Building a temple's future
AYODHYA, India (CNN) -- For over a decade Ram Naress has been patiently hand carving some of the most controversial sculptures in the world.
With just a few small chisels the stonemason delicately picks lavish patterns out of sandstone pillars that Hindu hardliners plan to use in a temple dedicated to his god-king namesake Rama, on the site of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya.
Naress works against a violent backdrop. Ayodhya has been in the spotlight for decades, with the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque precipitating a period of religious bloodshed across India, in which 2,000 people died.
In recent weeks tension between Hindus and Muslims has again escalated, with hundreds of deaths from riots as both sides clash over the future of the religious site.
The violence spread from the western state of Gujurat, where rioting was sparked when a group of Muslim extremists torched a train killing 58 mostly Hindu activists who were returning from Ayodhya to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh where security forces are gathering at the disputed site.
The site is one of the most heavily guarded areas in the country, protected by razor wire and metal barriers which force all visitors -- who on normal days appear outnumbered by security personnel -- into single file. Everyone must undergo at least three separate friskings and all belts and shoes have to be removed.
Devotees are kept well back from the small makeshift temple under a tent where the Babri Masjid once stood.
Appeals for peace
India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, appealing for peace, has said this week's violence in Gujarat had damaged India's reputation in the world. He appealed for national unity and said he was confident the country would be able to overcome the crisis in the same way it had done with several other crises in the past.
The need for reassurance is strong. A March 15 deadline for construction of the temple looms has been set by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) party who were in part responsible for the destruction of the mosque in 1992.
Central to the VHP plans are the pillars that Naress, together with 50 other artisans, has been working on seven days a week -- with monthly visits to his family -- in exchange for about 100 rupees ($2) a day.
In fact Naress says he was even at work on the day the mosque was ripped down brick by brick a couple of kilometers away in the small temple-filled Indian town.
A temple is "the right of Hindus" says Naress, and with over a hundred pillars -- each taking up to two years to carve -- piled up in the workshop grounds, some sprouting lichen with age, he is hopeful building will now proceed despite the government appealing for all parties to await a court ruling on the disputed site.
"It has to happen ... everything is complete and we have given the government a lot of time to decide."
Vajpayee, mindful of pleasing coalition partners, has appealed for a delay in building the temple. But critics say he has been too slow to rein in Hindu hardliners to ease communal tensions.
Time for action
Babri Masjid Action Committee convener Zafaryab Jilani says they have petitioned the Supreme Court to ensure that authorities act.
"The last resort will be that we stop them physically but we do not want to declare that situation at the moment which will cause tension which is the goal of the VHP."
Just days before the violence flared again Mahant Ramchandra Paramhans, head of the temple building committee, was defiantly holding court near the workshop, saying he did not care for the opinion of politicians, the judiciary or Muslims.
"I am ready to face the consequences," he bellowed hoarsely, a striking figure with his long matted white hair and beard.
Drawing parallels with India's freedom struggle against British rule he says that he does not favor any hinsa (violence) but argues that it is a matter of what is right. "I am not concerned with any court," he thunders.
Yet ordinary citizens in the town seem weary of the fight. A January poll by news magazine The Week of 5,000 people in Uttar Pradesh, found that while 49 percent would like to see a permanent temple only two percent regarded it as an important issue.
Meena Devi who runs a near-deserted stall selling offerings for worshippers at the town's many temples agrees, having seen business plummet.
Yes, she would like to see a temple, but: "the first thing is sales so I can feed my children, what will I get from a temple?"
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