Manoj Tiwari, a trained paramilitary soldier, is in a relaxed mood, chatting with visitors as he guards one of the most protected and highly contentious areas in India. Standing next to a tent that serves as a temple on the site that is known as "Ram Janmabhoomi," or the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram, Tiwari seems to be used to both casual remarks and emotionally charged comments uttered by visitors.
The existing tarpaulin-made structure, located on a 2.77-acre land (approximately 11,000 square meters), is the focus of a long-running legal dispute between Hindus and Muslims. Its three-meter-high fence, painted in bright yellow, and the heavy presence of security personnel make the area stand out from the rest of the town.
A curious first-time visitor points at the make-do structure and asks about the Babri mosque. "Are you here to see Lord Ram or the Masjid," the guard quips, referring to the medieval structure. Another devotee of Ram, who visits Ayodhya for the first time, is taken aback by the tent and asks, "Is this the temple?" A priest, who conducts prayers and distributes sugary sweets, is quick to add: "A full-fledged temple will be built very soon."
History of violence
The temporary temple for the Hindu deity has been set up on a contentious piece of land where the Babri Masjid once stood. The mosque was built by India's first Mughal emperor, Babur, in the 16th century. Right-wing Hindu groups say the ruler destroyed an old Hindu temple to build the Muslim structure — a claim that has not been conclusively proven by historians.
On December 6, 1992, right-wing Hindu activists known as "kar sevaks" razed the mosque with hammers, crowbars and pickaxes. They were supported by organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India's current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The kar sevaks hoped to resurrect the ancient temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya, his mythical birthplace. Communal riots broke out in several Indian cities in the following weeks, leading to the death of over 2,000 people, many of them Muslims.
Ayodhya has witnessed a protracted legal struggle between members of different communities, after the first legal complaint was lodged in the 1850s. The claim that the mosque was built at the site of an ancient Hindu temple gained fervor in the 1980s, when several BJP leaders led campaigns demanding the construction of a temple that eventually culminated in the demolition of the Babri mosque.
The legal battle over who gets to own the disputed land has now reached a tipping point as the country's Supreme Court is set to start hearing in early 2019, leading to a verdict that could put an end to the controversy. Lower courts had earlier ruled that Hindu groups would control two-thirds of the land while Muslim contestants could hold one-third. But the Sunni Waqf Board has appealed against the decision and moved the case to the Supreme Court, while its Shiite counterpart, the Shia Waqf board, has offered to relinquish its share of the land.
A threat to communal peace
The controversy around "Ram Janmabhoomi" continues to haunt much of Ayodhya, a town which seems to host more temples for Ram than houses for people. Despite the presence of nearly 7,000 temples of various shapes, sizes and traditions, many people, especially supporters of the BJP, appear to be supporting the construction of one more. They hope the presence of BJP administrations in both the state of Uttar Pradesh and the national capital, New Delhi, will help build the Ram temple. Hindu groups are now demanding that the government order its construction.
There have been multiple political and religious gatherings in the weeks running up to the anniversary of the demolition, with several groups clamoring for the start of temple construction as soon as possible. Security arrangements are being constantly beefed up at the site to prevent any violence or communal riots between Hindus and Muslims.
But a fear of violence is not out of place in a town like Ayodhya, whose narrow streets are dominated by monkeys and freely roaming cows. Every now and then, heavily bearded and pot-bellied men, sporting vermilion marks on their foreheads, are seen wandering on the streets. Several shops, which sell local items in the tiny alleys leading to Ram Janmabhoomi, continuously play the video of the destruction of the Babri Masjid on loop.
Amit Pandey, a local rickshaw driver, is an expert in navigating Ayodhya's streets. He told DW that dozens of trucks with construction materials were kept ready on the outskirts of the town to assist in the construction of the Ram temple as soon as the Supreme Court decides in its favor. "Everything is ready, we just need a green signal and the temple will be built," he said.