Kashi: Liberating The Vishwanath Temple Corridor Project From All The Calumny It Has Been Subject To
As the maze of all that had mushroomed around the Vishwanath temple and almost subsumed it is cleared, the Kashi Corridor Project rises to pilgrim's pride and devotees' delight.
Disbelief has been the only constant during my two visits to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. In March 2019, it was disbelief mixed with pain and shock; looking at the dilapidated condition of the temple structures that were being brought down. Today, after more than two years, it is disbelief again. Thankfully this time, it is infused with pride, gratitude and awe.
I have been a witness to the process of myriad of temples being ‘discovered’ when the Kashi Corridor Project began to bring down all that had cluttered the surroundings of the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Back then, the entire tour of the temple and its surroundings took hours. I had to make my way through debris, stare at the fine carving work on walls, pillars and on the walls of houses attached to temple walls that were being scraped away inch by inch, in order to not damage the temple.
“How could someone do this?” was the question that was echoing in my mind. How could someone place the deities in some corner under a stairway, and yet call themselves flag-bearers of dharma?
Donkeys were ferrying the broken brick and mortar as no JCBs or trucks could make their way through the narrow lanes. Workers were scraping off the cement by hand and all that announced the greatness and divinity of the site we were standing in were the boards put up by the administration.
There were plenty of tales then. There are plenty of tales now too, as the project nears completion. Tales that wanted to paint this entire effort in bad light and term it as ‘kyoto-isation’.
These are the tales that have taken me to Kashi twice; only to know that they reflect nothing but the inability to digest change and the sheer magnitude of democratisation of dharma.
Prisoners of a recent past not-so-pleasant were being finally released and those that wished the continuance of status quo weren't pleased.
In the Kashi Khand, as say some sources, the holy city is said to stand upon Shiva’s trishul. The description of this city was such that every inch of this land, every bit of its space was to serve as the ideal ground for sadhana. It has been a tradition for people to seek this land to ‘leave behind’ all that was ailing in their spiritual journey.
How then could such a shrine of Shiva, in his virtue as a ‘Lord of the Universe’, rest in a maze of unchecked encroachments. Encroachments that over a period of time would seek to wrongly stand in for the physical definition and description of the Kashi Vishwanath temple and its environs.
The Kashi Corridor Project sought to undo this clutter — to liberate the shrine of the liberator himself. And if that took destruction, so be it. It had to let go of its recent past, if it sought to reclaim its historic glory.
Way back in March 2019 when we visited Kashi, it looked like the task had just begun.
It was few months to the 2019 elections and rumour mills had been rife with how ‘the Aurangazeb of today’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone on a spree to destroy the dharohar of Kashi.
Social media was on fire with stories of the ‘hidden temples’ that were being unearthed as work of acquiring all those partly dilapidated buildings in dingy lanes that had mushroomed over ‘a century’, as some say, was underway.
Until then, none knew of these precious imprints of history that had been engulfed and encroached upon. Very few had even visited any of these temples in these serpentine lanes, which were anything but a pleasant stroll for any ‘pilgrim’ who wished to walk from the ghats to the shrine.
Like a proud Banarasi I met on my recent visit told me, “Ye saare Mahadev jo ye log naye naye naam lete hain… inke naam bhi nahin suney they hamne,” (We hadn’t even heard of the names of these ‘Mahadevs’ that these people come up with everyday). This is a ‘proud Banarasi’ who has spent all of his almost four decades of life in the city and knows it like the back of his hand.
But then, when the buildings began to be demolished after the owners of those structures, some of whom had even forgotten that they did own them, and the occupants had been duly compensated, and the buildings ‘bought over’, there was a sudden protest from those who claimed that the corridor project was nothing but ‘kyotoisation’ of an ancient religious site. That ‘development’ was not to happen at the cost of devastation of those that had preserved the ‘character’ of Kashi.
What was this ‘character’ of Kashi that was being destroyed?
Illegal constructions that had practically used the temples as the pivot and built even toilets at a level parallel to shikaras of the ‘hidden temples’?
Shivlingas placed inside temples whose walls served as the perfect backdrop for frying kachoris?
Intricate carvings that had been ignored while they shoved rods and built structures that gobbled up the temples?
Ancient Ganesha idols nested in walls of structures that in the remotest of imagination wouldn’t qualify to be ‘temples’ of historical significance?
(Read our report here to know about the truth behind the hue and cry then).
Temples were ‘discovered’ and the task to free them from the shoddy multi-storey structures that had doubled up as shops, chat stalls, lodges and cafes began.
Almost two years and a pandemic later, there was yet another round of tales of how the ‘Hindu’ heritage of the land was being trampled upon, disregarded, discarded and ‘dharmic malls’ being built on its debris.
So, we revisited the site to find out about both the progress of the corridor project and to see if the allegations being made were true. Had the deities and idols we saw in the temples that had been ‘found’ been picked up and ‘thrown away’?
Was there a heap of shivlingas that had been dumped in some police station? Was the Kailash Mahadev Temple going to be brought down? Where were the idols from the small shrines or those embedded into walls around the temples? As many of our devout readers sought to know, what was the status of the Kashi Corridor Project?
Speaking to Swarajya, Kashi Vidwat Parishad Mahamantri R N Dwivedi clarified that no idols have gone missing and all those that were found in the process of clearing the site for the corridor project have been kept safe until they can be reinstalled at the Kashi corridor gallery.
Dwivedi, who also heads the Sanskrit Department at Banaras Hindu University, puts to rest all allegations of the missing idols or their disregard. “As far as mythological and historic conservation is concerned, the idols are all safe and kept carefully and will be reinstalled in the same direction that they were earlier. The location is bound to change when a transformation of this scale happens,” he adds.
Talking about the project on the whole, he says that it is only a few agenda-driven ideologically-backed propagandists, who are unhappy with the work that is happening. “Else internationally too this project is being looked forward to by all those who wish to visit Kashi as it will be the first-of-its-kind for a Hindu shrine,” says Dwivedi.
“Mecca can host around 5 lakh people in its premises, the Vatican can host upto 1 lakh people. But there is no Hindu shrine that can accommodate 50,000 to 1 lakh people at one point of time. This corridor projects will facilitate this.”
"As far as the negative news are concerned it is steered by the likes of a few leftists and Congress-backed Swami Avimukteshwarananda, who float and fund such stories. But ask the people of Kashi, including those who have given their houses, and they will tell you they are happy with the transformation. Kashi ki janta utsaahit hai,” says Dwivedi.
“As far as the numerous shivlingas, temples, and the various idols that found mention in the Skanda Purana too but were inaccessible for people, they will all now be accessible and people will be able to see, worship and even offer abhishekas,” he elaborates.
“This wonderful effort is a model for the world, but for those with selfish interests, it is bound to hurt.”
“Even as far as the Durmukh Vinayak and Sanmukh Vinayak are concerned, as far as their mention in the Kashi Khand of the Skanda Purana is concerned, there is no description of their location. Also, when the last destruction of the temple had taken place, the location of a lot of temples had also changed and Ahilyabai had then done the jeernodhar. The Vishwanath temple itself was not where it is today. When that itself has been relocated but the ritual, the sanctity, the powers are intact, insisting on location for insistence sake is a futile argument,” he explains.
The texts prescribe that the ‘disha and kona’ of the deity can’t change but the location is something that’s bound to change when times and situations change. “And those things haven’t changed. Transformation is taking place but with tradition being taken into consideration,” he assures.
He also emphasises that no deities have made their way into the Ganga. “We have gotten every idol placed safely after measuring the length, breadth and width of each one and its history — whether it’s just a popular one or has mention in the Kashi Khand — for there were many people who got temples built for their families etc. We have a complete list of all the details including the location where they were found,” he said.
The last time I entered the temple premise, a large poster of the corridor project welcomed everyone. The poster had an image of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, the Maratha queen who built the current temple for Vishwanath.
Looking at Ahilyabai holding a shivlinga in her hand and contemplating on the work that had then been kickstarted, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi having laid the foundation stone just a week back, it felt as if it was history continuing a tale that had been half told.
The Gangeshwar Mahadev temple, closest to the temple superstructure, was among the first to be discovered and marked the beginning of reclaiming of a divine space and rewriting of a historic narrative. “This was one of the few temples that have been well maintained, for many were tucked inside houses in such a way that their restoration is a challenge in itself,” I wrote back then.
Then, I had seen the masons chip away at the hopeless cement and iron that had been loaded onto what now the self-proclaimed custodians of Hinduism call the ancient “heritage of the land that will vanish when the project is completed”. All around the “temples that were being discovered” stood tasteless buildings that would have started off either as small structures and gone on to become multi-storey ones.
Pilgrims who were making their way from the Ganga to the shrine were glad that this cleanup was taking place, pilgrims whose only ‘vested interest’ was Shiva himself were glad the pilgrimage wouldn’t have to feel like a punishment.
Today, once again within, the boundaries of the corridor project that has been cordoned off with metal sheets and heavily guarded by police officials, I see the emergence of that miniature model that back then felt surreal. The Nandi awaiting Vishwanath in his original location greets you in greater grandeur and the pathway as it leads to also has the Shringar Gauri temple(covered at present for the final phase of work) accessible to devotees.
The sheer colour palette is difficult to visualise for the very temples that looked black, naturally black, are shining white, even with all the dust around. Pink sandstone is the leitmotif of the entire premise and to accept that the transformation is real took multiple glances. “Have these been painted?” I ask, to which they show the bits where work is in progress. No, it is only the deposits of decades being cleaned and polished and the real colours of the stone and structures are visible only now.
Watch the images to know what we are talking about.
So have the idols vanished from these temples? Sadly, for those who wish, they had all been worshipped that morning too when I also visited like all others since their discovery.
The ‘vanishing vinayaks’ theory is strange given that I found two large saffron idols of Ganesha — one of which is the Durmukh Vinayak as the officials explained — standing there. A little dusty, yes, but duly worshipped and garlanded. Around it were remnants of the brick wall that had been temporarily built around it earlier while the vigraha was wrapped in cloth and padded and guarded, so that it doesn’t get damaged while the structure around it was being cleared up.
The Jalasen ghat has been cleared to provide access to the Ganga and there are those who claim there once stood a fort. But the boatman who took us on multiple trips on the ghats says, “there was a wall but we haven’t heard about the Marathas”.
He casually shows us how a similar ‘royal lineage of the past’—next to the Brahma ghat—still has traces of a ‘muti-tiered fort’ but is now nothing more than a colony of occupants who have taken over the entire ‘fort’ and turned it into a residential society.
In place of royal flags, one now finds bedsheets and sarees hoisted like they would be in any cluster of homes in a suburban layout. “Where are the Marathas whose fort has been destroyed?” asks another local, glad at the rebirth of Kashi. “If they lived there, would they not stake claim?” he retorts.
While Baba Vishwanath does take a break for a few hours each day, the work around him doesn’t. Round-the-clock efforts are on to ensure the completion of the project by end of November.
Officials aren’t keen on dismissing the countless allegations that are being made about the work as they say that “anyway none of them will hold good in a month or two from now when people themselves will be able to see that nothing has been destroyed”.
Why should we bust myths, they ask, when the work will do the talking by the end of this year? “People will be able to see things for themselves, experience what the corridor project offers, and know that the agenda driven propaganda was all a farce,” says an official associated with the project.
The then CEO of the project Vishal Singh had painstakingly explained to us, and to everyone who approached him with concerns of the ‘destruction’ and loss that the project would bring', that nothing would be lost.
We have personally witnessed many cheques being handed over, compensation being provided to many claimants of ownership and residence of the corridor region and letters being given to those who had given up their land or heritage.
Well-known intellectuals had given up much more than their homes and shops, and not sought any compensation, like senior journalist Padampati Sharma. He says he awaits the completion of the project to see how the Saraswati they entrusted to the authorities is finally placed in the new scheme of things. He has sought a suitable place for a shop which he says will be given on priority to those that have given up theirs during the making of the corridor.
Like Sharma, there have been many who entrusted the idols within the structures to the temple project. And reliable sources say many others even contested that the temples they guarded should also be counted as land to be compensated for. For else, the tiny spaces they held would account for meagre compensation amounts.
That being the case, where are those tales of countless Shivalingas being dumped in the Ganga or in some police station, emanating from? What about Kailash Mahadev and rumours that were being peddled on Twitter about it being demolished?
“It is a private temple, and we have nothing to do with it. How then, or why will we talk of its demolition,” asks CEO Sunil Verma, as he sits down to answer queries related to all that has been afloat on social media.
“There is no reason for us to react to the propaganda. We are doing a good job, a much needed one at that and come 30 November by when we will see this through, the project itself will answer the critics,” remarks Verma. “If we start reacting, the chain will be endless and that will affect our work, which we can’t let that happen at this stage when we are nearing completion,” he adds.
“There are those who have vested interests — be it those peddling propaganda or those whose livelihood has been affected by things falling in place and getting more organised. But our vision is of a Sanatani Kashi and we are working towards it — be it decongesting roads or providing Yatri Suvidha Kendras, queueing systems so people don’t have to line up on streets, the open spaces around the temple for pilgrims to soak in the divinity of the shrine, a Vedic Kendra, spaces for saints and seers to have debates and discussions and local cultural activities,” says Verma.
More importantly, nothing is being done without consultations with the stakeholders — especially the saints and seers and the Kashi Vidwat Parishad, who have been advising us about everything concerning the temple, the deities and their reinstatement, he says.
The history, heritage, and mythology of Kashi and Baba Vishwanath, all of it has been translated into Hindi by the parishad and provided to the corridor project authorities, informs Dwivedi. All of this will make its way onto panels, which will inform people about the land, the lore and the legacy of this ancient city and temple.
What then were those shivlingas whose images were shared on social media with the claim that they had been dumped in some police station?
As has been clarified time and again, the images were of the shivlingas that were found in Rohit Nagar way back in 2018 and had been dumped there after they were taken out of a dilapidated temple in an old house in Ganesh Mohal locality, a locality two kilometres away from the temple and the corridor project. In a matter of hours, local leaders of the opposition party had started spreading rumours that the KVC project was involved in dumping these idols and that they had been found at the site of the project.
Also, have the ‘navagraha shivlingas’ vanished? “None have gone anywhere. They are all safely kept and will be duly reinstated,” reiterates Verma, reminding that it’s just a matter of few weeks after which there will be no scope for such baseless allegations.
Strangely, the accusations then were just months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and rumour mills, that seemed to have gone low in intensity, rose yet again as the state elections are round the corner.
“None of the idols can vanish. How will they?” asks another official, who has been involved with the project since inception. As he completes his night shift at the site and heads home, he also explains how the 30-odd temples, in which these idols that have been displaced will be reinstated, are being produced by the agency elsewhere while the ground is being prepared for their assembling shortly.
“The foundation of those temples is being readied and in a matter of weeks the temple blocks will be brought here and assembled and installed. All work is happening at an unimaginable pace,” he explains.
The entire prangan has changed and feels sublime as the baleshwar pink stone dwars with intricate ornamental carvings now form a strong boundary of 72 metres by 72 metres for the central shrine on all four sides. The makrana marbled floor now makes for a pristine white surrounding to the mandir, access to which is being facilitated through three different Yatri Suvidha Kendras where pilgrims will be required to deposit all their electronics and other belongings.
From the viewing gallery atop the gate, where begins the arena of the corridor project, one can stand and see the Ganga flowing at one end and the Vishwanath shrine on the other.
Like Dwivedi mentioned, “pilgrims who take a dip in the Ganga will be able to see the shikhar of the sanctum sanctorum right from the ghat” and head towards through clean, pristine, spacious surroundings, unlike what was a grim, dark and ‘dirty’ reality for decades.
As one walks to the ghats and back, one notices various measures taken to ensure dharma is kept intact even amidst all the development. Two large pipes were being laid underground to facilitate all the abhishek liquids that are poured on the deity to flow directly into the Ganga. This was earlier collected at a spot near the shrine and would then be pumped. Pits are being dug for enough trees to be planted around the entire campus.
An underground sewage pumping station is being constructed while the old overhead one at the erstwhile Jalasen ghat will be demolished. The structures on the way to the river that were nearing completion included the Yatri Suvidha Kendra, the food court, the city museum space and the Mumukshu Bhavan. Work is on at the ‘bhog shala’ or ‘annadaan’ space behind the temple that will provide food for all pilgrims.
Provisions for a separate VVIP entry have been made to ensure no regular pilgrims are disturbed due to the VVIP movement. The Vedic kendra will facilitate various rituals and procedures while the library, the souvenir shops and the open spaces aim to transform the ‘visiting space’ into one where people can spend time and soak in the spirit of this ancient temple and city, which is said to be 'older than civilisation itself'.
Simply put, the project truly liberates the shrine of the liberator Kashi Vishwanath from all that it didn’t deserve to have around it.
- Narendra Modi ,
- Congress ,
- Shiva ,
- Ganesha ,
- Banaras Hindu University ,
- Kashi Vishwanath Temple ,
- Kashi Corridor project ,
- Gyanvapi Mosque ,
- shivling ,
- Dharmic Mall ,
- Kyotisation ,
- Mahadev ,
- Kailash Mahadev Temple ,
- Sanskrit Department ,
- R N Dwivedi ,
- Durmukh Vinayak ,
- Sanmukh Vinayak ,
- Jalasen Ghat ,
- Yatri Suvidha Kendras ,
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