It was the Janmajayanti of Ahilyabai Holkar two days ago.
Remembering her contributions to Dharma took me back to the life-size poster that was suspended on a large building as one entered the premises of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.
I had been there to see the centuries-old-temples emerge out of buildings and houses that had turned the surroundings of the ancient shrine into a claustrophobic maze of serpentine lines.
The Kashi Corridor project that had been in the news for ‘breaking down’ homes of generations of people was unravelling these structures.
And those who had grown as part of the mammoth sub-economy that had sabotaged the stretch between the temple and the banks of the Ganga were clearly unhappy about it.
What was once a cocoon of the divine had turned into a den of dirt, drugs and dilapidated structures. And those who were at peace with this version of Kashi were unhappy that it would all go.
And that was all that made news time and again. That ‘locals’ were miffed with the corridor project. But were they?
Swarajya’s tryst with Kashi thus began and resulted in this report that saw ‘Why destruction was key to creation in the city of Vishwanath’.
A year later this summer, when the entire country was seated in the confines of their homes, thanks to the pandemic, Kashi was making news yet again.
While on one end, there was a Mahant (temple priest) family that had alleged that they weren’t being permitted to do the evening special Saptarishi aarti and had hence taken to the street and done the same, there were certain locals alleging that debris were being dumped from the corridor project into the Ganga.
The allegations do not cease to flow. But ask the locals who see ‘Baba’s wish’ as above all and have given up their homes and shops, or the labourers at the site, and the tale you hear is different.
“This is an impossible task made possible. And we are only glad that we have been able to do our bit even though it meant we had to give up our homes. The compensation too has been just, although one cannot pin the value of a home or a temple,” says Punit Anand, a local, adding that the trust has been extremely cooperative and understanding, though people stayed back for months after handing over, and were helped to move their goods by the trust.
Mahants, too, who have had to let go of their temple vouch their support now for the temple corridor, as it is finally taking shape.
Work at the corridor had been halted as the first lockdown was announced.
But with labourers at the site and a deadline of August 2021 for the completion of the project, the temple trust led by the CEO, Vishal Singh, decided to restart the work in a sort of quarantine.
Starting 21 April, the work took off yet again with 150 labourers and 50 staff members staying put at the site even after work hours.
While all others in the country stayed put, the restoration of the temples that had been discovered continued.
The demolition of the remaining buildings restarted and the debris was being cleared.
All the workers are made to gather with social distancing norms in place and instructed each morning about the tasks to be undertaken and the way they are to be done, given the risks of the pandemic.
“They are all thermal checked and all contractors have been strictly asked to ensure the health of labourers is constantly monitored and the necessary aid provided, the cost of which will be taken care of separately,” explains Singh.
“It is a time-bound project. And hence, though all work was halted when the first lockdown was announced, we sought the permission of the district administration and restarted the work around 21 April at this site,” he says.
“Since it was possible to isolate the site and monitor the entry and exit points, we ensured the entire area was sanitised, thermal checking and other safety measures like masks and social distancing put in place, and resumed work. At present, work is on in seven buildings,” explains Singh.
As of 1 June, Singh informs, dredging work is on at the Jalasen and Laitha ghats, foundation and excavation work on for the Mandir chowk, the Mandir Parisar foundation work ongoing, while piling work is being undertaken for the Yatri Suvidha Kendras II and III, the Jalpan Kendra and the book store.
“At present, the aim is to finish the foundation tasks before the monsoon so that the project isn’t delayed further. But the deadline for the project, which was August 2021, has now been extended to December 2021 owing to the pandemic and the lockdown,” says Singh, as they prepare to also open the temple for visitors next week, with sanitiser-dispensing machines being installed at the temple premises.
Masks and social distancing will now be mandatory for those seeking to have darshan of the deity.
But has the evening ‘Saptarishi’ aarti been stopped, we ask. “Not even for a day,” says Singh.
Having interacted with the team and the CEO Vishal Singh, who wears his devotion on his sleeves and starkly on his forehead too as he goes about explaining to every reluctant local why it was important for them to move out of those old buildings, one really can’t buy news of any ritual being halted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has highlighted how this team of officers wasn’t treating this as yet another task, but literally taking it ‘religiously’, going about its execution.
It was an upset bunch of people (temple priests) who, despite being compensated for giving up the structures they lived in, were unwilling to vacate and continued to occupy it.
The regular priests had then pitched in to perform the aarti.
So while Baba Vishwanath’s aarti continued, images of which were regularly uploaded on all social media channels of the temple, certain media houses chose to report just a half-baked tale of the issue.
But, was the debris really being dumped into the river?
In reality, the temple administration was actually moving material and sand bags near Manikarnika Ghat for the construction of a platform for the conduct of cultural activities.
Apart from the debris of decades-old structures, the temple trust also has had to dismantle fake news and rumours that are curated to paint the project in bad light.
Very little, also, gets written about the fact that the temple trust also pitched in with Covid relief work in the ancient city.
Around 1 lakh kits of ration were distributed among the locals, by the trust. The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Annakshetra also provided over 5 lakh food packets to migrants and families in need.
The kitchen that cooked Baba Vishwanath’s prasad for the devotees transformed into a community kitchen, dispensing food to all those who were hungry in this lockdown period for the last two months now, feeding at least 1,000 people each day.
“It was the PM’s vision that the temple trust’s activities should not be restricted to religious or corridor activities. Which is when we decided to pitch in as a huge number of people were stuck at bus stands, railway stations and in distress all around. Apart from food, we also distributed medicines, personal hygiene kits for women and chocolates and biscuits to children through different organisations,” Singh explains.
And given the recent changes in the country, especially with regard to migrant labour, the project announced that it will now engage around 1,000 migrant labourers who have returned to Kashi during the pandemic for the corridor construction work.
“We have identified a demand for the project. And we are classifying labourers coming back according to their skill set and hence, will be able to employ them at the earliest,” says Singh.
The firm, entrusted with the task of the construction, had reported a reduction in its labour with many migrants having returned to their hometowns and sought various classes of workers based on the skills required.
And as all this goes on, Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar stands there, in spirit, holding the Shiva Ling on her palms, testifying as she did in 1780, that the glory of Baba Vishwanath shall indeed be restored in due time and in greater grandeur.
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