Requiem for the oldest living city: Kyoto could’ve surely come up outside Kashi

By destroying the old city of Kashi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath are writing the epitaph of a spiritual capital, says the Mahant of Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple

Requiem for the oldest living city: Kyoto could’ve surely come up outside Kashi

Nachiketa Desai

“Mujhe Maa Ganga Ne Bulaya Hai” is what BJP’s Prime Ministerial nominee Narendra Modi had told a well-attended public rally in Varanasi, his first after he declared his intention of contesting the Lok Sabha election from there. He was lustily cheered.

Before he left for the venue of the rally, Modi had called on the Mahant of Sankat Mochan Hanuman, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, whose father, the late Virbhadra Mishra, had conceived and headed a comprehensive Ganga Action Plan to purify the holy river from pollution.

“Now that you have decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi, you should take up the cause of Ganga. Only a strong political will and people’s participation can achieve the goal of purifying the Ganga,” the Mahant, who, like his father, is a faculty member of the Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (IIT-BHU), told Narendra Modi.

“Modiji listened to me in all earnest and declared at the public rally his intention of taking up the mission of ‘Clean Ganga’ after the election. He not only won the election but also became the Prime Minister,” he said.

That he also created a separate ministry for cleaning of Ganga and other major rivers, headed by Uma Bharti, gave rise to hopes that the Prime Minister had taken up the mission in right earnest. “But soon it became clear that this was just a jumla (poll gimmick), just like most of his other promises, when Bharti first said she would clean up the Ganga within a week, extending the deadline soon to a month and then to 2019, by which time if the Ganga is not purified, she said, she would drown herself in it,” the Mahant recalled.

He pointed out that no concrete step has been taken in the last four years to clean the Ganga. “Every day, as much as 350 million litres of sewage flows into Ganga. The government has sewage treatment plant of 102 million litres. Two-third of the untreated sewage, full of bacteria and other deadly pollutants, is released into Ganga,” he observed.

Although for devotees, Ganga is the holiest of holy rivers drinking whose water purifies them of all sins. “The water from Ganga in Varanasi is unfit for human consumption as it is full of bacteria,” Dr Mishra says.

Besides the failure of the Modi government on the mission ‘Clean Ganga’ front, what pains the Mahant most is the ‘criminal’ action of the Yogi Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh of large-scale demolition of centuries-old buildings in the Pakka Mahal (old city comprising of a maze of serpentine narrow lanes) around the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

“The government wants to create a ‘Kashi Vishwanath corridor’ and a ‘Ganga pathway’, for which over 400 buildings, most of which are over 200 years old, are being razed to the ground,” says Dr Mishra.

The Mahant regrets that the character of the city is being drastically changed, so much so that soon the age-old traditional Kashi would be gone to give way to an entirely new alien city. The city would neither become modern like Gurgaon, nor retain its original traditional character

“They are destroying the heritage of Kashi irrevocably. Heritage of Kashi is not just defined by its buildings and monuments, but by the people occupying and living in these and carrying out an unbroken chain of traditional way of life. No visitor to Kashi comes here to see glittering and shining structures and buildings, as in Gurgaon. Visitors come to Kashi to feel it. The city resides in Pakka Mahal (cluster of very old multi-storeyed houses) with a maze of narrow inter-connected lanes,” he points out.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple is situated at the centre of Pakka Mahal and is connected by narrow lanes. The traditional Benaras lives in Pakka Mahal. It is different from the city outside the Pakka Mahal. People living in Pakka Mahal have a completely different lifestyle. Their behaviour is different, their day-to-day life is different and their conduct is different.

“We hear that the present rulers want to convert Kashi into Kyoto. What is so special about Kyoto? Kyoto has its own beauty and Kashi its own. I want to ask a basic question. Which is older, Kyoto or Kashi? This is like telling the father to improve by aping the son,” the Mahant says.

“This is a traditional city. If you make a Kyoto or San Diego out of Kashi, what will become of Kashi? Let Kashi remain Kashi. It has such a rich tradition which no other place in the world has. If you cannot add value to its present dimension, just leave it as it is. The city will develop on its own,” he says.

“The space and location of Kashi is very important. It is the beauty and attraction of the space and location of Kashi, which compelled Lord Shiva to leave Kailash and make Kashi his dwelling place. It is Kashi, as the dwelling place of Lord Shiva and the river Ganga, which makes the city sacred. According to mythology, Christians believe Jerusalem as the centre of the earth, Mecca as the centre by Muslims and Beijing as the centre by Chinese. Similarly, Hindus believe Kashi as the centre of the earth,” observes the Mahant.

“In Kashi, this shore (world) and the far shore (heaven) are closely connected. It is believed that a person who dies in Kashi attains moksha. This is Lord Shiva’s city. He has developed this city over time immemorial. It is He who has created the ambience and the natural habitat of the city. A Western thinker has defined Kashi thus: Kashi is older than the history, older than the tradition, older than even the legend and twice older than all of them put together. We have no idea about its origin,” he adds.

Kashi is a spiritual capital. It is the only city where all religions survive and thrive whether Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. They all share a common platform. If at all any differences arise among them, they sort it out across the table.”

After the demolition of the buildings in Pakka Mahal is completed to make way for the proposed corridor and pathway, the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the mosque, built by Moghul emperor Aurangzeb in the sixteenth century, would be visible from a distance and standing face-to-face.

The demolition drive created a lot of tension, after a portion of the compound wall of the mosque was broken. The government got the wall repaired overnight, after a huge crowd had gathered there to lodge protest.

“Some people may have a hidden political agenda, like they have for Ayodhya. But Kashi is made of a different mettle. People the world over praise Kashi for being what it is today –a spiritual capital. People of different faiths and denominations have been living together since centuries and have faced and overcome many calamities. I am confident that given the long history of the town, whose ruler is Lord Shiva, its people will be able to weather the storms,” he said, before adding, “We are here by His grace. The town and its people will face extinction only if Lord Shiva gets angry,” says the Mahant.

He says those who have mooted the corridor idea are propagating a falsehood that the river Ganga used to flow next to the temple. By building the corridor, they claim to unite Lord Shiva with Ganga. “This is utterly misleading and against the age-old tradition. Devotees always first take a bath in the Ganga, carry its water in a small urn, walk through the narrow winding lane up to the temple and offer the water to the Shiva Linga. The tradition was graceful.”

Now, the rulers want to replace these narrow lanes with a broadway by demolishing hundreds of ancient buildings. The Mahant points out that all these routes of devotees are well defined and scrupulously followed.

“It is widely believed that after the devotees offer the Gangajal to the Shiva Linga, Lord Shiva used to walk through the narrow lanes and pay tributes to the hundreds of gods and goddesses whose idols are located inside the ancient houses on both sides of the lanes,” he points out.

The Mahant complains that the proposed Vishwanath corridor and the Ganga pathway amount to destroying the ambience and habitat of Lord Shiva to suit the whims of the rulers. Once the Pakka Mahal is uprooted, it will not be possible to rebuild the habitat.

“How can the planners from Delhi and Lucknow, on flying visits to Benaras, come up with fancy ideas and impose them on the people without any understanding of the rich and ancient traditions and lifestyle of people of Pakka Mahal?” he asks.

In order to prepare a development plan for any city, one must first understand the need of the people who live in it. In no way the basic character of the city should be changed in the name of development. Firstly, this is a historic city which has taken thousands of years to developm. The whole system of Benaras is very fragile. One needs to think many times over before suggesting even the minutest change.

The five-km stretch of Ganga along the city and the ghats on them used to provide space and opportunity to the people to see and feel the river.

“Today, you won’t find peace anywhere on the ghats. All kinds of nefarious activities go on here round the year. Ghats had never witnessed such noise and hustle-bustle in the past. Those days are gone when people used to bathe in Ganga morning and evening and be at peace with oneself,” he rues.

The Mahant regrets that the character of the city is being drastically changed, so much so that soon the age-old traditional Kashi would be gone to give way to an entirely new alien city. The city would neither become modern like Gurgaon, nor retain its original traditional character.

“Kashi was always known as the spiritual, cultural and educational capital. What have we done to enhance these dimensions? By building high-rise buildings and broadening roads, we are changing the character of the city. One needs proper space for the development of the city. Instead of destroying the oldest living city, why can’t one build a new township on the periphery of Kashi? Visitors from all over the world come to Kashi to feel and understand its rich traditions. They don’t come here to see a modern city bustling with commercial activities,” he says.

“Kashi is known for its five to six distinct dimensions – tradition of knowledge and wisdom, academics, social setup, communal harmony and music. The city would attain greater glory if we enrich these dimensions. Instead, we are trying to destroy all this to create an entirely alien way of life,” he concludes.

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