On a day the Supreme Court pressed the pause button on the Babri title suits verdict, the temple town was a picture of calm, betraying no anxiety whatsoever and refusing to be swayed by the rising and ebbing tensions around the expected denouement.

Along the winding corridors leading up to the heavily barricaded make-shift temple — red zone in security parlance — only two tribes could be spotted: lathi-wielding, khakhi-clad policepersons and journalists scrounging around for breaking news. The latter acknowledged each other wistfully. They could stay there all day but Ayodhya was not going to budge.

Outside, life was almost normal, shops were open, and people went about their business. The only giveaway was the massive force deployment. The Central Reserve Police Force and Rapid Action Force personnel sat in clusters at street corners, they were there at the round-abouts, in the chai shops, on the terraces, they even spilled out of temple doors. But unlike in the past, there was a cheerful air about them. They smiled, asked if we were media from Delhi, and waved us on. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati seemed to have adopted the sensible strategy of saturation deployment but without any harassment to visiting journalists and the odd pilgrims.

Stark contrast

The contrast between yesteryear Ayodhya and today's Ayodhya could not have been starker. On an ill-fated December day in 1992, violent saffron-clad mobs had brutally torn down the Babri Masjid. Periodically thereafter, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) laid siege to the temple town, announcing shila pujans and repeatedly setting days for the temple construction. In the public imagination, Ayodhya became synonymous with the ochre and saffron of the VHP's rank and file.

Eighteen years later, the VHP was nowhere to be seen in Ayodhya. Karsevakpuram, the bustling township which at one time hosted tens of thousands of karsevaks, was deserted and padlocked. The VHP's stone-carving workshop, which used to hum with the sound of tiles being cut and polished, was bare except for a group of bewildered tourists from Bangalore. Gopalakrishnan from the group said they had set off for Ayodhya unaware that the decision on the title suits was upcoming. But having come all the way, he had only one wish: “We want a grand temple, but without discord, without violence.”

“No violence” was the recurring theme in the temple town. In the row of shops outside the make-shift temple, shopkeepers sat in groups playing cards. Radio sets blared Bollywood item songs. Shankarlal described Ayodhya as the friendliest, happiest place. “Had it not been for outsiders who vitiated the climate here, no one could have breached the peace here.” Was he aware of that the verdict had been stayed? He laughed: “We have watched dates being set and reset. Maybe, one day we will have a temple but not if it means violence and clashes.” Two shops away, Abdul Rahman, who has been selling puja material for over 35 years, sang a poetic eulogy to Ayodhya's climate of harmony.

At Panji Tola, Mohammad Hashim Ansari (90), the oldest living litigant in the Ayodhya case, was declaiming before a group of journalists: “We have had enough of politicians messing around here. Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, they are all the same. We want to live in peace.” Mr. Ansari regularly visits the temples in Ayodhya. He and Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans were the best of friends though they were on opposite sides of the legal divide.

The Mahant, the melodramatic star of the Ayodhya movement, and many of the dramatis personae involved in the dispute, have long since passed away, leaving observers to wonder at the absurdity of the continuing fight.

The mood was captured best by the scene at the Digambhar Akhara, where the Mahant once lived. His disciple, Suresh Das, was out of town. And a police havildar snored on a cot at the entrance.

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