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Ayodhya—Land of Ram

The Kaifiyat Express looks in dire need of spit and polish. But if you are a pilgrim bound for Ayodhya from Delhi, it’s the most convenient train to get  there. Heading towards the ghat for the ritual bath in the Saryu or Ghaghra river you feel  only a  true Ram bhakt ventures  here. No fancy or even decent hotels.  No tourist friendly signage or restaurants. If anything, Ayodhya’s numerous temples too are understated.  Definitely not  in the league of the Akshardhams or Tirupatis.  Many temples have endowments or muafi,  lands or revenue free villages, says Mr R. C. Gaur,  author of  “Ram in Stone Sculpture” but little known history exists.  Gaur is  currently OSD   of the Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan — a Research Institute,  established in 1985, that encourages scholarship on Ayodhya.   

At the Sansthan’s  headquarters, Tulsi Smarak Bhavan,  the spirit of Ram lalla is kept  alive through the enactment of  the  `Rama lila’ year round. Our visit coincides with an enthusiastic  troupe from Barabanki.  Against gaudily painted backdrops of ocean,  sky, forest,  palace, Sita’s  kidnapping by Ravana is played out. As many as 24 Ramlila troupes  participate with  15-16 day slots to propagate the Ramayana. They use  varied dialects and traditions from  UP, MP,  Bihar,  Rajasthan, Andhra, Orissa etc.

The hall is full every night says Avinash, Manager of the Bhavan. Eager spectators are seated on a dhurrie, while a mini orchestra  plays on the manjira, tabla and harmonium, at the same time  lustily singing  Tulsidas’s chaupais , a tradition attributed to Baba Manik Das ji. Often a kathavachak  is the interlocutor, recounts writer  Sharda Dubey who has documented this tradition. With an aarti to the  jhanki, and a vandana, the show begins. Six hundred Ramlila artistes have benefitted, says Dubey, leave alone local businesses like restaurants, halwai shops, flower-sellers, barbers, dhramshalas etc.

Droves of people  from distant provinces of Andhra, Karnataka, Assam etc. arrive daily.  These are mostly lower middle class people. Inconveniences do not deter them, nor the watchful eyes of the paramilitary and police forces that guard the Ram Janam Bhumi Sthan. They offer their tokens certain their faith will be rewarded. It is Rama’s town, and it feels as if he were still alive.

Though Ayodhya’s history is well documented in Valmiki’s Ramayana, the first three Vedas do not mention it. The  Atharvaveda mentions Ayodhya and describes the city as having being built by the Gods and being as prosperous as Paradise itself. In the mythical age of the  Mahabharata Ayodhya is called  `Punyalakshmana’  and the  Ikshvaku kings of Suryavanshi descent,  make up Lord Rama’s lineage.  His kingdom of   Kosala with its capital of Ayodhya lay by the sacred river Saryu,  till his twin son Kush moved it further to Kushthali, near the Vindhyas and Ayodhya lost its importance.

According to tradition the credit of restoring Ayodhya goes to  Vikramaditya of Ujjain, usually identified as Chadragupta II (379—413 AD) but from the 7th century  AD onwards again, for long periods it was deserted till it fell into the hands of the Delhi Sultans.  It is from Jahangir’s reign that we have the first description of Ayodhya by an European visitor William Finch (1608 –16011 AD ), writes scholar,  Hans Bakker. Later it leant its name to `Avadh’  adopted by the latter day Nawabs

Interestingly this whole Saryu basin is the cradle of all religious histories, says Y.P. Singh, Director of the Sansthan, be it Jain, Buddhist and Muslim. The Buddha followed the footsteps of Rama and stayed at nearby Sravasti. The Saryu basin mounds could unearth more stupas and monasteries, but  we would need an international  project to actualize this whole cradle of civilization, says an ASI functionary. The graves of ancient Muslim saints and of the 24  Jain  tirthankars 5 were born in Ayodhya including the first, Adinatha.

A Historical Sketch of Faizabad tehsil (P. Carnegy –1870) states in 1902 a local committee erected stone pillars  marking the sacred spots.  But the four  most frequented tirthas apart from Saryu river remain the Kanakbhavana temple built by the Rani of  Tikamgarh/Orcha State.(M.P.) and  thought to be the terrestrial representation of  Sita’s divine palace;  Hanumangarhi, the temple devoted to Hanuman;  the Ram Janam Bhumi Nyas and Bara Sthan/Dushrath Mahal from early times. Other interesting temples are Mani Parvat Temple and Mani Ram Das ki Chavani.

Of the dharamshalas, the  Janaki Mahal Trust at Naya Ghat (good food),  the Birla dharamshala at the old bus station, and the Manas Bhavan Trust at Ram Ghat are the most sought after, where a  AC or non AC room can be had at decent rates. We lodge in the  2 star Ram Shyam Hotel where  rooms are basic, but  the  north Indian cuisine is deliciously cooked in desi ghee.  

The  18th century palace of the erstwhile Raja Ayodhya  built in Indo—Saracenic style marks one of the secular `heritage spots’.  But aside from the palace not much effort has been made to restore or conserve old buildings.  The royalty is originally of  Brahmin origin  from Darbangha, Bihar.  Speaking of migrations, the  first Indo-Korean diplomatic relations are said to have been established by  a princess of Ayodhya who travelled to far Korea  two thousand years ago. She  is said to have taken  the  ancient Chinese  Tea and Horse Route.

But clearly Ayodhya today  is yet another UP town in decay. Locals say  the ex- culture minister  Jagmohan had tried to make it a heritage city but failed to get past the red-tape.  However Tulsi Smarak Bhavan keeps the flag flying with  seminars, and a collection of rare books. Currently it tries to build up a `Ramayana’ centric craft collection  of flying Hanumans from Varanasi, the Ramayana in Kalamkari from Andhra, a  phad from Orissa, the eight mangals, ancient stone pillars and statues from archaeological excavations, block printed textiles from the Ram-bhakt Bilaspur– Mahanadi  tribal belt,  and so on. A wonderful photograph of Nehru too at the Ramlila celebrations catches the eye.

On stage the   legend continues.  As the curtain drops on the Barabanki actors, the crowd of people slip out in silence, awaiting the performance the next day. They speculate, who will rescue Sita,  how will Lord Hanuman make the journey? For them  the Ram Mandir  dispute is marginal,  but not  the just and righteous rule of Rama rajya that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers, Pt.Nehru and Patel strove for. In this crime-infested state of UP,  this audience  still await it.