A lot has been written about Varanasi — its history, craft, temples — and now the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has turned prose into iconography with its recent maps. The set of four, titled Kashi Bhraman (Banaras City), Kashi Darshan (Vishwanath Temple), Kashi Darpan (Panchkroshi Yatra) and Kashi Chitran (Living Heritage of Banaras), unfold the different layers of the centuries-old city.
Each map is a result of three decades of research by INTACH’s respective departments — Intangible Cultural Heritage, Natural Heritage and Architectural Heritage. “For nearly 35 years, we have been collating information on Benaras. Few years ago, we relisted about 1,200 buildings, did a survey of its intangible heritage and made proposals for its water bodies and the Panchkroshi Yatra. But most of these were academic, so we wanted to convert our findings into maps that everybody could use,” says Divay Gupta, Principal Director, Architectural Heritage Division. Designed by Grafiniti, the maps are in colours associated with the city, ranging from warm saffron to ochre and deep maroon.
The Panchkroshi Yatra map contemporises the ancient pilgrim route by depicting the water bodies at the five halts on the way, and its association with the temples in the area. The circumambulation of Kashi is “dotted with temples, shrines, sacred trees, kunds, wells and dharamshalas”. A 19th-century interpretation of the Kashi Kshetra focuses on the cosmic significance of the city. “We wanted to present the old versus the new. The old is not a geographic map, it’s like a mandala, it shows the mythological story when Shiva came with the gods and resided here. Our map is geographical, and our route shows that Kashi is not really a circle but organic and meandering. Of course, there are many temples that are sited which correspond to the actual location even today,” says Gupta.
In Kashi Chitran, one reads of festivals and fairs, rituals at its 84 prime ghats, oral traditions and institutions of knowledge. The map shows the ghat-hugging river Ganga dotted with locations of things handmade and intangible — from textiles to paan and storytelling — and universities, including the oldest Sanskrit university in the world, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. Gupta says these maps have taken a life of their own with students from the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) using them as a resource for city walks.
The journey of map-making led INTACH researchers to many other discoveries. “The Panchkroshi itself was an eye-opener. Nobody had looked at it from an architectural point of view. We found gems of heritage buildings, a 10th-century temple and several kunds. Though it has the river, the city once had close to 300 water bodies, and over 1,000 wells. One could see there was ample provision for future planning. Then when the British came, they had a network of water purification systems housed in beautiful buildings,” says Gupta.
Speaking about the recent demolitions in the temple town, Gupta is critical of the manner in which it has been executed. “One imagined that Benares would pave the way as a heritage city but none of the best practices were adopted on how to preserve buildings and remove encroachments. There were ways to repurpose many of them, none of which has happened. Many countries in Southeast Asia now are bringing the old and the new together beautifully, including Nepal and Singapore. Turning the space into a European plaza is so alien to the idea of Benares. The complete erasure of one of the oldest parts of the town has also ruined its archaeological hope. We could have unearthed so much more about the city’s history. Moreover, there has been no documentation of the demolition, no record of the buildings that have been razed. It’s now being treated as a greenfield project, as though nothing existed before this,” he says.
The maps though do not speak of demolitions or road widening. They present the ‘pray, eat, shop’ view that everyone is familiar with, of experiences to be had all-year through. At Rs 500 for a set of four, these are available at the INTACH store in Delhi and its website.