AYODHYA, India: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday opened a Hindu temple in the northern city of Ayodhya, delivering his party’s decades-long promise.
The temple is dedicated to Hinduism’s deity Ram and fulfills a long-standing demand by millions of Hindus who worship the revered deity and extoll him for the virtues of truth, sacrifice and ethical governance.
Modi, dressed in a traditional kurta tunic, led the opening ceremony as Hindu priests chanted hymns inside the temple’s inner sanctum, where a 1.3-meter (4.3-foot) stone sculpture of deity 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 the black stone idol, decked in intricate gold ornaments and holding a golden bow and arrow. He later prostrated before the idol.
Nearly 7,500 people, including elite industrialists, politicians and movie stars, witnessed the ritual on a giant screen outside the temple as a military helicopter showered flower petals.
“Our Lord Ram has arrived after centuries of wait,” Modi said in a speech after the ceremony, receiving a resounding applause from thousands of attendees. He said the temple was built after “countless sacrifices” and is testament to a rising India “breaking the shackles of slave mentality.”
“January 22, 2024, is not merely a date but marks the dawn of a new era,” Modi said.
The event was turned into a national occasion by organising live screenings across the country and closing offices for half a day.
Saffron flags adorned the streets of various cities where government party workers had gone door to door handing out religious pamphlets.
Officials say the temple, a three-story structure made of pink sandstone, will open to the public after the ceremony and they expect 100,000 devotees to visit daily.
Builders are still working to finish 46 elaborate doors and intricate wall carvings.
Apart from a $6 billion makeover of the northern city of Ayodhya, the federal government has spent nearly $120 million to develop dozens of Hindu pilgrimage sites in the past decade, according to government data, and more funding is planned.
The Ram Temple is estimated to draw up to 100 million tourists a year, according to Jefferies analysts. In comparison, about 9 million people visit Vatican City in a year and about 20 million Mecca.
“The creation of a new religious tourist centre (Ayodhya) with improved connectivity and infrastructure can create a meaningfully large economic impact,” the analysts wrote in a note.
Since Modi inaugurated the Hindu pilgrimage site of Kashi Vishwanath Corridor on the banks of the Ganges in 2021 in his constituency of Varanasi, more than 130 million tourists have visited the area, according to government data.
The yearly footfall in Varanasi, which like Ayodhya is in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh and is one of the oldest living cities in the world, was barely 7 million before that.
Analysts say tourism income for locals and hotels in Varanasi - by dying where Hindus believe to attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth - have surged by up to 65 per cent.
With nearly $200 billion in revenue, tourism contributes about 7 per cent of India’s economy, which is below most large emerging and developed economies by up to 5 percentage points. -- Reuters
Television news channels ran non-stop coverage of the event, portrayed as a religious spectacle.
Some movie theatres broadcast the event live with complimentary popcorn. Many states declared the day a public holiday. In a rare step, stock and money markets were closed for the day.
“Ram Rajya (rule) begins,” a TV news headline said. Ram Rajya is a Sankrit phrase that means just and ethical governance in Hinduism.
Ahead of the temple opening, Modi set the tone by visiting numerous Ram temples over 11 days as part of a Hindu ritual.
Hindus make up 80 per cent of India’s population of 1.4 billion.
Ayodhya, once crowded with tightly packed houses and rundown stalls, has undergone an elaborate makeover in the lead up to the temple’s 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 deity 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 security cameras have been deployed.
The moment will be remembered as momentous and historic by many of the country’s Hindu citizens.
“I am here to see history unfolding before our eyes. For centuries, the story of Lord Ram has resonated in the hearts of millions,” said Harish Joshi who arrived in Ayodhya from Uttarakhand state four days before the ceremony.
"This is a very proud moment for all Hindus," said Mewaram Prajapati, who came from Modi's western home state of Gujarat.
"Our lord suffered a lot. He stayed in tents, braved heat, cold and rains ... Now our god will finally settle in his palace."