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Varanasi: How an ancient city is embracing, even resisting, change

By Ajay Singh
Last updated on: August 25, 2019 08:00 IST

'Change is resisted, and Varanasi is no exception. Many talk of how the city's cultural heritage is being ruined.'

'But this argument does not find resonance among Banarasis who have high expectations from Modi as the one who can rescue their city from chaos.'

Ajay Singh reports.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French President Emmanuel Macron at Varanasi's famous Dashashwamedh Ghat during the latter's visit to India. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/Pool/Reuters

The bajra, a big boat floating on the Ganga in Varanasi in the twilight, is indeed a sight!

The ghats, from Assi to Manikarnika, have been lit up, justifying Varanasi's name -- 'the city of light'. The evening aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, a relatively new phenomenon, has acquired the ring of a legend.

 

Barely a few steps away, adjacent to Manikarnika Ghat, work is on to develop the extension of the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor, which promises a complex.

The temple, originally spread over 2,300 square feet, will now cover nearly 500,000 square feet. Gone are old residential buildings that stood cheek by jowl in the narrow bylanes around the temple.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, under the Uttar Pradesh government, is set to launch the construction of the complex next month.

Work is expected to be completed in two years. Pilgrims can look forward to all modern facilities, and the convenience of taking a dip in the Ganga and proceeding to the temple, says Vishal Singh, Chief Executive Officer of the trust.

In mythology, Varanasi is a place where all gods reside. But new Varanasi is different from the traditional image that we have about the city.

It is a microcosm of India that contains many contradictions within it. But its urban evolution has been at odds with its past image.

On the periphery, the city is getting modernised. Yet it has a large underbelly of filth and grime.

Much of the change is attributed to the fact that the city is represented in the Lok Sabha by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. You will find the signs of change right from landing at the airport, which is connected with the city by an elevated road.

But the moment you enter the city, you are greeted by intimidating chaos.

Inner localities like Godowlia, Lahurabir or Chowk are traffic nightmares, given the age-old narrow lanes. Traffic blockades often continue for hours.

In a road touching Godowlia, the pavements are dug up to lay sewer pipes but the project hangs fire.

They can expect relief soon. A unit working closely with the Prime Minister's Office monitors development work in this city.

The divisional commissioner and the district magistrate have been assigned the task of developing a plan to ease traffic and make inner neighbourhoods easily navigable without affecting the characteristics of the city.

An official says the government is considering connecting the most congested parts of the city with ropeways.

This plan also entails a ban on vehicles on select streets to contain pollution and check the rising number of accidents.

"We may take up this plan as a pilot project shortly," an officer said.

Another sore point is Manikarnika Ghat, next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. As a cremation here is believed to lead to liberation, funeral pyres keep burning at this ghat.

The ghat is traditionally held to be owned by Kashi's Dom Raja, the head of the community that handles cremation.

Though an electric crematorium exists, the traditional preference and the economy spawned by it prevent people from taking recourse to the environment-friendly method.

The administration has been persuading Dom Raja and the owners of stalls to opt for the better method of last rites.

Change is resisted, and Varanasi is no exception. Many talk of how the city's cultural heritage is being ruined.

But this argument does not find resonance among Banarasis who have high expectations from Modi as the one who can rescue their city from chaos to an orderly urban centre where modernity will co-exist with antiquity in its purest form.

Ajay Singh in Varanasi
Source: source
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