What could have got into Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, to have to want to claim earlier this month that Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya, the place in question being not in present-day India but in what is today Nepal?

So many questions to try to answer. But to start with the obvious – the claim was considered impolite towards the Hindutva brigade south of the border whose proponents have constructed a political ideology around a mythological character of historical and archaeological uncertainty, though a god. This absence of civility comes from a head of government who should know the potential economic and geopolitical consequences, having led Nepal’s stand against the 2015-’16 Blockade with a Big B.

But Oli went ahead anyway and did it. Why? Mostly, he has begun to like hearing his own voice, and gets carried away when people titter appreciatively at his banter. He engages in baithak guffgaaf even when he knows the cameras are recording. This time, on July 13, it was the birth anniversary of Bhanu Bhakta Acharya, the aadi kabi of the Nepali language and translator of the Balmiki’s epic Ramayan. Oli got carried away and replaced one Ayodhya pop history with another.

‘Organic’ leader

Oli is an “organic” leader if nothing else, who resists prepared texts to be read off teleprompters and the state-managed events his Indian counterpart shields himself with. But a head of government prone to extemporaneous take-off must be careful as faux pas are sure to be picked up by combative media and cynical influencers. Oli wades in where others fear to tread – perhaps conditioned by his more than dozen years in jail under harsh conditions during the Panchayat royal autocracy, or his boldness may be the audacity of a man who has skirted death more than once, including the second-time kidney transplant of barely four months ago.

When it comes to New Delhi, Oli has enough to be peeved with. He waited for months for India to agree to foreign secretary-level talks on the disputed territory to the northwest, and sat for four months on the new map produced by his government cartographers until domestic pressures forced him to issue it and amend the Constitution to accommodate the change. But even as the bilateral relationship has hit the rock at the very bottom, New Delhi has not halted construction of the road that breaches the disputed territory, which was the trigger to the bilateral tailspin to begin with.

Oli had thought matters were on the mend as the memory and impact of the Indian Blockade of 2015-’16 began to fade, and he was in easy telephonic contact with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi Modi at 7 Race Course. Then came the “link road” to Lipu Lek, India’s subsequent message that it would not talk until after the Covid-19 pandemic, and then Nepal’s new map with its curved sword-tip angling over Kumaon.

A protest against the blockade of Nepal in 2015. Credit: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Things are so bad between Nepal and India that the only back channel for diplomacy remaining was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh contingent, but that is the very cohort that has now been ticked off by the Thori-as-Ayodhya claim. Meanwhile, Oli raises the ante through his unrehearsed remarks. Before he got into debating the janmabhoomi of Ram, he told Parliament pointedly that Nepal followed the precept “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth will Prevail) rather than the reliance of brute power represented by “Singhameva Jayate” (Muscle Power will Prevail).

One assumes there are many Indian citizens who would agree that the Modi-Amit Shah rule reflects the “singhameva” attitude, but it was hardly Oli’s brief to point this out. There may be some heroics attached to being the only government head in the whole wide world and the subcontinent who takes on Modi, but such bravado is not a good idea when representing a whole people and nation.

The North Indian TV channels added vitriol to their pre-existing prejudice as they covered Oli’s recent utterances, as if he were Ravan personified, dangerous but not so dangerous as not to be vilely ridiculed. The Goswamis and Chaudhuries of television went after him without civility and the phenomenon was a thing to watch, never applied against neighbouring prime ministers or presidents, even the worst dictator.

Oli’s response has been to convert all this television venom into elixir for himself – Nepalis watch Indian television, and the popular reaction was the polar opposite of what was intended as entertainment for the Indian audience.

Facts on the ground

While Oli seems to have the required support in Parliament to survive pustch attempts from within his own party, for over the four months of the Covid-19 pandemic kaal he has been staving off a majority in the CPN supreme secretariat, led by the Maoist Pushpa Kamal Dahal as head commissar, who eyes the prime ministerial throne. Oli accused Dahal and his cohort of doing the bidding of New Delhi, a charge that has great currency in Kathmandu politics, but the anti-India plank has heretofore been used by politicians in opposition, not the sitting prime minister.

Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador, a diplomatic rookie handed the task of upping Beijing’s influence in Kathmandu corridors after decades of watching-and-waiting, sought openly but not very successfully to engineer a ceasefire within the ruling CPN – her attempt at political interventionism more reminiscent of the adventurism of Indian ambasadors of days past.

Some North Indian TV producers and anchors looked upon the youngish lady ambassador, salivated and went into sexist, mysoginist hyper-ventilation. They “reported” a titillating relationship between the Nepal prime minister and the plenipotentiary – like a trashy YouTube channel sponging off the unfulfilled desires of Indian maledom. Enjoying all the saliva roiling their palate, the “news” anchors were not about to consider New Delhi’s own diplomatic positioning vis-à-vis the neighbouring country, whose stability and wellbeing is vital for India’s own poorest, most densely populated Ganga belt.

It was around then that Oli unleashed his Ayodhya arrow, surely knowing that he was putting his hand into Hindutva’s piranha pond. You will have to concede Oli his chutzpah if not his good sense, to dare to descend thus into the molten core of Hindutva politics of India represented by Ram Janmabhoomi, which keeps Narendra Modi in power and the entire Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh machinery running on the fuel of faith-based populism.

The claim of Ayodhya as birthplace of Maryadapurush is hardly something geographical, it is not even a matter of belief, but of make-believe. Step-by-step, the movement towards the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya was built up, first the court’s acceptance of the infant Ram Lalla Virajman as a “divine juristic entity” in December 1949, the destruction of Babri Masjid in December 1992 by hundreds of pick-axe wielding kar sevaks, and a compromised Supreme Court that cleared the way for the temple to be built in November 2019 – a “Rashtra Mandir” as the RSS would have it, to rival visitations to Mecca and Bethlehem.

The foundation laying and bhoomi poojan is slated for August 5 with Modi and Lal Krishna Advani in attendance, the latter being the person who blessed the Babri Masjid demolition before being ultimately sidelined by the shooting star from Gujarat. The string of events leading to the final Supreme Court verdict in November was the exercise of creating facts on the ground, backed by the sheer weight of India-wide, faith-laced populism.

Long-distance betrothal?

Oli was taking on an ideological movement back-stopped by RSS shakhas around India, buffering Modi’s rule over the people and control of state machinery. Nepal’s prime minister is not one to take suggestions, and so his putative advisors cringed as he took off extempore, claiming that the authentic Ayodhya was not the one in Uttar Pradesh, but existed southwest of Kathmandu, west of Birgunj, in the village of Thori next to the great jungle of Chitwan, where Balmiki would have walked.

As Oli warmed to the subject at the Prime Minister’s residence in Baluwatar (“sand plateau”), he argued that Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya was just too far from Janakpur, home of Raja Janak and daughter Sita, to allow logistics for an arranged marriage. How would they have communicated between Janakpur and the Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya to carry out the betrothal “back then when there were no phones or mobile phones”?

Much more logical, said the prime minister, was for Ayodhya to be in Thori, from where Janakpur was barely 150 km to the east and sage Balmiki’s ashram just around the bend. Someone else did a calculation and announced that it would take chariots (considerately allowing time for the horses to be fed and rested) 15 days to traverse the distance from Janakpur to the Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya, a return trip making up a month. Throughout history, of course, men have gone further and spent more time that pursuing their chosen ones, but we have by now arrived at a point beyond time, place and logic.

A devotee in Ayodhya with pillars that will be used for the construction of the Ram temple. Credit: Danish Siddiqui

If placenames were to be proof that Ram was walking the jungle trails of Thori, while conceding that Ram turns up everywhere in the subcontinent, a part of the Maadi village municipality (Wards 7 and 8) has been known as Ayodhyapuri. There is a Ramnagar just to the south of the border in West Champaran, a Ramgram to the west in Parasi (with an unexcavated stupa containing the Buddha’s astu), a Rampur to the north across the Rapti river, and a Ramghat further north on the Kali Gandaki river.

But, other than the fact that the Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya claim is backed by the power of mass-based populism of the second-largest country on earth, there is no reason to accept the fait accompli represented by the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, all set to build a temple of 280 feet by 300 feet, height 161 feet.

Tens of millions may believe the Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya proposition, but the silent majority may not be convinced, and there will be other believers – Ram bhakts, indeed – who do not buy the idea. They believe that Ram came came forth to Dasharath and Kausalya somewhere else – that the true Ayodhya is in Banawali in Haryana, or Herat in Afghanistan, of Rehman Dheri in Pakistani Punjab, or Ayuthhaya in Thailand, or Thori near Birgunj, in Nepal.

It is one thing to concede Ayodhya’s Ram mandir as a fait accompli, and for the Muslim fold to maintain a sullen silence along with millions in the rest of the population who disagree, and quite another thing to concede that Ram was indeed born 869,000 years ago in the Treta Yug in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya.

Speaking of Treta Yug, there is the matter of historicity for both Oli and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to answer – in the 5th Century BCE (generally considered the Ramayan era) when human settlement had not spread from the Ganga-Jamuna doab eastward into the Ganga heartland, how could the nativity site be either the Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya or Thori Ayodhya? If it is spiritual conviction that guides you, then you can have it your way, either way, and why not let a thousand Ayodhyas bloom?

A Ram Lila performance. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia / AFP

Back in Baluwatar, Oli did not mention that the earliest surviving Ramayan document was a 11th-century palmleaf manuscript discovered in Kathmandu. But he did go on to remind the Bhanu Bhakta Jayanti gathering that Balmiki Ashram, too, was right there in Thori, where Sita went into her second exile and begat Lava and Kush, and where the sage would have conceptualised the epic.

Besides Sita, then, might we say that Balmiki, too, was born in Nepal – even considering that present-day India is full of Balmiki ashram sites? Sita herself was born to Raja Janak in the part of Mithila that is in the Nepal Tarai, though there is the claim that she was discovered in a field furrow in Sitamarhi in Bihar. Why stop there? How about Shiva with his penchant for the heights, and Parbati, daughter of the peaks, as her name suggests?

Nativity nationalism can get out of hand, and Nepalis can never seem to get enough of it. The long-time staple of Nepali pop-nationalism is to claim (the louder the better) that “Buddha was born in Nepal!” The message – rather the slogan – is ubiquitous, from t-shirts, tourism brochures, wall graffiti, political sloganeering to truck art.

Some exasperated Indians will retort: “Buddha may have been born in Nepal, but Buddhism was born in India, at the site of enlightenment in Bodh Gaya in Magadh, which is now in India.” To which the argumentative Nepali responds: “The formation of Buddhist philosophy actually began in Siddhartha Gautam’s brain before he left Kapilvastu, Nepal, at the late age of 29 to become an ascetic.”

The Ashoka pillar

The suggestion that Buddha was born in India is based on loose reference to ancient India in most instances, and ignorance in others. But the fact that the Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gautam was born in the grove of Lumbini in 623 BCE was authenticated by Emperor Ashok, who lugged a 30-tonne pillar all the way from Chunar, south of the Ganga near Benaras, and erected it here to make the point. So there is really no question that the Sakyamuni was born in what is today Nepal, which boosts the tourism and pilgrimage pamphlets and websites.

In Kathmandu, there is confusion about the very nature of the controversy among some brothers and sisters – for there is no argument at all about the birthplace of Sakyamuni Buddha, who incidentally was a historical figure unlike Ram. There is the Ashok Pillar and even a “marker stone” within the Mayadevi Temple said to point to the exact spot of birth. What controversy there is has to do with the location of Kapilvastu, ruled by Suddodhan and hometown of the Sakyamuni, which is claimed to be the fortified ruins of Tilaurakot by Nepal and Piprahawa by some Indian archaeologists.

Since there was no international border back then, open or otherwise, it may well be that Kapilvastu extended over the entire space, so let the archaeologists dig some more before we continue the quarrel.


Shiva and Ram

As long as we are talking about Ram, may we bring up the matter of his evident mysoginy (ref. his treatment of Sita, more than once) or his excessive moralism? Truth be told, the real Ram was probably an empathetic, affable person, warts and all, a mahatma rather than the elevated Maryadapurush. The supercilious and gender-insensitive traits were most likely added mythology by successive (male) sages. It seems you can’t even make fun of Ram anymore in India without first checking over your shoulder, and there may come a time when you cannot even depict him in a political cartoon.

It is unfortunate that the strait-laced Ram has been privileged over other more avuncular deities, even Vishnu of whom he is an incarnation, and Krishna, another Vishnu offshoot. Most importantly, the exclusive propitiation of Ram displaces the diversity and syncretism of the Hindu fold. From the bhakti movement to shakti-puja – there has been a silencing across the land as Ram advances politically and other deities retreat, and the historical cultural geography is turned on its head.

If there is one (spiritual if not juridicial) person who has been unjustly treated by the entire Ram Janmabhoomi upwelling, it is Shiva, the indulgent, amorous, fun-loving, substance imbibing and artistically inclined god. And we look askance as the kanphatta mahant of the Gorakhnath Math, currently also chief minister of Ayodhya’s Uttar Pradesh, essentially a Saivite, becomes the principal flag-bearer for Ram.

For Nepal, on the whole, Hinduism remains a culture to be lived rather than religion to be followed. The society, as yet, has not come under the thrall of political Hindutva, perhaps because Lord Shiva is the spiritual influencer of the realm, emanating energy from his perch at Pashupatinath Temple. Gorakhnath has commanded reverence since before the founding king of Gorkha (from “Gorakh”), as does his teacher Matsyendranath, whose guru was the sage Shiva himself. The devis Kali and Durga (avatar of Parbati), and various ajima goddesses, continue to direct affairs, as do the various Bhairavs and Barahis still command allegiance. Not to mention the entire Vajrayanic pantheon, its many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the pre-Buddhist Bon deities, as well as animist gods and forest goddesses.

Nepal’s seems very comfortable with this plethora of deities and near-deities that inhabit its earth and ether, much more exciting than the call of monotheistic Hindutva following a solitary Ram as defined for the masses by Ramanand Sagar’s television serial. Perhaps for these reasons, the horrific violence that accompanied the Babri Masjid demolition of December 1992 did not cross the open border into Nepal, barely a 100 kilometres away.

Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. Credit: Bezayoli123 / CC BY-SA

While Nepalis seem to have taken their prime minister’s vocal excess in stride, not so the societal mathaadhis of the south. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Ram Mandir Committee, the Shiv Sena and the mouthpiece Saamna roundly condemed Oli. Nonetheless, there was the studied silence of the sceptics of the Ram-nam Hindutva – political liberals, athiest leftists, and the tens of millions followers of other Hindu sects and panths.

The reaction of the Indian state to Oli’s unguided ruminations, too, seems muted, when you consider that he was challenging the central tenet of the ruling party’s ideology, which requires Ram to have been born in Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya.

There are three ways to read this forbearance: firstly, perhaps the Ram bhakts themselves concede in their hearts that they are dealing with ideology, not history. Secondly, what is one to do – blockade Nepal all over again? The third reading is that there may be satisfaction in the fact that a communist prime minister turned out to be a believer and that the number of heads of government who believe in Ram’s janma (wherever) had just doubled from one to two.

There is no doubt that Nepal’s prime minister was playing a dangerous game, tickling India’s dark underbelly (not a good idea, given the power imbalance). Oli has likened India to a dominant lion, lays claim to Ayodhya, and blames opponents within his own party of breathing the southern air. Amidst this verbal escalation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India keeps nonchalantly silent, letting others tear at their hair and hurl invectives at Kathmandu.

Perhaps Modi’s imperious silence is a ploy is to get Oli more agitated and less circumspect, to get him stuck deeper in the monsoon mud. But this diplomatic quietude does allow Modi the possibility of resuming contact with Oli at the appropriate time. Oli has two-and-a-half years of his term remaining, and Modi has four.

Both Modi and Oli evidently want to deliver Ram rajya to their citizens. But this will not come from diverting attention of the masses to either Uttar Pradesh Ayodhya or Thori Ayodhya. Besides, when both countries and both prime ministers seek ram rajya, why fight?

Kanak Mani Dixit is a writer and journalist, and founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.