On a recent visit to Kashi, Major General Mrinal Suman noticed many changes in the city from his visit in 1971.
While he is very impressed with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor project and the way it is being implemented, he feels an urgent need to spruce up the city roads, the drainage and the Ramnagar Fort, to make Kashi a true heritage city.
My first visit to Kashi was in September 1971. My regiment was en-route to the Western Front for the impending war with Pakistan. I was disappointed and disillusioned. There was filth and exploitation at every step. My recent visit was with the Swarajya Heritage Tour. Here are my impressions.
Kashi has no monument of historical importance --- no Taj Mahal or Qutub Minar. It does not qualify as a typical tourist destination. Manikarnika Cremation Ghat cannot be a sightseeing attraction, howsoever hallowed it may be.
There are no facilities for the holiday-makers. The infrastructure is sub-standard. Traffic is noisy and unruly. Pedestrians have no pathways. Yet, Kashi has been attracting millions of devotees for ages. Kashi is an eternal enigma.
Kashi is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Located on the banks of the holy river Ganga, it is the cultural centre of India and a repository of its proud heritage. It is the heart and soul of the Hindu faith.
The Kashi Vishwanath temple is one of the holiest shrines for the Hindus. The temple has been often subjected to plundering, looting and destruction by invaders. The present structure was built in 1780 by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. The temple was taken over by the state government in January 1983 and a trust has been created for its management.
Housing one of the most sacred Shiva-lingas in the country, Kashi attracts lakhs of devotees round the year. Over 100 buses with visitors arrive in the city every day.
Over a period of time, dense habitation had come up all around the temple. The approach to the temple had got constricted into narrow serpentine lanes. Devotees had to shoulder their way through the jostling crowds to reach the temple.
On festival days (for example, Shivratri), the number of devotees exceeds two lakhs. The queues extend for miles and the wait in the maze of narrow lanes goes up to over six hours.
Shops lining the lanes used to make movement difficult. Many unscrupulous characters used to coerce visitors to make offerings at their make-shift, family-owned, unkempt temples. It was sheer exploitation of the gullible devotees.
One would get utterly exhausted and disillusioned before reaching the portals of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Many people, especially the elderly and the sick, dreaded it. There were no facilities like toilets, food, drinks or resting places for the devotees.
Kashi On The Makeover Path
After choosing Kashi as his constituency, Prime Minister Modi launched a slew of projects to improve the city. Influenced by the grandeur and expansiveness of the Somnath Temple of Gujarat, he decided to decongest the area around the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
With a view to providing easy access and other essential facilities to the devotees, a wide pathway/corridor was conceived to link three major Ganga ghats --- Lalita, Jalasen and Manikarnika --- with the temple. The project is estimated to cost Rs 600 crore.
The Kashi Vishwanath Ccorridor project was officially set in motion in March 2018. The idea is to clear around 45,000 square metres of space around the temple and create dedicated pathways that are 50 feet wide.
The pathways will ease congestion at all four entrances to the temple. The government also plans to set up a hospital, rest houses, shops, cafeterias and help desks.
A digital representation of the corridor project (a video), tweeted by PM Modi shows the creation of a performance space on the riverfront, a cultural-heritage library, food courts, washroom facilities, shopping area, offices, resident quarters for the staff and a temple chowk.
The Uttar Pradesh state government took up the challenge in real earnest. Tenders were issued in September 2018, opened in October 2018 and the contracts were signed in January 2019.
Quality-cum-cost based selection methodology was adopted to select architects-cum-consultants. Once the blueprint was ready, the area to be cleared was demarcated with properties identified for acquisition and demolition.
That is when opposition by vested interests became strident. As is their wont, many self-proclaimed activists jumped into the fray to fuel discontentment with false narratives.
However, the government went about the task of acquiring property in a highly mature, sympathetic and considerate manner. Compensation was liberal and all opposition disappeared in a short time.
To expedite the work, a total of 33 contractors were employed. By the end of June 2019, incredible progress had been achieved. A total of 255 properties out of 291 had been acquired; 229 had been demolished and debris cleared, and 24 properties were under demolition.
It must be mentioned here that the disposal of debris posed strange problems. Only donkeys could be used through the narrow lanes and that too at midnight when the crowds lessen and the temple closes from 11 pm to 2.30 am.
A total of 400 families and 225 shopkeepers were affected. Compensation had to be paid to the owners, tenants and encroachers/illegal occupants.
Tenants and illegal occupants, numbering 378, were paid compensation varying from Rs 1 lac to 10 lacs, depending on the size and location of the property, the total compensation being Rs 15.84 crore.
A sum of Rs 4.15 crore was paid to 200 shopkeepers for their premises, every shopkeeper getting Rs 2.07 lacs on an average. Rs 9.95 crore was paid as compensation for 21 other properties.
Thus, by the end of June 2019, a total amount of Rs 29.94 crore had been paid as compensation for about 90 per cent acquisitions.
Special attention is being paid to the rehabilitation of the poor and the backward-class people of the Manikarnika Ghat, who are engaged in selling firewood for the pyres and performing other functions related to cremations.
It will be in order here to remove a few misconceptions that are being fuelled by the vested interests.
As acquisitions were carried out at two to four times the circle rates, almost all owners were quite happy to vacate their properties. In fact, many owners whose properties lie outside the corridor openly rued their luck and hoped that the government would acquire their properties in the second phase.
Only a handful of tenants who had been occupying properties for long at meagre rents under the protection of the state’s Tenancy Act expressed their opposition. However, for the helpless owners, it was a lucky opportunity to get handsome compensation for their almost-lost properties.
The second misinformation being spread is regarding the alleged destruction of ancient temples that were discovered during the demolition of houses. This aspect needs clarification.
Two types of temples existed in the acquired area. A large majority of them were small and private. They had been constructed either to collect offerings from the naive pilgrims or to obtain property-tax concessions.
In fact, many of them were nothing more than an alcove painted with saffron colour. As they carried no historical importance, they did not warrant any preservation.
The second type of temples were large stand-alone structures with elaborate engravings. These had been constructed by visiting kings, princes and rich merchants to commemorate their pilgrimage. These are at least one to two centuries old.
As time passed and the pressure on land increased, the caretakers constructed additional rooms around these structures to house their expanding families. Gradually, the temples got totally buried and sealed by walls around them.
In some cases, girders had been put through the temple domes to create extra rooms on additional storeys. None of these temples were functional as they were inaccessible. They had been subjected to total neglect and decay.
But for the ongoing demolition, these ornate temples would have never seen the light of the day. Not a single such temple has been demolished or any idol desecrated, as alleged by the opponents.
All rediscovered temples are to be preserved, maintained and brought back to their old grandeur. They will be an integral part of the corridor.
The third misinformation concerns the safety of the Gyanvapi mosque located next to the Kashi Vishwanath shrine.
As is their agenda, enemies of social harmony and propagators of fear psychosis have been spreading rumours that the Hindu fundamentalists plan to demolish the mosque, as was done in Ayodhya.
They intentionally hide the fact that the wall that separates the two holy places has been further strengthened and that all project drawings/maps/blueprints duly recognise the existence of the mosque. No harm will ever come to the mosque. On the contrary, it will benefit from the developmental works being undertaken around it.
The Ganga is much cleaner now. It must be said to the credit of the authorities that the general standard of sanitation and hygiene has improved a lot. There are no flies or mosquitoes. All shopkeepers are conscious of keeping their premises clean.
Most have garbage disposal bins outside their shops. However, stray cows, dogs and goats are a menace. It is a nightmare to walk the lanes without getting the feet smeared with cow dung at every step.
Some lanes are so narrow that it becomes a challenge to go past a sitting cow. Stagnant water due to choked side drains pose additional difficulties, more so when the crowds build up. This aspect needs urgent attention.
City roads are in a bad state with huge ruts. Stormwater drains are non-existent. Consequently, waterlogging of the roads is a regular occurrence.
Traffic regulation becomes problematic. Crowd management also leaves much to be desired. With mammoth crowds thronging the streets/lanes to approach the temples, incidents of stampede cannot be ruled out.
Owners of the houses and shops lining the main pilgrim routes should be encouraged, assisted and provided incentives to plaster, paint and beautify their premises. Kashi must be offered as a package to the rest of the world.
A grand corridor and old religious places must be complemented by clean roads and lanes. It should be a wholesome experience for all visitors.
Ramnagar Fort is in an utter state of neglect. Built in 1750, it needs urgent attention for restoration. Its walls are crumbling and the items in the museum are gathering dust. In the absence of suitable accommodation, the police have made the main porch its living quarters.
Finally, a point of religious propriety. Most inappropriately, boxes/chests for offerings in all Kashi temples are marked ‘Donation Box’ and ‘Daan Patra’ (in Hindi). A donation is a gift (money or goods) for charity, humanitarian aid, or to benefit a cause.
On the other hand, daan is alms, normally given to beggars/poor/needy as money, food, or similar items. When a devotee makes an offering to the deity, he is neither making a donation nor giving alms. It is not an act of charity and it is a matter of grave sacrilege to term it so.
When quizzed about the use of the terms ‘donation’ and ‘daan’, priests in two temples felt embarrassed. They readily accepted their inappropriateness and promised to have them changed to ‘Offerings Box’ in English and ‘Bhent Patra’ in Hindi.
Mythology has it that Varanasi is the centre of the world where all gods dwell. If that be so, Kashi ought to be worthy of such an honour.
Although protestors claim that the character and soul of Kashi is being destroyed by the ongoing decongesting projects, they forget that narrow lanes filled with filth can never be a part of any proud holy city, certainly not for the abode of the gods.
The ongoing make-over of Kashi will make every Indian proud of his heritage and impart grandeur to the hallowed portals of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.