Death of a Timeless City

“Benares sukh ka bhuka nahi, samadhan ka bhuka hai”, said Amitabh Bhattacharya, a 68 year old resident of Varanasi who has been a journalist at the Northern Indian Patrika—one of the country’s oldest newspapers—for more than four decades. In a city that Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, this distinction between sukh, i.e., happiness, and samadhan, i.e., contentment is vital in the wake of the upcoming elections.

Given that the last four years have seen the BJP’s rhetoric in the city pivot on development—whether this includes introducing e-boats and cruises on the Ganges, paving worn out parts of the Ganga ghats, or most recently, initiating the construction of the Vishwanath mandir corridor—the BJP is putting all its weight behind infrastructural fortification of the city, seeking to enhance sukh-suvidha for the people. But this emphasis on sukh rather than samadhan rests on a vital misunderstanding regarding the nature of the city, and might end up costing the party in the 2019 elections.

One of the oldest cities in India, Benares is a spiritual hub, attracting pilgrims from all across the country – some visit its temples, others take a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges and many simply come to die. “Anyone who dies within the periphery of the city is believed to attain automatic moksha”, said Bhattacharya. “That’s why death is not seen as an occasion for mourning. Instead, it is seen as liberation from worldly bondage.” In his 2018 book To Die in Benares, K. Madavane, punctuates the same, stressing that death is by no means the end in this city. Rather, “this town, with its multiple names—Benares, Varanasi, Kashi—continues to burn and to be reborn, to shine and to annihilate, an impossible cycle in which humanity is subject to wills much greater than its own.”

But many locals believe that Modi’s developmental agenda has eroded the city’s spirituality, transforming it from a spiritual centre to one of religio-cultural tourism. “For instance, take the Ganga cruise”, said Utpal Pathak, an independent journalist from Varanasi. “Why will tourists come to Benares for a cruise? If they want a cruise, they will go to the US or Europe. Why will they come here?”.

“It’s like drinking Banarasi lassi in a wine glass”, said Pathak, highlighting the profound mismatch between the aesthetic, historical and cultural aura of the city and the changes it is undergoing under the BJP’s development agenda.

Another major point of contention, even with otherwise staunch BJP supporters, has been the ongoing construction of the Vishwanath corridor. Officially set in motion in March 2018, the corridor aims to clear around 45,000 square metres of space around the temple and create dedicated pathways, 50 feet wide, stretching from the Ganga ghats to the temple. According to the government, the corridor will help ease congestion, and comprises part of a larger project to modernise the area surrounding the temple, including plans to set up a hospital, rest houses, shops, cafeterias and help desks.

“When a pilgrim comes to a place like Benares, he expects to face austerity, he expects to face hardships along the way. That is the very definition of a pilgrimage. But if you start glazing over the natural character of the city with artificial toppings like this, the city will soon be lost under it”, said Pathak.

Developmental projects like this foment an existent sense of unease that the city’s original character is changing. This feeling, first triggered by massive migration from Bihar in the 1990’s, has only gotten worse with the years as the city has gotten more crowded and more dependent on cheap immigrant labour.

Adding to this now is the fact that the consultant chosen for the Vishwanath corridor project is not a local company but Ahmedabad based HCP Design Planning and Management Private Limited which was founded by Hasmukh Patel – an influential architect credited for the Sabarmati riverfront development project in Ahmedabad. “Modi talks about development and creating jobs, but what’s the point if all the profits are going to people outside Benares?”, said Pathak.

Opposition parties have been quick to capitalise on this discontent plaguing the people. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which won the second largest number of votes in 2014—2,09,238 or 20.30%—second only to the BJP, has moved a private member bill in the Rajya Sabha seeking to halt the Vishwanath corridor project, claiming that it is causing large scale damage to certain temples situated in the zone of the corridor. In the process, the party claims the BJP is damaging the cultural heritage of the city.

“Everyone keeps saying that Modi has not done enough”, says Bhattacharya with a sigh. “But Benares needs less, not more. It needs someone who belongs to the city, someone who understands the city. Not an outsider like Modi who doesn’t have the faintest idea of the city’s unique character.”