Explainer: What is 'Modi's' Hindu Ayodhya Ram Temple, built on Babri Masjid, and why is it controversial?

Explainer: What is 'Modi's' Hindu Ayodhya Ram Temple, built on Babri Masjid, and why is it controversial?
In 1992 the Babri Masjid mosque, dating back to 1528, was destroyed by a Hindu nationalist mob sparking nationwide riots with the Ram temple built in its place.
4 min read
22 January, 2024
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Temple, inviting 8,000 people to attend the ceremony [Photo by Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images]

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a new Hindu temple in the town of Ayodhya on Tuesday following a three-and-a-half-year construction process, a hugely controversial undertaking given the dark past of the project.

The opening was broadcast live nationally, with the 'Prana Pratishtha' ceremony seeing Modi perform religious rituals inside the temple alongside priests and the head of the notorious Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement, Mohan Bhagwat.

At least 8,000 people were invited to the opening ceremony, including Indian tycoons, Bollywood actors, and cricketers with another 100,000 expected to visit the site every day over the coming months.

Speaking outside the temple Modi stated that "January 22, 2024 is not merely a date in the calendar but heralds the advent of a new era".

The Ram temple

The lauded temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Ram, one of the most popular in India, believed to bring peace and prosperity when chanting his name in times of hardship.

Its construction cost £170 million, much of which has been received from private donations, with the town of Ayodhya receiving more than £3 billion to help it prepare for an influx of tourists.

The temple itself has three levels and reaches a height of 50 metres. While the temple will cover 7.2 acres its complex will stretch ten times this with a 51-inch statue of Ram, made of black stone, adorning the temple.


Babri Masjid

The temple was constructed on the site of a former mosque, Babri Masjid, that was razed to the ground three decades ago by a Hindu nationalist mob.

Babri Masjid was built in 1528 and used by the town's Muslim population for prayer until 1949 when hardline Hindu nationalists laid claim to the mosque's grounds, claiming it was built on the site of a previous temple to Ram and originally the birthplace of the god.

After the placement of an idol of Ram in the mosque it stopped being used following a court order that barred the removal of the idols from the mosque grounds.

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In the 1980s the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which Modi belongs to, promised to take over the land and build a temple on the site. 

In 1992, a Hindu nationalist mob destroyed the mosque, triggering nationwide riots that killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. One of the worst scenes was in Bombay, where 900 people were killed.

What happened to the land?

Following the mosque's destruction, courts issued several rulings on the future of the site, including a 2010 decision that the site should be shared.

However, in 2019 India's Supreme Court gave the land to Hindus, allowing for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque. Muslims were given a separate plot of land for the construction of a new mosque to replace the Babri Masjid. PM Modi attended the groundbreaking for the new temple in 2020.

Hindu nationalists were overjoyed by the decision, which followed decades of campaigning, although Muslims have seen it as a provocation and some opposition politicians boycotted Monday's ceremony.

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What is the response in India to the temple construction?

The inauguration of the temple has allowed both Modi and the BJP to declare they have delivered on their 35-year-old promise to build the temple, located in the province of Gujarat where Modi spent 12 years as governor.

Trucks operated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organisation linked to the RSS and BJP, have been gathering grain from hard-up farmers to feed the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims expected to visit the site.

Likewise, high-profile singers have released songs for the occasion, and Indians on social media have created content to celebrate the temple's inauguration, many of which feature Modi.

Opposition parties accuse Modi of using the ceremony as part of a campaign for the upcoming general elections, amid a huge backlash - particularly among minorities - about his governance. 

However, the ceremony is also distinctive of Modi and the BJP's appeals to foster Hindu nationalism in the country, a wave of enthusiasm that led to the destruction of Babri Masjid and the construction of the temple in 1992.