A letter from a guest writer pleading against planned desecration of the city of Varanasi.
I write this as a lover of Kashi-Varanasi-Banaras, the city I have been living in since 1989.
From the time I first came to Kashi in 1982 and then resided here for more than 33 years, many changes have happened in the city. The most important is the great increase in population and the arrival of motorized traffic, which has collapsed the city to a great extent. For many years, no developments or renovations were done.
When our Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji won the elections from Varanasi, he promised to convert Varanasi into a “smart city”. There was indeed a need for many changes and improvements in this previously utterly neglected city. The government has so far succeeded in cleaning Banaras, which was before very dirty, to a great extent.
A major plan was to construct a “Vishwanath Corridor” from Vishwanath Mandir up to Lalita Ghat in the Ganga river. This was done by ruthlessly demolishing a huge number of houses, thus destroying a big part of Pakka Mahal at the heart of the city, a unique cultural and religious heritage of Kashi. In this dense area dotted with many temples, many of them (as many as 49) were also torn down in the process, without any consideration for the sacred geography of Kashi. Now the Corridor, already completed, has cut the city into two parts which have almost no connection with each other. Two more corridors are planned.
An encroachment has been done into the Ganga by constructing a solid platform intruding into the river, which disturbs the current (this will probably have unexpected consequences) and breaks the ghat “design”. It is meant as a jetty where pilgrims-tourists can come by boat and go to Vishwanath Mandir through the Corridor.
All these works were done without taking advice from the people and scholars of Kashi, with plans designed by outside companies that did not know nor wanted to understand what Kashi stands for.
A beautiful patio has been built around Vishwanath Mandir, surrounded by arches and carvings. This has provided a much needed space around the temple. Nevertheless, the temple has been isolated from the city and the galis around it by crude ugly buildings, with high stone walls and scarcely any windows. The Corridor, accessed from the river through a large arch, is also punctuated with these kinds of crude and lifeless buildings. No imagination, no subtlety; grandiloquent, pretentious, tasteless architecture, inconsonant with the architectural style of the city. A clear example of how not to do things in historical cities.
It is not that everything done so far is bad, many good things have also been done: cleaning the city, putting electrical wiring underground, reforming and improving the Dasaswamedh area, etc. (But I wonder why, in all this kind of works, nobody in the Administration ever thinks of planting trees?)
The sacred Ganga river is now full of motor boats filling the place with noise and smoke. Luxury cruisers tend to the necessities of rich people who want to enjoy the beautiful place.
All these works were highly publicized throughout the country, causing huge crowds to come to visit the city. It has been calculated that more than 7 crore people have come to Varanasi in the last year! Of course, this has caused a very high pressure on the city, which has become the ‘fashion city’ of India.
But, from the traditional point of view, the worst thing is the huge commercialization of Kashi that is taking place. Tickets for the darshan of Vishwanath Mandir are in several categories, according to the purchasing power of the pilgrims, who are now much more ‘tourists’ than real ‘pilgrims’, and you can even get prasad online among other developments. Local people of Banaras hardly go to the temple any more. Everything is done so as to attract as many people as possible, who will spend money in the Temple Trust and the city, whether real bhaktas or not. The Corridor will be punctuated by shops and agencies to give to the visitors all kinds of amenities in return for money.
Now, a new project is taking place, which will be completed soon (executed by VDA, Varanasi Development Authority). A ‘Tent City’ is being constructed on the opposite side of Ganga. This Tent City will completely destroy the original design of Kashi, where the opposite side was empty and open to the rising sun, a profound symbolism. The intention of the Tent City is no longer, even as a side discourse, religious. It is meant as an enjoyable stay in Varanasi, where you will be able to see this exotic city from the other side, with all modern five stars facilities (600 luxury cottages). Distractions, camels and horses, excursions, aquatic sports (in Kashi!), even maybe a swimming pool, etc. All meant for rich people and foreign tourists who will spend plenty of money, without any concern for the ‘collateral damage’. “At sunset, you will have the same feeling as in Goa” is written in the publicity. So now, on your next vacation you can choose whether to go to Goa or to Kashi!
*कुछ दिन गुजारिए…काशी की टेंट सिटी में:* गंगा की रेती में 600 लग्जरी कॉटेज; सनसेट पर गोवा जैसी आएगी फीलिंग
Everything is done so as to transform Kashi, a tirtha city, into an ‘enjoy city’, from a ‘yoga city’ into a ‘bhoga city’. The sacrality of this ancient city of Kashi is being rapidly destroyed in front of our very eyes, with hardly anyone saying anything (although I know that many people do not like at all the new situation).
It seems that the authorities want to make a showcase of Kashi, with plenty of show, lights and newly designed additions, while not giving attention to the traditional sacred pattern of the city. Kashi is, above all, a sacred city (the most sacred city of India according to several sources), but the new developments are putting in severe danger this sacrality. A sacrality which is the reason why many religious and spiritual people have come to Kashi along the millenia, and why this city has had an enormous importance in the cultural religious and spiritual history of India.
As many people are unaware of what is happening in Kashi these last years, we request you to share and make known this information among your friends and acquaintances who have an interest in the city of Kashi and its sacredness. If some of you have some suggestion of what could be done on this subject, please tell us. From my side; I don’t know what can be done except writing these lines. This letter is just a painful cry of someone whose life has been completely changed by this old sacred city of Kashi.
With best regards,