The great temple revival

Cultural resources are now being repurposed for a new Hindu political order. And today, scores of temples are being renovated, expanded or built afresh — by political parties across the spectrum

Updated - January 19, 2024 11:27 am IST

Published - January 12, 2024 04:53 pm IST

Work on the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on in full swing ahead of its inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 22.

Work on the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on in full swing ahead of its inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 22. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Palace and temple have signified authority, order and hierarchy in societies for ages. The idea of a separation of church and state is relatively new, and frequently violated in nearly all political systems, across centuries. King and priest reinforced or challenged each other’s power depending on the circumstances. Kings built temples for legitimacy and priests sought state patronage. Modernity weakened the claims of the spiritual authorities, but the relationship between nationalism and religion has been more complex.

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Territorial nationalism, like religious communities, needs faith, martyrs, deities, and notions of sacred places. Shared notions of sacred spaces and rituals contribute to the making of a people, often defined in conflict with another people. Religious nationalism frees itself from the burden of nuances. King and priest, politics and piety, temple and palace become indistinguishable.

The opening of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is a milestone in the progress of India’s transformation into a Hindu nation. On the one end of the spectrum of ideas of India is that it owes its birth solely to its encounter with colonialism, and its instruments of governance such as census, land surveys, communication networks and modern education. On the other end is the conception of India as a timeless civilisational nation that withstood Islamic invaders and western imperialism. Centrist nationalism sought to balance tradition and modernity, faith and rationality, Hindus and Muslims. The rise of Hindutva toppled this balancing act.

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Ayodhya’s Ram Temple has been central to the imagination of the Hindu rashtra, but the spotlight is also on several other sacred locations and pilgrimage networks. Speaking in Ayodhya on December 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Our country has held significance for pilgrimage journeys since ancient times… Pilgrimages from Badrinath Vishal to Setubandh Rameshwaram, Gangotri to Gangasagar, Dwarkadheesh to Jagannath Puri…”

Inside the Ram Temple in Ayodhya

Inside the Ram Temple in Ayodhya | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Nation builders and academics have viewed India as a territory bound by pilgrims who traverse its sacred locations. “The pilgrim’s India reaches back many hundreds of years and brings to us an astonishing picture of a land linked not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims,” Diana L. Eck writes in India: A Sacred Geography. Pilgrimages “must have intensified the conception of a common land and a common culture,” Jawaharlal Nehru writes in The Discovery of India. Their religious significance apart, people of all castes, classes and gender also travelled to places of pilgrimage for fun and sightseeing, and “even the difference of language between the north and the south did not prove a formidable barrier to this intercourse,” he writes.

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The early claims of sovereignty made by nationalists against imperial rulers were in the realm of religion. In 1954, the first government of the new republic encouraged pilgrims to gather in large numbers for the Allahabad Kumbh Mela, in a show of assertion. The British rulers had created obstructions for the Kumbh in 1942. Nehru himself was present in the city, and pilgrims considered a visit to his home Anand Bhavan in the city a part of the pilgrimage. During the 2019 election campaign, Modi pinned the blame for a stampede at the Kumbh that year on Nehru. More and more Indians are travelling as pilgrims now. In 2001, 20 million devotees gathered for the Kumbh in Allahabad; in 2013, there were 100 million.

Picture taken on February 3, 1954 at the Allahabad Kumbh Mela

Picture taken on February 3, 1954 at the Allahabad Kumbh Mela | Photo Credit: Getty Images

What was then repented by most Indians as an act of vandalism, the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, is today retold as a moment of national triumph. A temple in Ayodhya is potentially the closure of a prolonged conflict but faith takes believers to newer frontiers. The Kasi corridor development and rapid judicial interventions potentially advance Hindu claims over the Gyanvapi mosque compound. Cultural resources that were once deployed in pursuit of a composite nationalism are now repurposed in the service of a Hindu political order. That transition is fundamental yet evolutionary in form. Nehru had a vision about ‘temples of modern India’. The new New India is exploring the moon and space, and also making temples.

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