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Ayodhya, India – As half a million people converged on the gates of the new temple to the Hindu deity Ram, Brijesh Pathak looked on.
It was the day after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had consecrated the shrine amid a national frenzy that had turned the attention of a country of 1.4 billion people to the temple town of Ayodhya in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu scriptures say Ram was born.
The devotees had turned up to catch a glimpse of Ram’s idol installed at the grand structure built on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque demolished by a right-wing mob in 1992.
But as the crowd swelled, Pathak, the 32-year-old manager of a guesthouse, said, a stampede-like situation was created outside the temple premises. Buses and rickshaws were ordered off the streets, police barricades were put up and more security personnel were rushed to the small town, incapable of handling such a huge number of visitors.
“It was a flood of people. You could only see endless heads,” Pathak told VoU.
Only a day ago, the city was India’s most sought-after destination after Modi, along with a large number of Hindu saints, film stars and business leaders landed there to inaugurate the controversial temple.
But as the PM and the celebrities moved on, Ayodhya was left to deal with a new reality: it’s a city that is now expected to receive millions of tourists and pilgrims every year, yet is ill-prepared to handle such volumes of visitors, local businesspeople, and traders said.
Like the incomplete temple that was consecrated ahead of national elections – due between March and May – the city has been rushed into its new role.
On January 23, after Modi and other celebrities flew out, several pilgrims were injured, and some had fractures, as throngs of devotees broke police barriers to enter the complex. In response, the state’s Hindu nationalist chief minister returned to Ayodhya with top officials to manage the crisis. In New Delhi, Modi barred his ministers from visiting the temple for some weeks.
“It would take at least till 2027 for the temple to be complete,” an engineer working inside the temple told VoU on condition of anonymity.
Outside, in the city, a similar sense of unpreparedness prevails.
‘We can’t handle half a million people’
Amid the cold at a roadside eatery, some workers wearing T-shirts stood behind clay ovens, flipping dough and juggling plates. It’s a joint recommended by the locals for having comparatively better food” in Ayodhya.
As orders piled up, the workers lost their ease. Waiters began to turn a deaf ear to streaming customers. A cup of tea could take forever to arrive.
“Ayodhya is not equipped to host so many tourists,” Nand Kumar Gupta, president of a local traders’ union, told VoU. “We are a very small town and we cannot handle half a million people. Nobody has trained us to take and manage 50 orders at the same time.”
Before the Ram Mandir, as the temple is known, was inaugurated, Ayodhya largely saw only tourists for religious fairs hosted during Hindu festivals. Many of the visitors were from nearby villages.
“Our restaurants are conditioned to cater to the villagers’ needs and living standards, not for people who need air conditioners in their eateries,” said Gupta, 52. “We just do not have a system in place to do this.”
The entire town in the east of Uttar Pradesh was given a multimillion-dollar facelift as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls both the federal and state governments, projected Ayodhya as the Vatican of the Hindus.
But Ayodhya’s revamp for the Ram Mandir project has also put local businesses under considerable stress, Gupta said.
“Nearly 4,000 shops were partly demolished [during the facelift] and 1,600 shops were completely wiped off,” he said. “The upcoming economic prosperity in Ayodhya is for the big corporates, not us.”
‘We will be pushed out of the city’
Indeed, the town, being developed as the main Hindu pilgrimage in the future, is already attracting big money, with projects worth 8,500 million Indian rupees (about $10bn) sanctioned for the uplift.
Leading hotel companies, including Marriott, Radisson, and Wyndham, have signed deals to build star hotels. Advertisements – one featuring Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan – are calling on India’s rich to invest in homes and resorts on the banks of the Saryu River.
The town’s railway station has been revamped. A new airport has come up, though it was not equipped enough to park nearly a dozen chartered planes carrying dignitaries that landed in Ayodhya on January 22.
“The government has combined religious sentiments, politics, and economics here and the local administration is just full of themselves to see this reality,” Gupta told VoU. “Eventually, it looks like all of us will be pushed out of the city as they convert this city into a mega pilgrimage.”
But some smaller businesses are still trying to adjust to a new reality. Guesthouse manager Pathak renovated his property recently, adding 11 more rooms to his modest three-room business. Mosquitoes buzz in the rooms, which have little ventilation.
As Pathak stood outside his guesthouse and looked over the swelling crowd, he said he was beyond excited. His guesthouse, along the main street named Ram Path, is booked for the next three days, a first for him. “And we are charging threefold prices,” he said, bursting out in laughter.
Shivam Puri, a 36-year-old pilgrim, had traveled for two nights from India’s south with his family to reach Ayodhya and have a glimpse of his deity. He was among the crowd that broke through the temple’s barriers.
As he rushed inside the temple, Puri said he felt “something that he had never felt before”.
But he will not be staying in Ayodhya for the night. “I am leaving for Lucknow,” he told VoU, referring to the state capital, about 136km (84 miles) away.
“Here, you cannot even find a decent dinner that is anything but spices in water.”