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Sunday story: Project Varanasi

🔴 As he inaugurated the Rs 800-crore Kashi Vishwanath Dham corridor, PM Modi called it “the bridge between the past and future”. The Indian Express visits Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world, where the corridor has shaped new links, though a few others have snapped

The refurbished Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the newly built sandstone courtyard. (Express Photo)

THE SCALE is striking. The Kashi Vishwanath temple, with its refurbished golden dome and flanking spires, stands in the newly built sandstone courtyard. The arches of the viewing gallery and shopping arcade — part of the 330-metre Kashi Vishwanath corridor that stretches from the temple complex to the Ganga’s Lalita Ghat — are still adorned with the marigold flowers that were strung for the inauguration of the Rs 800-crore Kashi Vishwanath Dham project, covering 5,000 hectares. The architecture is splendid in its symmetry. And in its isolation.

Outside, the throbbing city — with its alleys and a temple at every turn, its tea stalls supplying chai and endless gupshup — looks distant. The adjacent Gyanvapi mosque appears now visually much smaller. This is a new Varanasi, a new project.

Ever since the corridor was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 13, the city hasn’t had a breather. Ministers of the Yogi Adityanath Cabinet, their families in tow, have started visiting. Meanwhile, an entourage of 100 mayors touched down for the All India Mayors’ Conference on December 17.

For a fortnight, a musical extravaganza will be held every evening at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the surging masses at the Ganga aartis have been unprecedented.

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Phase 1 of the newly built corridor, 50 feet wide, has been the talk of the temple town, though it will be a while before it’s opened to the public.

On a Thursday afternoon, the red carpet rolled out a couple of days ago for PM Modi has been rolled back in, while the temporary steps, where labourers sat as the PM showered them with flower petals, are being dismantled. With Phase 1 inaugurated, men and machines are back to working round the clock to complete the rest of the project.

Varanasi Commissioner Deepak Agrawal told The Sunday Express: “There is a 330-metre distance between Lalita Ghat and the temple. That has been redeveloped as a direct corridor between the Ganga and Kashi Vishwanath temple. That’s Phase 1 of the project, which the PM inaugurated.”

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Project Varanasi. Click to enlarge

The first phase entailed a massive expansion of the temple complex — from 3,500 sq ft to 5 lakh sq ft. On either side of the central courtyard, called the Mandir Chowk, are public conveniences, handicraft and souvenier shops. The larger Kashi Vishwanath Dham complex also has a rest house for pilgrims, a gallery featuring the “spiritual traditions” of India, museums, a food court, a ‘spiritual book shop’, a bookshop and a hospice. Besides, there are viewing galleries for a panoramic view of the city and the river.

Phase 2 of the project moves to the other end — the riverside — and will feature a massive jetty station, and 82 sandstone steps leading from the ghat to the corridor entrance. There will also be escalators and a ramp for easy access. Once this phase is complete, devotees can, purportedly like in ancient times, take a dip in the river, and carry holy water to the temple.

Speaking after inaugurating the project, the PM said, “Vishwanath Dham is a testament to India’s culture and ancient history. It is a testament to how our ancient values are guiding us towards our future.” He then added, “When you come here, you will not only see faith. You will also feel the glory of your past here. You will see how pracheenta (ancient) and naveenta (modern) come alive together.”

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Bimal Patel, Director, HCP Design, the Ahmedabad-based firm that is implementing the project, points out, “It is possible to create an architectural vocabulary that juxtaposes the modern with the traditional. The key learning from Phase 1 has been that even in a dense urban setting, it is possible to bring about a transformative change. And seemingly impossible logistical challenges can be tackled in a straightforward manner if a problem-solving approach is applied.”

The logistical challenges that Patel refers to include razing of as many as 300 small buildings that came in the way of the project. Out of the Rs 800 crore earmarked for the project, Rs 450 crore has been spent on purchase and rehabilitation, says Commissioner Agrawal. It was not dealt like a “typical land acquisition”, he says, but was a unique model where deals were carried out individually with the owners of these properties.

So, for more than a year, Agrawal adds, officials of the administration sat with house and shop owners, tenants, even encroachers or those who didn’t have land deeds, and negotiated a mutually agreeable price, which was paid and a proper ownership transfer deed was executed. “We have been able to amicably settle 1,400 people without any litigation; everyone was given a one-time rehabilitation grant,” he says, adding that the process of rehabilitation is over. “We don’t need to deal with a single person or property now; only the construction part is pending.”

Out of the Rs 800 crore earmarked for the project, Rs 450 crore has been spent on purchase and rehabilitation.

Patel adds, “In the second phase, the sewage treatment plant in front of Lalita Ghat will be relocated… New facilities will be created for Manikarnika Ghat, and a café will be added atop Lalita Ghat. There will be no further demolition on site for this project.”

Around 22,000 people visit the temple on a daily basis, which goes up to a lakh on festive days, Agrawal says, adding, something had to be done.

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Padampati Sharma, in his 50s, a veteran sports journalist who also describes himself as a social worker, says his house at Lahori Tola was demolished to make way for the corridor. He was among the first to protest. A day after officials visited his place, he wrote a Facebook post threatening to commit suicide if the government put the plan into action.

“We had our ancestral house in the area. We got no eviction notice. Officials simply visited our place and discussed how we can hand it over to them.”

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Sharma says he finally relented when the officials offered a deal he couldn’t refuse. “We got more than Rs 4 crore for our house, which we divided among all claimants. The money is useful. It will help in securing the future of our children,” he says. He now lives with his family in an apartment complex around 4 km from the temple.

But he misses a certain way of life that defined the city and its cramped neighbourhood. “We lived in that mohalla for generations… The neighbours were our family. At the smallest of problems, 200 people would converge to help each other out,” he says, before adding, “But what has come up is also significant.”

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Around 22,000 people visit the temple on a daily basis, which goes up to a lakh on festive days.

Harvard University professor Diana L Eck also expresses a certain sense of loss. Eck, author of Banaras, City of Light (Alfred K Knopf; 1982), who was a student at Banaras Hindu University in the late ’60s, says, “There are hundreds of temples, large and small, some are inside homes… on the wayside. And none is neglected. It is this density of the sacred that is especially important. In elevating the Kashi Vishvanath Temple to the supreme position and imagining that the Ganga should be visible from the corridor, the plan creates a fiction that has never been part of the history of Kashi.”

Agrawal, however, counters, “We have restored several historic temples that were discovered when the buildings were being removed. Also, we have built a Dev Darshan gallery where artefacts and religious objects discovered from the homes of people will be displayed.”

At Kashi Tea Stall, in one of the cramped lanes near Dashashwamedh Ghat, Gauri Shankar Yadav, a resident of Varanasi, is sipping chai with his two friends, both priests at smaller temples nearby. Yadav claims to have been a Congress voter once but now backs the BJP because of Modi’s plans for “Hindu regeneration”. He is more accommodating of the corridor and its place in Varanasi. “It’s like we move from dhoti to trousers and sari to jeans to suit the times. But andar hi andar (deep inside), don’t we remain the same?”

Gate No. 4, the main entry point to the temple, is near Godowlia Chowk, bang in the middle of a crowded bazaar. On a Thursday morning, as devotees throng the gate in the midst of the market chaos, Vijay Goswami, a resident of the neighbouring Manikarnika Ghat area, who teaches at a local school, turns up with folded hands.
“Upar jao to mera message le jana, please (Please pass on a message from me to the higher-ups). The roads here are so crowded throughout the day… What if an ambulance has to pass? The problem is not the devotees, but this unending stream of VIP vehicles,” he says, before disappearing into the crowds.

For a fortnight, a musical extravaganza will be held every evening at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the surging masses at the Ganga aartis have been unprecedented.

Metres away from the heaving mass of people at the gate, Sabi ur Rahman, who sells towels to tourists at Dashashwamedh Ghat, says, “I don’t think this crowd is anything new. The city has always had visitors. Bas ab siyasat aur hukumat ke kaaran mandir-masjid ki baat kuch zyada hone lagi hai (It’s just that there is more communal talk now because of power and politics).”

Nirmala Devi, who sells flowers outside the lane leading to the old entrance, says, “We have heard the corridor is good but haven’t seen it. But I don’t think it will make any difference to our lives. Corridor is for VIPs. Yatri to isi puraane raaste se phool le kar jayenge (Pilgrims will take this same old route and take flowers to offer to the deity).”

Santosh Majhi, a boatman, is excited about the project — and the prospects for the BJP as it prepares for a crucial Assembly election. “The temple complex can now house 60,000-70,000 people… These people would otherwise have been crowding our roads. The city has changed so much in the last five years. If Yogiji comes back in 2022, it will become even better. And if Modiji returns in 2024, Kashi will become Kyoto.”

Close to Lalita Ghat, amid the growl of JCBs and other heavy equipment, tourists from Kolkata are taking a leisurely ride on the Ganga. At one point, the boatman drops his oar, slows down and announces: “This is the spot where Modiji took a dip on Monday.” The group shouts out: “Jai Sri Ram!”

Additional reporting by Shiny Varghese

First published on: 19-12-2021 at 03:17:07 am
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