AYODHYA -- Laki Ram keeps his head down, ignoring the tourists stopping to admire his work, but he does smile at a toddler gawking at him as he chisels a flower into a block of pink sandstone.
As the winter sun bathes huge slabs of sandstone in a golden haze, and steaming cups of tea arrive from a nearby shop, Shri Chand urges his co-worker Laki to take a break. They walk over to a handful of other artisans who are carving intricate patterns into the sandstone, which they hope will cover the edifice of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya one day.
Laki, who has been working on the temple for over two decades, recalls a time when 200 artisans would chisel away for hours in the workshop of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindutva organisation pushing for the Ram Temple to be built on the site where the Babri Masjid once stood.
No power on earth will be able to stop it. Some say that its 212 columns will be constructed in 24 hours.
Things have slowed down since then.
It has taken over half a century for Indian courts to rule on the fate of the disputed site. Meanwhile, work on the temple, which started in 1990, has outpaced the litigation by several decades. Over time, exposure to the sun and rain has caused dark patches on the finished blocks of stone, forcing the VHP to slow down its construction.
"Things are quieter and slower now. All the work which has been spoiled will have to be done again, and it could cost even more,” says Laki. “Putting everything under a tin sheet didn’t help because the monkeys shelter here, and urinate and defecate over the stone."
A 25-year-long mission
During their tea break, artisans spoke about working for the project--exhilarating and uncertain. Both men are convinced that the temple will ultimately be built when Lord Ram wills it. "No power on earth will be able to stop it. Some say that its 212 columns will be constructed in 24 hours,” says Chand.
Laki and Chand are both from Bharatpur, Rajasthan, the place where the sandstone is mined. But their approach to the work is different.
Chand is the more practical of the two. "Give me good money and I will build a mosque. Ram and Allah are the same. Build a temple, build a mosque, but give good money,” he says.
Money is important for Chand, who has lost his sons and wife to accidents and illness. He is now dependent on his brother’s sons to put a roof over his head. “If I have money, they will take care of me; otherwise they will kick me out on the streets.”
Unlike Chand, Ram confides that he is emotionally invested in building the Ram Temple, and he can’t imagine working on any other structure. “I’m happy working for God,” he says "Lord Ram was born here. Where else will the temple will be made? This desire of Hindus comes from inside.”
Out of his four sons, two are building temples in Gujarat.
The eight artisans currently employed at the VHP workshop earn Rs 325 for one day’s work. They begin their nine-hour shift at 8am after reciting an ode to Lord Hanuman, who is revered as Lord Ram’s most ardent devotee. Nagendra Upadhyay, supervisor of the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust, says that VHP budgeted Rs 69 crore to construct the temple in 1989, but now that figure is around 300 crore. Over the years, Hindus have contributed money and stones for the temple.
Give me good money and I will build a mosque. Ram and Allah are the same.
With no end in sight, VHP shuttered operations for four years after 2008. The Hindutva group gradually rebooted operations two years after the Allahabad High Court concluded that the disputed site was indeed the birthplace of Lord Ram, but divided the area among three parties. The Hindu and Muslim parties to the case want the area in its entirety. Ignoring objections about the movement and carving of stones until a final court ruling, VHP leaders have argued that there is no bar on construction in its own “house”.
Lord Ram was born here. Where else will the temple will be made. This desire of Hindus comes from inside.
'Ram, Ram, Ram'
Hindus believe that Mughal Emperor Babar destroyed a temple that stood on the spot where Lord Ram was born, and constructed a mosque in its place in 1528. Muslims believe that Hindus snuck into the mosque in 1949, and placed an idol of Lord Ram in the night.
Some 2,000 people were killed in religious violence which erupted across the country after karsevaks, spurred by Hindutva leaders, destroyed the mosque on 6 December, 1992. Today, thousands of pilgrims line up to see the idol which is placed under a tent to protect it from the rain and sun, and surrounded by multiple rings of security forces.
Before heading to the temple, pilgrims also stop over at the workshop, where a model of the completed Ram Temple is kept. “This is where work is going on to build a home for Lord Ram… take the name of Lord Ram, Ram, Ram,” a young guide bellows at a group of pilgrims, who respond exuberantly.
Although work on the temple has been going on since 1990, the recent arrival of a truckload of sandstone after a gap of seven years rocked Parliament during the Winter Session, and provoked accusations about the VHP stirring up the Ram Temple controversy to polarise Hindus in favour of the BJP in the run up to the UP state elections, now just a year away.
In an interview with HuffPost India, VHP spokesperson Sharad Sharma asked why BJP’s political rivals were making such a fuss considering that its workshop has been running for more than 20 years and 60% of temple work was already completed.
No one should have to die but Hindus won’t leave what is their right.
Reflecting on the recent uproar, Chand shrugs and says that he isn’t interested in politics. “I’m from Rajasthan, I honestly don’t care about who gets elected here.”
Laki notes that religious polarisation has long been a staple of the UP polls, though he makes it clear he doesn’t approve. "Some people get votes for saying a temple will be built, others get votes for saying it won’t. This is a religious matter which has been politicised. This is wrong but nothing new.”
The artisan from Rajasthan says that it was also “wrong” that people died in the religious violence which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but he believes that the bloody saga isn’t over yet. "This temple will be made even if the Supreme Court says no,” he says. “No one should have to die but Hindus won’t leave what is their right.”
Meanwhile, Chand hopes the work on the Ram Temple continues for a while, just in case he decides to marry again and start a family. “Some may say I’m old, but I can’t rule it out. Who knows, maybe if I meet the right woman,” he says.
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