Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday laid the foundation of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the culmination of a campaign that fuelled the rise of the BJP and marked the fulfilment of one of its core poll promises.
The wait of centuries has ended, he said after performing the groundbreaking ceremony here for the temple at the spot where many devout Hindus believe Lord Ram was born.
The day also coincided with the first anniversary of the abrogation of provisions of Article 370, scrapping the special status for Jammu and Kashmir.
Across the country, people remained glued to their television sets as Modi performed the 'Bhumi Pujan' at the Ram Janmabhoomi, the site of a bitter Hindu-Muslim conflict that lasted decades before being settled by the Supreme Court last year.
Beginning his speech with Jai Siya Ram, the prime minister told the gathering that a grand temple will now be built for Ram Lalla, the infant Ram, who had been living in a temporary tent for years.
Many people made sacrifices for the Ram temple. I pay my respects to all of them, he said in the speech that followed the laying of the foundation for the Ram temple.
He also released a postage stamp to mark the event, an occasion which is also being seen as an ideological victory of the BJP over its rivals.
Some leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, including former deputy prime minister L K Advani were not at the venue, where the organisers had invited only 175 people, keeping the guest list short because of the threat of COVID-19.
Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra trust head Nritya Gopal Das were on the dais along with the PM, consecrating the very first bricks that will go into building the temple, possibly over the next three years.
Sending out the message that "Ram is everywhere, Ram belongs to all", Modi said the temple symbolises India's rich heritage and will be an inspiration to all of humanity.
Despite efforts to eradicate Lord Ram's existence, he lives in our hearts and is the basis of our culture, Modi said.
Citing Lord Ram's message, Modi said the more powerful India gets, the more it will be loved and remain peaceful.
"Social harmony was the core principle of Lord Ram's governance," the prime minister said.
The construction of the Ram temple is an instrument to unite the country, he said, adding that it will lift the economy of the entire region.
"We have to join stones for the construction of Ram temple with mutual love, brotherhood," he said, asserting that everyone's sentiments have to be taken care of.
The groundbreaking in Ayodhya was marked by smaller events elsewhere – from the blowing of a conch at a jewellery shop beyond the barricades in Ayodhya itself to more elaborate rituals in Delhi's Chattarpur temple complex.
Devotees started arriving there around 6 am, just after the morning puja ended, temple's administrator Kishor Chawla said.
"A puja has been going on non-stop for three days. The 'Ram darbar' has been decorated. A replica of the 'shila' (foundation stone) has been prepared and it will be sent to Ayodhya along with other material," he said.
President Ram Nath Kovind said the foundation-laying ceremony defines India's spirit of harmony.
Being built in tune with law, it defines India's spirit of social harmony and people's zeal. It will be a testimony to ideals of RamRajya and a symbol of modern India," he tweeted.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said Ram is the ultimate embodiment of supreme human values.
"Ram is love, he can never appear in hatred. Ram is compassion, he can never appear in cruelty. Ram is justice, he can never appear in injustice," he said.
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said the prime minister's participation at the bhoomi pujan went against the Constitution, and marked the victory of majoritariansim.
Today is a victory of Hindutva over secularism, he said.
Last November, the Supreme Court paved the way for the construction of the Ram temple at the site where the 16th century Babri mosque was demolished in December 1992.
While allotting the Ram Janmabhoomi site for a temple to be built by a trust, it ordered that a five-acre site should be found elsewhere in Ayodhya for a new mosque.
To know more about the Ayodhya verdict, read Retracing the Ayodhya Case.
Celebration on eve of bhoomi pujan
On Tuesday, a day before the scheduled bhoomi pujan for a Ram temple, people from different walks of life lit earthen lamps to celebrate their "moment of joy".
As the evening progressed, Ram bhajans echoed at virtually each and every street of the temple town and earthen lamps lined the streets from Naya Ghat and Ram ki Paidhi to Hanumangarhi, giving children a perfect selfie background.
As people came out on the streets with children to celebrate the eve of the bhoomi pujan, a police patrol near Tulsi Udyaan kept an eye on the situation.
The routine evening aartis in different temples of Ayodhya were also held amidst rendition of bhajans, blowing of conch shells as eunuchs gathered at some temples of the city to participate in the programme.
A number of shops, which had remained closed in the day, were open in the evening, and the shopkeepers too lit earthen lamps outside their shops.
The bridge over river Saryu in Ayodhya wore an illuminated look on Tuesday evening.
(With PTI inputs.)