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India counts down to opening of grand Ram temple in Ayodhya


AYODHYA, India, Jan 22 (Reuters) – Thousands of Indians danced in the streets, wearing saffron garments and waving saffron flags as they chanted religious slogans ahead of Monday’s opening of a grand temple to the Hindu god Lord Ram on a site they believe to be his birthplace.

The ceremony in the northern city of Ayodhya is being projected as a historic event for the Hindu majority of the world’s most populous nation, as Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s party bids for a rare third term in elections due by May.

“The construction of the Ram Temple is an instrument to unite the country,” Modi said in a message published on newspaper front pages ahead of a spectacle that will be watched by millions of Indians at home and abroad.

The temple, which delivers on a key 35-year-old promise by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been a contentious political issue that helped catapult the party to prominence and power.

Its site was bitterly contested for decades, with both Hindus and Muslims claiming it in a dispute that sparked nationwide riots in 1992, killing 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, after a Hindu mob destroyed the 16th century mosque built there.

India’s Hindus say the site is the birthplace of Lord Ram, and was holy to them long before Muslim Mughals razed a temple at the spot to build the Babri Masjid, or mosque, in 1528.

In 2019, the Supreme Court handed over the land to Hindus and ordered allotment of a separate plot to Muslims where construction of a new mosque is yet to begin.

Monday’s main event is set to start at 12:20 p.m. (0650 GMT) and run for about 40 minutes, when a blindfold on the 51-inch (130-cm) tall, black stone deity will be removed amid rituals finishing consecration ceremonies begun more than a week ago.

Nearly 8,000 people are expected to attend the invitation-only ceremony, from top business leaders to movie stars and sportspersons.

More than 10,000 police personnel have fanned out across the city of 3 million people to provide security and keep out gatecrashers.

The temple opens to the public on Tuesday and its management expects at least 100,000 visitors a day for the first few months.

The consecration has ignited religious fervour across India with many states declaring a holiday on Monday, stock markets shut and homes and businesses illuminated after Modi called for it to be marked as another Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

“Just in sheer magnitude … this event has almost no precedent in history. It is a watershed moment,” commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

Writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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