Ayodhya: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday opened a major Hindu temple in northern India on Monday, marking a new milestone in the popular leader's project of reshaping the country.
Modi, dressed in the traditional outfit of a Kurta, led the opening ceremony amid religious hymns chanted by priests inside the temple’s inner sanctum where a 1.3-meter (4.25-foot) stone sculpture of Lord Ram was installed last week. A conch was blown by a priest to mark the temple's opening and Modi placed a lotus flower in front of idol made of black stone.
Nearly 7,500 people, including the country’s most elite industrialists, politicians and movie stars, watched the ritual on a giant screen outside the temple as a military helicopter showered petals.
Ayodhya has undergone an elaborate makeover in the lead up to the inauguration. Narrow roads have been turned into a four-lane pilgrimage route leading to the temple, tourists are arriving at a new airport and sprawling railway station, and major hotel chains are building new properties.
Jubilant devotees from across the country have arrived to celebrate the opening, with groups of them dancing to religious songs that blare from speakers on roads bedecked with flowers. Huge cut-outs of Lord Ram and billboards of Modi are ubiquitous across Ayodhya, where the borders have been sealed to prevent more people from coming in. Some 20,000 security personnel and more than 10,000 CCTV cameras have been deployed.
Harish Joshi arrived in Ayodhya from Uttarakhand state four days before the ceremony, hopeful that he may be able to get a glimpse of the ceremony. “I am here to see history unfolding before our eyes. For centuries, the story of Lord Ram has resonated in the hearts of millions," he said.
The temple, located at one of India’s most vexed religious sites, is expected to embolden Modi’s chances of clinching a record third successive term by drawing on the religious sentiments of Hindus, who make up 80% of India’s population of 1.4 billion.
The inauguration has morphed into a massive national event.
Modi’s government has planned live screenings across the country and even movie theaters in some cities will broadcast the event while offering free popcorn. BJP workers have gone door to door handing out religious flags, while Modi has encouraged people to celebrate by lighting lamps at homes and in local shrines. His government announced a half-day closure on Monday for all its offices, and numerous states have declared it a public holiday. Even the stock and money markets are closed for the day.
But not all are rejoicing. Four key religious authorities have refused to attend, saying consecrating an unfinished temple goes against Hindu scriptures. Some top leaders from India’s main opposition Congress party are also boycotting the event, with many opposition lawmakers accusing Modi of exploiting the temple for political points.