A popular belief in Varanasi goes that when Lord Shiva married Goddess Parvati, he asked her where would she want to build their home on earth. Mesmerised by the flow of the holy Ganges and the purity of the land that surrounded it, Goddess Parvati is believed to have chosen Varanasi, as the place she wanted to dwell in with her husband. Later, Shiva became so attached to the soil of Varanasi, that he brought to the place all other deities of the Hindu pantheon and settled them there.
“Aisa maana jaata hai ki yeh Shiv ke liye dedicated space hai, aur iska malik Shiv hai, (it is believed that this space is dedicated for Shiva and he is the owner of this place)” says Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, mahant of the Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi. In the popular understanding of the people of Varanasi, “Kashi ke kan kan mein Shiv ka Vaas hai” (Lord Shiva lives in every pebble and stone of Varanasi).
In the larger worldview of Hinduism, Varanasi is its spiritual centre. “There are few cities in India as traditionally Hindu and as symbolic of the whole of Hindu culture as the city of Banaras,” writes scholar of religious studies Diana L. Eck in her book ‘Banaras: City of light’. “Just like Muslims believe that Mecca is the center of earth, the Chinese believe Peking to be the center of earth, similarly Hindus consider Varanasi to be the center of earth,” adds Mishra.
Consequently, the city became a place where people from across the country came down to settle for centuries, bringing with them their religious cultures and symbolism. “Banaras is a mini Bharat. People came here from all over India to settle down due to the religious importance attached to the city,” says Professor of Hindi in Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Ramagya Shashidhar.
Located in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi has also been an important political constituency too. At present, it is represented in Parliament by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Politics in Shiva’s abode
“Shiva is considered the most venerable personality in Varanasi. Anything that is considered venerable is frequently invoked by everyone anywhere,” says professor of History in BHU, Rakesh Pandey. “Even the Communist Party tried to project itself as if they are the vanguard of the worship tradition of Varanasi. Here, it has become like a competition between the top political parties to decide who is more devoted to Shiva” he explains.
“That is why Priyanka Gandhi not only visited Varanasi through Ganga, but she also performed the rudrabhishek (a traditional form of worshipping Shiva) in the Kashi Vishwanath which is the main temple here,” adds Pandey.
Standing tall on the western bank of the river Ganges, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is known to be the shrine of one among the 12 Jyotirlingas (a devotional representation of Shiva) in the country. The temple is believed to find its mention in the Skanda Purana and is known to have been built and rebuilt on several occasions by those in power. In its present form, it is believed to have been built by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar in the 19th century. Consequently, the site is a major pilgrimage center for Hindus who visit the temple in large numbers every year.
“Narendra Modi too expressed publicly that he wanted Lord Shiva to be worshipped by the commonest of the common. That is why he has announced the construction of the new path from Kashi Vishwanath to Ganga,” says Pandey. One of the biggest infrastructure projects in Varanasi in recent times, the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor is expected to enhance pilgrim experience by decongesting the route to the temple and offering them direct access from the Lalita Ghat.
The corridor project in Varanasi, however, has received mixed responses from the people of the city. “The corridor is an excellent idea. It is going to beautify the city. I hold no romantic ideas about the gullies (lanes) of Varanasi. With this corridor, Kashi Vishwanath will be just as magnificent as Balaji in Tirupati,” says Pandey.
There are others, however, who believe that the corridor, which is being constructed after demolishing close to 300 houses in the area, will change the character and identity of the city. “They have destroyed close to 17 Puranic temples to build the corridor and we cannot say anything because if we protest we will be called ‘deshdrohi’ (anti-nationals),” says BHU’s professor of Neurology B N Mishra. “PM Modi had come here for inaugurating the corridor and he said that ‘maine Shivji ko aaj mukt kiya’ (I have freed Shivji). We cannot accept this. The people of Banaras believe that only the holy Ganga and Lord Shiva are the ones who provide freedom,” says Mahant Mishra. “If Banaras changes its in-built character then everything is lost,” he adds.
What Kaashivasis think of their vote
The Lok Sabha constituency has been a BJP stronghold since 1991, except in 2004 when the Congress had won there. In 2014, PM Modi won from Varanasi with a margin of over three lakh votes. “Traditionally, the people of Varanasi have voted for the BJP because they have created an image of themselves as the custodians of Hindu faith,” says Mishra.
“Varanasi is an important Hindu pilgrimage city. The city’s economy is dependent on the devotees who come to visit Kashi Vishwanath. Therefore, Modi has improved the roads of this city, constructed a bypass, improved electricity conditions, constructed a ring road around the city, and there are several other development plans which are in the making. In the next five years you will see many more changes,” says retired professional R P Singh.
There are others who are disappointed with the government’s work, but that it will not impact the way they vote. Santosh Jha had set up his shop of temple commodities near Gate number 2 of the Kashi Vishwanath temple around 10 years ago. Recently, his shop was demolished to make way for the temple corridor and he is currently out of business. “The government needs to make some arrangement for the shopkeepers who are being displaced. I have about five-six people in my family dependent on me. What will I do now?” asks Jha. He goes on to explain that his disappointment will not have any impact the elections. “This area is the BJP stronghold. Even if 500 displaced shopkeepers vote against them, it will not affect the results in any way,” he says.
“Mandir ka vikas hua par log toh berozgaar ho gaye, (the temple is being developed, but people are unemployed),” says Aakash Yadav who has a flower shop near the temple. Expressing his concern over the current government he says “this area has voted for the BJP for 30 years now. Today we are feeling disappointed.”
“The Vishwanatha corridor will not have a dent the BJP votebank because of the other things that the party has done here,” says Professor Pandey. He lists out the things he believes the BJP has done for the development of the city. “Things like the roads, electricity, work done for the cleanliness of the Ganges,” he says.
In the days preceding the general elections, voices from the spiritual capital of the Hindus appear mixed and uncertain. Political parties are, meanwhile, devising several measures to appeal to the hearts and minds of the people of Kaashi. How the Kaashivasis choose their next leader, only time and, perhaps Lord Shiva, can tell.