Indian devotees splurge on jets, gold idols as Hindu temple opens

By Saurabh Sharma and Tanvi Mehta

AYODHYA, India (Reuters) – The private jet parking lots at airports near the Indian city of Ayodhya are full and the shops have run out of gold-plated idols, as wealthy devotees prepare for the invite-only opening ceremony of one of Hinduism’s holiest temples.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani are among the 8,000 or so attendees at Monday’s inauguration event for the Ram Temple, which devotees believe is built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, a sacred Hindu deity.

The construction of the temple, which began after the Supreme Court awarded the site to Hindus in 2019 more than two decades after a Hindu mob razed a mosque there, triggering deadly riots, fulfils a key campaign promise of Modi and his Hindu nationalist party.

The opening ceremony, organised by the trust that built the temple, comes months before a national election which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is widely expected to win, and the who’s who of India is expected to be there.

“It’s become like a status symbol to be invited to this event,” said Rajan Mehra, CEO of Indian luxury charter service Club One Air, adding that his fleet, which includes the Dassault Falcon 2000, is booked to make multiple trips next week.

Officials estimate 100 private jets will descend on Jan. 22 on Ayodhya airport, filling it to capacity. Slots at Varanasi, a city around four hours away by car, are also full, as are jet spaces in Gorakhpur airport, which is a three-hour drive away.

Mehra did not disclose the price of the charters, but private jet booking website JetSetGo lists the price of a Mumbai-Gorakhpur return flight on a Falcon 2000 jet with nine passengers on board at about $74,000.

The ceremony is also giving jewellers and gold traders a boost.

Some retailers say gold and gold-plated statues of Lord Ram and temple replicas – priced at between 30,000 ($361) and 220,000 rupees ($2,647) – are so popular that they have run out of stock. Some items were imported from Thailand, they added.

“Customers are asking for them for gifting and for keeping them at homes. There is a waiting period of two weeks,” said Baldev Singh, a manager at HS Jewellers in Lucknow city.

The temple has already ushered an economic boom in Ayodhya, set to emerge as a pilgrimage hotspot for India’s 1.1 billion Hindus, and property prices have skyrocketed.

This week, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan bought a 10,000 square foot (929 square meter) plot for $1.7 million, government officials said, roughly nine times the average land prices in this dusty city just a few years ago.

The plot is part of the House of Abhinandan Lodha (HoABL) luxury development which includes a spa and a pool.

“There’s huge demand for the project from domestic professionals, non-resident Indians. This is unlike any other demand,” HoABL Chairman Abhinandan Lodha told Reuters.

“People are betting on economic prosperity but there’s also emotional attachment to be part of the Ayodhya story.”

(This story has been refiled to add dropped word ‘return’ in paragraph 7)

(Editing by Aditya Kalra and Miral Fahmy)