S Venkat Swaminathan, a famous Tamil art critic, visited Kashi in the 1970s and was about to enter the Gyan Vapi mosque along with few friends, in plain inquisitiveness, looking no bit non-Muslim. But the person manning the entrance stopped them and forbade them from entering the mosque.
Reason? ‘You are Hindu’, he told them, to their surprise. Even upon denial and enquiring how he could say so with such conviction, the guard replied saying, ‘Your feet, they are very dirty. And only the feet of those who visit Baba Vishwanath and come are that dirty’.
The intensity of this experience (as narrated to me by Aravindan Neelakandan) hits hard when one hears from locals that this tale was true until not so long ago.
Cut to November 2021, and I have myself spent four hours walking barefoot, taking the Darshan of Vishwanath at daybreak, heading back to the Assi ghat for the aarti and the cultural presentation at the ‘Subha-e-Banaras’ forum followed by hours of walk by the ghats.
Yet, when I got back to my room having visited the memorial of Rani Lakshmi Bai, the various Bhairava temples near the Karnataka Ghat and tracing the city through time and those who built it across eras, and looked at my feet, they told the tale of what has changed in the city that is as old as civilisation itself.
My feet were clean. As clean as they would be had I strolled around a mall in any city.
While this visit of mine was restricted to the more famous and highly frequented ghats and a trip to Sarnath, the one last month entailed trails to the lesser known or visited ghats, walks up and down serpentine lanes where no vehicles can make their way, and strolls around the main city, the key market areas, and say a periphery of five kilometres around the temple.
But if there is one thing that was constant, it was the cleanup of this city that has been called ‘dirty’ even by renowned Banarasi poets.
One encounters two very different parts of the city when one stays on the two ghats - Assi and Brahma ghat - one closer to the main streets, more touristy, while the other is more archaic and many of its structures still untouched. But the change that has been stirred in is common.
Be it a cycle rickshaw ride from Godolia junction to Varanasi Cant, an auto ride to Shool Tankeshwar temple a good 18 km away, be it early morning walks through the serpentine lanes from Brahma ghat to Maidagin, or the way out of the hub of activity to the airport - every street has one leitmotif throughout the day - that of being constantly cleaned.
Two weeks ago, as I chatted up the e-rikshaw driver, about Kashi being cleaner, ‘Kyun nahin hogi, Das ek baar Jhadu lagta rehta hai, kachra uthaate rehte hain, din raat safai chalit rehti hai… toh kyun nahin hogi Kashi saaf (Why will it not happen, ten times the brooming goes on, they keep picking up the garbage, day and night cleaning goes on... then why won't Kashi be clean?)’.
And it is indeed true. Every few hours, the ancient city is rid of all the litter that seems to be replenished with equal vigour. But it ain’t dumped in the corners or dumped into the river.
While some lanes still are dung laden, most are clean, and have also been given a fresh look with a painting exercise that has rendered all the walls of the buildings leading to the ghats colourful and giving a glimpse of Kashi’s various facets.
Young men and women, many of whom are students of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), are seen painting the walls of those houses and buildings in the winding lanes with various themes associated with Kashi. All this work has been undertaken under the Varanasi Smart City project, say locals who are glad that their Kashi is finally transforming.
'Who would want to walk through dung laden, stinky lanes? Which true Banarasi would want to show these paan sprayed walls in comparison to the ones beautifully painted to anyone?" asks a young Banarasi, as he explains the "Kashi makeover" to his tourist friends who arrived from Mumbai for Dev Deepavali.
As the manager of Kashi Mutt, one of the oldest mutts around the Brahma ghat explains, ‘what has happened in the last two years, especially during the lockdown is unimaginable. Sewer lines were laid and replaced overnight in portions while the lockdown ensured work could be undertaken at a greater pace during the day too. After decades we saw fresh lines laid, the streets laid back to original and now being swept every few hours. Nagar Nigam has ensured these lanes are all cleaned although people dump garbage outside homes every night, cows keep moving and littering, but by next morning it is almost all gone. The ghats too if you see them are cleaned almost round the clock.‘
There is no means of transport that can get to these places through those lanes. The only other way to get to the said mutt is by boat, and the boatman, too, is glad that the ghats now look different. Although business is yet to pick up, he said two weeks ago, he was gearing up for Dev Deepavali then, which he said, would surely make up for the entire loss during the pandemic season. And going by the crowds that turned up on the night of Kartik Poornima, he definitely did.
The cleanup of the ghats is a story in itself. But here is a glimpse of a cleaner Kashi which, if it continues to stay this way, will gladly relegate the lines of Bharatendu Harishchandraji’s famous poem that went
मैली गली भारी कतवारन सड़ी चमारिन पासी। नीचे नल से बदबू उबलै मनो नरक चौरासी।।
कुत्ते भूँकत काटन दौड़ें सड़क साँड़ सों नासी। दौड़ें बंदर बने मुछंदर कूदैं चढ़े अगासी।।
A tour of clean Kashi in pictures:
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