Ramanandi akharas vs Ram temple trust: Inside the battle to control the Mandir

There is disquiet among seers as it’s the first time in Ayodhya’s history that the keys of a temple are not fully in the hands of the saffron-cloaked.

WrittenBy:Shweta Desai
Split screen of two sadhus with the Ram temple in the background.

A change of guard in the Ram temple’s management – from the traditional system of sadhus and mahants to the central government nominated  trust – has triggered perhaps an unforeseen succession battle over the claim of the right to conduct worship. After all, it’s the first time in Ayodhya’s history that the keys of a temple as grand are not fully in the hands of the saffron-cloaked. 

While the sant samaaj in Ayodhya is enthused about the Ram temple, there is disquiet too – about the new idol, the priest leading the ceremony, the process of appointment, and the sidelining of prominent seers part of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – with more powers to Sangh Parivar members and retired government officials comprising the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra trust

The Narendra Modi government’s decision to hand over the temple’s management to a trust stems from the Supreme Court’s verdict in 2019, but there have been objections, primarily from seers of the Ramanandi sect, whose existence is closely tied to the temple town – which forms the epicentre of its principal akharas Nirvani, Nirmohi and Digambar.

Though it’s not just seers from the Ramanandi akharas who are disappointed. 

The shankaracharyas from the Shaivaite tradition have also announced the decision to not attend the consecration ceremony on January 22 over the trust’s decision to inaugurate an “incomplete” temple in violation of the shastras. The shankaracharya of the north peeth, Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, has called for the removal of Champat Rai, the trust’s general secretary and the VHP’s international vice president, as “he is not a Ramanandi.”

But the question of who should have rightful control over the conduct of worship such as puja and bhog in the new temple is also being fiercely debated among the Ramanandi akharas, who have been the custodians of the makeshift temple and were in charge of the worship of the Ram Lalla idol until the Supreme Court’s final verdict in November 2019. 

The new arrangement, after all, marks a break in the established tradition of the Ramanandi akharas controlling the management of big temples – Hanumangarhi and Ram Janmabhoomi – and collecting all the offerings from devotees and patrons. And this reduced influence of Ramanandi seers in the new temple’s management, they claim, has jeopardised the dominance of the sect’s akharas over Ayodhya. 

“In Ayodhya, we have a tradition of sadhus and a system of mahants, not of any trust,” Dharam Das, head of the Nirvani akhara, told Newslaundry, claiming that not a single religious establishment in the town was in favour of the trust’s working. 

Dating back to the 15th century, the Ramanandi sect is one of the largest Vaishnavite ascetic sects in India and Nepal. It embraces “twice-born” Hindus, or the first three groups of the Hindu caste system, as well as women, lower castes, and even Muslim Harijan devotees. Ramanandis consider Lord Ram as the tutelary deity and Ayodhya as the centre of the universe from where he ruled in the Treta Yug. The Ramanandi, along with Shaivaite and Sikh akharas, together form the akhara parishad which organises the Kumbh melas.   

Sidelining of Ramanandi akharas 

The seers’ resentment against the trust has been on open display for some years, with charges ranging from corruption in land deals to allegedly fraudulent land grabs at Angad Tila, adjoining the Janmabhoomi precinct.  

In his book Ayodhya: The Dark Night, author Dhirendra Jha wrote that the Nirmohi akhara had claimed ownership of the Ram Chabutra – a raised platform constructed inside the Babri Masjid compound in 1858 and popularly known as the birthplace of lord Ram – until Abhiram Das, a priest from the Nirvani akhara, secretly installed the idol of infant Ram inside the mosque structure in the intervening hours of December 22 and December 23 in 1949. 

Since that day, the worship of Ram Lalla had been overseen by the seers of the Nirvani akhara, chiefly the disciples of Abhiram Das, who is renowned as the Janmabhoomi Uddharak Baba. The makeshift temple has now come under the control of the trust and has no representation of the Nirvani akhara. 

“Sadhus belonging to the Ramanandi akharas have been critical to the struggle of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Now that the temple is being constructed, they are discarding us by not giving us a place on the trust, which appears to be a deliberate move,” Tejpal Das, president of the Hanumangarhi temple, the main shrine in Ayodhya managed by the Nirvani akhara, told Newslaundry.

Tejpal Das with his guru Purushottam.

Resentment and betrayal

The Ramanandi akharas were on the verge of garnering all the glory for the Ram Mandir as they bitterly sustained the movement in Ayodhya since the 19th century, but as the the focus shifted to the RSS affiliate VHP, which was established in the last century, and the VHP-led trust since 2019, they found themselves increasingly aloof.

Around 10 Ayodhya-based mahants, disciples, and priests who Newslaundry interviewed said the first signs of change in the Sangh Parivar’s attitude towards them were seen after the death of former VHP president Ashok Singhal in 2015 and soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. What further paved the way for their sidelining was the Supreme Court’s judgement

Former BJP MP Ram Vilas Vedanti, whose firebrand speeches and trademark flowing silver beard made him one of the most recognisable faces during the peak of the temple movement, accused the Vishva Hindu Parishad of obviating the seers. 

“None of the known figures who made tremendous sacrifices in the Janmabhoomi agitation have been given any place in the trust. They have embraced new faces and only they are consulted, called for important meetings related to the temple,” Vedanti said in a peeved tone. His contemporaries such as LK Advani, Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara, who dominated the Ram temple movement, appear to have fallen out of favour. “It (VHP) has betrayed all of us involved in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.” 

The VHP was among the principal architects of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and was among key litigants who represented infant Ram in court. 

Vedanti had wanted to become the chairman of the trust and was engulfed in controversy for opposing the appointment of Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, who headed the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas between 2003 and 2019, and UP chief minister Adityanath to the post.  

“Among those who faced hardships and imprisonment for participating in the agitation, I have been in jail the most, for 25 times,” said Vedanti. “But they want the kind of people on the trust who would nod in agreement and stay mum.”

Mute spectators

Of the 15 members of the trust, only two are from the Ramanandi akharas – Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and Nirmohi akhara head Mahant Dinendra Das. On paper, although Nritya Gopal Das heads the trust as president, Champat Rai, who is the general secretary, is its most visible face.

Former attorney general K Parasaran, who successfully fought the legal battle of Ram Mandir from the Hindu side, former principal secretary at the prime minister’s office Nripendra Misra, UP chief minister’s advisor Awanish K Awasthi, and Ayodhya district magistrate and senior bureaucrat Gyanesh Kumar are other ex-officio members. Swami Vasudevanand Saraswati, Swami Vishwaprasannatheerth, Yugpurush Paramanand Giri, and Swami Govind Dev Giri represent the seer community. Other members are Vimlendra Mohan Pratap Mishra, the erstwhile royal of Ayodhya, VHP’s Anil Mishra, and Kameshwar Chaupal, former deputy chief minister of Bihar and the first Dalit member to have laid the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya 30 years ago.

A section of the seers, meanwhile, alleged that Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and Mahant Dinendra Das are mute spectators with no real influence in the committee. Both are physically weak and unable to dispense their duties rightfully, they alleged.

Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, 86, chief of the Mani Ram Chavni temple, whose name was absent from the first list, was appointed the chairman of the committee after protests from his disciples. He spends most days in his ashram and doesn’t attend trust meetings in Delhi, sources said. 

Attempts to reach him by phone were thwarted by his assistant Kamalnayan Das, who refused an appointment for an interview with the seer. Kamalnayan Das was among several seers who had thrown their weight behind controversial BJP MP Brij Bhushan Singh amid the wrestlers’ protests.

Meanwhile, Mahant Ram Das, who represented the Nirmohi akhara in the Janmabhoomi title suit case for close to three decades, claimed that he wanted to be a member of the trust but Mahant Dinendra Das recommended himself for a position.  “He is now the sole representative of Nirmohi akhara but has no say in the working of the trust,” Ram Das claimed. 

Dinendra Das refuted the allegations of playing a stooge and said there were no conflicts with the trust. “We are in agreement with the trust’s working,” he said smilingly. 

Hanumangarhi temple’s president Tejpal Das claimed that after the trust was formed, the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to keep mahants and seers from the Ramanandi akharas away from the new temple’s functions became clearer. 

For instance, during the bhoomi pujan ceremony of the new temple in August 2020 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no mahant from the Ramanandi akharas was invited. “If we have to go to the makeshift temple for a darshan of Ram Lalla, we have to cross the same barriers like common devotees, but a newcomer from the Sangh can walk in without any permissions,” he alleged.

Tejpal Das said he will skip the inauguration on January 22 as the trust hasn’t invited his “guruji” Purshottam Das Maharaj – the oldest seer of the Nirvani akhara and a guru bhai (peer) of Abhiram Das. 

However, the Nirvani akhara, comprising nearly 800 sadhus and mahants, has officially not boycotted the ceremony.

Meanwhile, trust member and VHP media coordinator Sharad Sharma said the trust has invited over 4,500 seers, priests, and religious leaders from across the country for the ceremony. “We can’t accommodate everyone. Others can see the ceremony from the comfort of their home.”  

The right to worship and the new idol

Several seers said the right to worship Lord Ram’s idol at the new temple primarily belongs to the Ramanandi akharas. 

Four years ago, Dinendra Das had demanded the trust to provide the right of worship of the new temple to Nirmohi akhara as it had been in the possession of the Janmabhoomi temple, or the Ram Chabutra, until 1950. 

But the seers of Nirvani akhara also consider themselves to be the rightful claimants. “We (Nirvani akhara) installed the idol both times, first by Baba Abhiram Das in 1949 and later after the mosque was demolished in 1992,” recalled Abhiram Das’s disciple Dharam Das.  

Satyendra Das, another of Abhiram’s disciples, was appointed as the head priest of the makeshift temple by a court order in March 1992, after Mahant Lal Das, an opponent of VHP’s temple movement, was unceremoniously removed from the post. On December 6, 1992, Satyendra Das and his assistants had safely retracted the idols of Ram Lalla and Laxman, Bharat, Shatrughan, and shaligram (holy stone) from inside the mosque as karsevaks were razing it. 

“We organised some bamboo and cloth curtains to set up a pandal and started pooja the same evening,” Satyendra told Newslaundry

This move compelled the Supreme Court to order the central government to maintain the status quo of the demolition site, retain the idols and continue their puja as before. This also allowed the VHP-led Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas to continue the worship of the idols and facilitate the movement of devotees in a makeshift temple. These acts became crucial in the final verdict to establish that the Hindu plaintiffs have been in continuous and uninterrupted possession of the property and performing worship of the idol. 

But the very idol, which was first surreptitiously installed in December 1949 inside the Babri mosque and on whose name the VHP fought court suits since 1989, is now being replaced. 

The trust picked a new idol, taller and “more visually appealing” for darshan. Though this move hasn’t gone down well with a section of seers, who said the previous idol which has been continuously worshipped should be the main deity of the temple. 

“The temple is a seat of the Lord. It’s not a place to display idols. You can’t change the deity who is seated presently,” Tejpal Das said. 

Tejpal Das said that in the Hindu faith, the supari (or betelnut), which is commonly used as a representation of Gods, once worshipped, can’t be replaced with another idol even if it’s made of gold.  

Trust members, however, insist both the idols will be placed in the sanctum sanctorum.

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Succession of a priest

The process of succession of the future head priest of the temple has also aggravated the akhara seers. 

Ramanandi custom dictates that priests who conduct worship of Lord Ram should be birakt bairagi – celibate and with no familial concerns – and with a minimum of 12 years of training in Ayodhya’s akharas, seers said. The sect follows a highly secretive process of selecting the priests of its main temples which is never revealed to outsiders. 

Tejpal Das said it’s of utmost importance that the priest should be a Vaishnav bairagi, wearing the tulsi kanthi (a maala made with tulsi stems) and be linked with the Hanumangarhi temple as has been the custom for the last seven decades. “We can accept the trust’s ownership of the temple as long as priests from our tradition have complete freedom and rights to worship the idol.”   

But the trust has chosen Vedic scholar Pandit Laxmikant Mathuranath Dixit, a priest who is married and is based in the PM’s Lok Sabha seat Varanasi, for the consecration ceremony of the new idol. The trust is also recruiting new priests from across the country who would be trained in the Ramanandi rituals. 

Alleging that the recruitment process was a “sham”, Dharam Das said that future head priests cannot be hired like government employees. “The priests must come from Ramanadi’s guru-shishya discipline where one attains knowledge about puja, seva and religious ceremonies through devotion, it can’t be taught through a six month training.” 

Satyendra Das, on the other hand, said that as per Ramanandi akhara customs, a disciple nominated by the incumbent head priest should be the new head, but that this tradition will now end with him. He will not insist on his pick for the new Ram temple though, he said, as “the trust will do as they see fit”.

Mahant Mithilesh Nandini Sharan, from the Ramanandi sect and a member of the Shri Ram Sevavidhi Vidhan Samiti, said this practice of succession was only followed when the temple was managed by seers. “Today the temple’s development is under the trust and it is functioning on the basis of bylaws based on which the appointment of future priests will be made. It cannot function like some mutt.”

Sharan, who is an independent follower of the Ramanandi sect, claimed the trust was aware of complaints from disgruntled seers  refuted their claims of violation of the Ramanandi tradition. “Those raising objections are not learned religious scholars. We can’t take opinion on which puja vidhi to follow from those who picked up arms, spade and lathis for demolition. When learned pandits and devotees from across the country will inquire about Ram Lalla’s seva, should we say it is being done as per akharas ?” 

He added that, like thousands of countrymen, the akharas also fought in the Janmabhoomi agitation, but they “don’t own Ram Lalla and he belongs to everyone.”  

Champat Rai, who did not respond to phone calls from Newslaundry, in his interview to Amar Ujala earlier this week, had said that the Ramanand tradition will be followed for worship since it’s a Ram temple. 

End of Ramanandi akhara’s dominance in Ayodhya?

Historically, Naga militant ascetics have been trained to fight religious and ideological battles by the use of force. 

The Ramanandi sect too established its base in Ayodhya in the early 18th century, after overthrowing the rival Dashnami sect from the Shaivaite tradition, by force.

But now, despite disagreements, not many are willing to pick up cudgels with the trust – some due to fear of retribution and some due to an ostensible threat to the government largesse received by them in the form of ashrams, etc.

The majority of Ayodhya’s sadhu samaj is ecstatic that the long-awaited Ram temple is finally being constructed and does not want to create any opposition or controversy ahead of the consecration ceremony on January 22 that could overshadow the revelry. 

But Dharam Das is not among those willing to give up. Named as an accused in the Babri demolition case, Dharam Das fought arduously long-drawn battles. “It is important to have a ran-neeti (strategy),” he said, seated in his residence in Hanumangarhi, surrounded by a bunch of legal files and court petitions containing old documents related to the Babri case.    

Since the formation of the trust, he has issued a legal notice to the home ministry against the trust for harbouring a “political agenda” and “not giving” due recognition to those who fought for the temple. He also filed a police complaint against the trust alleging financial irregularities.  

“When we Nagas captured the Ram Janmabhoomi, it was not to hand it over to other parties. Was the VHP there in Ayodhya then? No, it was not even born. We are the ones who erected it,” Dharam Das said. 

Crediting the BJP and the Sangh for making the temple a reality, Das said Ayodhya’s seers were happy “they are doing what we couldn’t achieve in all these years.” 

 “But if they (the trust) make mistakes, we will hold them accountable…In the past, we fought the battle with Muslims to get possession of the land…now we want to see how it can function smoothly as per our tradition.”

This report is part of our NL Sena project on Ayodhya 2.0, as part of which Shweta and Basant are in Ayodhya to bring you ground reports and videos in the run-up to the Ram Temple inauguration. Contribute now to power their work.

Update at 10 pm, Jan 13: This report has been updated with more details on the 15 members of the trust, why the Ramanandi sect established its base in Ayodhya, and direct quotes from Mahant Mithilesh Nandini Sharan and Dinendra Das. Two subheads have also been rephrased for clarity.

Also see
article imageBetween faith and livelihood: Days before Ram temple inauguration, fear and excitement in Ayodhya
article imageHeartbreak and hesitation: When I was a boy in Ayodhya in 1992


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