As we are on the cusp of an extraordinary moment, a profound chapter that spans a struggle of over 500 years, I find myself looking back on my personal journey as a Hindu.
Originating from a lineage of Punjabi refugees, I am the fifth generation of an Arya Samaji family, whose forebears faced the harrowing ordeal of escaping just in time from what eventually became Pakistan. Despite burying deep the traumatic scars of their past, they found safety and success in their new lives through courage, resilience, and stoicism.
Growing up in the genuinely secular atmosphere of military cantonments my upbringing was characterised by a diverse circle of friends from various faiths. Educated in missionary schools until the age of thirteen, our home, unlike those of Sikh and Christian friends, lacked formally designated worship but thrived on a continuous flow of narratives and anecdotes—a rich legacy passed down by my grandparents.
The stories ranged from the soft murmur of River Godavari to the mysteries of why Ram did not bless her on his journey to Lanka. They delved into the symbolism of Bhairon’s black dog, Nandi waiting faithfully for Shiva, and the tender caress bestowed upon our little squirrels for their role in our great epic. The wisdom of Ganesh, infused with humour, depth, and nuance, resonated deeply with my love for nature and animals.
My journey further unfolded through the pages of Amar Chitra Katha, leading to the Ramayan, Mahabharat, and eventually, much later, the Gita, which made one look at life, relationships, and goals, anew.
There is no doubt that the Ram Janambhoomi Movement was that one unique moment in my generation, which not only stirred the depths of religious sentiments but also left an indelible mark on the socio-political landscape of India. It evoked strong emotions and ignited fervent public debates which spilt over among friends, family, and work acquaintances.
1. Those who believed it was a temple that had been destroyed by an invader and the wrong of it had to be righted.
2. Those who thought bygones should be bygones even if there was a temple under the masjid.
3. Those who said, ‘Give us proof’ and then we will give our opinion.
4. And those like me, a handful, that’s being generous, only two in my circle who believed it would be given to us as a gesture of goodwill. After all, isn’t that the only way world-over how human ties are forged?
The logic is that if my forefathers had stolen and destroyed someone’s much-beloved family heirloom, the only way for me to build a relationship with their successors would be to return it to them with humility.
Needless to say, all sides laughed in our faces. Looking back one wonders which world I was living in!
Night after night, witnessing Syed Shahabuddin on television debates, a prominent member of the Babri Masjid Action Committee formed in 1986 in response to the unlocking of the masjid gates by Rajiv Gandhi’s government, shattered any illusion one might have harboured of grace and reconciliation. A realisation that dawned upon many of us who had been hitherto unaware of this uncompromising stance.
Their initial surprise was quickly followed by a surge of rage. They were actually baffled by the persistent determination and what they perceived as audacity on the part of the Hindu community to even entertain dreams of reclaiming their Ram Janmabhoomi.
The unfolding events highlighted not just a clash of opinions but a deep-seated clash of convictions, unveiling the longstanding tension and complexities underlying the communal fabric of this nation.
The tipping point for me, from being a Hindu Lite to a committed Hindu came through a series of realisations.
1. Sonia Gandhi’s government and her National Advisory Council’s policies.
For example –
The Right to Education Act, to say the least, shocked me to my bones. To get away with such discrimination towards a majority community or any community in a so-called ‘secular’ country was nothing less than a crime. Thankfully we escaped being condemned to the draconian Communal Violence Bill.
2. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that proved what we had only so far suspected.
3. The fact that we are the ONLY community in this country that has no control over our places of worship, unlike the others.
4. Biassed Media. The disdain, superciliousness, and offhand manner ‘star’ television anchors took when talking to Hindu intellectuals, seers, or anyone speaking on behalf of the faith versus the politeness they showed to Muslim and Christian counterparts. I would often ask myself, why and could think of no other reason except a deep-rooted self-hate. The same attitude was reflected in well-appointed living rooms where nowhere-ness is mistaken for cosmopolitanism and is now, somewhat diminishing.
5. Reading and learning how Hindus received the raw end of the deal during Partition and worse, in Independent India.
6. Through work took the opportunity to meet and hear people beyond my social milieu on construction and project sites who carried their faith unapologetically with no pressure to ‘fit in’ and say the right thing.
7. Seeing some beautiful cities across the world succumb to the aggressiveness of one faith because of the laissez-faire of another.
8. Social Media. It opened a world of so many voices, opinions, and history.
It’s important to note that while the belief in the existence of a Ram Temple under the Babri Masjid was deeply ingrained in Hindu traditions and local narratives, in the protracted years of legal battles of the Ram Janambhoomi Movement a plethora of historical evidence also surfaced. A cadre of scholars, including the archaeologist KK Mohammad, intellectuals, and lawyers, collectively unravelled a revelation.
It became glaringly apparent that there had been a systematic suppression of facts and the entire framework of Indian appeasement, operating under the guise of ‘Let them have it to keep peace’ with a substantial dollop of sheer cussedness was sustained by the passivity of individuals like me – Hindus in Name.
Reflecting on this around 2010 I resolved to no longer offer my metaphorical shoulder of silence and invisibility upon which, much of this edifice rested.
It was in 2012 when I chanced upon a picture of Kailash Temple that left me mesmerised. For once I have no words to explain that intense feeling of connection and a desire to visit it at the earliest.
Having lived and travelled all over India I have seen several temples over the years – big, small, beautiful, and imposing, simple yet unique but always as a respectful tourist not as a devotee. This, however, was something else altogether.
It took me seven years, December 2019 to finally pay obeisance. It felt like a homecoming!
Nothing less than an architectural wonder, Kailash is forged from raw rock and radiates an undeniable aura of power! Amidst the multitude of sculptures within this sacred space, one creation that spoke to my spouse and I encapsulated the essence of one-upmanship in a union of equals – the fiery Shiv and his serene, harmonious Parvati. It’s a portrayal where he gently presses her foot even as she triumphs once again in the game of Chowka Bhara. The dynamics portrayed were strikingly relatable to us, and our board games, mirroring the delicate dance of competition and camaraderie that often defines relationships.
Not only is there something for everyone in this faith but that precious commodity – deprecating humour. Just the kind of story my grandmother would have told me!
Thereafter Kashi in 2021. The loyal bull facing Gyanvapi Mandir with infinite patience heard me as I whispered in his ear “One step closer, dear Nandi!”
Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hain.
The young have shown us how to be unapologetically comfortable in their skin.
What is more poignant is to witness people of an older generation who are suddenly galvanised having muzzled themselves for what they thought was a ‘greater good’ but got walked over instead, prising open a can of suppressed emotions and speaking up!
It is crucial to acknowledge that ancient civilisations carry a collective and expansive elephantine memory, of both past allies and opponents.
This intricate tapestry of remembrance serves as a repository of experiences, a reminder that forgetting comes at a high cost.
Perhaps, the reluctance to assert ourselves and speak up in the past was influenced by the unspoken fear linked to historical memories.
Hence, I am determined now more than ever to not succumb to the pressures and compromises that the post-independence generation faced and leave a conundrum for the future.
To conserve, preserve and honour an ancient heritage – knowledge, faith, voice, platform and power are all important!
As Ajeet Bharti on X said it so well for all of us,
“Dharm gave us Ram. Rajniti gave us the Mandir”.
The journey from Hindu Lite to Hindu!
Ram Mandir at Ram Janambhoomi in 2024.
Author: Nandini Bahri Dhanda is an Interior Architect. She has lived across sixteen states in India & travelled all over the world. Her interest in art, culture, history politics & above all a passion for communicating & chatting with people across the board, finds her voice in her blog.
Follow her on Twitter @NAN_DINI_
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