Thirty years ago, Indian architect Chandrakant Sompura designed a temple dedicated to Lord Ram for the city of Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Together with the late Ashok Singhal, leader of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) who had contacted him, Mr Sompura travelled to Ayodhya to map the land, which was at the heart of a centuries-old dispute between Hindu and Muslim groups.
The design was in place well before the bitter land dispute was resolved and before a Hindu mob destroyed the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque, at the site, triggering communal riots in which more than 2,000 people were killed.
Now, construction of the temple based on Mr Sompura’s design is set to start, nine months after the country’s Supreme Court handed over the disputed land to Hindu groups and asked the federal and Uttar Pradesh state government to provide a 2ha plot of land to Muslim groups in Ayodhya.
On Wednesday, a bhumi pujan – a ritual that is performed before construction can begin – will take place at Ayodhya.
The authorities in Ayodhya have ordered police to patrol the streets and for barricades to be set up to prevent big crowds gathering this week ahead of the event.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to be among the 200 people who will take part in the ritual, capping a core promise of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to its Hindu supporters to build the temple.
Mr Sompura’s design from 30 years ago has remained, except for the size of the temple.
“Everyone feels the area where the darshan (the act of seeing the deity) takes place is small. After 30 years, the population has increased too much, there has been so much media coverage of the Ram mandir (temple) and the footfall of people will be much more than in 1990,” said Mr Sompura’s son, architect Ashish Sompura.
“So we all have decided to do a new floor area. We don’t want to change the original design.”
He is working with his father to update the design, with two additional domes for a total of five, and a floor area of 30,000 sq ft.
In 1990, he said, his father had designed the temple to accommodate 30,000 to 60,000 worshippers per day. Now the temple expects to draw 80,000 to 100,000 people every day.
He added: “We also studied the most-visited temples of India, such as the Golden Temple, Somnath temple and Tirupati, and the daily footfalls before we decided this is the area we want.”
Mr Sompura, whose father’s portfolio includes the design for the Shiv Temple in Singapore, said the Ayodhya temple will be built entirely of pink sandstone and will take 31/2 years to complete.
Construction of the mosque at another site has not started. Land has been given by the government in Dhannipur village, 24km from the original site, in Ayodhya. The Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board last Wednesday announced the formation of a trust to oversee the construction of the mosque.
The BJP came to national prominence after Hindu hardliners razed the mosque on Dec 6, 1992, plunging India into months of communal rioting. Anti-Hindu protests over the incident also took place in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere at that time.
A case is ongoing against VHP and BJP party leaders over the plan to demolish the mosque.
The beginning of the temple’s construction, said political analysts, would be a reprieve for Mr Modi, who is battling the challenges of surging Covid-19 cases and an ailing economy.
Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay has said that the Ram temple was part of a wider platform of the BJP to promote “religio-cultural nationalism”, where the mix of religion and culture is held up as the epitome of India.
“Anybody who raises an obstacle is anti-India.”
The construction of the temple has been used as a political tool by the BJP to consolidate Hindu votes in parts of northern India.
Still, its construction during the coronavirus pandemic has attracted criticism from some political opponents. India has more than 1.5 million coronavirus cases, with the numbers continuing to climb.
Accusing the BJP of using the Ram temple as an electioneering tool, Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said in an interview published in Saamana, his party Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, last week that the ground-breaking ceremony could be held by video-conference instead.
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi also urged Mr Modi not to attend the ceremony in his official capacity but as a private citizen, noting that a “message will go in the country that the PM is supporting people of one faith only”.
The BJP has dismissed all criticism from the opposition.
“These comments by various opposition leaders are uncalled for, because the Prime Minister has attended several religious functions, not just of the Hindu faith, in the past also. To draw the Ram temple into a political discourse is neither desirable nor necessary,” said BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli.