Ayodhya was another place in eastern Uttar Pradesh that I had been meaning to get to and hadn’t. I had passed through it once on a bus to Lucknow and was impressed enough by the temple lined riverfront that I decided then I should stop at some point. That point was now, the weather was good, I had a bit of time before I need to meet a friend in Gujarat, so I boarded on an Ayodhya bound bus from Gorakpur. While it is an important place for Hindu pilgrims few foreign tourist make it to this historic town, heading straight to nearby Varanasi instead. Ayodhya is most famous in recent years for being the epicenter of the Hindu Fundamentalist movement. In 1992 the historic 16th century Babri mosque was destroyed by a mob of Hindus who erected a makeshift Rama temple on the site of the now razed mosque. The mob was incited by several Hindu activist and politicians (many of whom would eventually come to power with the BJP in 1999) who claimed the mosque sat on the site of an earlier Hindu temple marking the birthplace of Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and hero of the Hindu epic the Ramayana). The destruction of the mosque set off Hindu-Muslim clashes across the country resulting in the deaths of thousands. Fundamentalist Hindus still hope to erect a permanent Rama temple on the site but for now they have to be satisfied with a makeshift tent temple erected on the foundations of the mosque, amidst incredibly tight security, while the courts attempt to sort out the mess.
It should have been a relatively painless routine 5-6 hour bus journey from Gorakpur to Ayodhya which should have gotten me to the city in the late afternoon. Unfortunately nothing seems to go routinely in India. An accident had created traffic mayhem outside of Ayodhya and we inched our way painfully slowly the last 20 miles or so into town. I hopped off the bus at about 9:00 pm with no real clue where I was, or where to stay. I had expected being a pilgrimage town it would be crawling with lodges and guesthouses, I was mistaken. If there were any in the area I had been dropped they weren’t obvious. I began to wander around without much success a man at a small restaurant pointed me towards a temple that was across the street. It was an ashram. I spoke with the head swami who after a short interview offered me a room or what would better be described as a cell for 150 rupees (~$3) a night. The barren concrete enclosure had a wooden platform for a bed which was the only surface not molded from cement. Tired and hungry I took it. Not really to my surprise, I found later that night the room had some other occupants of the rodent variety that seemed to enjoy running across my sleeping bag in search of food that might be in my bag. Despite the circumstances, perhaps because of my exhaustion from a long day of travel, I slept pretty well.
I decided to check out what remained of the Babri Mosque by visiting the renamed “Rama Temple.” More interesting than the “temple” were the elaborate fortifications and security arrangements to enter. Of course there were no photographs allowed anywhere in the vicinity. The first check post was on the street leading up to the temple/mosque. I was greeted there by a very friendly police officer. Once he learned that I was an American, he excitedly related he had just come back from America where he was visiting his daughter who married an American. He then proceeded guide me through the security procedures. First I had to check my bag and everything except money. I had thought I had removed everything but then I was stopped at the first gate ( a metal detector, in a gap of a high metal razor-wire topped fence guarded by several gun toting police officers). It seems that only money meant really only money. I had to leave both my chapstick and my wristwatch at the gate, two items which I had neglected to put in my bag. Often Indian security is bit of a show but not really that thorough, some officer feels around a bag or pats you a few times on the rear, but this was the real deal. It was more like entering a maximum security prison than a temple. Passing the gate I had an officer accompany me the rest of the way through a series of fenced in corridors and gates (different than the officer who had met me earlier). Several watch towers had been built manned by assault rifle wielding guards. After walking though the labyrinth of razor-wire and bars, I filed past a small tent that housed the usual collection of Hindu icons. Any trace of the 16th century mosque and been completely obliterated, there were some stone foundations which I gathered at one time were part of the mosque but that was it.
After collecting the things I had been forced to leave behind, I returned to the first gate to have a cup of tea with the friendly officer. Over tea he invited me to have lunch at his house and then to stay the night there, I thought of my current arrangement, the rats, the concrete, the wooden bed, let’s just say it didn’t take much persuasion for me to accept. I had a simple but tasty lunch at the officer’s house before returning to my previous lackluster accommodation to gather my things and make the move.
Ayodhya was a nice enough place; there wasn’t a whole lot to do there. I walked around a bit and talked with some friendly shopkeepers and residents. I decided to move on to Varanasi the following day and fortunately the officer’s house was just down the street from the train station where I would need to make an early morning departure. My accommodation at the officer’s house seemed very luxurious at first. The room he showed me had a wide double bed and attached western style bathroom. He actually had two houses adjacent to each other and the family seemed to live in the other one. This one had another room as well though not quite as nice. After dinner as we got ready for bed it became apparent to me that he also intended to sleep in this room and not in either the adjacent room, which was empty, or in the house with is wife and children. It was a bit awkward for me. I wouldn’t have minded sleeping in the adjacent room. I didn’t want to offend my host, but I also wanted to make sure he didn’t have any other ideas. I knew the culture, men often hold hands without any meaning other than friendship (though I have to admit it still makes me a bit uncomfortable when guy holds my hand for a prolonged time), and it is very common for Indian men to share sleeping births on the train as well as beds in there homes, still I did have in the back of my mind he could be thinking something else. The bed was large and I slept in my sleeping bag on one edge of the bed. The night passed without incident despite my slight trepidation, but truth be told, I actually slept better the previous night in the cell with the rats.
The officer kindly walked me to the station the next morning and made sure I got on the right train to Varanasi, and I thanked him for his hospitably and hopped on the train leaving friendly Ayodhya behind.