Eleven pm, Dec. 22, 1949. Moments before Abhiram Das stood at the threshold of the temple at Ramghat, Ayodhya slept in peace.
Although it was barely 11 in the night, the township, located at the edge of Faizabad, had passed into deep slumber. The night was cold, and a layer of still air covered Ayodhya like a blanket. Feeble strains of Ramakatha wafted in from the Ramachabutara. Perhaps the devotees keeping the story of Lord Rama alive were getting tired and sleepy. The sweet murmur of the Sarayu added to the deceptive calm.
The temple at Ramghat on the northern edge of Ayodhya was not very old. The initiative to erect it had been taken just a decade ago. But the enthusiasm did not appear to have persisted, and the construction had been halted halfway.
The structure remained small in size and the absence of the desperately required final touches made it look crude but for the grand, projecting front facade and the rooms on both sides of the garbhagriha. In the backyard was a mango grove, unkempt, untended. About a kilometre away, River Sarayu, the lifeline of Ayodhya, flowed along with sandy stretches on both sides of its shoreline.
Abhiram Das stumbled as he climbed the half-built brick steps, lost in the shadows of the dimly lit lamp hanging on the wall, but recovered and entered the side room of the temple. The Ramghat temple was the prized possession of Abhiram Das, who himself lived a kilometre away in a one-room tenement that formed part of the complex of Hanumangarhi, a fortress-like structure in the heart of Ayodhya.
Within the precincts of its imposing walls, there was an old, magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. The circular bastions on each of the four corners of Hanumangarhi enhanced its structural elegance and artistic grandeur. Around the fortress and as part of the complex, there were rooms for sadhus, a Sanskrit pathshala and a huge, narrow stretch, where there was a gaushala, beside which Abhiram Das lived, close to the singhdwar of Hanumangarhi.
That, however, was only a night shelter for him. In his waking hours, Abhiram Das had innumerable engagements, and the temple at Ramghat always figured prominently among them. Not just because it was under his control, but because it housed his three younger brothers and four cousins, most of whom were enrolled with the Sanskrit pathshala in Hanumangarhi.
Two of his cousins, Yugal Kishore Jha and Indushekhar Jha, as well as Abhiram’s younger brother, Upendranath Mishra, were students of Maharaja Intermediate College in Ayodhya. Abhiram Das’s relatives lived in the rooms adjacent to the garbhagriha and survived on offerings made by devotees to Lord Rama. They cooked for Abhiram as well.
Thrice a day, they would carry his food to his room, braving the scorching sun in summer, icy winds in winter, and downpours during the rainy season. Abhiram’s closeness to his extended family was unexpected in a sadhu. The ascetic in him often cautioned against such human weaknesses, but it had always been beyond him to transcend them.
Yet, visiting Ramghat temple that night was not part of his original plan as he set out to install the idol of Lord Rama inside the sixteenth-century mosque. Nor were his brothers and cousins used to seeing him at this odd hour in his second home. For, like any other sadhu, he was in the habit of going to bed and getting up early.
Indeed, it was awkward for Abhiram Das too. He had to change his original plan owing to the sudden disappearance of his friend Ramchandra Das Paramhans, who was supposed to accompany him in his surreptitious mission. Abhiram and Paramhans were old friends. They shared a common ideology—both were attached to the All India Hindu Mahasabha (while Abhiram was an enthusiastic member of the party, Paramhans was its city president) and occupied a position somewhere right of the centre in this political outfit that had come under immense pressure following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse.
According to the plan, Paramhans was to arrive at the Hanumangarhi residence of Abhiram Das by 9 pm, after his meal. They were to go together to the Babri Masjid, where another sadhu, Vrindavan Das, was to join them with an idol of Lord Rama.
Their entry into the Babri mosque had to be before midnight when there would be a change of guard.
The trio was then supposed to go inside the 16th-century mosque, plant the idol below its central dome and keep the deserted place of worship under their control till the next morning when a larger band of Hindu communalists would pour in for support. They had been strictly instructed that their entry into the mosque had to be completed at any cost before midnight—the time when there would be a change of guard at the gate of the mosque.
Every detail had been planned meticulously, and everything seemed to be moving accordingly, till Ramchandra Das Paramhans vanished from the scene. Forty-two years later, when none of those involved in planting the idol was alive to contradict him, Paramhans sought to appropriate history. “I am the very man who put the idol inside the masjid,” Paramhans declared in a news report that appeared in the New York Times on Dec. 22, 1991.
However, on that fateful night of 1949 and for a few days thereafter, Paramhans went missing from the scene in Ayodhya. Indushekhar Jha who, together with Yugal Kishore Jha, followed Abhiram Das into the mosque, had this to say about Paramhans: “I saw Paramhans in the evening (of Dec. 22, 1949). Thereafter, he was not seen in Ayodhya for the next three days. Yet it was he who took maximum advantage from that incident.”
Back in those uncertain moments of 1949, Abhiram Das waited at his Hanumangarhi residence for Ramchandra Das Paramhans till around 10pm, after which he left in search of his friend.
Paramhans lived in a temple in the Ramghat locality of Ayodhya. It was quite close to the one inhabited by Abhiram Das’s brothers and cousins. But Paramhans was not to be found there. This made Abhiram rather less confident of accomplishing the task he had set out for. The strength he had was that of faith, without any rationale to go with it. But as the moment approached, the magnitude of the job, as well as its possible repercussions unfolded with a clarity that was missing till then.
Wanting to prepare for any eventuality, he decided to give appropriate instructions to his brothers and cousins at the temple in Ramghat before proceeding on his journey towards the Babri Masjid. This is what had taken Abhiram Das to the temple at Ramghat.
That night, therefore, was not just any night for Abhiram Das. The plan to gain control of the Babri Masjid was unlike any other of his earlier ones to capture temples and lands for personal aggrandisement. The probable returns this time could be much more significant. He did not want to take any chances and wanted to put the issue of succession in order before proceeding with his plan.
As he entered the room occupied by his brothers and cousins in the temple at Ramghat that night, he was wearing the usual vairagi attire—a white cotton wrap around his waist, topped by a loose white shirt. His salt-and-pepper beard and long, unkempt grey hair with a dash of white across the front made him look distinguished.
While the occupants of the room were getting out of bed, Abhiram Das kept pacing up and down, quivering—apparently with the strength of the emotions stirring within him. In one hand, he held the long bamboo staff, while the other instinctively fumbled with the beads in the mala-jhola.
“Listen to me carefully. I am going and may never return.”
As they got up, he asked his younger brother Upendranath Mishra to hold the hand of Yugal Kishore Jha, the eldest of his cousins there, and said, “Listen to me carefully. I am going and may never return. If something happens to me, if I don’t return till morning, Yugal will be my successor and in charge of this temple.”
But Abhiram Das said nothing, nor did he look at anyone. Having put the succession issue in order, he was ready to resume his mission. He rushed out of the room and then the temple, and with rapid strides, dissolved into the darkness. His cousins Yugal Kishore Jha and Indushekhar Jha followed him, completely clueless about what was happening.
It took them hardly ten minutes to reach the spot. As they approached the open area near the Ramachabutara, another vairagi emerged from the dark corner of the outer courtyard of the Babri Masjid. It was Vrindavan Das, a Ramanandi vairagi of the Nirvani Akhara, who lived in a thatched hut near the gate of the 16th century mosque. A heavy cotton bag hung from his shoulder, and there was a small idol of Rama Lalla in his hands.
Abhiram Das took the idol from Vrindavan Das and grasping it with both his hands, walked past him—as if he were not there—towards the wall that separated the inner courtyard around the Babri Masjid from the outer courtyard that contained the Ramachabutara. Vrindavan Das tried to ask him something in whispers, but Abhiram Das, appearing calmer now, once again took no notice of him.
Abhiram Das stood at the end of the pathway close to the inner courtyard, staring at the walls—his sole hurdle. Then, apparently addressing Vrindavan Das, he said, “Maharaj…” Vrindavan Das said nothing, just moved closer to him, eager not to miss any word of instruction that might come his way.
“Maharaj,” said Abhiram Das again, this time coaxingly. He turned his head to look at him and said, “Follow me.” With these words, he held the idol firmly and began climbing the wall. Soon, he was straddling it.