Architect Bimal Patel, who is also the Centre’s consultant for the Central Vista project, speaks about the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, the first phase of which will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, and the challenges of connecting the two symbols of Varanasi, the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Ganges. The project, which started in 2019, will be completed in a few months when the gateway to the Ganges and steps going down to the river are completed.
What were some of the major changes introduced by the project and what were some of the challenges you faced?
The Kashi Vishwanath mandir was in a very congested part of the city and if you approached from the Ganges, you had to come up two very narrow gullies and it was difficult to negotiate for pilgrims. The street approach was also very congested. A large number of pilgrims come here. The brief, in a sense, was to create space around the temple, improve facilities for pilgrims, places where they might leave their shoes and queue up, improve safety and security, provide toilets and all sorts of functional arrangements necessary for the pilgrims.
In addition to this, there was a desire to connect the two great symbols of Varanasi, which is the Ganges and the temple. One of the most difficult parts, which we were not directly involved with, was to purchase properties and to create space. As an architectural challenge, what we wanted to do was to add things into the neighbourhood that, while they would be different from the neighbourhood, would nonetheless not stick out like a sore thumb. Whatever we did would blend in or mesh in with the urban fabric of the city.
What we wanted to create was a pathway from the Ganges to the temple that was like a spiritual unfolding. So if you come from the Ganges, you are confronted by a daunting set of steps, rising up to a gateway, and the gateway overlooks the Ganges and announces the temple. Then, the buildings are arranged in a way that directs you to the gateway of the mandir chowk. Then you see framed in the gateway, the shikhar of the temple. You then come to a mandir chowk that is a civic space outside the temple. Then, is the rectangular area or parisar of the temple. It is the gradual unfolding of vistas, an architectural expression of a journey to self-discovery or a temple or your god.
When will the ghat be complete?
Another two or three months.
Has there been anything done for the area residents or to improve the area in general?
There are two or three ways you could see this. One is, of course, that originally the temple attracted a large number of people and created huge security risk. Just tackling all that problem improves the neighbourhood. Also by making this temple precinct and making it easier for pilgrims to come here will increase the number of pilgrims and the improve the local economy, for instance the shops that sell flowers. We have also added some infrastructure. Earlier, there was no sewage line in the area. We have added a sewage line that keeps the area clean.
How much did the project cost and how much of it was for the construction and how much was to purchase land?
The construction cost is approximately ₹400 crore and I believe, though the right person to ask is the District Magistrate, is ₹390 crore. Half of it was spent to compensate people who had to move out and whose properties were taken over, about 300 houses. The other half was for construction.
How do you justify half the cost of the project going towards compensation?
Right from the beginning, the instruction given to the district administration was that this is to be done in a non-conflictual manner and we don’t want to improve a temple by resorting to conflict with people. So they tried to be as generous as they could, within the policies they had to operate within.
During the construction, there were 40 old temples discovered, as the U.P. government has said. What happened to them?
When the houses in the area were demolished, they found that many of the houses had been built atop temples and many of them, rather callously, using the temples as a structural support. So some of these temples, we had to change our plans to accommodate in our plan and they add to the richness of our plan. Some of them are going to be re-established in some new temples. All of it was done in a way that makes sense from a religious point of view.
Now, moving to the Central Vista project. Will the Central Vista Avenue be complete in time for Republic Day and the new Parliament building by the winter session next year?
Yes, the Central Vista Avenue will be complete in time for Republic Day. There will be some additional work that will come online after, like amenities and toilets. Yes, Parliament will be done by winter session 2022.
There was criticism of the Central Vista project from the beginning and legal challenges as well. Do you think you have addressed the issues raised and why do you think you faced that criticism?
People are always apprehensive when there is some change contemplated. Partly because of lack of information in the public realm, the apprehensions were more. Some of the people went to court questioning many of the things the government had done and the court went through it with a fine tooth comb. The Supreme Court said all the rules and procedures have been followed and nothing that is being done is unlawful. Yes, everything that was done was challenged but the Supreme Court eventually did not agree with the petitioners.
In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
I think that if the project had been explained a bit better to the public, there would have been less apprehension. However, I am not naive and I know that many of these oppositional moves have nothing to do with facts, its political sometimes and sometimes it is plain ideological.
You’ve been associated with some of the most prominent projects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. What do you say to those who say you are the PM’s favoured person for important jobs?
I think this Prime Minister is very focused on what he wants to get done. He works with anybody who he believes can successfully work towards the objectives that are laid out. I don’t think it’s because of any special relationship.
I think the Prime Minister is very professional in that matter and it’s perhaps the fact that many of the projects we have worked on have actually been successful that we work with him. Having said that, let me also say that the Prime Minister does not dole out projects. We apply through due process and there are many cherished projects of the Prime Minister that we have nothing to do with. Some of the high-profile ones we do have to do with but many others, we have nothing to do with, for example the Statue of Unity or the Prime Ministers’ Museum, Mahatma Mandir in Gujarat, these were all very close to his heart. So it’s by no means that we work on every project that he wants to be done, it’s just an impression that is sought to be created. But, yes the Central Vista is an important project. I can see why people might think so.