SENIOR officers in the Varanasi Development Authority and the Uttar Pradesh government justify the acquisition-demolition drive undertaken in the temple town by saying that most of these structures are encroachments. They assert that no heritage building has been targeted. However, people living in the vicinity of the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex feel heritage or heritage-type buildings are being targeted as part of the “beautification-modernisation” initiative.
The veteran Hindi language journalist Suresh Pratap, who has chronicled local history in many of his articles and social media posts, said: “People here are not aware of the classification processes behind declaring a site as heritage. They consider a place heritage based on history as they understand it, including in the form of oral history. As a person who has tried to understand the study of history, I know that the world over there is special focus on oral history as well as the need to authenticate and incorporate it into conventional historical studies. If this had been done in Varanasi, many of the structures that are being razed or have been identified as targets in the beautification drive would have certainly qualified as heritage. As in all other aspects of this drive, the authorities are lying on the heritage angle, too.”
Suresh Pratap has listed three structures around the Lalita Ghat area as prime examples of heritage-type structures that are going to be damaged or destroyed. One of them is a 100-metre-long alley, locally known as “Magic Gali”, which starts from one of the gates of the Kashi Vishwanath mandir. The structures along the lane consist of temples, dharamshalas and student hostels built by the Nepal royal family in the Nepalese style of architecture dating back to the 1700s. The structures are so positioned that sunlight etches artistic patterns of light and shade in the alley at different times of the day. At night, electric and artificial lights used in these buildings throw different patterns. This play of light and shade through day and night has been studied and recorded by many people, including renowned photographers such as Raghu Rai. The structures have existed for over 300 years and so have the chiaroscuro etchings created by nature in the alley. “Undoubtedly, this is a unique natural heritage of Kashi,” said Suresh Pratap.
At least 15 structures, mainly small residential buildings, have been demolished in the alley over the past two months. Suresh Pratap says that by the time the drive is completed “Magic Gali” and the light-and-shade patterns it is famed for will just be a memory. The ancestral home of the late Congress leader and freedom fighter Kamalapati Tripathi is a heritage-type structure near Lalita Ghat that seems to have been listed for demolition. The Tripathi family sold the house after Independence and moved a little away from the centre of Kashi, but the house, reportedly built in the 19th century, is seen as an example of Varanasi architecture. Another building on the demolition list is “Anant Bhawan”, built over approximately 20 years (1915-34) by the Lalla Anant Ram family. The house has rare marble and stone carvings and engravings. Architecture students from Varanasi and elsewhere study this building and its unique workmanship. Suresh Pratap feels an architectural and archaeological survey of the area will bring many more heritage and heritage-type buildings to light. But, he says one cannot expect such attention to detail and systematic functioning when the Prime Minister and his acolytes are consumed by the blind urge to showcase some cosmetic changes to the town as development.