J. Daniel White

Department of Religious Studies

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Charlotte, North Carolina 28223



The present study examines the traditional Indian concept of dynastic capital as an object of tirthayatra, in which the capital's political function as seat of the raja is hardly distinguishable from its sacred one as tirtha , and suggests that both the colonial design of Delhi as tirtha--though unintentional--and the contemporary VHP-RSS-BJP use of yatra to Delhi as a quasi-theocratic ritual to gain political power are not at all a symbolic anomaly in India's l ong history.



As in many other traditional societies, in India also a political capital often served as a tirthayatra where people could have darsana of both the raja and the hierophany of the raja's patron deity or some other deva in a vimana built to demonstrate the bhakti of the raja, enhance his karma and/or establish his role as cakravartin. That is,the capital and the journey to it and within it in Indian history often has suggested t he role of the raja as the embodiment of dharma, both cosmic and personal and therefore by extension"capital" has become what one may call a horizontal model for vertical or transcendent reality. This study will argue that not onl y were ancient capitals tirthayatra, but that New Delhi--both intentionally and unintentionally--has been perceived as a tirtha toward which humans make yatra in hopes that tirthaphala (meritorious results) will occur both in c osmic and political terms. This perception then helps explain how much of the rhetoric and actions of recent political parties such as the BJP in their yatras so aptly have legitimized their political objectives as a sacred cause by making Delhi t he very horizontal model of transcendent expectations, an attribute which has resonated so well in India's past and present. In a real sense these seemingly political (i.e., secular) yatras have laid claim to more than political power. In substan ce they have suggested that their bharat pradaksina tirthayatras lead ultimately to tirthaphala not unlike those expected when visiting and claiming a new identity in more traditional sacred spaces.


Assuming Bhardwaj's (1987, 353) several tirtha categories of jalatirtha (a site where water is sacred, e.g., the Ganga or Manasovar Lake), mandirtirtha (a structural sacred site) or ksetra (a field or grounds), what is a t stake for the yatrabhakta who sets himself or herself toward such a tirtha and how does this connect to the idea of capital as tirthayatra? First, embarking on a yatra is a recognition of the tirtha as embodying both significance as place and state of mind. Tirtha is a place where a hierophany has occurred (Eliade), where space has been set aside distinct from all other space around it. This space may become signifi cant because of an external transformative event that defines the sacrality of the space (e.g., a mythic story, the discovery of a sacred object, the confluence of water, etc.), Or, space may become significant because an internal or ritualistic event de fines its sacrality (cf., Kramrisch's discussion of rituals that prepare a ground for a prasada, mandir or vimana, 1-18). Tirtha is also a state of mind which returns the yatraka to consideration of a tim e and place that then reorients and transforms the individual because of the tirthayatra they make. The individual recognizes the tirthaphala or meritorious deeds that pilgrimage offers and the attendant prasadam or grace that at the very least absolves them of papa or adharma, promising them upward transmigration in samsara and, if the site is auspicious enough, may assure them of moksa or freedom from samsara. While in its most explicit sense, on e does not think of a political capital as a place where a hierophany has occurred, in the Indian tradition the capital is the locus of the raja whose task it is to maintain dharma in the rastra or kingdom. As his consecration as raja also involves the prasadam of the gods, then traditionally the king became essentially the embodiment of dharma, i.e., the embodiment of the sacred value of order in the kingdom.

Second, tirtha affirms this place and state of mind in terms of power, order, and presence. As power, the tirtha establishes a special authority in the life of the yatraka by insuring for that indiv idual an enhanced status in this life as a result of what will be done, is being done and has been done in view of the intent and actualizing of the tirthayatra, i.e., the power of tirthaphala. As order, the yatraka bel ieves that by attending to the tirtha, one is doing their dharma—that is, "what they ought to do." By doing their dharma the resulting karma gives order to their cosmos, and ultimately the transcendent relationship that thereby removes them from this cosmos of samsara. Moreover, to set out on a journey to a tirtha, one identifies the essence of the sacred in a particular place and the efficacy of the presence of the sacred in that place and for their life. By making the yatra then the yatraka engages in a pradaksina that ritually allows them symbolically to encompasses the whole sacred cosmos: Meru, Vaikuntha, the gods or goddesses themselves, etc. By making a jou rney to the presence rather than expecting the deva to come to them, the yatraka demonstrates their subservience to the deity and further enhances their status as bhakta. By virtue of his status, the raja also em bodies power, dharma and presence and therefore the locus of the raja is also a locus of these qualities in traditional India.


Given these overwhelming odds for the powerful transformative nature of a tirtha and the consequent efficacy of a tirthayatra, it is no wonder that not infrequently the geographical center of a raja's political rule and the geo graphy of tirtha coincided. Among the seven traditionally sacred cities, which by their nature as tirtha embody a transcendent model of power, all but one also served at one time or another as a capital, either as the capital of a deity wh o was king or of an entire dynasty: Kasi (with its maharaja); Avanti or Ujjain (capital both in the 6th century BCE and during a portion of the reign of the Guptas); Ayodhya (the capital of the avatara Rama, of Kosala, and possibly the seco nd Gupta capital); Mathura (the Kusanas); Dvaraka (the capital built by the avatara Krsna); and Kanchi (a pre-Pallava capital and the center of Pallava power). In the traditional list of the seven sacred cities the lone exception in the dual rol e as capital is Maya or Hardiwar. As place and state of mind, then each of these cities has represented both the power, dharma, and presence of both gods and humans. And in these six that have been capitals, one may also argue further--based on Puranas or other mythical foundations--that the site was tirtha in the minds of many prior to its association with political power and presence.

Before proceeding to the argument of Delhi functioning as a tirthayatra (though not noted in any tirtha listing,) brief mention may be made of two of the many cities that were ancient capitals-cum-tirthayatra as examples of the form to indicate the explicit power they possessed as sacred and political tirtha, and by extension a place for yatra. One of these, Kanchipuram, as has been indicated, is universally-recognized in the epics, Puranas and othe r tirtha literature as one of the seven sacred cities. The other one that is noted here, Udaipur and the association of the Mewar dynasty with the Eklingji temple, is less well known. Moreover, while it is not universally associated with the noti on of tirtha, it is a place of tirthayatra for Rajasthanis and the Maharana of Udaipur makes yatra weekly to Eklingji on behalf of his people. Bhardwaj (81) also includes it as one of a number of sites mentioned in three modern sourc es. Both Kanchi and the Eklingji temple at Udaipur offer some clues to the nature of the dynamics of the sacred and the raja for purposes of this study and provide clues to the functioning of capital as tirtha.

KANCHIPURAM. Its claims as a site visited by Siddhartha and four previous Buddhas early on gave pre-Pallava Kanchipuram a status in Indian mythical reference as a tirtha, encouraged Asoka to build a stupa there, and persuaded the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Hiuen Tsang, and others to visit the city (cf., Raman, ix). In the same pre-Pallava period, Kanchipuram distinguished itself as the site of a ghatika or sacred center of Vedic studies (Raman, 1). Beginning with the first great Pallava king, Mahendravarman, Kanchipuram became a center of both art, literature and sacred spaces as he developed rock-cut and free-standing temples for both Vaisnavas and Saivas (Mahalingam, 64 ff.) Or, more specifically, they became the s ite of murti, the most distinctive characteristic for Southern tirtha. In the late sixth century CE, the mother of the Pallava king, Simhavisnu, constructed a Jaina temple for the Yavanika Sangha Jainas in Kanchi, enhancing the sacred statu s of the city for yet a fourth Indian tradition. A century later, the Pallava king, Rajasimha (i.e., Narasimhavarman II), who constructed the great Kailasanatha temple as an important tirthayatra for Saivas, is proclaimed "Dhanasura", "he w ho goes to war only in order to procure the means for gifts," to construct temples and give gifts to the devas. This more than suggests that his political and military objectives were stimulated by his wish to construct numerous temples both in Ka nchipuram, Mammalapuram and elsewhere (Mahalingam, 111-115), thereby further enhancing his capital as a tirthayatra. Therefore, the presence of Vaisnava, Saiva, Buddhist and Jaina sites in Kanchipuram enhanced the city's preeminence as a mahati rtha and the presence of the raja there commingled sacred and political power. While its economic status as a textile center gave it economic power, its centrality as an axis mundi and tirthayatra accentuated for the Pallavas and their Tamil subjects a capital with more than a horizontal reference. The awareness of Kanchi as a transcendent model enhanced the political power centered in the city as well and lent both political and sacred status to its kings: a status that held f or over three hundred years politically and continues to this day as more than merely one among many tirthayatra. It is considered the "Kasi of the South". As with many of the tirthayatra in the South, its sacred sites are most often m andirtirtha and the concentration of its sacrality rests on the presence of murti more than water. Therefore, Kanchipuram's status becomes what one may call a "constructed" or structural tirtha by virtue of the pratika or murti of the devas installed and dwelling at the place, thereby granting it its sacred power. Water is present in the temple tanks adjacent to temples and is considered to be connected to the Ganga itself, but it is the ma ndir that imbue the sacred places of Kanchi with their peculiar status. Therefore, one may argue that while in mythical terms Kanchi may have been recognized as a tirtha even before the murti were installed thereby granting it its enhan ced status, those kings who erected mandir and consecrated murti in the city endowed the place with its recognizable sacrality. In turn, the rajas of Kanchi enhanced their political power and their karma by insuring that their capital also functioned as tirthayatra. By such means, potentially the citizenry were able to have darsana of both murti and raja during their yatra and felt themselves fortunate twice over.

UDAIPUR. While Udaipur itself, the royal seat of the Mewar dynasty since the mid-sixteenth century, has never been considered a tirtha in the usual sense, its intimate association with the Eklingji temple at Nagda [ten miles n orth of Udaipur] in effect merges Udaipur with this more ancient seat of government in the region which is the site of a recognized tirtha, the Lakulisa Saiva Eklingji temple (cf. Pinhey, 8). The myth that joins Eklingji with the Mewars is that wh ile tending cattle a youth, Bappa Rawul (8th century CE), is accused by villagers of stealing the milk of a cow for his own use. How else could one explain the cow coming home dry every day after being in Bappa's care? Despite his denial, he continued t o be under suspicion by the villagers. Watching the cow carefully for several days, he saw the cow go to a small recess in the valley and spontaneously pour out her milk from her udders onto some shrubs. Under these shrubs sat the hermit, Harita, medit ating on Siva and his lingam. When Bappa showed homage to Harita, the saint taught the shepherd how to express his bhakti to Siva. Because of Bappa's devotion, the saint, Harita, then conferred on the shepherd the honor of "Vice Regent" of Eklingji on earth (Tod, Annals, 184). He relinquished his brahman status to become a ksatriya to rule as Siva's representative on earth (Pinhey, 4).

Though no evidence exists today of the erection of the first Eklingji temple (Jain, 215) by Bappa and the acharyas of the Lakulisa Saiva tradition (Pinhey, 4), it is evident that even when the Mewars moved in the mid-13th century from Nagda to the fortress at Chittor (Pinhey, 9), they continued to revere Eklingji as their patron, and they as his regent. A late 15th century inscription indicates that though he ruled from Chittor, the Mewar ruler, Rai Mal built the temple that stands at Nagda today, and remains the center of religious praxis both in the life of the Maharana of Mewar and the people of Udaipur. Moreover, even now, the head of the Mewar dynasty, alone among the former rajas of Rajputana, bears the title of Maharana, i.e., chief among rajas while all others are merely maharajas--as the Mewar king is seen as the most devout and therefore the first among equals among all of India's royalty. The Mewari ruler, alone, is recognized as having something close to divine s tatus (that is, as descendent of the sun deva, Surya). To this day, every Monday evening, the descendent of the royal Mewars, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, makes a tirthayatra to Eklingji to do puja himself on behalf of the people of Me war. This, in itself, is a rare act as the Mewars--now ksatriyas--legitimately continue to call on their prior status as brahmans to make this tirthayatra to perform puja, not normally the temple privilege of ksatriyas. And, in public pro cession when he goes forth, he follows behind the image of Eklingji taking second place to the deity, as Siva's vice regent. Therefore, when the people in public ceremony have darsana of god, it is followed immediately by darsana of the Maharana, his vice regent. Moreover, even by having darsana of the Maharana alone, it is as if one is having darsana of Eklingji as well. Or, to contextualize this in terms of the schema suggested earlier, power, d harma (or order) and presence of the sacred is joined with the power of the Maharana to make Udaipur, the royal seat of the Maharana itself, a tirtha to which one may make yatra in order to have darsana of both Eklingji and his respected regent and descendent of Surya. Moreover, the tirthaphala of the Maharana's tirthayatra weekly to Eklingji is then conferred upon the subjects of Mewar who share in the prasadam effected by the Maharana's yatra to the Eklingji temple.


While Kanchipuram and Udaipur can lay claim to the intimacy of political and sacred space by attention to myth, the presence of divine murti, and the incorporation of those elements in the lives of the rulers of their respective dynasties, n o such claim seemingly can be made about New Delhi. As one studies the history of the design and construction of this modern, well-planned urban environment and observes the activity that occurs within its precincts, no obvious locus or intentionality of tirtha exaggerates itself nor are either a tirthayatra or its resulting tirthaphala readily transparent in the lives of those who work within or visit the city. Nevertheless, while no one has ever intimated this possibility, I would like to argue that despite the Indian Constitution's serious protestations of secularization, both the city's design and the emphasis of recent political discourse provide for New Delhi the decisive elements of a tirthayatra and effect tirthap hala in the lives of those who make yatra to its environs.

When George V announced at the 1911 Coronation Durbar in Delhi that the center of governing Britain's largest and most prestigious colony would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi and a new city would come up, neither colonial lord nor colonized subj ect could imagine the symbolic significance of this move. True, the move inland located the capital in the upper center of the Indian Empire in order to ease the administration of a vast territory by the colonial government, using reasons not unknown to previous rulers (cf. Thompson, 109f.) The site also suggested to the British a powerful sense of historical affinity with previous capitals at the site under the Pandavas at Indraprastha and under the Muslims from the late 12th century C.E. But, what th e British government could never have imagined--nor even intended--was the creation of a urban plan and a structural architecture that embodied the very elements of both jalatirtha, mandirtirtha and ksetratirtha and provides an unques tionable sense of place and state of mind in the lives of Indians, while focusing as well on New Delhi as a reminder of sacred power, dharma and presence.

To consider New Delhi as tirtha in terms of place and state of mind in the Indian symbolic and political landscape, one need only turn first to the history of the design of the city. At no point in their deliber ations or designs did either of the major designers, Sir Edwin Lutyens or Sir Herbert Baker, expect that their glorious imperial model would mimic in powerfully reminiscent ways the whole range of intentional tirthas that spread themselves out alon g India's yatramarga. The uneasy relationship that existed between these two men even questions at times how anything significant was accomplished at all. They disagreed over the how much European architecture should be used and/or modified in I ndian conditions (Stamp). They disagreed over the central site of government and the location of buildings on that site. Behind each other’s backs they were often lobbying for preference of their own ideas over the other's.

Lutyens strong ethnocentric prejudices forced him to argue against the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge (and Baker) and for a grand European design (Letters, 274). In letters to his wife his obvious prejudices began to affect his perspective on the de sign of the city. "...the sly slime of the Eastern mind is repulsive." (Letters, 273) "...and Lor! how ugly everything Indian and Anglo-Indian is--it is most remarkable." (Letters, 278); and "Indian architecture is to make a far-reached simile, what a Surrey cottage ornee is to Westminster Abbey. A peasant's house to Chartres and a cave dwelling to the Parthenon" (Letters, 281) . On a visit to Indore's Daly College, built for sons of Indian princes, Lutyens remarked, "I asked to see the boys, dear little nigger chaps, and they were at breakfast. Some without clothes and all without shoes, sitting on their haunches eating a curious conglomeration of food out of plates with their fingers" (Letters, 274). After visiting V aranasi, he wrote to Lady Emily in London, "After seeing Mrs. B. [Annie Besant] we went into town to view the temples. Oh my! the dirt, filth and the impossibility of bull, cow and monkey worship and oh the stench and the hideousness of everything. Bar barism in terms of evil smelling slime. A Juggernaut car to squash the whole thing seemed logical and desirable! I had a kindly feeling to the mild Hindu but Benares, as holy city, is filth and a rotten filth almost beyond belief" (Letters, 291). While admiring Buddhist stupas and their railings (Letters, 292) which he would later incorporate into the design of the Viceroy's House, he laments to his wife that "...India has never had any real architecture, and if you may not graft the West out here, she never will have any" (Hussey, 280). On Lutyens' sense of what is best for India, his biographer Christopher Hussey observes that Lutyens wanted "...a free hand to infuse something of the mystic and sensuous sap of the East into the virile stock of Western logic....[evidence of Lutyens] rejection of the 'sterile stability' of English classicism whilst preserving the sanity of its principles and adapting them to Indian...sentiment" (Hussey, 281). In Hussey's reflection one begins to discov er the clues that allowed Lutyens to develop the design he did and in which is disclosed--unintentionally--the elements of the British capital as Indian tirtha.

While it is beyond the parameters of this paper to discuss extensively the fractious history that led to the final design of New Delhi, suffice it to say that to please Hardinge (Hussey, 288f.) and add that "mystic sap" he suggests is necessary, re luctantly Lutyens does incorporate some Indian elements into the design of what he calls "King's Way", what is now "Rajpath", from the Viceroy's House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) to his proposed Prince's Place (now the India Gate War Memorial). It is to the design of New Delhi that we now turn--using Lutyen's original names for the sites--and look at it by overlaying the King's Way axis with the traditional model of the mandir vastupurusa.

In both Silpa and Agama texts the Sanskrit word prasada (Acharya, 396, Shukla, 400f.) and vimana (Acharya, 551f., Shukla, 399f) refer to both palace and temple, suggesting that even in the ancient Indian epics and treatises on archite cture that the dwelling places of both devas and ruler were identified as places of somewhat equivalent status as seats of power (Shukla, 353f.) While the Silpa texts delineate in significant details the testing of the soil, the layout of the buildings, the materials to be used, etc. for both palace and temple, it is with the temple that a very special term and design pattern come into play: vastumandala (the site of the cosmic diagram, here laid out on a perfect east-west axis) and vastupurus a (the site of purusa or the deity, cf. Kramrisch, 67f.), i.e., the magnet that gives concrete visibility to the tirtha and draws the yatraka to the sacred precincts. Thought to be based initially on the Vedic sacrificial grounds , the temple as vastupurusa becomes visible symbolism for the presence of the purusa or deity in the life of the yatraka. While literally not always depicted in bodily form, the gateway or entrance to the mandirtirtha, is at t he western end of the axis. The flagpole of the deity stands at the navel, the structural middle of the body announcing his or her presence in that place. And the garbhagrha, which is the most sacred inner sanctum, is the head, the locus of the buddhi or the intellect, the center of power, the residence of wisdom and of the conquest of attachments.

These essential characteristics of the vastupurusa, though unintentional in the thinking of Lutyens are quite evident symbolically in the urban design and central buildings of Lutyens' New Delhi and remain so to this day in the seat of India 's government. Such a design--albeit unintentional--yet provides a much sought-after tirtha for those who seek the center of power, dharma, and the essential presence of that which power and fulfillment in that place brings. Just as the Indian temple is laid out on an east-west axis, facing a morning sun which should shine through the entrance of the temple and, at least symbolically, touch the murti in the garbhagrha, so King's Way is set a long a perfect east-west axis as well. The Viceroy's House and the Secretariat in front of it stand at the western end of the axis and the Prince's Place at the penultimate eastern, with Indraprastha (presently, Purana Qila) and the Yamuna River just bey ond. Moving from west to east as one would walk toward a temple or mandir, one begins at the Yamuna River, the jalatirtha, one of India's most sacred rivers: a gift from and the presence of the goddess Yamuna flowing along the northern la ndscape of India parallel to her companion goddess, Ganga. Lutyens intended to dam a portion of the river to create a reflective pool--the equivalent to a temple ghat--but acquiesced and designed a sunken garden (Irving, 262), neither of which, ul timately, were built. Moving from the Yamuna west is an ancient break in the homogeneity of space which Lutyens left in place intentionally. The Purana Qila, a 15th century fortress on the site of the more ancient Pandava capital of Indraprastha, stand s as an assertion of India's most ancient Hindu capital site, now subsumed under not only a later Muslim capital but also under a British colonial capital. For Lutyens this site tied the lives of the Mahabharata heroes to the modern rulers of Ind ia and offered a sense of historical continuity to the design and its place as capital. Lutyens' design also intentionally joins Indraprastha to King's Way with a series of reflective pools that suggest the rivers of India tying together the country as i ts lifeblood (Irving, 251), even as a ghat, through its purificatory waters, ties the devotee to the rites of the temple in which they will participate.

In his grand design, Lutyens imagined that the Viceroy's House would be on Raisena Hill towering over Delhi, the ancient Purana Qila, and Indraprastha just as British paramountcy towered over India. But, also, he wanted a raised Viceroy's House to look down on another of his design's along King's Way. For, at the end of the paved King's Way he placed "Prince's Place", a hexagon-shaped park to be surrounded by the New Delhi homes of the great Indian maharajas, and at the center of the hexag on a magnificent cupola housing the statue of George V facing westward toward Viceroy's House, much as the mount of the deity faces inward toward the garbhagrha and deva, while waiting outside the mandir to serve the god as needed.

Moving westward to the foot of Raisena Hill on which the Secretariat Buildings, designed by Baker, sit and beyond to the Viceroy's House, one is reminded of the conflict between Baker and Lutyens that almost ruined the entire plan. Baker argued lon g and hard for his own Secretariat buildings to dominate the landscape by fixing them on the rise of Raisena Hill and separating them by a gradient of the plaza between them that, ultimately, would hide Viceroy's House, Lutyens' crowning achievement. Yet , as one stands at the western terminus of King's Way, looking up the gradient toward Viceroy's House, one is struck by the dominance of the dome of the House on the horizon, much as a Siva lingam dominates the central place in the garbagrha of the temple. Baker's Secretariat buildings only serve as ardhamandapa or first porch at the entrance to the site, directing one's attention not to the offices on either side of the Secretariat plaza but to the seat of British power resting in Viceroy’ s House.

Normally, the decorative wrought-iron gates between the Secretariat plaza and Viceroy’s House prevent one from walking directly from one to the other.. Instead, one enters from side gates flanked by red sikri sandstone elephants. Standing as sil ent sentinels for the presence of power ahead and in some respects like dvarpalas flanking the entrance to a temple, they remind one of processional elephants waiting on the fringes of the temple complex itself to herald the coming of the deity i n festival processions, or the occasional decorative elephants on the fronts of temples pulling the rathas or chariots of the gods,.

Beyond the gates in the midst of what was once "Viceroy's Court", Lutyens designed a column commissioned by the Maharaja of Jaipur. The capital surmounting the column is comprised of a sandstone egg--reminiscent of the cosmic embryo, Hiranyagarbh a, that figures in ancient Indian cosmology. Above the egg is an opening lotus flower, the symbol of wisdom and that which grows in beauty from the murkiness of existence, "secured by a bronze coronal decorated with two ancient symbols: the bell-shaped lotus fruit, seed of future worlds..., and lions" symbolic of power and authority in both British and Indian rule of law. Rising from the center of the lotus on a finial that forces its dominance over all below is a brilliant glass star, symbolizing th e "Star of India" gem stone, and a colonial reminder of India as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.

Looming behind the Jaipur Column is the Viceroy's House, now the Rastrapati Bhavan, the home of India's President and the constitutional center of dharma. While the subject of this paper cannot treat in detail the significance of the buildi ng as prasada, vimana or mandir as I have done elsewhere, it is evident that several obvious reminders in its presence suggest the Indian temple. The central building flanked by two wings attached to and coming out from it recapitula tes the floor plan of the temple with walls surrounding the central garbhagrha. Entering the building, one is struck by subdued light dimming the interior as if one is entering the inner reaches of a temple. As one climbs the steps to the central audience room, the heavy walls continue to bar the sun's light. Until, when one enters the Durbar Hall, the garbhagrha crowned by a stupa-like dome immediately calls forth the sense of power, dharma, and presence, an obvious intent on Lutyens part to subdue subject in the presence of that which is greater than all else.

Quite intentionally, the Legislative Assembly--now Parliament House--sits off to the side of the main east-west axis that forms the tirtha structure, for Baker and Lutyens the meaning is very clear: it is the Viceroy and his bureaucracy--n ot the Indians meeting in what was really a sham of democracy--where power, dharma, and presence are focused. Despite the building's design as a cakra or wheel which has stood for almost three millennia as the primary symbol of rule in India, for the colonials it was a sop thrown at Indian protestations for independence from the Crown. While most major temple complexes have numerous large and small ancillary shrines: marriage halls, shrines to attendant deities, etc., it is always the garbhagrha of the vimana that holds the real power. And, yet, with the evolution of India's government since the approval of the 1951 constitution, it is this building that now is the real tirthayatra of politicians in the country. As power has now become centralized in a parliamentary form of democracy, the turning of the wheel of power and the maintenance of dharma is focused in Parliament and it is to that building and for the power inherent in it that the real tirthayatra is now made by those who wish to become the wielders of dharma, and the "pujaris" of the garbhagrha in what was originally an "off-center ancillary shrine" appending itself tenuously to the locu s of power in the Viceroy's House.


As their colleagues in other democracies have done, India's politicians aspiring for power at the Centre in Delhi for fifty years have moved across Bharat's landscape promising a new order based on their constituents particular political ideals. S uch is the nature of the politician's life: molding their own hopes with the expectations of their constituents that the latter may give the former a new-found power where social and political order is maintained. When the Bh aratiya Janata Party, encouraged by its parents--the Visva Hindu Parishad and the RSS, entered the political fray in 1985 with hopes of making an impact on national politics, the VHP and RSS had only begun to address the issue of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. Because the BJP did not have a fiery national issue to rally its followers in 1985, its showing at the polls resulted in only two seats in Parliament.

By 1990, an issue had been found as well as a dramatically ritualistic means to excite the imagination of India's nine-hundred million Hindus to assist the BJP in becoming the new saviors of Bharat. The issue: a mandir to replace a fifteen th- century Muslim masjid at the mythical birthplace of Lord Rama; the ritual: a tirthayatra that had as its penultimate goal Ayodhya; its ultimate goal, the Secretariat and Parliament House in Delhi. In September of 1990, BJP President, Lal Kri shna Advani, set out from the Somnath temple in Gujarat on a yatra that would take him through ten states and the Union Territory of Delhi, riding on a rath or chariot, bedecked with cut-outs of a lotus blossom and of the symbol OM, VHP and BJP flags, a slogan on the side of the rath that proclaimed: "March on for the glory of the temple and the pride of Hindutva" (India Today 31 Oct 90, 38) and other symbols sacred to India's great Hindu population. The air-conditioned DCM- Toyota van also reminded Advani's followers of an earlier warrior whose goal was to restore dharma to a kingdom in disarray and needing cleansing at the Centre as Advani rode in a vehicle that imitated the design of the rath used by Arjuna i n the popular Sunday morning Mahabharata television series. His populist rhetoric, laced with reminders of a nationalistic religious revivalism not unknown in other democracies in this century, called for the construction of a Ram mandir in Ayodhya as a means to purify an India lost in the decay of the "pseudo-secularism" of other contemporary national political parties that had held power in Delhi(India Today, 15 Oct. 90, 18).

The yatra began, "led by sword-brandishing Rajput youth" (India Today, 15 Oct. 90, 18) out to conquer India. Fueled by anger over the Mandal Commission's call for broad communal fairness via reservations in India's secular democracy , Advani's yatra to recapture Delhi and the minds of Indians sought to raise the awareness of Hindutva, the BJP label of their drive to develop a thoroughgoing "Hindu-ness" in all facets of Indian life. The yatra was planned as a cla rion call to the sitting prime Minister,V. P. Singh, and his National Front government (which the BJP had supported originally) to desist from implementing the Mandal Commission's report--a yatra which would bring down Singh's government three mon ths later and force an election in the Spring of 1991 which the BJP hoped (unsuccessfully it would turn out) would place Delhi in their hands.

With the blessings of the Visva Hindu Parishad and the RSS (India Today 15 Oct. 1990, 19) at a pre-yatra gathering in Bhopal, Advani was sure of success, particularly as his yatra was designed ostensibly to take him finally to one of India's seven sacred tirtha, Ayodhya--albeit, on his way to the Prime Ministership in the Secretariat at Delhi. Thus, the yatra became a powerful Hindu religious-cum-political symbol not only of defiance but of the possibilities it e ntailed: a tirthaphala--a new beginning that freed India from the shackles of what the BJP considered the dominance of Jawaharlal Nehru's influence in India's first fifty years of Independence.

The reaction to the yatra as it passed through northern and central India over the next two months suggested the religious revival it was intended to create. It established a persona of Advani that reminded people of Ram himself as the BJP’ s bearer of dharma rode in the chariot holding a bow and arrow. At one of India's seven sacred tirthapura, Ujjain, he was presented a Shiva trishula as if he, too, might defeat the demons in his midst. On another occasion, some onlookers pierced their skin with trishulas and offered their blood to the cause of Hindutva (India Today, 31 Oct. 90, 37-38) as one often sees in popular temple ratha festivals. For some, having darsana of Advani's y atra anticipated the prasadam one receives with the darsana of a deity: "I don't know Advani. I've come to see the rath because when it reaches Ayodhya they will construct a temple" (India Today, 31 Oct. 90, 38). Though claiming that this popular response was actually Ram bhakti (devotion to God), "Advani says he hopes to 'convert' [this] into rashtra shakti" (India Today, 31 Oct. 90, 38), which is to say, the power to rule the country]. And, again, Advani during his yatra proclaimed that "only those who talk about Hindu interests will rule the country" (India Today, 30 Nov. 90, 21).

Such pronouncements only inflamed public opinion over Advani's tirthayatra. Prime Minister V. P. Singh, stung by this display and the BJP's withdrawal from supporting his government, vowed to sit in the Opposition rather than bend to the use of religious pressure to force rejection of the Mandal Commission's national minority reservations policy at the Centre (India Today, 15 Oct. 90, 19). National Muslim voices declared Advani's action those of a fascist, not unlike the marches s timulated by Goebbles in Germany before the Second World War (India Today, 15 Oct. 90, 23). Rajiv Gandhi, himself wanting to return to the prime ministership in the next election, declared it diabolical and called for a yatra of communal ha rmony (India Today, 15 Oct. 90, 24). While rejecting theocracy, Advani did not disassociate himself or his yatra to capture power in Delhi from the VHP/BJP conclave in Bhopal that called for a temple in Ayodhya at all costs or with public s upport from many of India's most respected sants. (India Today, 15 Oct. 90, 24). For him, as for kings and others in India's past, the power of a religious presence in political life was normative and a necessary component o f his call for Hindutva, "Hinduness" as the nationalistic goal--essentially the tirthaphala--of his tirthayatra.

Undaunted, while continuing his travels through many of India's traditional tirthas and stopping for several days in Delhi to great adulation by thousands of his followers, it was to Ayodhya that he had ultimately set his course as the place that would catapult him to the prime ministership in Delhi. However, before he could arrive, tragedy struck the birthplace of Rama. When several thousand kar sewaks (devotees) took over the Babri Masjid on October 30 and November 2, 1990, several were killed: the number reported varying from a few to twenty-six. The ashes of those killed were being treated by other kar sewaks as the remains of martyrs and were about to be taken in a yatra around India prior to being immersed in another of the seven holiest of tirthas in India: the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad (India Today, 15 Dec. 90, 26). When Advani did arrive in Ayodhya on the 19th of November, the emotions of his presence there concretized for the kar sewaks, for Advani, for the VHP and the BJP the centrality of Ayodhya as reason enough to continue the BJP's tirthayatra to Delhi.

Two days after his Somnath-Ayodhya yatra was finished, Advani began a second one from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala in the southwest. This one he called a Bharat Yatra--a veiled reference to the tradition that all of India is a s acred tirtha and a yatra around Jambudvipa, the sacred space that is India. Moreover, this was his call to recover a national sacrality that mythically had always been at the heart of how Saivas, Vaisnavas and some other religious g roups in India saw India--a territory that, essentially, had been theirs always, despite the occasional mlecchas that had polluted it. As he began this Bharat tirthyatra, Advani proclaimed, "What happened in Ayodhya [three weeks ago ] was not just the beginning of the kar sewa. It was the start of the foundation of the Hindu Rashtra" (India Today, 15 Dec. 90, 36); that is, this yatra was the next step in a Hindu rule of India. As he conti nued that yatra, he hammered away at the goal of purifying India with Delhi as the center of that purificatory ritual: from 20 lakh (2 million) VHP workers descending on the capital to demonstrate the 'national will' for building a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya to projecting a strong Hindu nationalism as an alternative to what he and others were calling in other political parties a "pseudo-secularism" (India Today, 31 Mar. 91, 19-20). In the early Spring, as campaigning became more intense , a ten-year-old Gujarati boy took center-stage at BJP mass rallies throughout that state. Among his favorite crowd-pleasers were these: "Ram kicked [V. P.] Singh, made him bite the dust." And, "Victory is assured. Delhiward ho! The saffron flag will fly over the Red Fort. The sun will rise dispelling darkness. The lotus will bloom" (India Today, 15 May 91, 17)

Though Advani himself began to moderate his rhetoric by late Spring of 1991, these BJP yatras and the continued politicizing of a new Hindu-ness in India eventually led to more tragedy. On December 6, 1992 not only was Ayodhya's Babri Masji d stormed again, but stone by stone was demolished and along with it communal harmony throughout India. Riots broke out in small towns and major cities, the worst in Bombay. Six and one-half years later, on Friday, August 7, 1998. the Deccan Herald newspaper reported that the findings of the Justice Srikrishna Commission on the December, 1992 riots concluded: "The Commission has traced the roots of the riots to the BJP's rathyatra, the celebration of the demolition of Ba bri Masjid by some Hindus and the demolition of some unauthorized constructions by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation which by chance belonged to Muslims" (from DH News Service, Mumbai Aug 6 dateline).

Seven years later, when the 1998 BJP election agenda was published last winter in preparation for the February/March parliamentary elections that would decide what party would choose the next prime minister and control power at the Centre, much of both the rhetoric and the issues recalled the 1990-91 yatras. The very first issue on the agenda was the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Also included among economic, social, constitutional and other issues were two that reflected a c ontinued discontent with the Mandal Commission's call for the enhancement of minority issues: a Uniform Civil code that did not privilege any minority community's historical or religious concerns for that community and "abrogate Article 370 of the Consti tution" ( that had given special status to Jammu and Kashmir in deference to its Muslim-majority community. Prominent in that agenda--and still posted on the BJP web page ( the idea that Sana tana Dharma or traditional Indian sacred dharma as disclosed in the Dharmasastras--is equated with the Western secular concept of nationalism, i.e., that the sacred order of the cosmos as defined in India is justification for nation buil ding. In that context, the BJP argues ( that only the BJP can restore a Ram Rajya free of the mal-governance that has been the hallmark in Delhi of the first fifty years of Indian independence. And, that "to re-energize this nation and strengthen and discipline it to undertake the arduous task of nation-building...the BJP joined the Ram Janmabhoomi movement for the construction of Shri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. This greatest mass movement in post-Independence history reoriente d the disoriented polity in India and strengthened the foundation of cultural nationalism" ( The manifesto continues with a promise "to facilitate the construction of a magnificent Shri Ram Mandir at Ram Janmasthan in Ayodhy a where a makeshift temple already exists. Shri Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness. The BJP will explore all consensual, legal and constitutional means to facilitate the construction of Shri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya" ( . While addressing these issues in a thoroughgoing placatory manner, at the same time the election manifesto suggested that to elect a BJP-majority government would restore Ram Rajya--the rule of Lord Ram--at the Centre--Delhi. Such accession to power w ould allow for the capital to become for the first time in its modern history an authentic symbol of a political and sacred axis mundi. In short Delhi would become de facto a tirtha, and those who ruled there the legitimate dispens ers of the prasadam resulting from the dharma that is tirthaphala, the sacred product of having made the arduous yatra to Delhi.

That the election manifesto's language about Ram Rajya and Shri Ram Mandir fell prey to the building of a multiparty consensus in order to establish a parliamentary majority, speaks volumes about the politically-moderate astuteness of Prime Minist er A. B. Vajpayee after the BJP tirthayatra reached it destination eight years later. Absence however does not suggest that the reason for Advani's original tirthayatra has been forgotten. While dropping Ayodhya in the governing manifesto allows for a much broader governing consensus that keeps the BJP at the Centre, the BJP's parent, the Visva Hindu Parishad, continues to promise that the temple will arise, even if the Supreme Court rules otherwise ( 1/20250334.html#Top). Which is to say, still in the shadows is the expectation that somehow the BJP's original hope--or tirthaphala--may yet be realized from Delhi and in Ayodhya.


Historically, philosophically, architecturally and symbolically, the maintenance of dharma has been the essential quality of India's capitals. And, to make yatra to and within those capitals has often insured the preservation of d harma which is the tirthaphala that results from the yatra. While ancient rajas and some contemporary political parties have envisioned the capital as a more literal tirtha, even Sir Edwin Lutyens symbolically--albeit unin tentionally--established an architecturally-precise urban model that recalls a conventional vastupurusatirtha paradigm for capital. And, in so doing, for all time he provides the Indian politician and their constituents a justifiable reason for as suming that what emanates from Delhi is not only dharma but the prasadam that is the tirthaphala. That it, subsequently, will result in moksa is a matter best left to those for whom the darsan of such tirtha is a ctualized.


1. From the Skt.Ö drs, meaning "to see or have sight of", darsana carries with it not only the idea of "seeing" but "seeing with a significance" that is attended by prasadam or the graciousness of the gift of a blessing by the one seen onto the one see ing.

2. The listings in Salomon, 458-466, contain a representation of many tirtha, but do not include a number of sites that have been both tirtha and capitals, e.g., Amaravati, Madurai, Rajgir, Thanjavur, etc.

3. As this relationship and the Eklingji temple itself have never been examined systematically, after protracted discussions I have received the permission of the Maharana of Udaipur, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, to examine these ideas along with prep aring a translation of the Eklingamahatmyam, originally thought to be a puranic account of the kingdom and its primary tirtha.

4. This has been rehearsed more systematically in another paper that studies in more detail the architectural history and sacred diagram of Delhi. I would also call the attention of the interested reader to Robert Grant Irving's monumental work on the history of the design and building of New Delhi.


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