Varanasi today – fading touch of eternity?

Temple on the semicircular pilgrimage route (panchakoshi yatra) of Varanasi near the Kashi Vishwanath temple (photo by the author, 2019)

Those who are familiar with Varanasi may share with me the eternal feeling of this city which seemed never change. When I visited this sacred city seven years ago it was exactly the same as it had been at the time of my first visit in 1986. However, if you visit the City of Light nowadays, you will witness massive changes.

If you proceed from Manikarnika Ghat towards the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the old residential houses on the left side of the narrow alley abruptly disappear at one point and give way to a high corrugated metal sheet fence barring any view on the left, except for a few temple towers and pillared halls (mandapas) rising above the fence and overlooking the alley. Bundles of electric wires hang in knots on the walls of houses and above the street and somehow one has the strange impression of a huge construction site. Walking there I was overcome by an inexplicable uneasiness although nothing of construction could actually be seen.

And then you reach a landing point where you can enter the ground behind the metal fence and the sight of the area behind the fence suddenly opens up. It’s a heartbreaking moment. A huge tract of the city, one of its oldest parts, completely disappeared. The old houses, some of them dilapidated as they were, the small shops, winding alleys are all gone. Some 160 houses have been demolished, even the debris has already been removed for the most part. It is only the barren ground straight down to the Ganga river, opening up like a huge wound cut into the body of this age-old sacred city.

Demolished part of the old city (photo by the author, 2019)

Varanasi, the sacred city of Shiva, the center and symbol of Hindu culture had uninterruptedly developed from time immemorial until about one year ago. One of the most ancient and continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi – or Kashi, as it is called in ancient scriptures -, built on the banks of the holy Ganga river where it takes a turn towards the north, the city has ever been a major pilgrimage centre attracting millions of pilgrims from every nook and corner of the Indian subcontinent. It is believed that taking a bath here in the river will wash away all sins and dying here will guarantee a straight way to heaven.

Manikarnika Ghat (photo by the author, 2019)

Urban development started here around the eighth century BCE. The city grew as the urban tissue gradually spread over the woodlands separating the holy shrines and springs (tirthas) and holy groves and forests once scattered in the huge tracts of land where Varanasi is located today. The Islamic conquest in the medieval period caused much damage to the city but, as there was no battlefield in India during the first and second world wars, its cities escaped the devastating effect of modern warfare so fatal to many European cities. That is how Kashi (Banaras, Varanasi) survived immortal and eternal.

The story behind the demolishment of this par of the city is the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project or, as it is more recently called, the Kashi Vishwanath Dam. It was the dream of Narendra Modi, prime minister of India who has his constituency here, to reopen the once free access from the river Ganges to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Among the many thousands of temples in the city, Kashi Vishwanath is the most sacred where Shiva is venerated as lord of the universe. Until recently it stood in a built-in area as a result of the encroachment of residential buildings on the temple. Crumbling basic infrastructure, the movement of millions of pilgrims in a year, law standards or complete lack of pilgrims facilities in the surroundings, lack of medical care are among the reasons that led to the ongoing ambitious demolition and construction project called the Kashi Vishwanath Dam.

So the arguments are there but the conclusion is less obvious. Is it really necessary to demolish one of the oldest parts of the city to tackle those pressing problems mentioned above? If yes, how does this project address those issues at a socially significant level? Shall we accept that there is no other way of improving basic infrastructure than pulling down the old city? Further, in our heritage approach at least, the restoration of some previous stage of development is strongly objected as it is always debatable what we should regard as “original”. And even if it could be decided with a relatively high degree of certainty, it would not justify demolishing what has since evolved. Due to the massive intervention in the urban tissue, the construction of new buildings and urban spaces, Varanasi may once and for all lose the chance of being nominated for the UNESCO heritage city title. Which, to my regret, does not seem to be the goal here.

Zsuzsanna Renner