Heritage dies on Vrindavan’s ghats

Would you like an apartment in a Burj Khalifa-inspired skyscraper that overlooks the polluted and almost-dry Yamuna river?

February 25, 2017 04:23 pm | Updated 05:33 pm IST

The menacing presence of earthmovers on the Yamuna waterfront.

The menacing presence of earthmovers on the Yamuna waterfront.

Vrindavan means forest—it brings to mind a green landscape where gopi s roamed, cattle grazed and Krishna performed his leela s. Today, not only have the forests vanished, the city’s architectural heritage too stands threatened. The 48 ghats of Vrindavan, built by Raja Himmat Bahadur 600 years ago in the classical Braj-Rajasthani tradition on the Yamuna river front, are under siege from the Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) government and a slew of builders. Given the size of the onslaught, the future of these ghats and their unique Braj culture seems precarious.

Rather than work with conservationists and architects to restore and preserve the unique heritage, the U.P. government under Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav proposes to demolish the old structures and build a new set of cement ghats. If that weren’t bad enough, the State government has also come up with a proposal to build an interceptor canal to carry the sewage of the neighbouring city of Kosi Kalan and dump it into the Yamuna at Vrindavan.

We need to go back a few years to understand how the civic authorities came up with such an unholy plan. The real estate boom in the last decade triggered a mushrooming of construction in Vrindavan. Clueless about the right way to get rid of construction debris, the municipal corporation allowed it to be dumped along the Yamuna river front. This continued unchecked for several years despite opposition from the public and from religious and ecological voices. Several ghats literally disappeared under mounds of debris. The Parikrama Marg, which pilgrims use to walk from one temple to another, also vanished.

Concerned Brijvasis got together to form a Braj Vrindavan Heritage Alliance (BVHA), under the chairmanship of Acharya Naresh Narain, to oppose the wanton destruction. “The old ghats are made of stone with excellent architecture and exquisite filigree work. Instead of restoring them, the government wants to build a row of cemented ghats, and ₹180 crore has already been sanctioned for the project called the ‘Beautification of Yamuna River Front’,” said Narain.

Over the years, several ghats on the Yamuna riverfront have literally disappeared under mounds of construction debris. Life as usual at Cheer Ghat.

Over the years, several ghats on the Yamuna riverfront have literally disappeared under mounds of construction debris. Life as usual at Cheer Ghat.

Stay order stays

The project flouts the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ rule book, which has clearly laid down that “no new structures can come up within 200 metres of the river bank on either side”. When members of the BVHA moved the Allahabad High Court, they succeeded in getting a stay last year, which was contested. This week, the National Green Tribunal refused to vacate the stay. This is a silver lining, but the battle is not over. An NGO called Dharam Raksha Sangh (whose members allegedly own land along the Yamuna) has filed two petitions insisting that these new ghats be permitted as they can be a major tourist attraction.

Narain also expressed concern about the dumping of sewage into the river. “Already Delhi’s sewage is let into the Yamuna. The State is aware that Vrindavan’s two Sewage Treatment Plants are not working, and that raw sewage from our city enters the river. Now matters are going to get worse when Kosi Kalan’s sewage is also let in,” he said, pointing to the large cement pipes snaking along the river bank.

River Yamuna has been under siege for many years along its entire length. But the problem is compounded in Vrindavan because in 2009 the then U.P. Chief Minister Mayawati decided to build a bridge along the river. Huge pillars were erected on the riverbed. Mathura-based environmentalist Gopeshwarnath Chaturvedi took up the issue of bridge construction, after the city commissioner submitted an affidavit to the Allahabad High Court claiming that the bridge was being built across the river and not along it. Green warrior Madhu Mangal Shukla filed the counter petition in Allahabad High Court. His efforts yielded fruit and the court stayed the construction. “We seem to forget that the Yamuna is the main source of drinking water for lakhs of people. If we destroy the river, what will we be left with?” said Shukla.

But the pillars on the riverbed actually resulted in the Yamuna moving course. “We have been left with these half-built, hideous pillars, which the court has ordered to be removed. The State government has sanctioned Rs. 20 crore for their removal but they are still there. The question is, why were these allowed to be dug into the riverbed in the first place?” said Chaturvedi.

But ASI helpless

Lawyer Sanjay Ballabh Gautam, whose family has for generations been performing aarti at the Vihar Ghat, decided to show that it is possible to clear the ghats of building waste and restore them to their original glory. “For the last one year I have employed two labourers who remove the mud dumped on the steps and chabutra s of these ghats. As you can see we have succeeded to a very large extent. We want to show this to the government and to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI),” said Gautam, who has spent around Rs. 5 lakh on the effort.

The problem is that ASI has no jurisdiction over the maintenance of these ghats. The ASI gazette notifies only four temples as protected monuments: the Madan Mohan temple, the Govinddeb temple, the Jugal Kishore temple and the Radha Ballab temple.

BVHA’s efforts to protect the city have raised the hackles of the land mafia. Sharandas Shukla, a petitioner fighting the case before the National Green Tribunal in New Delhi, cites how the land mafia has gotten together to file as many as 250 affidavits against BVHA in the Allahabad High Court.

The real estate lobby’s many astonishing plans include building the world’s tallest skyscraper and tallest temple on the banks of the Yamuna. “They want to build a skyscraper like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The fact that the river has no water and that the riverbank is no place to build this tower means nothing to them and they are going ahead with government support,” said Chowdhury.

Vrindavan has, in the last decade, lost the few forests around it. In their place are glitzy temples, each more showy than the other. Entire villages on the eastern front such as Burja and Sunrakh have disappeared, their lands sold to real estate agents. Once, the town used to grow the 800-odd kilos of tulsi required for worship; now this is brought in from distant villages.

“We have lost our natural vegetation. Even more disturbing, the water table has receded after iron plates were laid at a depth of 25 feet along a two-kilometre stretch of the river to build the new ghats. Tube-wells in this entire stretch have run dry,” said Acharya Shrivatsa Goswami, head priest of the Radha Ballab temple. Between a determined BVHA and the realty barons, the fight looks likely to be a long one.

The writer is a poet and novelist with a soft spot for political and social reporting.

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