The Supreme Court is yet to settle the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliate, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, appear to be planning to take the issue beyond Ayodhya, to a 270-kilometre radius around the city. By using the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg—a religious pilgrimage circuit around Ayodhya—the organisation seems to be laying new ground for its Hindutva politics, only a few months ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Between 4 and 6 January, the central government-funded Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, in Delhi, hosted the Ayodhya Parv, or Ayodhya Fest. Lallu Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s member of parliament from Ayodhya district, organised the event. Singh told the media, ahead of the event, that the fest aimed to introduce visitors to the “broader cultural and religious significance” of Ayodhya, and that it would offer a glimpse into Ayodhya’s “past, present and future.” The event featured various installations and exhibitions with references to sites associated with the legend of Ram and the Ramayana. Though Nitin Gadkari, the union cabinet minister for roads and transport, was scheduled to inaugurate the Ayodhya Parv, he failed to make an appearance. Narendra Singh Tomar, the union minister for rural development, inaugurated the fest instead. Several prominent sadhus from Ayodhya, who are associated with the Babri Masjid, were in attendance. Nritya Gopal Das, the head of the Ram Janam Bhoomi Nyas Parishad, a trust set up by the VHP to oversee the construction of the Ram temple, was seated on stage, as was Champat Rai, the vice president of the VHP.
Mid-afternoon, Ram Bahadur Rai, an RSS thinker and a former secretary of the organisation’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, took the stage. Rai heads the IGNCA’s board of trustees and its executive committee—a post he was appointed to in April 2016 amid much scandal. He is presently the chief editor of the news agency Hindustan Samachar and a member of the Nehru Memorial Museum Library’s society. During his speech, Bahadur Rai made a remarkable statement. He said that the Sangh aimed to identify “141 or more” sites around Ayodhya that were associated with the legend of Ram and the Ramayana, and that these would form “badi Ayodhya”—big Ayodhya.
Bahadur Rai added that there was no need to view the history of the Ayodhya region through the lens of secularism. “There is a difference between Awadh and Ayodhya,” he said, referring to the princely state that existed in the region before India was colonised. “The culture of Awadh is along the lines of Nehru’s secularism—the line of an inept understanding of history.” He described the purported 141 sites as crucial, and added that “the nation, the world and society” should be made aware of these. He further said that Singh, the BJP MP, had alerted him to the existence of “badi Ayodhya.”
The VHP’s claim, evident from the event, is that these 141 sites fall on the Chaurasi Kosi Parikrama Marg, an 84-kosi circuit that begins and ends at Mukhauda Dham, a site in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district, near Ayodhya. (One kosi measures a little over three kilometres.) Many Hindus believe that the Ayodhya of the Ramayana, which was ruled by the king Dashrath, spanned 84 kosis around present-day Ayodhya, and that the king once performed a yagna at Mukhauda Dham after completing a circuit around his kingdom. Believers gather every year to traverse the same route, about two hundred and seventy kilometres long, claiming it will free them from 84 lakh yonis—cycles of birth and death.
The Sangh’s vision for these sites and the Marg was depicted in an architectural model displayed at the event, of Ayodhya and several surrounding districts. About eighty of the 141 sites supposedly associated with Ram were marked on it, as were the six districts it would cut through—Ayodhya, Gonda, Basti, Bahraich, Barabanki, and Ambedkar Nagar.