I recount an epic of kings, monkeys and 10-headed demons that hijacks ships and kills thousands today; I condemn riotous Lego, compare rival faiths, note interest rates in a religious bank and sample the Ramayana.
7 km from the Leprosy Mission center in Faizabad (see my previous post) is Ayodya, a small town that I had read a lot about. Much as the Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey, India has two great epics that tell of battles and adventures between gods and men, interspersed with religious teaching and philosophical reflections: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
The latter is set in Ayodya. Here is the tale in brief. The divine Lord Ram (or Rama), rightful heir to the throne of Ayodya, is banished through the machinations of an envious royal wife to wander in the forest for 14 years. His faithful wife Sita accompanies him. While Ram is away hunting one day, the demon king Ravana, disguised as a wandering sage, kidnaps Sita and whisks her away to his kingdom of Sri Lanka. Ram of course pursues. A monkey army led by monkey god Hanuman tracks the fugitives and builds a bridge to the island so Ram can cross over. He storms Ravana’s fortress, rapid-fires countless arrows to take out Ravana’s 10 heads, and rescues the virtuous Sita. A popular cartoon series shows the final battle:
It’s better than American superhero comics, nearly 2000 years older, and unlike Homer still shapes the lives of one billion people today. In 1987 the Ramayana was broadcast in 78 weekly episodes, becoming the most popular programme ever on Indian TV. One year later, the Mahabharata epic was watched by 75-95% of the population for two hours on TV every Sunday morning. Streets were deserted, theft flourished as guards were glued to the box, and even government meetings were postponed.
At the time of my first trip to India in 2007, newspapers were full of Ramayana controversy. The Indian government planned to deepen the strait between India and Sri Lanka so shipping could safely pass through, shortening the more dangerous trip further south. Fundamentalist Hindus were outraged. That underwater ridge, visible in satellite images, was the ancient bridge built by holy Hanuman. The Archaeological Survey of India announced there was no evidence that said ridge was made by man or even monkey. They received death threats. You might as well suggest razing St Peter’s to build a motorway in Rome.
Many educated Hindus found this silly. The factual accuracy of the epic is less important than its spiritual symbolism of good triumphing over evil. But for literalists Ram was a real divine person, at an actual geographical location, at a specific historical time. Cutting through his bridge was another echo of the great atrocity in 1528, when the Moghul invaders constructed the Babri Masjid mosque on top of – fundy Hindus maintain – a Hindu temple at the site of Ram’s birthplace in Ayodya.
In 1990 the aged president of the nationalist Hindu BJP rode across India in a Toyota “chariot”, brandishing a bow and arrow like Ram and collecting bricks to rebuild his temple. In 1992, police stood by as Hindus tore the Babri Masjid mosque down stone by stone, assaulted journalists and destroyed their cameras. (See a BBC correspondent’s eyewitness report here.) The incident sparked riots across the country, killing around 2000 people, mostly Muslim. It’s as if the Trojan War still sparked street battles today. UN worker Shashi Tharoor, a Hindu himself, is outraged at such behaviour:
Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, since Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals; there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy. How dare a bunch of goondas shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics?
One of the staff at the Leprosy Mission was from Ayodya and drove me there. Blocks away from the disputed site of the temple-mosque, motor vehicles were stopped by barriers. A large woman on a cycle rickshaw struggled to bend low enough to pas underneath. In 2005, five terrorists attacked with explosives and were shot down. Now security was tighter than at an airport. The entrance sign listed even pens as prohibited. Closing times had changed so I missed the chance to enter, but apparently there’s only a small tent with one statue inside on bare ground, so I didn’t miss much. Policemen were walking home, carrying bulletproof vests.
My guide knew some interesting spots. I saw a site of building materials with piles of stone slabs, octagonal drums for stacking into columns, carved capitals. It was like a huge set of Lego awaiting assembly. Two artisans were crouched on slabs, chiselling out lotus flowers. I learnt it was all for a new Ram temple – was this India’s next mass slaughter brewing? It seemed suspiciously like a Hindu equivalent of the 12th-century “Triumph of Islam” mosque in Delhi (I described it here), provocatively built on the foundations of a Hindu temple. One Hindu fundamentalist has written a book to prove that a better-known Muslim monument was also blasphemously built on top of a Hindu worship site: the Taj Mahal should be demolished.
One big difference between these rival faiths is in their art. Mosques are covered in geometric and floral patterns, with Koranic quotations curling around like vines. On the walls hang clocks and tables listing the daily prayer times and calendars with photos of Mecca. Islam is a religion of the book. Niches contain stacked Korans and there are low reading stands for them on the floor. Nowhere are there depictions of animals or humans, let alone of God.
Hindu temples have little to read but gods or idols are everywhere: sooty black, marble white, or garish as a Walt Disney cartoon. They are often bathed and dressed in shining garments by the priests every day. Popular deities suffocate under garlands of marigolds. Instead of the rhythmic hum as Muslim men prostrate in prayer, you hear the sharp clang of bells before the altar and the raucous wailing of oboe-like instruments during offerings. The bare-chested priest smears sandalwood paste on the forehead of devotees as they drop money on a tray of smouldering incense sticks, or present offerings of fruit or rice or sweets.
The contrast continues outside places of worship, where cluttered stalls sell devotional trinkets like paperweights and wall hangings. Outside mosques you find framed Koranic calligraphy; outside Hindu temples are mythological scenes of the gods. Churches have key rings with Bible verses and paintings like da Vinci’s Last Supper or Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. Catholics buy figurines of Mary or Jesus, instead of Hindu gods.
In India, however, every stereotype has a counter-example, and one Hindu temple in Ayodya was more textual than any mosque. In a rectangular two-storey hall, with shining marble floor and floral-painted ceiling, almost every inch of the walls was covered in columns of script: the complete text of the Ramayana.
Mounting the stairs, I passed cubic bundles wrapped in cloth and stacked like colourful sandbags. From the flat roof I surveyed the town, with temples old and new in every direction. Here was the headquarters of the International Sree Seetarama Nama Bank. A white-bearded guru behind a desk passed me a magnifying glass to read on a grain of rice, “Sita Ram”, the names of Lord Ram and his wife. It’s a popular trick – tourists can likewise get their names on rice.
Anyone can join this remarkable bank for free. The guru gave me its English flyer, which explained the bundles: stacks of exercise books filled with the handwritten names “Sita-Ram” – 38 rows by 9 columns make 342 cells on each side. People post them in as a sort of spiritual deposit. You can write in any language or script, with any pen, although “red is considered as symbolising devotion”. The main thing while writing each name is to remain conscious that “the Lord shines in the lotus of my heart”. The more you write the merrier. 125,000 copies, and you’ll be entered in the bank’s register. Write 2.5 million, 5 million or 10 million names to receive a nickel, silver or gold medal respectively. But the real target is 8.4 million repetitions of the sacred monikers, which guarantees you will be “freed from the cycle of birth and death.” I’m not sure about that, but it puts writing lines at school in a new light.
I was thrilled to find a free performance of the Ramayana that evening. I was looking forward to monkeys fighting ten-headed Ravana, then found it wasn’t a short tourist version but the real Ramlila deal: the entire epic recited for several hours per night, every night, over months. When the red and pink curtains parted that night, I just got a sliver of the whole. Various machinations between enthroned kings and turbaned courtiers, who visited a forest-dwelling holy man – with the sort of obviously false beard that makes you want to pull it off – sitting before a painted backdrop of trees, birds and monkeys. The chanting was accompanied by live harmonium, tabla drums and cymbals. People came up and touched the actors’ feet as if they were temple statues; one guy mounted the stage to prostrate himself before each character. Religious performers take on the aura of divinity here, putting a new spin on actor “idols”.