The Ram Hotel in Ayodhya is nominated, seconded and unanimously voted India’s noisiest hotel. Ayodhya is allegedly the birthplace of Rama, the god of all Hindu gods. This puts the town front and centre of the Haji (pilgrimage) trail.
Not long after I arrived 10 buses packed with pilgrims arrive and all pile into the hotel. I am later to discover that the flophouse accommodation is down the hall from my room so every single loud, excited pilgrim had to shuffle, sniff and shout passed my room. Add in a what sounds like torrential rain from outside my window “someone open a tap sir” with nothing done about it and the bang, crash and constant yabbering from the kitchen preparing food for thousands then you might think that in the morning I would be ready to commit murder. Not a bit of it. My last pair of earplugs are unwrapped and I sleep 9 hours straight, they are that good.
This morning as I am beginning to realise, in this part of the world and at this time of year, it is very foggy and more chilly than I have been used to. I am here to see some of the most important temples in the land and I can’t even see the streets that they are supposed to be on.
The plan is to see the sights in the morning as the temples close at 11ish then hotfoot it down to Lucknow where my trip will eventually end. I piss about a bit walking up to the top of the main street, taking chai and jalebi for breakfast but the fog is simply not budging.
There are thousands of monkeys in this town all marauding round the periphery of human life picking up morsels to eat where they can. I was introduced to them the moment I stepped of the train when one tried to snatch a bag I was holding containing fruit. It seems that in Ayodhya at least the monkey is performing the same dustbin function that the dog does in other towns. This might be as the most popular temple in town for worship is the Hanuman temple. Hanuman is the monkey god.
In common with all holy towns Ayodhya has a large population of huge cows lording it over the entire town. If you are a cow lover India is the place for you. Apart from rural areas you will never see a skinny cow. If however you consider a pooch to be a member of the family then India will present you with some shocks.
Semi feral dogs are everywhere. There function is simple, to clear up the organic waste that humans throw on what is the nation’s dustbin, the floor. Many of them are in a pitiful state with battle scars all along their backs, ridden with fleas and with females showing signs of having litter after litter of pups. I won’t go into too much detail. Rabies is endemic in India but I have only seen it once in a village in the south. Dogs have another function. To keep you awake a night with their territorial yapping and howling.
The temples are open despite the fog. I have noticed when talking to friends about India and the temples that their eyes tend to roll up into their heads. Mike’s off on one again! So I will keep this as brief as I can.
Along the main street is Rajcapol Mandir. I nearly walked right by it but the fog swirled for an instant and revealed a gopuram, like a tower on a church but much more ornate and the tell tale red flag flying at the top. The temple is accessed via this tiny little doorway which transports you into a two beautiful colonnaded courtyards entirely covered in pale blue and gold mosaic.
Depictions of Rama and his consort Sita are created using different colour mosaic tile. The second courtyard leads to the inner sanctum where garlanded icons of the gods are housed, attended by holy men ringing bells and waving candles and incense sticks. Quite beautiful and entirely unexpected as indeed was I to the priests and attendants. By the look on their faces I may well have been wearing a gold lamé tracksuit à la Jimmy Saville.
A little further on and following the sound of temple bells I find an another unusual temple. Not so beautiful but with the walls entirely covered with marble panels depicting some of the principal deities in Hinduism. One of these is my second favourite, Kali the destroyer. Kali is a female, has ten arms all containing a weapon, has killed millions by slicing of the neck and wears a necklace of severed heads. That’s some woman. My favourite Hindu god has to be happy go lucky Ganesh the elephant, the god of happiness and wealth
The main temple approach road is pretty unmistakeable as little shops and stalls selling pretty much exactly the same food offerings (hence the monkeys) line the way without break. There is another clue and that’s a police cordon but more on that later.
The first temple of interest is Hanumangarhi dedicated as I have mentioned to the monkey god Hanuman. The temple seems to be built a bit like a fortress and to get to it you have to ascend steps before leaving you shoes outside. Inside is another riot of colour in mosaic, paint, gild and tile.The fog is infused with the sweet cloying smell of burning incense. I am told off for taking pictures then immediately invited to make an offering (Prasad) to the inner sanctum. I politely refuse, I would much rather watch from the sidelines. In warmer parts of India one of the joys of being in a temple is just sitting and watching the world of the temple revolve. Here it is just too chilly and damp to linger.
Next is another temple called Dashrath Bhavan. Here some form of ceremony seems to be going on. A line of old geezers are being led in prayer by an even older geezer at the head of the line. He sings the line and the guys in the line repeat. Some of the gods in the lines being chanted I can recognise, most I can’t. There are hundreds of thousands of them after all.
At the back of the courtyard is a small congregation quietly listening. Then without any discernible warning all hell breaks loose. The crowd surges to the front and the old geezers began bashing bells, drums and cymbals as if their lives depends upon it. In the sanctum, priests furiously ring bells with their left hands while simultaneously bathing the icons with light and smoke from the candelabra thingy’s their are holding in their right. Rather like tapping your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. The noise is absolutely deafening.
The main event in Ayodhya and what all the pilgrims come to visit is the Ram Janam Bhumi temple that standss upon the birthplace of Rama. A little history I’m afraid. The Mughals built a mosque on this site in the 15th Century and it stood there until 1992 when fuelled no doubt by higher powers Hindus rioted, stormed the mosque complex and began to tear it down. Reprisals from the Muslims followed and a tit for tat battle raged only quelled when the Indian army were called in to shroud the site in iron fist of security.
I have managed to find my way to the temple complex from the back way and some soldiers point in another direction telling me to “check in”. First I walk past a huge queue of women. Beyond that is a humungous queue of men. I get to the back of the line, judge I have an hour to wait and decide it cannot possibly be that special but before I move off I am picked up by one of the security staff who asks me to follow him. We go straight to the head of the where he barks what must be “make way” in Hindi. The crowd parts and I am scanned and patted down by a soldier with a gun the size of a Howitzer on his shoulder.
Beyond that is another queue of men waiting to surrender their mobile, pens, cameras and belts before moving to the next phase. My minder already has my possessions in his hands and we blat straight to the front. It;s good to be a tourist! My camera, phone etc. are stashed in a locker and I am given the key. I am only allowed to retain my wallet and passport.
This is where the security really kicks in. Another security arch leads to an army checkpoint where I am frisked. Beyond that is a courtyard where it is my minder’s job to fill in a form with my name, age, passport number, and visa details in this weighty book, Admin done we walk maybe another 100 metres passing groups of security with massive guns before reaching yet another checkpoint where I am frisked again. Behind this checkpoint is what can what be best described as a cattle run. The path is completely enclosed in metal cage sides and top. On my right is one of those sheep pen things that you see at theme parks to corral visitors but this one has 2.5 metre high steel fence walls and ceiling.
The steel walkway snakes this way and that through what looks essentially like a building site. I am told that on my right is Sita’s kitchen. It looks more like the remains of a mosque to me (lightning will strike me now). Every ten paces or so we pass a bored soldier with an evil looking rifle or sub machine gun. I make a point of greeting all of them with “Namaste” and a smile. Most respond, the odd miserable bugger simply stares down his gun sight.
We stop in front of a mound of earth with a canvas tent atop of it the front flap of which has been folded to expose the profoundly decorated icon of Rama. This my minder proudly announces is the birthplace of the Hindu uber god. A donation box is prominent and ten of my hard earned Rupees slide into the slot. Your donation buys Prasad, a ritual food offering to the gods. The holy man on the other side of the steel fence and through a small opening offers a small ladle of water which you accept with your right hand. My guide sips his from his palm with great aplomb. I pretend to do the same and let the fluid slip down my front.
And that was it. One of the seven holiest sites of the nation. A tent on top of the ruin of an ancient mosque.
On the way out what the stalls sell not so subtlety change. Instead of Prasad and baubles you can buy DVD’s of news coverage of the first of the rioters scaling the fences and knocking seven bells with sledgehammers out of what looks like a quite magnificent medieval mosque. Strange how all religions tend to end up all the same.
My time in Ayodhya is done. Time to move on to the last destination of my trip before setting off back to Delhi and home, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow.