AYODHYA Called the city of temples, Ayodhya is considered in Hindu tradition to be one of the seven most important cities of Hindu India. In its long and contentious history, however, the city has been home not only to Shaivism and Vaishnavism sects of Hinduism but also to Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam. Ayodhya covers a little over 4 square miles (about 10 sq. km) in area; at the 1991 census, it had a population of 40,642 (more recent population estimates put the number at a little over 50,000). Ayodhya is well connected by bus and rail, but the nearest airports are in Amausi, Bumrauli, and Babatpur, at a distance of about 93 miles (150 km). Situated on the banks of the Ghagra or Saryu River in the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of Hinduism, Ayodhya's importance in Hindu tradition is the belief that the city is the birthplace of Lord Rāma, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity.
According to Hindu legend, the mythic man Manu founded Ayodhya, as recorded in the Hindu epic Rāmāyaṇa. Later, it became the capital of the Suryavanshi (Sun) dynasty, of which Lord Rāma is the most celebrated king. References to Ayodhya are also contained in the Atharva Veda. Jain traditions claim that five Tirthankaras (Jain equivalents of Hindu gods) were born at Ayodhya. The city is also believed to have served as the capital of the ancient Kosala kingdom, a sixth-century tribal oligarchy and rival to the mighty Magadha kingdom based in modern Bihar in the east (mentioned in the Buddhist sources), as well as of medieval Awadh, or Oudh.
Ramkot, in the western corner of the city, is the most sacred site of worship, attracting Hindu pilgrims throughout the year, but particularly on Rām Navami, the birth anniversary of Lord Rāma, which falls in the Hindu month of Chaitra (March–April), when as many as 500,000 pilgrims descend on the city. Other important religious sites include Hanuman Garhi in the center of the city, Nageswarwarnath Temple, a Shaivite temple, and Rām Janmabhumi, the site of Lord Rāma's birth, where a small Rām temple stood alongside the now demolished Babri Masjid, built in the sixteenth century by Mir Baqi, commander of the Mughal emperor Babur. Hindu extremists destroyed the mosque in 1992, maintaining that it was built on the ruins of an earlier temple of Rāma, the most revered deity in the Hindu pantheon. After the demolition of the temple, which was politically manipulated by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, there ensued a series of Hindu-Muslim riots throughout India, belying Ayodhya's very essence as a place of peace.
In 1993 the Indian History Congress voted overwhelmingly against destruction of monuments on the grounds that a religious structure of another community once stood in its place. Such postfacto rationalization, the historical body concluded, would set a dangerous precedent for religious structures throughout the subcontinent and would fan the fires of communal violence in cities like Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and Varanasi, where hundreds of temples and mosques stand side by side.