Varanasi's heritage

A culture in danger

Print edition : December 07, 2018

A view of Varanasi from the bank of the Ganga. Photo: PTI

A Google image of the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque area. The orange marks indicate buildings that have been demolished or are waiting to be demolished and the blue ones indicate temples that have been demolished.

The yellow area on the map indicates the corridor after completion of the project. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Houses razed near Manikarnika Ghat. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Vishwanath Gali reduced to rubble. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Demolition in progress. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

A Shiv linga among the rubble.

Hammering away at a heritage building. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Buildings, such as this one on Lalitha Ghat, will become history if the demolition continues. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Idols in the open after the demoliton of a temple near Manikarnika Ghat. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

A Shiv linga exposed to the elements after the temple that housed it were demolished. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Shiv lingas exposed to the elements after the temple that housed them were demolished.

Shiv lingas lying in the open after the temple that housed them was demolished. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Residents of the Dalit basti near Manikarnika Ghat. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Residents waiting in a half-broken house in a Dalit basti. Photo: Purnima S Tripathi

The gate that leads to Gyanvapi mosque. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Idol (in the background) left in the open. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Temples and heritage houses that dotted the lanes and bylanes of Varanasi have been levelled by the Uttar Pradesh administration in pursuit of its “beautification” project. This photoessay captures the situation on the ground.

KASHI Vishwanath Gali, where the ancient Siva temple and the Gyanvapi mosque are located, is the soul of Kashi, or Benaras. The majority of buildings and temples in Varanasi, as the city is officially known, have existed since time immemorial. Some of the structures are 500-600 years old and stood tall until, of course, officials arrived on the scene with hammers. The demolition squad has been removing every structure, be it a heritage building, temple or house, that comes in the way of the Varanasi corridor project.

As per the Hindu belief system, there are 56 Vinayaks (forms of Ganesha). Temples dedicated to four Vinayaks—Sumukh Vinayak, Durmukh Vinayak, Mod Vinayak and Pramod Vinayak—which attracted lakhs of devotees every year were located on the Vishwanath temple lane. All these have been razed. People in Varanasi told this correspondent that the idols were thrown away along with the rubble. One resident, Rajendra Tiwari, said: “We saw the load of idols being carried away by donkeys. We approached the court immediately. The administration then told us that the idols were in safe keeping.”

Shiv lingas installed in various parts of the Vishwanath temple met with a similar fate. It was only when the court reprimanded the authorities that they were retrieved from the rubble and kept aside. The 600-year-old Neelkant Mahadev temple has also been razed, and nobody knows where the linga/idols are. The residential colony around the temple, which is as old as the temple itself, is now reduced to rubble. A heritage building in Lahori Tola mohalla (locality), which abuts the Neelkant Mahadev temple area, was the house of Nishkameshwar Mishra. Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri lived in this house during his early years. Massive havelis (mansions) on Lalitha Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat, which have borne witness to the passage of time, have also been listed for demolition.

V.N. Mishra, professor of electronics at Banaras Hindu University and the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, says the lanes, bylanes, antique buildings and temples around the Vishwanath temple form a complete system. This is the real culture of Kashi, this is the place where the soul of Kashi resides, this is the centre of the earth and this is the dwelling of Siva. “Do not fiddle with this system. This is the original culture of Kashi, and nobody has the right to destroy it. You will invite the wrath of Siva by doing so,” he warns.

From the way the demolitions are happening, it appears that the pleas of Varanasi’s residents have fallen on deaf ears.

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