Varanasi, by design: Vishwanath Dham and the politics of change

The new redevelopment project places the Vishwanath temple at the epicentre. Is it about conserving a heritage city or is it a political statement?

March 23, 2019 04:31 pm | Updated March 24, 2019 10:07 am IST

Boats anchored on the banks of the Ganga.

Boats anchored on the banks of the Ganga.

Varanasi, the preeminent historic centre in India, is a cumulative city. Over many centuries, it has been accrued by design, reconfigured by rulers, lost parts to devastating demolitions, been replenished by meaningful additions, and disfigured by insensitive constructions. As Diana Eck perceptively says in her hugely popular book on Varanasi, there is ‘hardly a stone left upon stone.’ The city continues to churn, and the biggest of all changes has just been initiated. Prime Minister Modi recently inaugurated Vishwanath Dham, a project to redevelop areas around the Vishwanath temple and provide upgraded amenities to pilgrims. The details are now accessible, and it appears that the project is by far the most extensive attempt to intervene in the urban setting and historical landscape of the city. When completed, it will radically alter the ground and bestow singular importance on Vishwanath temple.

In a multinucleated, labyrinthine and fine-grain city such as Varanasi, the new scale and order imposed by the project has set off fiery debates: some approvingly argue in favour of its decisive strategy to upgrade the place, while some clearly disagree and critique the extensive demolition, loss of historical character, and its potential to change the multicultural nature of the city.

The key to understanding and engaging with the ongoing debate lies in knowing the details of the project, delving into the history of the place, and, importantly, unpacking the government’s shrill political views that undergird the project.

Clean slate

Vishwanath Dham is spread over about 11.6 acres or 47,000 sq.m. At the western end is the temple and 360 m away, on the eastern end, is the Ganges and the three famous ghats — Manikarnika, Jalasen and Lalita. There are 51 temples in this area, most of which were discovered during the site clearance. About 250 individual or family properties were acquired and cleared for redevelopment. In a sense, the project builds on a clean slate.

The design creates a large Mandir Chowk or open space fronting the Vishwanath temple, and a smaller open space that provides the foreground for the Gyan Vapi mosque that is adjacent to the temple. One of the key features of the project is the pedestrian pathway that connects the temple and the Mandir Chowk with the river. Unlike the existing narrow and winding lanes, the proposed axial path is 20 m wide, which, towards the end, forks to embrace the ghats. It opens up the view to the temple on one side and to the river on the other. A relatively smaller pathway connects the temple with the Manikarnika ghat at the northern edge.

An artist’s rendition of the project.

An artist’s rendition of the project.

The proposed development provides multiple amenities for pilgrims such as Yatra Seva Kendras, guesthouses, hospice, library, and museum. It pays attention to public toilets and provides for a good number of them at places where pilgrims throng. The project has planned for extensive security arrangements, separate buildings for security personnel, a widened emergency entrance for vehicles and ambulances to enter the temple area. There are covered escalators to enable elderly pilgrims to climb the 26.5 m level difference (about eight floors height) between the river and temple.

There are plans to preserve a few existing heritage structures such as the Goenka Library and hostel, and the fort-like structure on Jalasen Ghat. The plan means to remove the hideous sewage pumping station on the riverfront, an eyesore, and restore the architectural splendour of Lalita Ghat.

 

A.G. Krishna Menon, an urban conservationist who was among the first architects to work on the development of Ghats in the 1980s and the former convenor of Delhi INTACH Chapter, strongly critiques the project. He says, “Change is necessary, but that cannot be the reason to destroy history. For instance, when we were working on Varanasi Ghats, there was a proposal to build a grand drive along the river connecting all the Ghats. We objected to that. The city is a microcosm of the country, and there are multiple stakeholders, so several context-specific improvement schemes were proposed all along the ghats to celebrate its diversity.”

On the other hand, Vishal Singh, CEO, Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust, defends demolishing the properties and the design intervention. He says, “Over the years, as the population grew and many original owners shifted out, properties were hardly maintained, leaving the place in a precarious condition. Last year, we surveyed the place and showed the documentary to the Prime Minister. It was decided that the place would be made safe and convenient to lakhs of visiting pilgrims and people living around it. So far we have bought 250 properties and compensated every one of them. When we cleared the properties, we discovered 33 temples, which will be repaired and opened for worship. Today, the ground is ready to be transformed into a great place for darshan . We are making true what Gandhiji urged us to do in Varanasi — keep the Sri Vishwanath temple and its area clean.”

It is evident that the decision to overlook the polycentric and multicultural nature of the city and privilege the Vishwanath temple is a conscious one. The decision to focus on and give the temple an undiluted visual prominence emerges from a contemporary political desire that seeks to use the contested past of the place.

 

Sacred history

The proposed project area substantially overlaps with the pilgrimage route to the antargriha (inner sanctum) of the Vishwanath temple. This sacred zone, as architectural and urban historian Madhuri Desai’s insightful work shows, emerged as a result of multiple realignments of pilgrimage practices and a few inventions.

Her close study of numerous texts and representations shows that a major reconfiguration of sacred zones happened after the Ghurid invasions in the 12th century when the city and its temples were disrupted.

In the following two centuries, as Desai describes, “scholarly activism and state support” brought the focus of development and investment on Vishwanath temple. One of the key moments in the city was the period of Raja Todarmal, an influential Rajput official in Akbar’s court in the 16th century, who extensively developed the area and the temple.

The demolition of Vishwanath temple in the 17th century and the building of a mosque on its plinth impacted the course of the city. The extant plinth became the rallying point. After Aurangzeb’s death, some rulers made repeated attempts to rebuild the temple. The kings of Amber in the 17th century even undertook a detailed survey of the area, mapped properties and lanes, and produced survey maps called tarah, which are available in the Jaipur Palace archives and published in Desai’s book. However, for good reasons, the idea to pull down the mosque and build a temple was given up. Finally, in the 18th century, the Holkar queen, Ahaliyabai, built a new Vishwanath temple adjacent to the mosque, and the sacred zone around it developed.

After independence, status quo prevailed for a long time, and temple and mosque lived together as before. However, post-1992, after the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya, things started changing, and tension escalated as the Hindu political parties laid claim to two other mosques, in Mathura and in Varanasi. The government enhanced security in Varanasi and secured the boundaries of the mosque.

It also passed an Act in 1991 that prohibited the forceful conversion of places of worship and imposed a status quo as of 1947. This legislation covered all places, including Varanasi, but excluded the disputed site at Ayodhya. Then, in 1991, the Vishwanath temple trust filed a case staking claim to the mosque. It is still being litigated. Outwardly, however, nothing much has happened.

The new plan offers an architectural route that’s meant to establish the importance of Vishwanath temple in a concrete way. To achieve this, the design does not take recourse to conventional architectural strategies such as tall towers or monumental buildings around the temple. Instead, it recovers a substantial area for the temple, opens it out for a grand view, and extends its presence till the river. Buildings are aligned along the pathway to define the space actively. These features help pilgrims and visitors behold the temple and make it the focus of their experience.

The project ensures that every visitor knows that the temple is the new centre of the city, and the strategies are akin to the idea in the fable of two competing adjacent lines. By making one line longer, the other one becomes shorter without any intervention.

In the past too, there were attempts to realign the importance of the temple, but their formal strategies were smaller in scale and closer to the existing grain of the city. This time around, the project does not leave any room for doubt or subtlety. The political desire of the government is explicitly and indelibly inscribed on the cityscape.

Bimal Patel, architect and urbanist, and head of HCP Design Consultants, who is in charge of the project, thinks there is more to the project than just the past. “The design for Vishwanath Dham gives tangible shape to Prime Minister Modi’s transformative vision. It is bold in scope, decisively breaks with the past where necessary, is accommodative and conservative where appropriate, is squarely focused on solving practical, functional problems and creating robust facilities for the comfort of pilgrims. It will modernise the functional attributes and strengthen the aesthetic and spiritual qualities of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Precinct. More importantly, it will unambiguously signify that the complex, seemingly insurmountable problems that plague our cities can be successfully tackled if they are boldly and sensitively dealt with.”

A priest speaking on the phone at a ghat near Vishwanath temple.

A priest speaking on the phone at a ghat near Vishwanath temple.

Plans unfulfilled

As the new changes and demolitions attract scrutiny and a fair share of criticism, the apathy and ineffective plans of previous governments have also come in for attention and censure. In the last three decades, the State made various plans to improve and protect the heritage of the city, but nothing much changed. In 1984 INTACH first mooted the idea of heritage zones and their development.

Since then, many plans and programmes have followed: a grand scheme to conserve and beautify the entire ghats section in the 1980s, Master Plans in 1991 and 2011, City Development Plan in 2006, the recent Smart City plan and City Development Plan, 2041, to name just a few. Many of these projects were not followed through or implemented. As a result, they only made a minor impact.

Some of these plans, particularly the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana scheme of 2016, delineated six heritage precincts, which included the inner city, the Buddhist site at Sarnath, and a weaver’s colony, for regeneration. It proposed 78 small projects including paving the lanes in the inner city, protecting ponds, and select intervention in residential areas. Not much has happened in this case too, and the protection of heritage precincts remains largely on paper.

The biggest disappointment came from the failure to list the old city of Varanasi in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The study by Rana Singh, Professor of Geography at Banaras Hindu University, shows that attempts to nominate structures within the city to the list began in 1989 as a part of the Nehru Centenary celebrations. Since then, many attempts, including the relatively recent effort to nominate the city as a World Heritage City, have failed for lack of participation and political will, and due to bureaucratic hurdles. Had they succeeded, the city may have taken a different course.

The BJP government must know that an island of attention will not be enough to make Varanasi a liveable city. Keeping the Vishwanath temple area shining while all other areas crumble cannot be a solution. Regenerating heritage precincts and making them places worthy of living requires more attention and care than the greenfield areas of the city. For this, the capacity, commitment, and sensitivity of the state have to increase manifold.

The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed here are personal.

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