AYODHYA, India (AP) — Despite the coronavirus restricting a large crowd, Hindus rejoiced Wednesday as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke ground on a long-awaited temple of their most revered god, Ram, at the site of a demolished 16th century mosque.
Modi offered prayers to nine stone blocks with Ram inscribed on them and kept in a small pit amid chanting of Hindu religious hymns to symbolize the start of construction of the temple, which is expected to take 3 1/2 years to complete. The blocks will serve as the monument's foundation stones.
Modi wore a traditional outfit of a gold Kurta, a long shirt and a white Dhoti — a loose cloth wrapped around his waist — along with a face mask. Before the start of the ceremony, he prostrated before a small idol of the god Ram that was kept in a makeshift temple set up by Hindu nationalists at the site where the mosque was demolished in 1992.
"It’s an emotional and historic moment. Wait has been worthwhile,” said Lal Krishna Advani, a 92-year-old leader of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, who was at the forefront of the party’s temple campaign in the 1990s.
Organizers said the ceremony was set on an astrologically auspicious date for Hindus, but Wednesday also marked a year since the Indian Parliament revoked the semi-autonomous status of its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir.
The symbolism was impossible to miss since Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had long pledged in its manifesto to strip Kashmir’s autonomy and to build a temple to Ram where the Mughal-era mosque once stood.
Modi said in a speech that the ceremony was a "historic occasion" for which Hindus waited for centuries.
He recalled that Mohandas Gandhi, India's independence leader, fondly referred to "Ram Rajya (rule)" as an ideal state where values of justice and equality prevailed and even the weakest people could get justice.
He said the proposed temple will become a symbol of “modern India.”
The main roads of Ayodhya were barricaded and about 3,000 paramilitary soldiers guarded the city, where all shops and businesses were closed. Last week, a priest and 15 police officers at the temple site tested positive for the coronavirus, which has infected 1.9 million people in India and killed more than 39,000.
“Had this function been held on normal days, all these roads would have been chock-a-block with people. Millions of people would have come to Ayodhya to witness this historic event,” temple priest Hari Mohan said.
Only 175 religious saints, priests and Hindu and Muslim community representatives were invited to the ceremony. But many, including senior leaders of Hindu nationalist organizations, weren't wearing masks, or were wearing them improperly.
Water from Indian rivers in 2,000 earthen pots sent by various Hindu temples and Sikh shrines was poured at the site.
The groundbreaking follows a ruling by India’s Supreme Court last November favoring the building of a Hindu temple on the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh state. Hindus believe Ram was born at the site and claim Muslim Emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple there.
The Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu radicals with pickaxes and crowbars in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left some 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. The Supreme Court’s verdict allowed a temple to be built in place of the demolished mosque.
Those invited to the groundbreaking ceremony included Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the BJP's parent organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Iqbal Ansari, the main Muslim litigant in the Supreme Court case, who now supports building the temple in Ayodhya.
The court also ordered that Muslims be given 5 acres (2 hectares) of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site.
The temple will be around 235 feet (72 meters) wide, 300 feet (91.5 meters) long and 161 feet (49 meters) high with five domes with a total area around 84,000 square feet (7,804 square meters). The complex will also have a prayer hall, lecture hall, visitors’ hostel and museum.
Houses and other buildings close to the temple site were painted yellow to recreate the look when Ram ruled there for thousands of years, according to the Hindu epic Ramayana.
“Yellow is an auspicious color. As per Hindu tradition, yellow symbolizes purity and light,” temple priest Mahant Kamal Narain Das said.
Muslims comprise about 14% of Hindu-majority India’s population of 1.3 billion. The temple-mosque dispute badly divided Hindus and Muslims, often triggering communal clashes.
Prominent Muslims have said the community was resigned to the new reality but fear the new temple could embolden Hindu nationalists to target two other mosques in Uttar Pradesh.
Sharma reported from New Delhi