add a south Indian feature. We have not acquired the land for that purpose yet but in future there will be a gopuram just ahead of the pilgrimage facilitation centre beyond the parkota. A pilgrim from the south will see a feature that is recognisable,” he says. Even now, the devotees lining up at the Ram Lalla idol include many from south India. Groups of worshippers walk through narrow lanes, their steps quickening as they approach the idol of the infant god. Misra explains that the gopuram and the temples devoted to the saints and other characters from the Ramayana are meant to dispel notions that Lord Ram belongs to one region or the other. He says “the seven or sapta rishi” temples will represent social samanvaya, or social harmony. “In all of this, and in the temple, we will see a reflection of our maryada purshottam Ram,” he adds.
The temple will have two floors above the ground level. The first floor, apart from having the Ram Darbar, will be open to pilgrims and be a place for religious programmes and ceremonies and also where devotees can meditate. The second floor will be restricted for use of religious and other functionaries permitted by the temple trust
Misra says that at the moment preparations are being made for the pran pratishtha ceremonies due early next year in January.
This marks the completion of work related to the first phase of the temple construction. During this phase, the sanctum sanctorum and the five mandaps will be completed. A letter inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present at the start of construction on August 5, 2020, is being sent. The trust has passed a resolution to this end. The presence of two idols, the older Ram Lalla and the newer one, is placed in the context of Hindu theology and the concept of two kinds of idols: achal or fixed and a chal idol, one that can be moved for ceremonial purposes. The achal idol will be the new one to be used for pran pratishtha.
THE THREE CHOSEN sculptors are busy giving shape to their creations and will also select the stone they want to use. The National Institute of Rock Mechanics (NIRM) in Bengaluru is carrying out chemical and physical analysis of the stones and will inform the trust authorities about their suitability. “The trust will also take a call on the remaining two idols and how best to use them with respect and honour,” says Misra. It is now a matter of time for the temple’s construction to be completed. While all the planned features of the complex will take time, it is clear that the political and legal challenges to the Ram temple are now history.
Ayodhya is settled on the banks of the Sarayu and that creates its own civil engineering challenges. It lies in Zone III, or moderate damage risk zone, in terms of earthquakes. This is not a risk to be taken lightly given the magnitude of the project and the CBRI in Roorkee has been commissioned to examine all
aspects related to structural safety
But what about contemporary challenges faced by the trust and the temple-builders? The hurdles were in the nature of engineering details and in the expectations of the people of Ayodhya and beyond. “They were in the nature of what Indians wanted to have and what their temple should be,” a trust member says. Turning to the 1,000-year mandate, Misra says that there was no record of such construction techniques but there are a number of Indian temples that are 800, 1,000 and 1,200 years old. These temples continue to exist with least maintenance. But engineering details are not available. Informed about the project’s progress, Modi felt there should be a subject of temple engineering in some of the IITs where all records from India—and even abroad, from places like Cambodia and Bali—should be studied and collected.
Ayodhya is settled on the banks of the Sarayu and that creates its own civil engineering challenges. Excavating 15m deep is the height of a three-to-four-storied building in an area of 2.5 acres. Samples of the engineered fill used were tested at regular intervals to check for all parameters. Ayodhya lies in Zone III, or moderate damage risk zone, in terms of earthquakes. This is not a risk to be taken lightly given the magnitude of the project and the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) in Roorkee has been commissioned to examine all aspects related to structural safety. Earthquake records of the past 500 years were examined and designs checked to ensure the temple is able to withstand quakes five times the maximum recorded intensity. CBRI continues to examine this, at times even on a fortnightly basis, to see that designs are being implemented faithfully and properly. The minute planning and daily reviews are essential if construction deadlines are to be met. At the site itself, the form of the Ram Mandir rising out of the massive masonry is evidence of the synergy between design and execution.
Along with the rise of the temple’s ramparts, Ayodhya is getting a makeover too with the banks of the Sarayu being redeveloped and hotels and modern tourist facilities in the works. It seems the ancient city is being reborn—a new Ayodhya that recreates its older glory
The path to the Ram Mandir, which was finally cleared by the unanimous ruling of a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 2019, has been littered with political and religious strife. At the height of the Ram Mandir movement, reports and evidences were offered by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee. Interested intellectuals jumped into the fray as well. The claims were tested by an archaeological dig conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that turned up the remains of a temple, casting serious doubt on the claims regarding the antecedence of the Babri Masjid. The destruction of the mosque by a Hindu mob on December 6, 1992, changed the country’s politics for good. After an initial period of isolation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) grew to become India’s largest political party. The divisive political and legal battles have subsided after the court ruling and might, with the passage of time, pave the way for true reconciliation and a broader acceptance of India’s cultural destiny.
Also See Photo gallery: Construction of Ram Temple, Ayodhya