If you want to see Kyoto in Kashi, go there at night.” This was my friend Deepak Patel’s advice. Deepak had just returned from Benaras after a month-long stay there. He is a third-generation Gujarati, whose grandfather had migrated from Ahmedabad to Banaras to start business in silk brocade, popularly called Banarasi Saris.
After a direct flight from Ahmedabad was introduced a few months ago, Deepak prefers to fly down to Benaras. A journey by train takes over 36 hours. I too took a morning flight which takes two hours 20 minutes. The airport is at Babatpur, 25 km from the Benaras city centre. UP State Road Transport Corporation (UPSRTC) bus plies every half an hour. There are shared taxis too.
I shared a taxi with four other passengers. The newly-constructed four-lane road, sanctioned by the previous Samajwadi Party government, was inaugurated just a month ago. A line of freshly-planted palm trees divides the road from the airport to the entry point of the city. With two flyovers built to bypass half a dozen villages on the way, the ride was smooth and swift, till we hit a road block where the four-lane road meets the narrow city street.
Here the dreamland Kyoto ends and the nightmare begins. The taxi now moves at the speed of a mule cart. Suddenly, nausea grips me as the whiff of stench from an open sewage enters my nostrils. What appeared to be an open sewage line was in fact the Varuna river in which I used to swim during my school days.
Jagriti Rahi, a social activist, told me two migrant labourers, brought by a sanitation work contractor from Bhabhua, Bihar, had died two days ago while entering the sewage tank to clear the clogging. The taxi driver, who had agreed to drop me at Godowlia, the city centre, told me to get down at Lahurabir, some three kms before the destination as the traffic police had closed the road. I precariously negotiated my way through choc-a-bloc traffic, lugging my suitcase along to catch an e-autorickshaw, popularly known as ‘Toto’, rhyming with the name of the Japanese town the local MP, Narendra Modi, has promised his voters to fashion. It took me three hours to reach Assi where I had booked a room in the Marwadi Dharmashala for a week’s stay in the city.
“Even Aurangzeb may not have destroyed so many idols of gods and goddesses as the present Shahenshah and Shah duo (Modi and Shah) have done,” commented a senior citizen
This was my first visit to Kashi after four and a half years. I had stayed in Kashi for nearly two months in 2014 to cover the Lok Sabha election. I had faced no traffic jam then, despite the unusually large number of vehicles plying in the city.
This time, traffic congestion on all arterial roads was stifling. Though distances are not much, the extreme being ten kilometres, residents avoid traveling from one point to another in the city. When some of my friends came to meet me, they took a boat from Rajghat to Assi, a distance of five kms. Some others living in Pakka Mahal near the Kashi Vishwanath temple walked their way through the narrow lanes to reach Assi.During my stay, boatmen went on strike to protest cruise ships introduced specially for tourists for one-hour ‘Ganga Darshan’. A private tour operator has been given the contract of operating the cruise ship, I was told by a boatman.
Pilgrimage to Kashi has gone commercial. One has to stand in a long serpentine queue, often extending up to a kilometre, to have a regular darshan of Lord Kashi Vishwanath. To avoid the queue and have an out-of-turn darshan, there is a fee of Rs 300.
The dharmashala had hundreds of pilgrims, mostly elderly women from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They all had their head tonsured after they had their ‘darshan’. “For us, a pilgrimage to Kashi Vishwanath is a must in our lifetime. Ayodhya? What is there in Ayodhya?” said an elderly man from Tamil Nadu when asked if they would visit Ayodhya also, now that they had come all the way to Kashi.
The gold-plated tomb of the Kashi Vishwanath temple is now visible from the main road near Gyanvapi and Bansphatak, now that most ancient buildings have been razed to the ground to make way for Vishwanath temple corridor and Ganga pathway. The Gyanvapi mosque, built by Moghul emperor Aurangzeb in the 16th, too is now visible, standing erect next to the Vishwanath temple.
“After all the buildings surrounding the temple and the mosque are removed for the proposed corridor, there would be ample open space for thousands of people to gather at one time. This can be dangerous,” said my college buddy who owns a shop of artefacts used in religious rituals and rites in Kachori Gali.
The Uttar Pradesh government has earmarked Rs 600 crore for the creation of the temple corridor. A special purpose vehicle named Temple Corridor Authority has been set up, with a state government official Vishal Singh designated as the Chief Executive Officer. He has been authorised to negotiate with the owners and occupants of the old buildings the price at which these would be acquired for demolition.
‘Mules and donkeys brought from adjoining districts have been pressed into service for the removal of debris. There is no one to monitor what is being taken away as debris are being dumped into Ganga,” said Munmun guru, a priest. Idols of gods and goddesses can be seen strewn around everywhere some of which have great archaeological value. Each of the old houses in Pakka Mahal had small temples built within them. “These are a part of the collateral damage,” said an official deputed to carry out the demolition drive.
“Even Aurangzeb may not have destroyed so many idols of gods and goddesses as the present Shahenshah and Shah duo (Modi and Shah) have done,” commented a senior citizen.