Allahabad was preparing for the Kumbh in Feb next and I kept thinking of the Pontoons stacked up near the Fort. Mahato had pointed them out saying bridges would be built with them. And when I saw pictures of the bridge later, I was in Allahabad again traipsing through its fort and gliding down the Yamuna. Travel never leaves you. I totalled up the places I had not seen as we sped past green and golden paddy fields. The tender stalks waved and danced in the wind. We had missed out on Nehru's Swaraj Bhavan, Kushrau Bagh and All Saints Cathedral. They were big misses. But as I type this blog during the Coronavirus lock down, all I can think of is how much I miss traveling per se irrespective of what I miss out because of various constraints. Remember we were two women traveling through Bihar and UP on our own? So, all travel had to happen during daytime cutting down our sightseeing time. Traveling has now taught me there will always be misses. Soon we were crossing white lotus blooms in the water. And my mom dozed off, I kept watching out of the window with Mantosh's songs blaring in the background.
You must hand it to Mantosh's maniac like driving we were traveling as per Google's timings and were at Ayodhya around 1 PM, 5 hours after leaving Allahabad. It was hot and we were stopped at the entrance. "There are Karsevaks in town and the car cannot go in until six" a burly man said peering through the passenger window. We looked around. Nothing seemed to have stopped, people were everywhere, and Electric autos were parked close by. "We have hotel reservations, and can we not go there?" I asked. "You can for 200 rupees" he replied. I looked at the lone policeman watching the drama from far sitting on a bike, his mobile in hand. He just watched us. I was not going to pay anyone to enter the city. My Amma and I climbed out and took an auto to the hotel. Mantosh said he would bring the car after six.
The hotel was close by. "Yes, Karsevaks are in town and Ram Janmabhoomi darshan has stopped" the manager told us as we started the check in process. "Do we have to go back without Ram's Darshan? I have got my Amma from so far!" I despaired and the Manager looked at my Amma sadly. Khadi clad men Walked in and asked for a room to discuss reservations for later as we checked in. "Please walk into the dining hall I will join you", the manager replied. And as they left, he turned to us and said, "He is the guy who organizes all these events and our business goes for a toss". I nodded and fresh from my Allahabad experience I fudged my Mobile number on the form. And then handed him the Aadhar card as Id proof defeating its purpose.
We freshened up and went to the dining hall for lunch. Only one table was occupied apart from us and we had the attention of all the waiters. I should say I had curd rice while my mom just sampled it. We returned to the room and my Amma tried to catch some shut eye. I just sat there saying to myself "don't fret, let's wait it out". An hour later I heard a noise outside the door, and I opened it. A young lad was mopping the floor and on asking if the temple had been opened, he said "Yes”. We were in luck. I woke my Amma and as she got ready, I put my big purse with suitcase key etc inside the suitcase with number lock. Taking a small purse, we set out. At the reception, the Manager suggested I leave the phone behind since that was not allowed too. I gave it to him for safe keeping and we stepped out looking for a rickshaw.
Ramayana the epic Indian poem by Valmiki is the story of Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Rama was born to Dasharatha who ruled from Ayodhya, the capital of the Kosala Kingdom. Ramayana plays out all across India and even spans Sri Lanka. It tells the story of an ideal son [Rama] keeping a promise given to his father [Dashrath], shows us brotherly love, the unwavering love of a wife [Sita] and the unstinting devotion of his foremost devotee Hanuman. Ramayana along with Mahabarath runs through the warp and weft of India. It has seeped deep into our souls. And it is part of the cultural ethos of many South Asian countries too. His exact birthplace was at the centre of the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy. The Babri Masjid was on the piece of land regarded by Hindus as the place where Lord Rama was born. The Ayodhya/Ram Janmabhoomi dispute as the controversy is known is not new and the very first instance recorded was in 1850. A request by Hindus to build a temple at that site was denied by the colonial rulers. On Dec 22nd, 1949, a group of Hindu activists broke into the Mosque and placed the idols of Lord Rama and his consort Sita. Nehru, the then PM insisted the idols had to be removed but the local official, KKK Nair refused saying it would cause communal riots. Subsequently the land was declared disputed and gates locked.
On Dec 6th, 1992, the Mosque was razed to the ground and the cases filed by both Hindus and Muslims began to gain traction. ASI excavations in and around the site have confirmed the presence of a temple. Daily hearings by the Supreme court delivered its final verdict on 9th Nov 2019 and handed over the land to a Hindu trust. It also gave Muslims 5 acres of land for the Mosque.
But that was still in the future. We were in Ayodhya in 2018 October and traveling against the advice of my siblings. And we had already been stopped by Karsevaks. So, with some trepidation we walked in the direction pointed by the Manager and soon found a rickshaw. A short drive later we were dropped off in front of a police check post. Having come from Varanasi, we were used to these now. We climbed down and walked to the nearest sweetmeat shop and asked for direction to Ram Janmabhoomi. Instead he sold us sweets in lieu of protection for our footwear and waved us to Hanuman Garhi, Lord Hanuman's temple. My Amma protested again at having to pay for safekeeping of our footwear. The temple tower could be seen from far and was a few steps away. A huge crowd stood on the 70 odd steps to the entrance. And we joined them. We stood and fretted for the door to open. I did not want to get late here and miss out on the raison d'être for this visit, the Ram Janmabhoomi. At 4 PM the door opened, and the crowd surged forward pell mell into the wide entrance. We were carried forward through winding corridors and shortly found ourselves in front of a small Sanctum of Lord Hanuman. People were crowding it, thrusting Prasad into the hands of the Priest. I just hugged my Amma and stood back waiting for it to clear. Finally, I handed our Prasad on behalf of maaji, my Amma, the priest offered it to Hanumanji and thrust the box back into my hand. The idol was small is all I noticed as we walked away. Lord Hanuman is sitting on his mother Anjana Devi's lap it seems, it seems because I did not see the idol of Anjana Devi. As we walked, we hit a ramp and came through another gate with no steps. I felt very sad I had made my Amma climb all those steps before.
We rushed back to the shop still worried and thinking we should have gone to see Ram Janmabhoomi first, and the shop keeper had pulled a fast one on us for business. But Amarujala now tells me we should pray to Hanumanji before we see Lord Rama. Amarujala also says this temple was built by the Nawab of Awadh Shuja ud Daula. Baba Abhayram had saved the Nawab's son's life and as a tribute to the Baba, the Nawab built this temple. I opened the sweet box and found just one peda inside it. Oh! I despaired showing it to the shop keeper as we put on our footwear. Then promptly popped it into my mouth.
We crossed Hanuman Garhi and walked in the direction of Ram Janmabhoomi. Men and women with saffron cloth around their neck were walking in the opposite direction. “They must be Karsevaks”, I pointed out to my Amma. We hit another police check post and decided to check out the building they were guarding. It was the very colourful Dashrath Mahal, the palace of Lord Ram's father Dashrath. We crossed a tall arch, walked a few yards, and entered the Mahal. It was very colourful and had all colours, red, yellow, blue, and golden. The donation boxes were waiting for donations and people were waiting for the Sanctum to open. There was not much to see. We looked around and hurried out not wanting to miss out on Ram Janmabhoomi.
On the way we stopped at two more temples. In the first one the priest opened the door and let us pray to the triumvirate, Ram, Lakshaman and Sita. And then he expected donations. I just said we had none and walked off. The second was a temple to all the four brothers, Ram, Lakshman, Bharath and Shatrugna. It was dimly lit, and a family was discussing auspicious times for some function with the priest.
A few steps ahead we could see the first check post for the Ram Janmabhoomi. A queue was snaking through the security check. Someone told me the watch I was wearing had to be deposited and I walked into a building and left it there. I was just given a piece of paper with a scrawl on it. It was like teh prescriptions that Doctors write. An old woman in a wheelchair was being wheeled in. "Amma see you don't have to give up sightseeing, such facilities are available", I pointed it out to my Amma. I had begun to feel my Amma was tired after 4 hectic days. She just looked at it. The security check was very awkward. We were patted down by hand and felt everywhere by young policewomen. I winced as my mom was groped in all the wrong places. I was like she is an old woman who has travelled a long distance for a glimpse of Lord Ram, let her be. But my Amma did not complain. This groping would repeat at three different points.
I was so curious. I had wanted to see this controversial place so much. We had lived through the demolition of Babri Masjid. I looked around. We had entered a tunnel of steel barricades almost 15 feet tall. And as we walked through its winding route, we saw young unsmiling policewomen holding big guns guarding the route. I think they had Kalashnikovs! I stared at the infamous guns. They held it in position and could fire to kill. My mom could not contain her surprise at this kind of security and pointed at the gun and asked the woman "Gun?", she just stared back. There were not many people in the queue. Men and women after their respective security check had converged and now, we walked in a single file and suddenly a man ahead looked back and asked "From?" in Kannada. To my reply he mentioned they were from North Karnataka. He had heard my mom and I conversing in Kannada.
We seemed to be walking in barren land. There was nothing beyond the barricades no buildings nothing. Police stood or sat with guns in hand on the other side. What had made me come here? A little later a woman behind us bored of walking silently started a conversation. They were from Punjab and had just visited the "Ram Mandir Karyashala" close by. "Beautiful pillars, walls are all ready and stacked. So are bricks. The temple will be assembled in a year. They are waiting for the construction to start" she said. This was not on our list and we would not be seeing it. We must have walked a km when suddenly the crowd formed a queue. To our right on the other side of the barricade was pitched a tent amidst some stones. Monkeys scampered around and gun toting Policewomen stood guard.
Whether left or right Ramayan and Mahabarat resides in all Hindu souls and it calls out now and then. The name Ayodhya and its river Saryu is one such call. But now hit by the significance of Lord Rama in a tent I looked around and tried to see behind the tent too for Babri Masjid and believe me saw nothing. It had been razed completely. The queue wound its way and we were in front of Lord Rama. The idol sat inside the tent and a priest sat near the barricade blessing the devotees. We stopped. I could see a small colourful idol and nothing more. Rama Lalla sat happily inside the tent. Lalla is an infant and Rama is worshiped as an infant in Ayodhya and not as the king. "Hanumanji pass mey hai/ Hanumanji is close by" the priest pointed behind the tent ensuring we did not forget him. Lord Hanuman is never far from Lord Rama and the priest was referring to Hanumanji in the form of Monkeys on the stones outside the tent. We bowed to Lord Rama and moved ahead. "Don't take off your slippers" a voice shouted. We turned back and saw a woman hurriedly putting on her slippers. Taking off your slippers in front of God is almost a primordial reflex. But the police would have none off it. What if an explosive was strapped/ hidden in it? "This is only for our good" the lady behind us, consoled all of us as we walked away.
A good kilometre later suddenly we were out of the barricades and on a normal road. Overwhelmed by the joy of having seen Lord Rama a group of women behind us began singing the Ramcharita Manas. We turned a corner and entered a road full of small shops selling souvenirs, saffron cloth with Rama all over, red, and yellow threads and all the usual paraphernalia. It was a shock to see normalcy in Ayodhya. Knowing it was a tinderbox I curiously looked intently at the people. I saw men, women, girls, and boys all going about their everyday routine. But I could not reconcile with the normalcy. My imagination went on an overdrive and I tried to imagine how the young girl walking ahead of us would seek a safe place when violence struck.
Soon we were near the first security check post. I had not seen the safe deposit office properly and now failed to locate it. All buildings were deserted and locked up. In panic I approached a police officer and asked for it. "Hey, give her watch back" he hollered at a man and I followed a man to the office and collected my watch. That was my travel watch and a lucky charm. I could not thank the police enough, but he shrugged it off saying it was part of their job. Their shift seemed to have ended as a group of new policemen walked towards the security point and another group with lunch boxes in hand walked away from it.
We found an electric auto and got into it. A few yards later a policeman stopped it and asked the driver to drop him off at the police station. Without batting an eyelid, the driver said "saab, I have just enough charge to drop them" and drove on. This was another revelation. I thought the police were never refused. And how normal Ayodhya was! Karsevaks had come and gone. Except for fleecing us as we entered nothing violent was happening in Ayodhya. The Karsevaks come and go. Nothing untoward ever happens because of them the manager had remarked.
Our car was parked at the hotel entrance and it was rather an emotional reunion with Mantosh. "I called and called, and no one answered the phone. Nothing should happen to you" he said the moment we stepped in. Poor guy he had gotten worried after seeing the Karsevaks etc I guess. A saffron cloth muffler with Ram all over adorned Mantosh's neck. Ayodhya Rama had claimed his Bhakt. The manager took out my phone from a locker and handed it over as we walked in.
We rested a while and then went for dinner. My Amma would not have the Roti Subzi and finished with a buttermilk. We sent back a Subzi and the next table group too did, and we upset the waiters. I took stock of the next day's itinerary while my Amma went to bed. We had missed seeing the beautiful Kanaka Bhavan, so I added it to the next morning's itinerary along with a visit to the river Saryu.
The Sun was just beginning to rise as we stepped off the car and walked to Saryu's edge next morning. We had not chosen the right place to see her. The place was littered, and the red Sun could not mask the straggling row of green and brown trees as he rose beyond a steel bridge. A few shelters stood pensively. A woman sat with a cow in one of them. What was the cow for? The water was grey, the boats at its edge looked forlorn and the steel bridge deserted. Not one to be depressed a woman was bathing in the river while her son? guarded her belongings. The silence was broken by a crowd of people walking towards the river talking loudly in Marathi. We gleaned they were pilgrims. On our left a cement bridge stood equally despondent. I walked a little ahead and took a picture of the steps lining the ghats and we turned back and caught sight of an idol of Goddess Parvati seated on her Lion. The idol looked like it was stuck to a rectangular cement frame and the whole contraption stood smack in the center of the bank. A few match sticks at her feet indicated she was worshiped. As we turned, I caught sight of another such contraption in the shelter too. I had romanticized seeing Saryu so much. But now I was disappointed. I took a couple of more pictures of the rising Sun and we left. We should have gone to Ram Ki Paidi I guess for a better view of the river. Ram Ki Paidi is a series of ghats. But we had seen rows of steps close by, was that the beginning of Ram Ki Paidi? Maybe we should have gone along those steps a little further.
"Where are you going?" the police asked as the car stopped. "Kanaka Bhawan" I replied. "Please go by foot" he replied. We got down and walked in the general direction of Kanaka Bhawan. At every turn we were told it is just round the corner and we would continue. Soon we were near Dashrath Mahal. I opened my purse to take out my phone, today I would get some pics. And there was no phone! I had just checked out the route map on it in the car. I panicked a little and decided to turn back. A phone is money, a phone is air flight tickets, a phone is google maps, a phone is a lifeline. We walked back and the walk seemed shorter now perhaps because I was worried. We opened the door of the car and the phone was where I had kept it, on the seat. I was seeing the route map when the police stopped us, I had kept it on the seat, picked up my purse and climbed out. Mantosh was surprised we returned so quickly. When we explained "Oh! Mam I didn't even know your phone was in the seat behind!" he exclaimed. Did he feel someone could have taken it off without his knowledge? Anyway, we were relieved the phone was not lost. Kanaka Bhawan was gifted by Queen Kaikayi to the newly wed Sita and was supposed to be very beautiful. But it must wait for me for another visit. There was a time when I felt I would be losing an opportunity to see a new place if I revisited a place I had already seen. That feeling was so strong. Now I am ready to revisit an already seen place. I want to see how much of it is familiar and how much more will it reveal the second time.
We asked for an early breakfast and were served Bread and Jam. We were just sitting down when my brother called. He was hyperventilating "Amma seems to be low on sugar. Give her some. She doesn't look like how she looked at the beginning of the trip" I gave the phone to my Amma, she tried telling him she was ok, but my brother was not convinced. He stayed alarmed. I had sent a picture of her near the Saryu and he had seen it. I looked at her. She was tired. She had tanned. She had gone off food for some days now and was living off buttermilk. I had offered electrolyte last night, but she had not taken it. I tried getting her to eat Bread and Jam but no she would not. So, I ate alone, and she finished off with buttermilk.
A little later we checked out and set off for Lucknow. Our flight was at 6 PM and we would be going home after wonderful six days. But before that we would stop at Bahu Begum’s mausoleum and see the Imambaras of Lucknow a little.
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