Ayodhya should become India’s first cultural capital

A view of Ayodhya from Sarayu river.

On 5 August, the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir was laid down in Ayodhya. Ram Lalla will no longer be housed behind barricades in tarpaulin tents. He will finally have an abode adorned with elaborate mandapas and finely-carved walls, with each stone echoing the story of Lord Ram, his devotees and their struggles. Besides its religious importance, the construction of the Ram Mandir also ushers a new era for the city of Ayodhya and its significance in the cultural landscape of India.

Considered to be founded by Manu himself, Ayodhya is amongst the seven holiest cities of Bharatvarsha. Set on the banks of Sarayu, it is that sacred land where Ram set his first footsteps. It had been at the heart of his empire and was the seat of governance where the principles of Ram Rajya were laid down.

Beyond its association with Ram, this holy city is also dedicated to Shiva, Sita, Lakshman, Kosalaya and Hanuman — who is revered as the greatest devout of Ram and the guardian deity of Ayodhya. It is also the birthplace of five Jain Tirthankaras and has close association with Buddhism and Sikhism. Ayodhya, in its entirety, has bearings on the emotions, beliefs and faiths of millions of people who have kept it alive in their collective consciousness for millennia. The city, however, was also witness to ruthless destruction, desecration and violence in the medieval times. While the destruction of the temple at Lord Ram’s janmasthan could not erase the memory of the deity, it diminished Ayodhya’s ancient grandeur. Even in independent India, the city was largely reduced to a legal and political battleground. However, with the winds of change blowing once again, Ayodhya’s glory is waiting to be restored after a hiatus of five centuries. To give further impetus to this much awaited resurgence, India must consider turning Ayodhya into a cultural capital.

The idea, first conceptualised and executed in 1985 in Europe, is to designate selected cities as capitals of culture for a period of one year. The underlying rationale is to drive culture-centric development that primarily includes promotion and preservation of heritage and local traditions. It is also aimed at fostering a sense of belonging towards a common space amongst diverse communities. This in turn creates avenues for enhancing cities’ national and international profiles as centres of cultural diversity, community assimilation and destinations for tourism.

 Across the length and breadth of India, there are cities that can be designated as cultural capitals, owing to their rich heritage, histories and authentic experiences they offer to visitors. Designating cultural capitals on a rotational basis will not only highlight the diverse cultural fabric of India but also spur development and innovations. It will lead to urban rejuvenation, employment generation and unlock the potential of innumerable artists and creative entrepreneurs. A coordinated strategy to transform cities as cultural capitals will also ensure a more consolidated approach and cooperation between various departments of the state and the Central government such as culture, education, tourism and urban redevelopment. Cultural capitals will be a manifestation of traditional aesthetics, a complement to people-friendly spaces and tourist spots and equipped with the most essential and technologically-advanced infrastructure.

 Having Ayodhya — a city where centuries-old traditions continue till date — as the first cultural capital of India will be a tribute to the city’s religious, cultural and civilisational significance. This will also enhance the city’s appeal in the eyes of locals and visitors, once again restoring its global stature. Towards this end, there are three areas that need focus: Improving infrastructure, promoting the city as a centre of learning, and strengthening cultural diplomacy with countries that share a civilisational connection. Efforts in the realm of infrastructure development are already underway, with the Uttar Pradesh government announcing a special budget for this purpose. This includes construction of an airport, improving road connectivity, building hotels and tourist centres, and launching several beautification initiatives. 

Ayodhya can be developed as a centre of learning and the performing arts, dedicated to the study and promotion of the traditions associated with the Ramayana in India and across the world. From governance to even areas such as botany and geography, the Ramayana offers immense learning that holds relevance till date. The UP government supported the “Encyclopedia of Ramayana” project, which seeks to document the epic’s tangible and intangible legacy across the world, and is therefore a welcome step in this direction. Complementary to this project, the government can also plan to build libraries and museums in Ayodhya that house physical and digital repositories of such knowledge, which will be a gift for posterity. 

 As a cultural capital, Ayodhya can greatly amplify India’s soft power, with Ramayana diplomacy at its core. The influence of the Ramayana is most evident in Southeast Asia. Kakawin in Indonesia and Kohn, a masked dance form based on Thailand’s national epic Ramakein, are examples of Ramayana’s cultural imprints on these countries. Ayodhya also holds a special place in the hearts of many South Koreans, who trace their lineage to Queen Heo Hwang-ok, who is believed to belong to the city. To mark this civilisational connection, Ayodhya and the South Korean city of Gimhae signed a sister-city agreement in 2001. 

Another city which bears close semblance with Ayodhya is the city and erstwhile kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand. The centrality that Ram and Ramayana hold in Thai culture is not just evident in its arts and naming of cities, but also in the fact that the Thai king continues to adopt the title of Rama. Even the coronation ceremony of the Thai king is done in accordance to Hindu rituals. A potential sister-city agreement between Ayodhya and Ayutthaya would go a long way in cementing ties between the two cities as well as countries. Through such partnerships, Ayodhya can be a hub of cross-cultural learnings, facilitating regular exchange of delegations of scholars and performing artists.

Ayodhya, which translates into a “place without conflicts”, marks a civilisational reawakening and can pave the way for many other holy cities across India to be resurrected to their former glories. Designating the city as the first cultural capital of India will be a celebration of the millennia-old Indic civilisation that has been kept alive in the collective consciousness of millions of people.

  Arunima Gupta is Principal at the Network of Indian Cultural Enterprises. She is an alumnus of Leiden University, the Netherlands and Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. Prior to joining NICE, Arunima headed the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Relations at Vision India Foundation.