Hindus have rejoiced as Indian prime minister Narendra Modi broke ground on a long-awaited temple of their most revered god Ram at the site of a demolished 16th century mosque.
Mr Modi offered prayers to nine stone blocks with “lord Ram” inscribed on them amid chanting of Hindu religious hymns to symbolise the start of construction of the temple in the northern city of Ayodhya, which is expected to take three and a half years.
The prime minister wore a traditional outfit of a gold Kurta, a long shirt, and white Dhoti, a loose cloth wrapped around his waist, along with his face covering.
Lal Krishna Advani, a 92-year-old leader of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party who was in the forefront of the party’s temple campaign in 1990s, said: “It’s an emotional and historic moment. The wait has been worthwhile.”
Organisers said the ceremony, which took place amid coronavirus restrictions, was set on an astrologically auspicious date for Hindus. Wednesday also marks a year since the Indian parliament revoked the semi-autonomous status of its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir.
The symbolism was impossible to miss since Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had long pledged in its manifesto to strip disputed Kashmir’s autonomy and to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram where the Mughal-era mosque once stood.
The main roads were barricaded and about 3,000 paramilitary soldiers were guarding Ayodhya city, where all shops and businesses are closed.
Last week, a priest and 15 police officers at the temple site tested positive for the coronavirus, which has infected 1.9 million people in India and killed more than 39,000.
Only 175 religious saints, priests and Hindu and Muslim community representatives were invited to the ceremony.
Water from Indian rivers in 2,000 earthen pots sent by various Hindu temples and Sikh shrines was poured at the site.
The ground-breaking follows a ruling by India’s supreme court last November favouring the building of a Hindu temple on the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh state.
Hindus believe their god Ram was born at the site, and claim Muslim Emperor Babur built a mosque on top of a temple there.
The Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by Hindu radicals with pickaxes and crowbars in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.
The supreme court’s verdict allowed a temple to be built in place of the demolished mosque.
Those invited to the groundbreaking ceremony include Iqbal Ansari, the main Muslim litigant in the supreme court case, who now supports building the temple in Ayodhya.
The court also ordered that Muslims be given five acres of land to build a new mosque at a nearby site.
The temple will be around 235ft wide, 300ft long and 161ft high with five domes with a total area around 84,000 square feet. The complex will also have a prayer hall, lecture hall, visitors’ hostel and museum.