Who is Ram Lalla and why is India building a temple over a mosque site?

Controversial site has been subject to litigation, religious politics and violence

Narendra Modi inaugurates grand Hindu temple built on ruins of mosque

Narendra Modi inaugurates grand Hindu temple built on ruins of mosque
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Workers and organisers are putting the final touches to the grand Ram Temple in Ayodhya, built on the site considered by many Hindus as the birthplace of the deity Rama, before its inauguration on January 22.

A statue of the depicting Lord Rama as a child, weighing 200kg and nearly 2.5 metres high, was installed in the main sanctum of the multimillion-dollar temple on Thursday.

The consecration of the temple will be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Temple inauguration

About 7,000 people, including high-ranking officials, are expected to gather at the temple on a day seen as historic for the Hindu-majority but officially secular country of 1.4 billion people.

More than 100 dignitaries from 55 countries have been invited to the ceremony.

Mr Modi's government has urged people, regardless of their religion, to light earthen lamps to mark the "auspicious occasion".

The Uttar Pradesh state government has announced schools and colleges will be closed that day, and the Railways Ministry has announced special trains will enable smooth travel for visitors from other parts of the country.

Ram Lalla meaning

Only a section of the temple has been completed – the entire complex is due to be finished in December 2024.

In India, where temples are found everywhere, the Ram Temple is considered one of the most significant religious structures.

But it is also one of the most controversial, and has a long history of litigation, sectarian politics and violence.

Origins of the dispute

The temple is built on a site where the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque once stood, before being demolished in 1992 by a group of Hindus.

Hindus have long claimed that the mosque, built by Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, occupied the site of a temple dedicated to the birthplace of Rama.

The first clashes between Hindus and Muslims over the site occurred in 1853 during British rule, when a group of Hindu ascetics occupied the site and claimed it to be a temple.

A court in 1855 divided the premises, giving the external portion to the Hindus while the mosque and its immediate surroundings remained with the Muslims. A further ruling reinforced the status quo.

In 1949, two years after India’s independence from the British, a group of Hindu activists secretly put an idol of Lord Ram inside the mosque, and then reported that it had miraculously appeared.

The news spread and large numbers of Hindus started visiting the site. In response, the government declared the entire area, comprising more than a hectare of land, including the mosque, as “disputed” and sealed it.

Several lawsuits were filed by Hindu groups who demanded the gates to open and vowed to build a temple at the site, which starting the beginning of the Ram Temple movement.

In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister from the Indian National Congress party at the time, ordered that the gates be unlocked and Hindus allowed access the site.

Destruction of Babri Masjid mosque

In 1989, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a Hindu group associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological predecessor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, laid the foundation stone for a temple at the disputed site.

Two years later, Lal Krishna Advani, a veteran BJP leader, began a 10,000km motorcade rally from Gujarat to Ayodhya to consolidate Hindu support ahead of general elections.

Mr Advani often invoked Hindu nationalism in his speeches at the rallies.

On December 6, 1992, the VHP, BJP and other right-wing Hindu groups organised a rally outside the mosque.

More than 150,000 Hindus joined the rally, while police barricaded the structure. By noon, a group of rally participants stormed the barricades and scaled the mosque.

They demolished it with shovels, pickaxes and sticks, destroying it within five hours, and constructed a makeshift Hindu temple overnight.

The incident led to widespread violence and riots across the country, in which 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.

A subsequent government inquiry found the attack was pre-planned. It blamed 68 people, including top BJP leaders such as Mr Advani, who later became India’s deputy prime minister, for the demolition of the mosque.

The commission also criticised the BJP's chief minister Kalyan Singh for failing to stop the attacks. It held Mr Advani, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other BJP leaders “ideologically responsible” for the demolition due to their regular employment of Hindu nationalist rhetoric.

Supreme Court verdict and legacy

In 2010, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the spot beneath the central dome of the demolished mosque was indeed the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama.

The court divided the disputed land into three parts, awarding one third to Hindu Maha Sabha, a Hindu nationalist group, one third to the Waqf board, which had overseen the mosque, and the final third to Nirmohi Akhada, a Hindu ascetics group.

All three parties appealed against the judgment in the Supreme Court, which in 2019 unanimously ruled that the disputed land be given to Hindus and directed the federal government to set up a trust to build a Ram Temple, while Muslims would be given land elsewhere for the construction of a mosque.

The dispute has left a long-lasting legacy on Indian politics.

The BJP has positioned the Ram Temple as a cornerstone of its ideology since it entered politics in 1980 and has always featured it in the party's election manifestos.

In 2019, Mr Modi promised the construction of a grand temple while on the campaign trail.

The construction started in 2020. Mr Modi had laid the foundation stone at the site in a ceremony that was televised live.

Updated: January 22, 2024, 6:29 PM