The city of Ayodhya, 550km east of New Delhi, has been under heavy security since last week, when the Uttar Pradesh state government announced a ban on the pilgrimages for fear of communal violence. Most shops are closed and people are staying indoors.
Members of Vishva Hindu Parishad insisted they would go ahead with the 19-day pilgrimage, saying it was justified as a religious event, not a political one.
Police said more than 500 people, including the organisation’s leaders, were detained either in Ayodhya or on their way to the disputed site on the event’s first day on Sunday.
Muslims revere the site as the former location of the 16th century Babri Mosque, while Hindus say it is the birthplace of their god Rama and that a temple to him stood on the site before the mosque was built.
Today a small tented shrine to Rama stands on the site, after tens of thousands of Hindu extremists in 1992 ripped apart the mosque with spades, crowbars and their bare hands as security forces watched. The demolition sparked nationwide riots that killed 2,000 people.
In 2011, India’s Supreme Court suspended a lower court’s ruling to divide the site between Hindus and Muslims, with the Muslim community getting control of one-third and two Hindu groups splitting the remainder.
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