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Ayodhya’s Cultural Crossroads: Ram Mandir’s consecration marks the culmination of a historic cultural land dispute

By Nicola Dawson

The 22nd of January this year marked the consecration of the highly contentious Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya, India. The erection and opening of the temple occurred following a centuries-old cultural dispute, and almost seventy years of litigation. The site of the new Ram Mandir temple is one of cultural significance to both the country’s Hindu and Muslim communities, with claims disputing its ownership spanning almost five hundred years. The Hindu temple’s creation began just eighteen years after Babri Masjid—a Mughal Mosque which had stood on the site since its construction in 1529—was razed by religious activist group Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). This event sparked several months of violent, intercommunal rioting between India’s Hindu and Muslim populations. This monumental cultural event, and the widespread aftermath of destruction which ensued, raises questions about the use and importance of tangible cultural property in wider culturally and religiously driven feuds.


The destruction of Babri Masjid and the subsequent creation of Ram Mandir marks the culmination of a bitter and centuries-long land dispute between Hindus and Muslims in India. Muslim communities in the area argue that the Babri Masjid mosque, which previously occupied the site, had been built at the behest of Mughal emperor Babur on what was at the time vacant land. Hindu communities opposingly argue that the site is the birthplace of Lord Ram, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu, and that there was a temple dedicated to the deity on this site preceding the presence of Babri Masjid. Claims that the Mosque stood on the site of a temple were first made in 1822 by an official of the Faizabad court, and the first recorded incidents of religious violence at the site occurred in 1855. In 1859, the ruling British colonial administration constructed a wall to physically divide the premise, designating the inside portion for Muslim worship, and the outside for Hindu worship. This precarious situation remained in place until 1949, when idols of Ram were surreptitiously placed inside the Mosque by Hindu activists. This led to widespread uproar, with both parties filing civil suits to claim the land. In 1986, local courts called for the government to open the site to Hindu worshippers, a decision which was endorsed by numerous politicians, including Rajiv Ghandi, the then Prime Minister of India. Tensions reached their apex on December 6th 1992, when 150,000 VHP members gathered outside the site of Babri Masjid in a rally which eventually became violent and resulted in the destruction of the Mosque. Following the Mosque’s destruction, litigation continued, and hearings designed to determine ownership of the disputed site were begun by the Allahabad high court in 2002. In 2011 the Indian supreme court took over the case and in 2019 it was ruled that the land in its entirety be granted to deity Ram Lalla. Plans to construct a temple to Ram on the site were announced in February 2020, and the finished structure was consecrated in January 2024.

Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, India,

The destruction of Babri Masjid marks not only the bitter intercommunal tensions in Northern India, but also the loss of a centuries-old example of Mughal architecture. Built by emperor Babur, founder of the Mughal empire who reigned from 1526-30, it was one of the few pieces of architecture commissioned by the ruler remaining in the twentieth century. The mosque was built in the prevailing Mughal style, featuring characteristic domes and careful, intricate ornamentation. The Mughal style of architecture was the product of numerous stylistic influences, including local Indo-Islamic architecture, architecture from Islamic Persia and central Asia, as well as indigenous Hindu architecture. Emperors throughout the Mughal empire commissioned architecture prolifically and consciously, as a means to express their presence and power. Today, more monuments from the Mughal period survive in India than from any other period, making their contributions to the historical architecture of India a powerful one. As delineated by the attitudes of the Mughal emperors, architecture has the capacity to exert and represent the power of a country’s ruling entity across its domain, and subsequently, sites which are deemed culturally significant often become battlefields for wider cultural disputes. The power of tangible cultural property to assert cultural dominance can also be observed in the outcry which followed the placement of Hindu idols at Babri Masjid, over forty years before it was demolished. Indeed, religious objects and architecture have been weaponised throughout history and their use and destruction can be highly inflammatory.


The architect behind the Ram Mandir temple is Chandrakant Sompura, who was approached to undertake the temple’s design some thirty years ago. The new temple is built in the Nagara style which defines much of the religious architecture in Northern India. Adam Hardy writes in his 2007 work, The Temple Architecture of India, that it is one of the “great classical languages of Indian temple architecture.” The Ram Mandir temple embodies the characteristics of the style: the structure is built atop a platform accessed by steps, it possesses the signature shikhara—or tower—and has five domes, designed to accommodate a large number of visitors. Whilst the temple’s design adheres to the defining stylistic traditions of the area, its “traditionally conventional design” has been criticised by Delhi-based architect and sculptor Gautam Bhatia, for failing to acknowledge the saga of contention which preceded its construction and for representing an oversight from the Indian government to recognise and support its minority populations.

3D render of the Ram Mandir temple,

Responses to the supreme court’s decision have been expectedly mixed. International lawyer Suchitra Vijayan criticised the ruling, warning that it marks an undeniable intrusion of religion into politics. This worry is enforced by the actions of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a major contender in Indian politics, and their utilisation of the Ram Mandir controversy to secure support under the promise that they would construct a temple on the site. Responses from Hindus in Ayodhya have been overwhelmingly positive, with many believing that the judgement reflects the interests of both Hindus and Muslims in the area and that it will ultimately strengthen relations between the two through the removal of this source of contention for the Hindu community, as well as boosting the local economy which is largely driven by visitors to the temple site. Reactions from Muslim communities in India have been less enthusiastic. Many believe that the court’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent which may lead to increased violence, the further destruction of Islamic heritage sites, and that it represents a government-backed erosion of Muslim culture in India. Critics have also spoken out against the ruling on the grounds that it fails to hold the parties responsible for Babri Masjid’s illegal destruction accountable, and instead rewards them. Despite varying responses to the court’s verdict and the aftermath which ensured, the issue has no doubt shone a spotlight on the importance of the country’s cultural heritage sites and brought renewed attention to the status and safety of Muslim culture in India.



Further reading on the chronology of events surrounding the history of Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid, and on related legal proceedings:




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