Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs rituals during the opening of a temple dedicated to Hinduism's Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, Monday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs rituals during the opening of a temple dedicated to Hinduism's Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, Monday. / AP

AYODHYA, India — With priests chanting and blowing conch shells, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the consecration of a controversial Hindu temple in this north Indian town on Monday. The ceremony was capped by the unveiling of a 51-inch black stone idol of the Hindu god Ram.

The temple inauguration marks the culmination of a decades-long dispute over a site that Hindus believe is the birthplace of their Lord Ram. In 1992, a mob egged on by leaders of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, now led by Modi, tore down a 16th century mosque. Riots that followed killed over 2,000 people, most of them Muslim.

Political analysts say the destruction of the mosque boosted the BJP's electoral fortunes. Construction of the new Ram temple began in 2020, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hindu litigants. Modi himself led the foundation stone that year.

"Our Lord Ram isn't going to be in a tent anymore," said Modi following Monday's consecration. "Our Lord Ram will be in a grand temple."

Until the Supreme Court's verdict in 2019, an idol of Lord Ram was kept in a tent near the site where the temple has now been built — a grand temple that many Indians have long hoped to see.

"Lord Ram is our god, our ancestor, our king," says Pooja Kashyap, a 28-year-old from Ayodhya, who spoke with NPR before performing Hindu rituals at Ayodhya's Sarayu river. "It's very important that he should be in his temple."

But the $220 million temple isn't yet finished. An official at the trust overseeing construction says it will need another year and a half to wrap up. Political analysts say the consecration was performed so the prime minister could show it off as an achievement ahead of national elections set for this spring. Modi's party had long promised to construct a temple to Ram on this spot.

Critics of the BJP call the temple a monument to India's fast-eroding secularism.

"The idea is to assert Hindu supremacy," says Ziya Us Salam, a veteran journalist at the Indian daily The Hindu and author of Being Muslim in Hindu India. "There is one religion which is supreme in the country, and everybody else who is a non-follower of that religion is reduced to the status of a second-class citizen."

Many Indian public schools and colleges declared a holiday on Monday, and civil servants working for the central government and some states were given a half-day off. Modi exhorted people to light lamps in celebration, and BJP volunteers distributed rice in the name of Lord Ram.

On Monday morning, saffron flags billowed and devotional songs blared on loudspeakers on Ayodhya's streets. The local administration had put up hundreds of billboards bearing images of Modi to welcome over 8,000 dignitaries, including film actors, cricket players, industrialists and Hindu seers.

All others were forbidden from entering the temple on Monday. Thousands of security forces kept devotees behind barricades, while folk dancers and musicians performed on the pavement.

The religious celebration by a constitutionally secular state was unnerving to many in Ayodha's minority Muslim community.

"It's all been peaceful so far," says Azam Qadri, a Muslim community leader. "But some families have sent their women and children out of Ayodhya lest something goes wrong. I'm sure nothing will. But these are mostly people who have witnessed the communal riots in 1992."

Qadri said he hoped the temple consecration would finally close the wounds of the Muslim community and they could move on.

The Babri Masjid is not the only structure Hindu nationalists have sought to tear down over the years, claiming they were built on temple sites. But until Modi became prime minister, Indian governments had eschewed supporting such claims to holy sites, fearing that doing so would ignite a tinderbox of communal violence — much as Hindus' destruction of the Babri Masjid did.

Now, two more legal cases are under way in two other Hindu pilgrimage sites in northern India where Hindu nationalists hope to take ownership of land on which mosques currently sit. Ranjana Agnihotri, a Modi supporter and lawyer contesting one such site in Mathura, says Hindu nationalists are focusing on a mosque there that they believe is built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna, and another in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which they claim was home to a temple demolished by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The legal battle is expected to go on for years, but many BJP leaders have supported the Hindu litigants' stand. Even after these cases are resolved, there will be many more, vows Agnihotri. "We have a list of over 3,000 temples in India that were demolished by Muslim invaders over the years," she says, "which we now want back."

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