India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has laid the foundation of a Hindu temple at a spot where a mosque was demolished by Hindu zealots nearly three decades ago, triggering riots in which more than 2,000 people died.
Mr Modi installed a 40kg silver brick to launch construction of the shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya, a small town 680km southeast of New Delhi, in an elaborate ceremony effected amid a huge coronavirus upsurge across India.
The colourful ritual on Wednesday, presided over by Brahmin priests, was witnessed by tens of thousands of devotees on giant television screens around Ayodhya.
Most television national news channels provided extensive coverage of the event, which was declared one of the principal objectives of Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before the April 2019 general election, which it convincingly won.
Speaking after the ceremony, conducted in accordance with Hindu astrological guidelines and lasting more than an hour, Mr Modi said the temple site had finally been “liberated” and a “grand house” would now be constructed for Ram.
The 2.77-acre site, claimed as Ram’s birthplace by millions of devotees, has been a source of tension for centuries between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims, both of whom claimed ownership over it.
Hindus maintain the Babri mosque was built at the spot by India’s first Mughal ruler in the mid-16th century, after razing the temple there, a claim Muslims deny.
Muslims said they had offered prayers at the mosque until the late 1940s, after which some Hindus had surreptitiously placed a Ram idol inside it, and begun worshipping it.
The convoluted dispute, riddled with mythological, ecumenical and archaeological complexities, was finally resolved by India’s supreme court last year, which ordered that the disputed site be given to Hindus in exchange for a plot of land granted to Muslims for a mosque nearby.
The Ayodhya site has been at the heart of BJP politics since the late 1980s, but more so after Hindu extremists tore down the Babri mosque in 1992, sparking sectarian riots across the country lasting several weeks, in which more than 2,000 people died, mostly Muslims.
Thereafter the Ram temple issue was successfully exploited by the BJP among India’s Hindu community for electoral gain, assisting the Hindu nationalists’ ascent to federal power. Mr Modi emerged as the prime minister following his election victory in 2014.
Ayodhya’s roads were on Wednesday festooned with flowers and yellow and saffron flags, colours Hindus consider auspicious, and which are also identified closely with the BJP.
Locals intoning “Jai Sri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Ram”, climbed on to rooftops to try to get a glimpse of the inauguration venue, with the majority wearing neither masks nor practising social distancing.
Hindus from across India have been sending gold and silver coins, bars and jewellery for the Ram Temple Construction Trust to encash and use the funds to build the shrine, which is expected to take at least three years to complete.
More than 200,000 bricks inscribed with “Shri Ram” or “Lord Ram” have also been donated by believers from around India to be included in the temple.