For the Kashi Vishwanath corridor to come up, for Banaras to be revived, the first thing needed was political will for the activity synonymous with Shiva—destruction.
You can also read this article in Hindi- काशी कॉरिडोर- बाबा विश्वनाथ की नगरी के सृजन के लिए विनाश आवश्यक
Ahilya Bai Holkar stands tall holding a Shivalinga on her right palm, her left hand from below her ghoongat gently supporting it, and the flower offered atop it. This image greets each and every one who walks into the arch of the Kashi Vishwanath shrine in Varanasi. The mammoth poster of the Maratha queen is suspended on a wall of a brick structure and it reads ‘Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar — Restored the temple to its present form in 1780’.
Her image, facing the huge mosque that stands where once the original structure of the Vishweshwar temple stood, strikes anyone who knows what Kashi means to any seeker who belonged to this land, and all that the temple and the city have withstood for eras together.
And what better tribute to all those like her (who time and again have done all that it takes to uphold Indic civilisational glory and dharma) than envisioning and creating a space where those visiting the temple feel transported to the era where dharma prevailed unapologetically. That is precisely what the Kashi Corridor Project intends to do.
The Kashi Corridor is a beautification project that seeks to decongest the space between the banks of river Ganga and the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and create a large complex of facilities for pilgrims and visitors in the area. Aimed at ensuring easy access from the river to the temple, this project plans to create a temple complex by reclaiming the space around the Vishwanath temple and redesigning it.
On 8 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Varanasi, his constituency, and after participating in a bhoomipuja ceremony, performed the shilanyaas of the Varanasi Dham project; his ‘dream project’ which he exclaimed was probably why he had been elected from the city.
"With this corridor, Kashi is going to get a new identity in the whole world. When I came for elections in 2014, I had said that I haven't come but have been called here. Today, I think that was an invitation for such work itself and now that resolve has been strengthened further,” the PM was quoted as saying.
This was part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) 2014 Lok Sabha election manifesto, where the party promised to give the city a makeover. As the Prime Minister, who is also the MP from Varanasi, completes his current term, he has ensured the project takes off in full swing.
Ever since the foundation stone was laid, a lot of videos have surfaced on the social media about ‘temples emerging’. But to know what this project holds and what it can do to this ancient city of lore, one needs to witness the work that is going on at the site.
At the spot where once stood an ‘urban chawl’ of sorts, stand broken buildings, piles of debris, empty stretches of land, and tall and exquisite ‘hidden’ temples that emerged as the space was being cleared to make way for the project. These are no ‘small’ temples; each of them has a history that goes back to a few centuries but all of which were lost to visitors to the shrine as multi-storeyed apartments had grown all around them, many of them sadly using these temples as crutches to stand on or build upon. The lintels, the iron rods that are left behind, the carvings that try to peep from dabs of cement from the structures that once wrapped them tell the tale of hidden glory which this project aims to uncover and restore.
The Corridor Project
The project covers an area of around 40,000 square metres and is aimed at creating a complex space that will facilitate seamless movement of pilgrims from the river Ganga, following a holy dip, straight to the temple.
This would be an all-inclusive temple complex that will accommodate and upgrade certain existing structures like a heritage library, but more importantly, create a well-planned temple campus that not just gives one the view of the Ganga right from the temple but also makes provisions for rest rooms; a tourist information centre; storehouse for wood for the ritualistic burning of pyre at the Manikarnika ghat; a yatri suvidha kendra with facilities like washrooms, feeding rooms, lockers for tourists; a large performance space for artists; a cultural centre, a cafe; a multipurpose hall, a vedic kendra, the Varanasi gallery, emporiums and offices, guesthouses, yagnashalas for rituals, and a newly-built museum.
The PM tweeted out a video for the planned structure after having laid the foundation stone. And the work to translate these plans into reality has begun and has gathered pace in the last eight months.
This is not the first time though that plans have been made to decongest this timeless temple city. Many previous governments, although wished to, didn’t will it. The project was swept under the carpet for executing it would entail rubbing a lot of ‘locals’ up the wrong way and ‘hurting public sentiment’. But the manner in which the present government went about doing things, even at the cost of being hailed destructive initially, will enable the creation of a project that is unparalleled in vision. That isn’t an empty banter praising the Prime Minister. That is a review of the project after multiple rounds of reconnaissance of the space, having met the people who are stakeholders in the project, those who initially protested against it (and are quoted to this day as being so by those who wish to tell a sorry tale), pilgrims, workers, contractors, the team behind it, and almost anyone who has a say in this matter. All of them are waiting for the Kashi corridor to manifest.
Temples That Have Emerged
As I wondered how the Maratha queen would have felt to see this revival, and walked towards the entrance of the temple, where people queue up for darshan, my eyes fell on a shrine standing on a raised platform with stainless steel railings on all three sides. I wonder if it forms a part of the temple parikrama, only to discover that this was one of the temples that ‘emerged’ and until recently was hidden inside a three-storey building.
It is called the Shri Gangeshwar Mahadev temple.
The discovery and revival of this structure mark the beginning of the reclaiming of a divine space and rewriting of a historic narrative.
This is 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.
Many Ganesha temples seen in the precincts form a part of 56 Vinayak parikrama that is undertaken by pilgrims called the panchakosi, which starts at the Jauvinayak temple. This shrine was also ‘housed’ amidst the entire lego of structures that once stood upon this temple land.
What can also be seen here is a replica of the main shrine, the Chandragupta Mahadev Mandir, which was built by King Chandragupta. It is also known as the Manokameshwar Mahadev temple as according to a legend the deity fulfils the wishes of the devotees.
The temple that has caught most people’s attention is the hand-carved stone temple of Shri Kumbha Mahadev which has the samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) depicted on its rear wall. As a sign of sheer neglect that ravaged this area all these years are the rods that are seen jutting out of the parapet-like extension at the base of the shikhar of the temple.
There are theories or local myths that those who built houses around these temples did so to protect them from Islamic invasion a few hundred years ago. But one doesn’t have to distort or manhandle the existing structures of priceless architectural value to ‘protect’ them.
It would be beyond the scope of this article to enlist all the temples that have risen and stand tall amidst the debris but the images are enough to tell you of the treasure that was buried inside the dilapidated structures around them.
The work on the corridor project is well underway as JCBs pull down large structures and clear the debris. The structures that are attached to the temples are being knocked down by manual labourers, who have been instructed to cause no harm to the temple structures.
Around 40 such temples have been recovered and the work to secure them has begun. Brick by brick, the encroachments are being pulled down, and although there are a few people who are yet to give up their houses, a major portion of the main area that had residential and commercial structures, have been cleared.
Around 200 shopkeepers and 300 house dwellers have been rehabilitated and the compensation that has been provided to them is in most cases double the market price, say locals who have received it. A total of Rs 360 crore has been so far released by the government for purchase and demolition.
The shopkeepers who have had to vacate the area have also been assured of ‘first preference’ when the project will set up a shopping facility. “It is a matter of time,” says an official, “but these people will get a chance to be back here, as it is they who make the temple ecosystem. The flower vendors, the prasad stores will have to be back here, no outsider is going to come sit here and sell all this, right? So, we acknowledge the inconvenience but it is just a matter of time,” he says adding that the project has already provided employment to 50-60 people affected by the demolition at its Sugam Darshan facility, a facilitation centre for those visiting Kashi.
One of the numerous contractors involved in the demolition work, Amit Srivastava, who stays 200 metres away from the Vishwanath temple, vouches for the same with some rough data. “I am a contractor and was unemployed when I heard of work opportunities here. I prepared my papers and reached a heavily guarded office. I met the CEO directly and he gave me an opportunity to work. But this is the first time I witnessed a governmental setup where work was happening with zero corruption. The transparency one finds here, we haven’t witnessed elsewhere,” says Srivastava.
“Whoever has any issue, come sit across the table and talk. And those sitting across the country and forming opinions should come here and see the work that is happening,” he adds.
Early last year when the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it would go ahead with the project, a set of locals who had houses and shops in the area formed the Dharohar Bachao Samiti. Padampati Sharma, an erstwhile sports journalist, led the protest and threatened to give up his life if the project were to see the light of day. But today, as I meet him at his residence in Mehmoorganj, he tells me, “my objection was to the initially proposed idea where they said everything would be razed to the ground and the Ganga was to be brought by a canal towards the temple. This was a distortion of not just history but also of geography”. But then, after the discussion at the Vidhan Parishad, where the government elaborated on the corridor and the construction of an entire complex that would beautify the area, his views changed.
The man who had raised objections loud and clear has not just registered his houses with the Kashi Trust but also donated one of them to the temple trust. The Saraswati consecrated at the Saraswati phatak (Vishwanath temple gate no 2) and the space that holds it, has been donated to the temple trust by the Sharmas. “The Saraswati was consecrated by Acharya Shankarji in the ninth century,” he says. His belief is that what he has donated was a legendary ‘jyotish kendra’ as his forefathers were well-known scholars and astrologers. His voice chokes as he talks of not wanting to trade it or take any compensation for it. “Hamein laga ki iska sauda nahin karna hai, isiliye humne daan kar diya,” he adds, looking forward to its beautification.
Although he wished the project was differently planned, his views are diametrically opposite to the ones he held before. And much of the credit for this, he says, goes to the CEO of the temple trust, Vishal Singh. “Is ke peeche Vishal ki badi bhoomika hai, kyunki hum ne Vishal ko apna putr maana hai,” he says.
But not many media houses who have quoted him as the one who would ‘kill himself for the cause’ have taken the responsibility to talk about his transformation. “Ye kisiko nahin pata kyunki ye pracharit nahin hai na (this transformation hasn’t been publicised)”, says Sharma who lays bare in front of you the entire history, myth and folklore of Kashi.
Sunil Mehrotra is a Kashi resident who is into the business of manufacturing the famous Banarasi sarees. He too, like Sharma, was part of the group that opposed the project initially but today defends not just the project but also clarifies that those currently opposing it are those who really do not wish well for Kashi. “Fault finders are everywhere . You can’t help it. But there is no one who has not benefitted or sufficiently compensated. We have also given up our house and we are in no way unhappy,” says Mehrotra. He registered his four (one of his own and three other) houses five months ago. “We have been living here since three-four generations, and to be honest, the structures were mostly dilapidated. Anyone who is a believer definitely cannot complain about this beautification project,” says Mehrotra who has relocated to Mehmoorganj from where he also runs his business now. “It will make our Kashi even more popular right? Which means it will only benefit us,” he says, dismissing those who are still protesting.
As I made my way through the serpentine lanes from the Lalita Ghat towards the Manikarnika Ghat and back, pilgrims were overheard saying that finally someone is bothered about them. Raju Malhotra and his friend who were walking back from the Ganga towards the temple saw me click photos and said, “our Kashi is changing and for the good. Earlier one had to make way through long-winded serpentine lanes but the PM has ensured the demolished of all the obstructions, and facilitating direct access to the temple. Commendable work is being done,” says Malhotra.
Shailendra Kumar Sinha calls out to pilgrims passing by asking them to buy the Prasad and fridge magnets. “Why argue now? Let us wait and see what the corridor brings. If it indeed goes as planned, definitely greater visibility with greater open spaces will mean better business,” says the 51-year-old, whose shop doesn’t fall in the stretch of the project as of now.
This is a project that has been pending for more than a decade. "If I had got the cooperation of the state government in the first three years, we would probably have been inaugurating this project today. However, in the first three years, we had a non-cooperative environment. After Yogi Adityanath took charge of the state dispensation, the development of Kashi is progressing with great efficiency," Modi was quoted as saying during the foundation stone laying ceremony.
This is also the first ever attempt to do something of this scale around this important pilgrim centre in the last three centuries. Its history is one of ‘restoration’ for it was plundered multiple times.
The Gyanvapi mosque that stands behind the metal fencing of the temple premises was built by Aurangzeb after he razed the erstwhile temple to the ground, parts of which are said to be still seen in some parts of the mosque. This was in 1669. Much before this, in 1194, Qutbuddin Aibak had led an assault on the temple after defeating the king of Kannauj. This was during the reign of Mohammed Ghori. Rebuilt by a Gujarati merchant in the thirteenth century, the temple was destroyed once again in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Raja Man Singh is said to have rebuilt it during Akbar’s reign but the former is said to have been boycotted by people for having forged marital relations with the Mughals. The temple that was destroyed by Aurangazeb was a structure built by Raja Todar Mal in 1585.
Although the Maratha ruler Malhar Rao Holkar wished to pull down the mosque and rebuild the original temple, he was not successful as the nawabs of Lucknow then reigned over the region. The structure we see today was built by his daughter-in-law following which over the next two centuries various royal families donated and contributed to the temple, one of which is the donation of 1 tonne of gold by Maharaja Ranjit Singh for the gold plating of the dome.
One Man And His Army
While people are all praise for the Prime Minister’s vision and Chief Minister’s execution, the credit of making it happen on the ground is being given to one man whose approach seems to have convinced even those who once stood in opposition to the project. It is unreal to witness people who have bid farewell to their homes praise the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust chief executive officer Vishal Singh with words that might be dismissed as being melodramatic if one hadn’t heard them in person. While someone is all praise for his ‘bhatki’ , someone else is in awe of his ‘dutifulness and integrity’ while another warns the government to not even dream of replacing him if they wish to see this project through.
Mehrotra says that not just the temple corridor project, but the development of the entire city should be handed over to Singh. “Itna honest officer hamne apni jinadgi main nahin dekha hai (we haven’t since such an honest officer in our life). I was absolutely in opposition in the beginning but after meeting Vishalji things changed. That man has not swindled a single rupee and we can say it is his ‘bhakti ki shakti’ (strength of devotion) and his transparency that is making things work at this scale,” says Mehrotra. ‘No middlemen, nothing. He tells everyone, come meet me directly. Whoever is talking ill about him, those can’t be helped. He is a one man army. It is no joke to convince every single person when the project is of this scale and ensure that every single concern is addressed,” says the former city president of the National Students' Union of India. “Baba main unki itni bhakti hai, ke unki baatein sunke hamein laga ki baba liye hamein ye kaam karni chahiye,”says Mehrotra, who does visit the site of his old house and apply the mud to his forehead in reverence. “But we will proudly show our children in the future that look, here stood our house; that this was our contribution to this mega vision of a beautiful Kashi corridor. This was Baba Vishwananth’s will and hence it is happening,” he signs off.
From being called ‘Aurangazeb of today’ as he walked through the maze of lanes to today being hailed as the one whose ‘bhakti ki shakti’ and vision has got the project running, Singh sure has come a long way in the past one year. You would easily pass him off for a regular pilgrim if you didn’t find him behind his table, with the chandan tilak on his forehead greeting you quite distinctively.
As he asks the IT manager to pull up his socks and fix the Internet, he also gently adjusts the flower garlands around the small steel trishul that stands in front of the nandi idol behind his table. He ritualistically smiles as he poses while handing over a Rs 10 lakh cheque to an old lady, who has registered her house. But one sees the niceties vanish as the old lady points out a missing zero in the cheque. The next 30 seconds give a glimpse of the ruthless taskmaster that he is and his team jumps into action to rectify. He is back to his gentlemanly self as he assures the lady the cheque shall be fixed, and returns to his table to tell us of his journey with the project.
“This could not be treated like any other project. Empathy, sensitivity and emotional connect is what helped us convince people to join hands,” says Singh.
A lady whose health kept her from cooperating with the authorities is being taken care of by the project officials. She owns three houses in the area but owing to her ill health and also that of her daughter’s, she was worried. “We had to take a humane approach, so we had to get her treated first and make her believe in us that we are well meaning people and that we mean no harm to anyone nor do we intend to destroy anyone. That the idea is to make their lives better was conveyed to them. They had her examined by local doctors initially but then took her to Lucknow and had her operated upon using funds from the corridor project. Now she is willing to have her houses registered with the trust,” explains Singh.
In his early forties, Singh has an equally charged team, but the Kashi that he got in his hands was not an impressive one. “Bharatendu Harishchandra ji wrote a poem long ago titled, Dekhi Tumri Kashi which enlisted all that was sadly wrong with the city. Unfortunately, when we took over the situation wasn’t much different,” laments Singh.
Be it illegal occupancy, dismal rents, dilapidated structures, encroachments, subletting of spaces to hippies, at places even illegal activities like drug peddling, dirty streets, stray animals all over — the list was endless, the scene, irksome, to say the least. “The one who suffered the most was the pilgrim. Imagine taking a dip in the Ganga and wanting to head in that spiritually charged mode to the temple, but you instead have to push through the ruckus, find your way through the narrow lanes and you end up stepping on cow dung and drag yourself that way to the temple,” says a visibly upset Singh. This had to change, he says and that is what they aimed for. “The place can’t change overnight but people can and that’s what we started doing. Thankfully, change has set in and as the project comes alive one will see a different Kashi,” he assures.
The piles of debris, the mounds of mud, the relentless work of ‘making way’ for the grand dream to turn into a reality, is just the beginning. But this was the much needed power packed start. The ‘destruction’ was the biggest challenge, the elephant in the room. But it was also the most important aspect of the Kashi corridor project. There was no way for the ‘avimukt kshtera’, the land of liberation, to reclaim its original glory unless it lets go of its recent past.
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” remarked Mark Twain. So if this land that people come to breathe their last, this land of the lord of destruction, this land that is as old as time had to be revived, destruction was inevitable. That the current regime has managed to set the ball rolling shows that it gets the point- that for shrishti (creation) to happen, stithi (situation) had to be changed, for which laya (destruction) was inevitable. Shambho!