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October 26, 2020

First published October 25, 2020

 in Mumbai Mirror

Does Gujarat Inspire the Ram Janmabhoomi Architecture?

Published on 25th October, 2020, in Mumbai Mirror.

The Ram Mandir will finally be built in Ayodhya. It is meant to establish a common political Hindutva identity to unite Hindus, who are divided by many castes, languages, gods and rituals. But much of the temple structure shows a strong influence of Gujarat and Gujarat-based ascetic and social organisations such as Jains and Swaminarayan. Not surprising, considering the most powerful political and economic forces of Hindutva have roots in that state.Images of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple architecture have long been doing the rounds. It reminds us of a Maru-Gurjara temple architecture, also known as Chalukya or Solanki style, found in Gujarat (Dwarka) and in Madhya Pradesh (Khajuraho). The most characteristic feature of this temple is that it appears to be multi-storeyed, has many ‘toranas’ and elaborate ceilings. This style has been popularised globally by the Jain and Swaminarayan communities, whose followers are known to be major patrons of Hindutva. These temples have also popularised the use of marble for temples and resident images, though orthodox Hindu temples shun marble and prefer granite, as marble is seen as containing calcium, hence bones.

Conspicuous by its absence is the Gopuram found in south Indian temples (Chidambaram, Srirangam). No subsidiary shrines to family members as in Shiva and Vishnu temples. No temple pond, no temple grove, no ‘agraharam’ where the priests reside and no revival for the dancing/singing communities of devadasis, banned since Victorian times. Only matha or monasteries, for celibate saffron-robed monks, continue in keeping with its alignment to Jain and Swaminarayan communities, who greatly uphold monastic ideals.

Traditionally Hinduism has been anti-monastic. Manusmriti values the householder over the hermit. Temples focus on gods who have consorts and temple rituals focus on marriage (Brahmotsavam of Tirupati) and in householder conjugal activities like going on boat rides (Chandanyatra of Puri) and enjoying the swing (evening rituals of Madurai Meenakshi), food, music and dance. None of these are favoured in Jain or Swarminarayan temples, or by Hindutva, which is pronouncedly masculine and ascetic, and so saffron.

Sahajanand Swami established the Swaminarayan sampradaya over 200 years ago. While he valued Krishna worship, he shunned the romantic (shringara) side of Krishna and followed a more puritanical approach, by creating an order of celibate monks focused on social service (seva). He valued women’s education and eradicating excessive casteism, but these were done within the orthodox fold, so as not to upset the dominant members of the community. And so women are seen as subservient to men and not independent beings, and caste rules are followed, especially those related to dalits, food and pollution. These values are shared by Hindutva, whose rejection of caste and patriarchy mirrors its public adoration for Gandhi. The travelling Jain and Swaminarayan monks mirror Hindutva missionaries (pracharaks), who spread the good word just like evangelists.

Just as the central deity in a Jain temple is a Tirthankara, and the central deity in a Swaminarayan temple is the founder-guru, the central deity of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple is singular and not a pair – Ram-lalla, the child Ram. The image looks very similar to the popular Laddu-gopal, Krishna crawling with butter in hand. By visualising the deity as a child, Hindutva is free from the burden of including Sita, the female half of the divine Ram. This aligns well with Hindutva valorisation of hermit over householder, of Parashuram and Hanuman, of Ram without Sita, Krishna without Radha, Shiva without Shakti, as seen commonly in Hindutva posters.

Clearly the Ramjanmabhoomi temple is a re-imagination of a Hindu temple to serve nationalistic goals, much like a sampradaya temple satisfies a community’s goal. More a museum and memorial than the residence of the ‘living image’ (svarupa) of God. Note: Savarkar did not value Hindu rituals. But one wonders how such a temple will unite all of India, like the traditional village temples that served to unite village communities during village festivals? Will there only be rituals celebrating Ram’s defeat of Ravana during Navaratri or triumphant return to Ayodhya during Diwali? Will one see celebrations of Ram and Sita’s marriage and their joyful union in the mythical heaven of Ram known as Saket, surrounded by kinnaras (queer dancers/musicians)? Will it be about defeating the other (Ravana) or uniting with the other (Sita)?

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