Being brought up in a multi-faith household and I grew up with an annual ritual of going to churches and temples along with family members. Visiting Ayodhya few years ago was part of a much larger itinerary comprising the sacred geography of India and I was stuck by how many places claimed to be the birthplace of Lord Rama.
The 23rd anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid on 6 December brought the usual suspects into action. The RSS and its affiliate organs marked the anniversary by either making inflammatory statements or by announcing plans to fix a date for the construction of the Rama temple in Ayodhya.
Since sacred sites are valuable for many believers, they by extension become hot assets for politicians too.
Ayodhya's ritualistic deployment and strategic usage by various groups every year has made its invocation quite mundane and banal yet potent enough to cause frenzied reactions.
Meaning "unassailable" or "unconquered", the holy city of Ayodhya, which along with six others is believed to bring moksha (ultimate liberation of the soul) to devotees, has been assailed by many narratives. Deemed to be a tirtha (a place that provides sanctity or a crossing place helpful in transitioning from the transient life to that of a stable and blissful one), its deployment by Hindutva forces has distorted its image.
Sacred sites are places that are concrete structures of mediation and contact with the divine. The sublime prospect of meeting and experiencing the divine is what gives sacred sites their inexplicable yet visceral potency for believers. Sacred spaces are also indestructible, as their holiness resides in the place rather than the structure imposed on them even if the structure, due to the contagious properties of the sacral land, may partake of that sanctity.
Thus, for believers, they are of paramount significance. One of the most important sites in Ayodhya is Svargadvara (gateway to heaven) on the banks of the River Sarayu, where Rama is supposed to have ascended into heaven. Since sacred sites are valuable for many believers, they by extension become hot assets for politicians too. For political uses, these are premium sites of real estate imbued with divinity. Appealing to many, sacred spaces can be potent recruits for various uses, as evident through sites such as Ayodhya and Jerusalem.
Historical texts show that Ayodhya was much more than a temple. Its status in the religious geography of Hinduism is that of a tirtha and is not confined to that of a birthplace or a temple.
Ayodhya has proved to be a fertile ground for Hindutva groups which have incessantly tried to elevate the lore of Rama and his birthplace as the locus of Ayodhya, giving short shrift to its status as a tirtha and sites of god Shiva, who happens to be the presiding deity and also that of Hanuman, the current guardian.
A scenario of peaceful coexistence and sharing of sacred space prevails when the site in question is of marginal importance for the particular religion.
Apart from the historically non-incontrovertible claim of Rama's temple being on the exact spot as that of the Babri Masjid, it is not only selective historicity that is recruited for usage but a selective deployment of gods from the Hindu pantheon. This in turns masks the complexity and plurality of Ayodhya as a tirtha as well as a harbour for different deities.
Much of the political establishment's response to the Ayodhya dispute has centred on division and exclusion. The first is about dividing the sacred site between competing religious groups so as to provide demarcated space to each community. Division can also be at temporal levels, wherein access to the site is given at particular times - this was the case at Ayodhya where access was given to Hindu worshippers once a year before the demolition in 1992.
Division however does not quell the desire of the actors involved to gain legitimacy and control over the place. Division also aggravates the situation as evident through the Allahabad high court judgment of 2010 wherein it went for a tripartite division of the disputed area in Ayodhya. The judgment, however, was unsatisfactory to the parties involved and all three actors decided to appeal against it. Thus, cohesive boundaries and infrangibility of space are crucial attributes of such sites.
The second approach entails excluding all the actors from the site involved. This involves a state actor that is more powerful than the various interested parties to enforce it without any signs of partiality. In the Indian case, this is particularly challenging and tricky due to the very nature of Indian secularism, which is not contingent upon the strict division of the church and state as in the West but instead entails equal treatment of different religions. These responses, though widely replicated and usually followed fail for they misunderstand the logic of how sacred sites function.
Contrary to this, sacred spaces shared between different religious communities are a widespread phenomenon all across India.
How does such a scenario square off with the one enumerated above, where there is a perpetual contestation for holy space?
The answer lies in the fact that these shared sites of worship have a crucial characteristic that make them immune to the kind of contestation stated above.
In Ayodhya itself, many places claim to be the birthplace of Rama. These are not rival but complementary claims...
A scenario of peaceful coexistence and sharing of sacred space prevails when the site in question is of marginal importance for the particular religion. With marginality comes little vulnerability since such sites are not fully incorporated and enlisted in the religious geography of a religion. The control and access to such sites proffer no particular legitimacy or ideational value for the actors, which is why most shared sites of this nature are symptomatic of 'folk' religion.
Many sites also have the potential to grow or increase their salience in the sacred space if miraculous or highly extraordinary scenarios take place in them. This makes the sites "vulnerable" and by extension may lead to conflict. This is evident in the miraculous appearance/installation of Rama's and Sita's idols in the Babri Masjid in 1948, an event which was used strategically by the Hindutva brigade subsequently to elevate its importance.
India's sacral geography is known for its mirror sites or religious-material doppelgangers -- this is why in Ayodhya itself, many places claim to be the birthplace of Rama. These are not rival but complementary claims that bring into sharp relief the plurality of the manifestation of the divine, something that is especially evident in Hinduism.
The responses so far to the Ayodhya dispute have excluded the dynamic by which sacred spaces function. Comprehending how these spaces work can throw valuable light on how to approach them.
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