NARIYAL BABA SHOWED UP WITH A COCONUT on his head. It's the same one that's been balanced there for the past six months or so, thanks, he explains, to the power of his god, Lord Rama. And that coconut is going to stay there until Lord Rama gets his temple back, Baba insists, dancing a little jig in the afternoon sun to prove that his coconut does, indeed, defy gravity.
Uma Bharati, a member of the Indian Parliament, stood nearby. Her head was shaved, and she wore a sari of saffron orange, the holiest of hues to the Hindus. Hindus worship their hair almost as much as their gods, but for Bharati, shaving her head was a small sacrifice. It was, after all, her protest on behalf of her god, Lord Rama. It's a ritual she began last October, and she plans to continue until Rama gets his temple back.
But this was just the beginning.
Before the sun had set that hot spring day last month, a half million or so other Hindus had gathered for more than six hours in the sprawling downtown New Delhi park known as the Boat Club. Naked sadhus, or holy men, smoked ganja from ancient chillum pipes. Bearded saints, their foreheads streaked with the bright white bars of high-caste Brahmans, hoisted spears, swords, tridents and daggers and wailed slogans for their god, Lord Rama. Students plastered their bodies with buttons, bands and stickers bearing the holy Hindu symbol of "Om" and the words "Long Live Lord Rama." Policemen, on hand to control the largest crowd assembled in New Delhi since India's independence in 1947, often forgot themselves, joining in the chanting and pausing to touch the feet of a passing saint.
At the center of the park, a 20-foot-high stage was dwarfed by two towering, hand-painted billboards. One depicted a two-story-high, smiling, blue Lord Rama clutching his bow and arrows. On the other billboard was a rendering of an imposing golden temple that millions of devotees have vowed to build for Rama at the place of his birth despite what might seem an insurmountable obstacle: The large, concrete Babri Mosque, regarded as holy by India's 100 million Muslims, occupies the very same spot. And it is the singular vision of removing that mosque to make way for Lord Rama--known familiarly as "Ram"--that has driven so many followers not simply to this massive rally but, in earlier demonstrations, to their deaths.
"Those Ram devotees who sacrificed their lives have washed this temple with their blood," Uma Bharati shouted from the stage. "Everyone except us wants the mosque to remain there so that religious harmony remains strong. If this is so, we would like a temple to Hanuman (Hinduism's monkey god) to be built at Mecca and Medina (the birthplace and tomb site, respectively, of the Islamic prophet Mohammed in Saudi Arabia). How good the atmosphere would then be with Mohammed on one side and Hanuman on the other.
"Talk of religious harmony reminds me of biology experiments," Bharati continued in her fiery soprano. "Experiments are performed on rats, frogs and rabbits. Not on lions. Similarly, for experimenting with religious harmony, why select only Hindus? Please tell the world before leaving this Boat Club that we Hindus are not frogs, rats or rabbits. Now, we are lions."
Surrounded by the low-rise, pink sandstone modernity of India's 60-year-old capital, the stage that day resounded with the call, from saint after saint and pundit after politician, for all Hindus to reach back thousands of years to find their identity and meaning in the ancient demigod Lord Rama. That call is the battle cry of a Hindu revivalist wave that is ripping apart the world's largest secular democracy, where religious freedom, guaranteed in India's constitution, frequently has been accompanied by religious tension.
"All that we want," screamed Ashok Singhal, the graying and fanatical driving force behind the Rama temple crusade, "is to build a temple there at Lord Rama's birthplace."