AYODHYA, India — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday opened a controversial Hindu temple built on the ruins of a historic mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya, delivering on a crucial Hindu nationalist pledge that his governing party hopes will catapult him to a record third successive term in upcoming elections.
The temple, which is still under construction, is dedicated to Hinduism's Lord Ram and fulfills a long-standing demand by millions of Hindus who worship the revered deity. Modi's party and other Hindu nationalist groups who seized on the demand have portrayed the temple as central to their vision of reclaiming Hindu pride, which they say was stifled by centuries of Mughal rule and British colonialism.
Modi, dressed in a traditional kurta tunic, led the opening ceremony as Hindu priests chanted hymns inside the temple's inner sanctum, where a 1.3-meter stone sculpture of Lord Ram was installed last week. A conch was blown by a priest to mark the temple's opening and Modi placed a lotus flower in front of the black stone idol, decked in intricate gold ornaments and holding a golden bow and arrow. He later prostrated before the idol.
"Our Lord Ram has arrived after centuries of wait," Modi said in a speech after the ceremony, receiving a resounding applause from thousands of attendees. He said the temple was built after "countless sacrifices" and is testament to a rising India "breaking the shackles of slave mentality."
"Jan. 22, 2024, is not merely a date but marks the dawn of a new era," Modi said.
Millions of Indians watched the ceremony on television, with news channels running non-stop coverage of the event, portrayed as a religious spectacle.
“Ram Rajya (rule) begins,” a TV news headline said. Ram Rajya is a Sanskrit phrase that means just and ethical governance in Hinduism, but has also been used by Hindu nationalists to signify Hindu domination in an officially secular India.
Nearly 7,500 people, including elite industrialists, politicians and movie stars, witnessed the ritual on a giant screen outside the temple as a military helicopter showered flower petals.
Modi has been the face of an unprecedented and unapologetic fusion of religion and politics in India. Ahead of the temple opening, he set the tone by visiting numerous Ram temples over 11 days as part of a Hindu ritual.
Analysts and critics see Monday’s ceremony as the start of the election campaign for Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist and one of India’s most consequential leaders who has sought to transform the country from a secular democracy into a distinctly Hindu state in his nearly 10 years in power.
They say the pomp-filled display led by the government shows the extent to which the line between religion and state has eroded under Modi.
“Prime ministers prior to Modi have also been to temples, been to other places of worship, but they went there as devotees. This is the first time that he went there as somebody who performed the ritual,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an expert in Hindu nationalism and author of a book on Modi.
The temple, located at one of India’s most vexed religious sites, is expected to embolden Modi’s chances of clinching a record third successive term by drawing on the religious sentiments of Hindus, who make up 80 percent of India’s population of 1.4 billion.