Not everyone gets to hold the most coveted bureaucratic post in the country, and then rise to occupy an even more exalted position and a place in history. Retired IAS officer Nripendra Misra managed to do both. After serving as principal secretary to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 78-year-old Misra now serves as chairman of the Ram temple construction committee, which he defines as a “divine task”. Between managing diverse technical aspects required to build a temple that is expected to last a thousand years, and dealing with scores of religious leaders, local people and politicians, Misra has his hands full. “It has made me more humble,” he says, as he sits down in his office at Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi. Misra also serves as chairperson of the executive council of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He oversaw the construction of the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya (Prime Ministers’ Museum) which has turned into a popular destination in the national capital.
Misra spoke exclusively with THE WEEK, explaining the intricacies of the Ram temple construction and the challenges he encountered. His current task involves travelling regularly to the construction site in Ayodhya, holding a review meeting every Saturday and making decisions when diverse opinions come in.
Q/ The question on top of everyone’s mind is: When will the temple be ready for devotees?
A/ The deadlines are set by the [Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra] Trust. The trust has already given a construction plan. As chairman of the construction committee, it is my duty to see that we adhere to this schedule. When they approved the design and details of the temple and the complex, three dates were given. The first is December 31, 2023. By this date, we are expected to complete the ground floor, except the iconography on the pillars. There are 160 pillars on the ground floor. Each pillar, as per shilp shastra, will have 16 figures. Carving them takes time. It has various constraints. For instance, one pillar has to be crafted by one person as far as possible. It is his hand that matters. If I put four people, it will obstruct the work and they will create different figures.
The mandap, ceilings, walls and the complete structure, including lighting and all other support structures, will be done by December 31, 2023. We will also have the deity in the garbh griha (sanctum sanctorum). The deity will be installed with pran pratishthan (consecration) and all the rituals, and the religious requirements would be completed by December. And the deity will move there.
By January 14-15 next year, the temple will be opened for darshan for devotees also. That is when the sun is in the uttarayan (northward movement). In the second phase, the complete framework will be done, which means the first and the second floors, though the iconography will continue. But one will be able to see the complete temple. The lighting will also be done.
The outer parikrama boundary (parkota) will be complete. Those who want to do the parikrama will have the provision to walk 750m. The outer wall of the parkota will have provisions of murals made in bronze, depicting the value-based life of Ram. He is called maryada purushottam Ram, one having the highest form of maryada (righteousness). People can walk through it. If we include the parkota, we are talking about an area of eight acres. But when we talk about the temple, it is 2.8 acres.
The complex is 77 acres. In December 2024, the temple will be completed along with the parkota. By December 2025, one will see the complete complex which will have all facilities like the pilgrim facilitation centre, holding areas for devotees and facilities for personal requirements of devotees. The technical and security system will also become operational at that time.
Q/ Apart from the original plan, are there any new additions being made to the temple?
A/ In the complex, there is a decision to make seven temples for Maharishi Valmiki, Shabri, Nishad Raj, Acharya Vashisht, Rishi Vishwamitra, Ahalya and Agastyamuni. In the parkota, on the outer side, there will be an arrangement for the distribution of prasad, which people can have after the darshan. All of this will be complete by December 2025.
Q/ What is the reason behind building these seven temples?
A/ The starting point was one of the review meetings with the honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi. When the progress was being conveyed to him, he observed that Ram really became maryada purushottam during his journey (exile) of 14 years. That was when he set the principles of social integration and the principle of how good wins over evil. On his return, Ram defined the role of a benevolent king. If you remember the line from Ramayan, Ram’s sense of justice is what you see in a human body.... It takes everything for energy, but it ensures distribution according to the needs of all parts of the body. It does not keep everything to itself. That is how a king should be. Ram is called the benevolent king, and has all the elements of democracy. The prime minister said the social cohesion of the temple had to give a message―it must not be just a place of worship, but it should also be a place to show how society developed. That is why he suggested that if you have these temples, then you will give a larger message to the people in terms of acceptance. In fact, that is another reason that we are also going to have gopurams, which is entirely a south Indian concept. When a man from south identifies himself with this, he feels that this is his place, too.
Q/ So, the suggestion for the gopuram came from the prime minister?
A/ All these ideas came from him, but he does not want to influence [our decisions]. He only puts forward his point and leaves it entirely to the trust, which, according to the Supreme Court, is an autonomous body.
Q/ Can you tell us about the challenges you faced in building the temple and explain the innovations you brought in?
A/ The challenges start with the ambitions. If you don’t have any ambition, then you will not face a challenge. The first challenge was to make this temple to last a thousand years or more, like our ancient temples. Our problem was that there is not enough researched engineering material about ancient temples. There are certain beliefs, certain piecemeal information but there was no single place where we could find those. Many IITs have now requested us to keep records of our construction so that it could be added to the syllabus for civil engineering students. So the obvious challenges started in terms of engineering details and the materials used.
I will try and explain the first challenge. When soil was tested, it was found that it was unstable, so we referred it to IIT Madras and also formed a committee comprising Prof V.S. Raju, who is emeritus director of IIT Delhi, the directors of IIT Surat and IIT Guwahati and representatives from the Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee, L&T and Tata Consulting Engineers. The question was: What would we do to this soil? An obvious choice was to provide pile foundation, and make it very strong. When that was tried at a few places and a certain load was created, it tilted a little. Many engineers were of the view that it could be structurally corrected and they asked us not to give up on pile foundation as it was the most established engineering requirement for high rises all over the world. The other choice was to address the improvement of the soil. So we requested IIT Madras for engineered soil which will have the features of stone. They asked us to first dig out and remove 15 metres of soil. It was like digging a well. Had we gone down a few metres more, we would have found water. Then on the recommendation of IIT Madras, engineered soil was brought in. The filling was done layer by layer. One layer of certain width was done and was compacted. Then a sample was taken after 14-28 days and tested in the lab to verify whether it acquired the features of stone.
Look at the challenge we faced: If piles or rafts are used, what material should be used? What should be the specification to be achieved from the foundation, how strong should it be? There should be some technical parameters. There was a timing issue, too, as we had to complete the task before the monsoon. It required a combination of engineering, skills and knowledge. Another risk was that the committee of experts gave us both choices―it could be done either with piles or with engineered soil. They also said that there was some technology in London called rotary compacting scheme. Finally, a decision was made by the trust. In the raft, which is over the foundation, we decided not to use any iron. So it will not be RCC (reinforced cement concrete). After the raft, it was the plinth, which was 2.5m. The final decision was in favour of granite as it is the strongest stone for the plinth, and absorbs the least water and was the least reactive.
So, you know, these challenges are on a daily basis. The lighting on the facade was another challenge. One easy technology was to use projectors. There is also the monkey menace. But let us say we can overcome that. However, 80-odd projectors would not have been a beautiful sight. There is another technology which is for linear absorption of light. The projector would be utilised for the shikhar (tower) and the rest of the mandap. On the outer facade, linear light will be used. Then came the question of flooring. One also has to look at the cost. So it is a compromise between technology, timing, cost and making sure that the temple will last a thousand years.
The challenges came, but everyone supported us wholeheartedly and came up with the best possible solutions. Details about all the decisions that we made have been recorded and the document is with the temple trust.
Q/ You say the temple would stand for a thousand years. Has it been equipped to withstand all challenges?
A/ The temple should be maintained, avoiding wear and tear. There could be earthquakes. So the CBRI got the data for the last 500 years and performed laboratory simulation about the kind of load. Then there was the question of floods and the effect of climate change. All these things were considered while making the choice of the material and technology.
Q/ Have you drawn inspiration from ancient temple techniques in terms of material and construction?
A/ It was decided that iron should not be used as it has a life of only 90 years. It was decided that stone should be used and not cement in the construction of the walls. About the type of stone, the major consideration was how long it will last. No cement is used for construction, but cement slurry is used for support in case there is a cavity between two stones, but it is not used in the walls. So, you could say that the choice of material was largely inspired by our ancient temples, but on the engineering side, as new technology is available, we depended a lot on our IITs.
Q/ Did you reach out to any international bodies?
A/ We sought assistance from our tech institutes; they are among the best in the world. Another institution that was consulted to ensure that sunlight fell on Ram Lalla’s forehead was the CBRI, along with the Astronomical Institute in Pune.
Q/ Can you explain the process to ensure that sunlight falls on Ram Lalla’s forehead?
A/ The sun’s rays will fall on Ram Lalla’s forehead every year on Ram Navami (Ram’s birthday). The challenge was that each year, there is a movement of the sun and the date of Ram Navami also changes. The rays have to come at 12 noon which is believed to be Ram’s time of birth. The sun will come up to a point in the shikhar. And then it will have to be diverted to fall on Ram Lalla’s forehead. The entire calculation has been done for 20 years by the CBRI and the Astronomical Institute. The rays have to come through the shikhar where the aperture has been made.
Q/ Can you give us an overview of material being sourced from different parts of the country and the stone being used for carving the main deity?
A/ We have got the best granite from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, marble is coming from the mines of Rajasthan and stone from the Bansi-Paharpur area of Rajasthan.
Q/ Will there be two idols in the garbh griha?
A/ When the devotees stand in the temple, they will be 30 feet away from the idol. They will not be able to see the present idol from that distance. So we have to create a standing Ram Lalla, which will be just behind the current idol. The devotees want two things: a blessing coming from the eyes of the lord. So, the eyes must lead the eyes. The average height of an Indian is 5 feet 7 inches. So from that point of view, that should be the height of the idol. Then there is samcharan―devotees should be able to pay their obeisance at the lord’s charan (feet). That is why a standing statue will be placed on a pedestal. The height and the age of the idol should depict the bhav (spiritual attitude) of five- or six year-old Ram Lalla.
So we will have an achal murti, and an utsav murti―one idol will be permanent and the other, which can be taken out during processions if needed, like in the case of Puri. The present idol will be utsav murti.
Q/ So, a new idol of Ram is being carved.
A/ The initial question was about the stone to be used for carving the lord’s idol. We decided that the existing Ram Lalla’s statue be brought in on an ‘as is where is’ basis. But there will be a standing Ram Lalla with an age of four to six years and a height of 51-52 inches. The rays of the sun have to fall on the forehead of this standing idol, so this is important for the scientists to calculate. So only that stone is now under consideration. The idol must not absorb water, when it is given snaan (bath), and it should not react to atmospheric acidity or any chemical. The choice is stones found in some rivers of Karnataka, granite and marble from Rajasthan. There is also shaligram, from a river in Nepal. No decision has been made yet.
The decision is to call six sculptors to Ayodhya and ask them to guide us, as the most important thing is the carving of the stone. They must test whether any kind of chipping will take place. That has to be completed. They will have the final say. We have to select two sculptors. You cannot depend on one. They must finally decide on the stone with which they are most comfortable.
Q/ What will be the experience for a devotee?
A/ Crowd management is going to be a challenge. We have given the crowd management study to RITES (Rail India Technical and Economic Service), a body under the ministry of railways. Their first test will be on Ram Navami which falls on March 30 this year. That day they will be able to find out the footfall in the makeshift temple, Hanumangarhi and the Saryu river. They will also get to know the [flow of devotees from] from Prayagraj, Lucknow and Varanasi. They will survey how these visitors come here, whether they first take a dip in the river, go to Hanumangarhi or directly come to the temple.
Q/ So, safety will be the key?
A/ Nothing in the building should be so constructed that it becomes a challenge in safety. One example comes to my mind. The garbh griha has three doors and its chaukhat (threshold) must be according to shilp shastra. The threshold’s height is roughly two feet and its width is three feet. What is the challenge now? You can have the threshold here and no one would cross it. The mandap next to the garbh griha has nine doors, so the threshold was also constructed here. But when there are 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh devotees, there will be some pushing and jostling. So, the threshold in these doors could have led to a stampede even if one person were to fall. So, despite our architect sticking to shilp shastra, we took a decision that there will not be a threshold in any other part except the garbh griha. Here, vaastu and shilp shastra have been ignored and we are going by the safety of the pilgrims.
Q/ How do you plan to regulate the entry of devotees?
A/ There will be a token system for people who want to deposit their stuff. There will be 60 counters for this at the pilgrim facilitation centre. As for allowing mobile phones, we have not yet made a decision.
Q/ The temple is going to be on the world map. What new facilities are being created?
A/ It is the biggest challenge for us. In one of his recent visits, the prime minister said that despite having a temple, if we do not have the necessary infrastructure and civic amenities, it will be a major failure. We need parking, hotels, water, sewage systems and wide roads. The state government is widening the roads. In many areas, the locals have agreed to donate land and roads are being widened to four lanes or six lanes. A smart city is also coming up.
Q/ What about the temple timings?
A/ It will be governed by the number of security people needed. At the moment, the temple opens at 6:30am and remains open till 8pm with an hour-long break in the afternoon. But on special days, we will have to keep it open for 14 to 16 hours. If five lakh people come, one visitor will have about 17 seconds to do the darshan. How is this satisfying? That is the challenge we are trying to address.
Q/ With so many stakeholders involved, how do you ensure consensus?
A/ This is an entirely new experience for me. But this art of working with people of all faith and emotions is new for me. Their oldest feeling about Ayodhya is that they have launched the agitation and it is because of them that this day has come. They want a say in the construction as well. So, whatever decision is taken, it must appear that it is their decision, too. I have been extremely conscious and sensitive to their requirements. Whether I succeed or not, I will get to know only in the end.
Q/ You were posted in Uttar Pradesh when the Ayodhya agitation started. How do you see your current role?
A/ This particular role is a totally divine one for me. I never thought this would come my way. After serving at the prime minister’s office, I had gone into some sort of hibernation. And then came the Supreme Court judgment which envisaged that there should be a chairman for the construction committee. And somehow it came my way. Today, I am a religious person. I have no hesitation to say this. And it is entirely devotional. If God desires it, it will be completed through my hands and I will have made some contribution. God willing, I will complete my devotion to the temple by December 2025.
Q/ Has this changed you?
A/ It has made me more humble. There are enough egos, emotions and challenges that come my way. If I react with the same ego and same emotions, then perhaps there will be confrontation.