Live From Ayodhya
By Nigar Ataulla (with input from Yoginder Sikand)
Why do we want to bind our love for each other or for God in monuments and mansions? God is eternal, all around us, He is within us and everywhere. So why are we fighting over mandirs or masjids?
It was a winter afternoon, way back on 6 December, 1992. Balancing my handbag and an armful of artworks, I was walking to my office –an advertising agency in Bangalore. My mind was preoccupied with the deadline my client had given me to present a campaign for him. As I chalked out the plan of action for this, I felt a gloomy silence around: little groups of people huddled together whispering and murmuring among themselves, panic writ large on their faces. … The latest news flash was that a mob had demolished a mosque in Ayodhya.
Anxious parents were picking their kids back from school earlier than the usual time. I got a call from my frantic parents to reach home soon. I told them I would wind up my work at office at once and rush back.
Almost 15 years after this incident, luck took me to the town of Ayodhya with my husband, whom I have nicknamed the Second Ibn Batuta for the irrepressible travel bug that drives him. I was very eager to see Ayodhya… the name conjured up numerous memories. In the heydays of Doordarshan’s glory and monopoly over the air waves, the Ramayana was the most popular serial. I would promptly glue myself on Sunday mornings to watch the fascinating graphics used in the serial—the arrows flying from one end to the other and getting stuck in mid-air, strong characters that people the epic, each with their own vivid and striking personalities, the numerous beings peopling the skies and land. And then, from the 1980s, Ayodhya had been constantly in the news for less harmless reasons, as political lines and communal divides were drawn over a little shrine atop a mound in the town, claimed by both Hindus and Muslims as their own.
We walked around the centre of town, which had many temples all around. Somebody told us there were 7000 in all. Another insisted that the figure was some 12,000. Who knows? A man spotted us and offered to guide us around for eleven rupees. As we walked through the town, heaps of marigold flowers, boxes of sweets of various colours and flavours, echoes of temple bells and saffron-clad sadhus walking around presented a picture of an archetypical temple town. Shops sold CDs and cassettes of Ram bhajans dubbed on pop music.
Our garrulous guide rattled off the names of various temples in Ayodhya. Of the disputed Babri Masjid he was unusually, though not unexpectedly, eloquent: “Teen ghante mein, babri masjid ka naam o nishan mita diya December 6, 1992 ko. Aap ne TV par dekha hoga,” he said. We listened with straight faces, while squirming at the thought of that day and those that followed, that saw literally thousands of people lose their innocent lives in wild communal fury.
From Ayodhya to Faizabad, it is a 20 minutes journey by rickshaw. A major landmark in the town is the sprawling, and now rapidly crumbling, Bibi Ka Makbara, which houses the tomb of a queen of one of the Nawabs of Awadh. A narrow path leads from the backyard of this edifice down to a vegetable patch that borders a lake now choked with water hyacinth. In the dusk, as the sun retreats, through thick clouds of fog one can trace at the edge of the patch the outlines of an ancient mosque, called the Jinnati Masjid, its minarets freshly whitewashed and ancient brickwork peeping out from its low-level walls. People of all faiths throng here to seek blessings and in the hope of cures to various ailments.
Here I meet a teenaged lad, Raj Kumar, a resident of Faizabad. His strong faith in shrines like this has brought him here. He visits this place everyday to offer respects. He says that his sister was cured of her ailment after coming here. He is a Hindu, he says, but that does not stop him from visiting the shrine. ‘God is every where. His light is in every particle’, he muses philosophically.
I ponder carefully on what he says. My mind races to Ayodhya. In between the clash of the azan and the temple bells, a clash of communal egos, where is God in all this? I wonder if the Almighty is going to ask us in the Hereafter if we fought for a place of worship for Him or if we spent our energies worshipping Him alone and serving His creatures. The latter, I am sure. I observe how Raj Kumar sits in the mosque meditatively, his eyes closed and his lips muttering a chant, while a Muslim woman spreads her prayer-mat and falls down in worship.
My mind then goes back to Ayodhya again. The disputed site, I propose to myself, ought to be made into a hospital or an orphanage open to people of all communities, or perhaps a shrine where people like Raj Kumar and the woman who is still bent in prayer can glorify God, irrespective of caste and creed.
The next day we get to Agra. We arrive at the Taj Mahal and I gaze at this monument of love in wonder. The Mughal Emperor Shahjahan bound his love for Mumtaz in marble. Why do we want to bind our love for each other or for God in monuments, as in Ayodhya, and mansions, as in Agra, I ask myself? God is eternal, all around us. He is within us and everywhere. The whole world is a believer’s prayer-mat. So why are we fighting over mandirs or masjids, I ask, my mind going back to Ayodhya.
Why do we want to bind our love for God only in structures of mud and stone? Were that our love for God be manifested in our love for all human beings—no matter what religion, caste or community they belong to—and, indeed, for all living creatures. So Raj Kumar had said to me in the Jinnati Masjid in Faizabad, while the Muslim woman in the mosque had nodded vigorously in approval.
This piece is dedicated to my parents who inculcated in me the values of tolerance for other faiths, my husband, Yoginder Sikand, whose adventurous spirit and courage is incomparable and my school teachers who taught me the value of peace.