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(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi fulfilled his party’s decades-long promise by consecrating a controversial Hindu temple in northern India on Monday, marking a new milestone in the popular leader’s project of reshaping the country into a more avowedly Hindu nation.
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Hailing the day as the “dawn of a new era,” Modi took center stage at the opening of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, bringing together religion, politics and spectacle in a style that the prime minister has embraced. The event, which was marked by a last-minute holiday across much of India, helps launch his campaign to lead India for a third term in elections expected within months.
As the ceremony kicked off around 12 p.m., the prime minister strode into the inner sanctuary and performed a series of rituals before a newly minted idol of the Hindu god Ram, a statue of about 4 feet (1.2 meters) covered in gold and flowers, and flanked by priests in traditional saffron robes.
Modi later addressed a gathered crowd of more than 7,000 guests, including business leaders like Mukesh Ambani, Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan and other elites. His entrance to the temple was preceded by helicopters sweeping over the site and showering rose petals on the crowd below.
“People will speak and discuss this day and what happened here, a thousand years from now,” Modi told the assembled crowd.
Built on the site of a 16th century mosque demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992, the temple has long been a rallying cry for Hindu nationalists, who believe the mosque was built on the site of an older Hindu temple. Devotees believe the site to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. Following a decades-long legal battle between Hindu and Muslim groups, the Supreme Court in 2019 handed a Hindu trust full ownership of the land.
The consecration of the temple, which took place without incident, gives a boost to Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which seeks to elevate Hinduism in Indian politics but which critics say has marginalized Muslims and other minorities. Muslim groups stayed largely quiet as the event unfolded, while some opposition leaders chose not to attend.
“Never before had it been made so clear that the barriers that separate politics or the state from religion have been battered,” Gilles Verniers, a senior fellow at Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said by phone. “India’s pretense to be a secular republic is now officially of the past.”
Modi was joined at the ceremony by a handful of close political allies, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The Hindu monk-turned-politician told the assembled guests that despite fears of religious violence, “in the lanes of Ayodhya, there will be no sound of gunshots, there will be no curfew.”
“It will now be Diwali, Ram’s festival and in the lanes here, just the name of Ram echoing,” he said.
Government offices were closed for part of the day to enable employees to participate in the celebrations. The Indian stock market was shut and trading in government securities and money markets was closed. Many Indian states declared Monday a full or partial holiday.
Indian media broadcast images of observances across much of the country ahead of the temple’s consecration. Across Delhi, cars with saffron-colored flags bearing images of Ram could be seen cruising the city over the weekend. Neighborhood groups organized viewing parties of Monday’s ceremony and firecrackers popped in celebration.
State-run media also posted videos of people waving saffron flags in New York’s Times Square, where a billboard bearing an image of Ram was being displayed in honor of the new temple.
Some foreign officials congratulated Modi ahead of the temple’s consecration. David Seymour, New Zealand’s minister for regulation and leader of one of its political parties, called Monday’s ceremony a “wonderful celebration of a monument that will last 1,000 years.” New Zealand’s coalition government has made it one of its priorities to seek a free-trade agreement with India.
Israel’s ambassador to India said the temple’s inauguration was “a historic moment for devotees across the world” from his official account on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Critics have accused Modi, and the temple project, of eroding India’s longstanding tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism dating back to its independence from British rule in 1947.
Modi’s Hindu nationalism has been a pillar for his popularity with voters, many of whom admire his unabashed populism and his administration’s elevation of India on the world stage. The country’s economic growth rate of more than 7% is the envy of the region, its stock market is soaring to fresh records and it is luring foreign investors seeking to diversify away from China.
The temple is built in a 70-acre complex at a cost estimated by officials of around $200 million. Much of the temple complex remains a work in progress and officials say its completion is still years away, though they expect Ayodhya to eventually become a magnet for religious tourism.
As recently as a few weeks ago, a frenzy of bulldozers were at work widening roads and demolishing old structures, while workers placed finishing touches on new hotels built to accommodate the thousands of new visitors expected to the holy city. Modi inaugurated a new airport in the city last month to ease travel to the city.
--With assistance from Ben Westcott and Sudhi Ranjan Sen.
(Updates with comments from Modi, additional details.)
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