Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking part in the ceremony to break ground for a Hindu temple on Wednesday morning.
Modi symbolically laid a 40-kilogram (88-pound) silver brick foundation stone to formally start the construction of a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Ram in the city of Ayodhya in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Modi also released a postage stamp on the Ram Janmabhoomi temple.
Speaking after laying the foundation stone, Modi described the start of the temple construction as a historic occasion. "I am grateful to witness history being made. Crores of Indians cannot believe that this day has come. The entire country is in the spell of Lord Ram," he said.
"The hopes and aspirations of Hindus over centuries have been fulfilled today," Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said at the function.
The city of Ayodhya has been in preparation for the grand ceremony since Monday, with roads leading up to the temple decorated with billboards of the proposed Ram temple and the deity Ram. Most shops close to the temple have been painted yellow.
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Ayodhya is widely believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram. The site of the temple was formerly occupied by a 16th century mosque, the Babri Masjid, believed to have been built on the orders of Mughal emperor Babur. The mosque was demolished in December 1992 by Hindu extremists. The mosque's demolition led to riots across India, killing about 2,000 people.
In November 2019, the Supreme Court of India allowed the construction of a temple on the site. In February this year, Modi announced that the government had finalized an authority to build the temple.
The construction of the Ram temple is one of the leading items on the agenda of the BJP-led government, to appease its voter base of Hindu nationalists.
Modi's decision to attend the ceremony has been criticized by certain sections of the Indian populace. On Tuesday, about 300 people, including academics, journalists and some political leaders, appealed to the Prime Minister "to desist from participating in a public function that will have long term negative ramifications for the democratic, secular fabric of the country."
In a tweet, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, described the moment as a loss for pluralistic India.
Meanwhile, the run-up to the ceremony saw some controversy, when the All India Muslim Personal Law Board released a statement comparing the Babri Masjid to the Hagia Sophia in Turkey, which was recently converted from a museum to a mosque. "Usurpation of the land by an unjust, oppressive, shameful and majority appeasing judgment can't change its status. No need to be heartbroken. Situations don't last forever," said the board.
Read more: India's Modi announces 'magnificent' Hindu temple on old mosque site
Critics of today's event have raised concerns with maintaining social distancing norms, at a time when India is grappling with rising cases of the coronavirus. Recently, India's Home Minister Amit Shah was diagnosed with the virus.
The district magistrate of Ayodhya told The Print, an Indian news publication, that there would be a distance of at least 8 feet (2,5 meters) between seats for the program. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has reportedly asked officials to not breach social distancing norms by taking selfies with dignitaries attending the event.
About 175 guests are attending the event, including 135 saints from India and Nepal. The former litigant in the case over the land allocation, Iqbal Ansari, is also taking part in the event.
Two of the priests conducting daily rituals at the temple site have tested positive for COVID-19, along with four police officers in the area.
'Permission from mother earth'
Venugopalan Sankaran, a professor of Sanskrit at the SCSVMV University of Kanchipuram in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, told DW that the ceremony is symbolic of seeking permission from "mother earth" before beginning construction.
"When you start construction of anything, you seek permission from mother earth as you are going to drill, dig and do whatever is required to build a structure. As mother earth is personified (in Hindu religion), won't it be painful for you if someone harms your person?"
He justified the need for the ceremony being conducted today. "You select a proper muhuruth (auspicious time) to start with the activity. All nine planets are propitiated before laying hands on mother earth," he said.
Editor's Note: This is an updated version of an earlier article.