The relationship between a guru and a chela, which is at the heart of Ramanandi akharas, is underlaid with turbulence. Outsiders might not see this or skim over it – because of the veil of religion – but anybody with even a surface view of the akharas cannot remain blind to it. It even finds a mention in Ayodhya’s folklore:

Charan dabaa ke sant bane hain,
gardan dabaa mahant;
Paramparaa sab bhool gaye hain,
bhool gayen hain granth;
De do inko bhi kuchh gyaan,
dharaa par ek baar tum phir aao, Hey Ram.

(He became a sadhu by massaging feet,
And a mahant by choking a throat;
They have forgotten the traditions
and the scriptures;
Enlighten them
Come down to earth one more time, O Ram.)

Most sadhus of Ayodhya I spoke to agree that this violent streak was exacerbated around the mid-1980s, soon after the VHP pushed the Ram Janmabhoomi issue to the fore. The VHP, for almost two decades after its inception in 1964, had been unable to use the sadhus in creating a favourable electoral condition for the BJP. This failure led the RSS to relaunch the VHP in the early 1980s with the prime motive of spearheading a new political strategy.

The Ram Janmabhoomi issue had been almost forgotten after the few months of commotion that it generated following the surreptitious idol-planting of 1949.

Until that night, Ramchabutara – an elevated platform of 17x21x6 feet, located about 100 paces from the Babri masjid inside its outer courtyard – was treated as the birthplace of Lord Ram. All attempts by naga vairagis to build a temple over Ramchabutara had failed because the British government had imposed a restraint on any construction work in the Babri masjid campus. India’s independence was perceived by some of the Hindu Mahasabha’s prominent leaders and the nagas in Ayodhya as a removal of that restraint. In the atmosphere of bitterness created by the communal clashes that took place in the wake of Partition, a group of Ramanandi nagas and Hindu Mahasabha leaders succeeded in capturing the whole of Babri masjid. But once the idol was planted, the turmoil gave way to legal battles and the issue remained politically dormant for over three decades, until the RSS saw an opportunity in it.

In early 1984, the VHP organised its first Dharma Sansad in Delhi, which unanimously adopted a resolution demanding the “liberation” of the birthplace of Lord Ram. In July that year, the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi MuktiYajna Samiti (Committee to Liberate Ram’s Birthplace) was founded. On 1 October, the VHP established its militant wing, Bajrang Dal, under the leadership of Vinay Katiyar, who had been an RSS pracharak since 1980. As theVHP’s main strike force,the Bajrang Dal was tasked with “liberating” the “Ram temple”, as Babri masjid has been called ever since the idol of Lord Ram was planted in it in 1949. A procession was set off from Sitamarhi in Bihar for this purpose, and it reached Ayodhya on 6 October. The focal point of the procession was a lorry bearing large statues of Ram and Sita beneath a banner with the slogan “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

Peter van der Veer describes how the response to the procession in Ayodhya was marked by extreme indifference: “As far as I could see only some five to seven thousand people had come to listen to the speeches.This seemed a disappointing number...The Hindu press was not taken aback by this number, however, and inflated it to fifty thousand and in some papers even to a hundred thousand, numbers which were taken over by the national press.”

After halting in Ayodhya for a day, the procession started for Lucknow to present a petition to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The Ramanandi nagas’ largely unenthusiastic response in Ayodhya frustrated the VHP and the participating sadhus; van der Veer records it thus: “Some of Ayodhya’s sadhus had accompanied the procession to Lucknow and told, after their return, that it had had a far greater success in Lucknow and in the places on the way than in Ayodhya itself.”

It was an unnerving time for theVHP. The lack of support from the ascetic community of Ayodhya, the epicentre of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, threatened to disrupt its new agenda.

The VHP had devoted many months and all the resources under its command to raise the pitch of the campaign in order to mobilise Hindus in general, and Ayodhya’s ascetic community, in particular – a critical component for the success of its plans. The VHP’s campaign in Ayodhya was conducted by a handful of Ramanandi vairagis who had little support from the rest of the community, and, in the end, not much was accomplished.

In the months that followed, progress continued to elude the VHP. In the last week of November 1984, for example, Ayodhya witnessed three Ramayan Melas, gatherings at which the Ramayana would be recited. Two of them were organised by the government and the third by the VHP’s pointman in Ayodhya, Ramchandradas Paramhansa, the shri mahant, or chief abbot, of the Digambar akhara, the smallest of the three main Ramanandi akharas of the Vaishnava sect. “While the two Melas organized by the Congress (I) governments [both at the Center and state] were reasonably well attended, Ramchandradas’s Mela was an abject failure,” writes Peter van der Veer.

Partly because of this inability of the VHP to expand its network among the naga vairagis of Ayodhya, it set up a Ram Janmabhoomi Trust and conferred its chairmanship on Jagat Guru Ramanandacharya Shivaramacharya, head of the Ramanandis of Varanasi, the holy town located close to Ayodhya. It was a shrewd move, because Shivaramacharya, said to command immense respect throughout Vaishnava circles, would help swing the majority of Ramanandis to the VHP, particularly in Ayodhya. Having set up the trust, with which BJP leader Vijaya Raje Scindia and a number of corporate representatives, like GP Birla, GH Singhania, KN Modi and RN Goenka, were associated, the VHP called on the government to transfer the property rights of the disputed site in Ayodhya to the trust so that the “biggest temple in the world” could be built there.

Soon, however, it became clear that even Shivaramacharya could not ensure the kind of foothold the VHP required in Ayodhya.

The movement met with greater enthusiasm in other parts of Uttar Pradesh and, in fact, got a fillip following the order in early 1986 by a district and sessions judge in Faizabad – the district that houses Ayodhya – that the Uttar Pradesh government should unlock the gates of the Babri masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi temple to enable devotees to offer darshan and puja in the disputed structure. But the movement was still not particularly successful at the local level in Ayodhya, and this seemed to get on the VHP’s nerves.

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement gave the temples of Ayodhya a keener edge and the local mahants an exalted position. Getting these temples and their mahants on board was a political necessity for the RSS and the VHP if they wanted to present themselves as leader of the Ram Janmabhoomi “liberation” movement. The VHP knew that it could not authentically act as a representative voice for Indian sadhus or for the “cause”, if the mahants of Ayodhya did not fall in line.

The VHP desperately needed pliable mahants in Ayodhya’s temples. For ambitious ascetics, this provided a new opportunity as well as readily available help to accrue material prospects or grab lucrative mahantships in Ayodhya. And in this little-studied internal history lies the unravelling of the sadhus. The VHP’s role in creating a killing field in Ayodhya has remained hidden.

“The VHP has trained the sadhus of Ayodhya to achieve anything through crime,” says Raghunandan Das, the mahant of Satsang Ashram temple at Swargadwar in Ayodhya. He was part of the VHP’s procession in 1984 and headed the procession in Darbhanga district of Bihar. Three decades later he admits: “In the name of temple movement, the VHP singlehandedly destroyed the tranquillity of Ayodhya. Violence, money, power and political influence were used openly by it to get favourable mahants installed in the temples here. Goons in the garb of sadhus became powerful. Old and vulnerable mahants became victims. The dignity that the sadhus of Ayodhya have lost, because of the VHP’s direct or indirect interference in deciding successions in temples here, can never be reclaimed.”

As Ayodhya moved from the 1980s to 1990s, punctuated by the massive shock it received on 6 December 1992, when Babri masjid was eventually demolished, the power and prestige attached to a mahant in Ayodhya shot up. This was partly because the VHP and its sister organisations, after having overseen the demolition of the mosque, hastened the installation of pliable mahants in the temples of Ayodhya, and partly because the scramble for mahantship created a suitable ground for the entry of hardened criminals from the nearby areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar looking for safe havens. Together, they vitiated the atmosphere in Ayodhya even further.

Over time, the situation deteriorated so much that today only a mahant with a band of armed goons of his own can feel safe. And even that cannot guarantee safety.

“It would be stupid to pretend that politics has no role in it,” fugitive mahant Ram Asare Das told me. “During the last three decades, such incidents have increased exponentially. Earlier, elder mahants used to be respected, but ever since the Ram temple movement was revived, the mahants of Ayodhya have lived in constant fear. The mahantship has now become a business here. Not just my temple, the VHP has been instrumental in getting its own men installed as mahants in several other temples of Ayodhya.”

That, however, was not the only way the Ram Janmabhoomi movement hit Ayodhya. Between 1950 and 1984, except for legal battles, there had been no on-the-ground action, no movement to demand the Hindu occupation of Babri masjid. Pilgrims to Ayodhya were mostly lay devotees from rural or semi-urban regions, without any political agenda. The means of these devotees were limited, so were their reasons for visiting Ayodhya. With the revival of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the town began to witness a spurt in the influx of religious tourists. This spiked further during the 1990s and thereafter. Many temples were converted into dharamshalas and the prices of real-estate possessions of these religious institutions shot up.

“There was also a change in the nature of religious tourists,” said Raghuvar Sharan, an Ayodhya-based journalist. “Earlier, Ayodhya used to attract traditional devotees who had longstanding relationships with their gurus and their temples, and who had been visiting the town at regular intervals. But once the temple movement started heating up politically, a new variety of tourists began visiting the town in large numbers. This new variety of visitors had no traditional association with Ayodhya or its old temples, nor were they simpletons like their predecessors. They brought money as well as aggression. The sadhus of Ayodhya could not remain unaffected.”

It must indeed have been a turning point for Ayodhya. Many residents I interviewed said that these new tourists were less religious and more communal. They eulogised warrior Ram and his ferocious devotees, providing a psychological boost for those who had money and power. Spirituality started dying fast, so did the tranquillity of Ayodhya and its sadhus.

The bohemian sadhus of the town were converted into, or replaced by, those desirous of owning properties and wielding their power.

Excerpted with permission from Ascetic Games: Sadhus, Akharas and the making of the Hindu vote, Dhirendra K Jha, Context.