By Saurabh Sharma and YP Rajesh
AYODHYA, India (Reuters) -Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the consecration on Monday of a grand temple to the Hindu god Lord Ram on a site believed to be his birthplace, in a celebratory event for the Hindu majority of the world’s most populous nation.
Hindu groups, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates have portrayed the temple opening as part of a Hindu renaissance after past centuries of subjugation by Muslim invaders and colonial powers.
The temple in the city of Ayodhya has been a contentious issue that helped catapult the BJP to prominence and power, and delivers on its 35-year-old promise, which analysts say should help Modi as he seeks a rare third term in an election due by May.
For decades, the temple site was bitterly contested by Hindus and minority Muslims, leading to nationwide riots in 1992 that killed 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, police say, after a Hindu mob destroyed a 16th-century mosque that had stood 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.
“Lord Ram has arrived. Our Ram lalla (child) will no longer live in a tent, our Ram lalla will reside in this divine temple,” Modi said, referring to earlier temporary structures which housed an old Ram idol.
“It marks the beginning of a new era,” he told an invitation-only gathering. “A nation rising by breaking the mentality of slavery … creates new history in this manner.”
Most opposition parties, including the main opposition Congress, skipped the inauguration saying it had been converted into a political event.
Rival Pakistan condemned the consecration, saying it indicated growing majoritarianism in India and urging New Delhi to ensure the safety of minorities including Muslims.
‘HAIL LORD RAM’
At the event, Modi chanted Hindu religious verses before placing flower petals at the feet of the deity and joined his palms in prayer, then bowed before it and circled a sacred flame, while outside, a military helicopter showered petals on the temple.
Traditional clarinets played devotional music during the rituals for the 51-inch (130-cm) tall, black stone deity that represents the god-king while monks, businessmen, sports and movie stars watched along with millions nationwide.
Thousands clad in saffron danced in the streets outside, waving saffron flags as they chanted religious slogans. Cries of “Jai Shri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Ram”, echoed across the city of 3 million and firecrackers were burst in celebration.
“This is a very proud moment for all Hindus,” said Mewaram Prajapati, who came from Modi’s western home state of Gujarat.
“Our lord suffered a lot. He stayed in tents, braved heat, cold and rains … Now our god will finally settle in his palace.”
Nearly 8,000 people were invited to Monday’s ceremony, while more than 10,000 police personnel guarded the city.
Security was also stepped up nationwide, especially in cities and towns that have suffered past Hindu-Muslim tension and strife.
The temple opens to the public on Tuesday and its management expects 100,000 visitors each day for the next few months.
The event 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 light.
“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.
“It is not just a moment where the state, which has pulled all its mighty power behind this event, ceases to be secular. It is also the moment where Hinduism ceases to be religious.”
(Writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Cawthorne)