Varanasi, by design: Vishwanath Dham and the politics of change 01
Varanasi, by design: Vishwanath Dham and the politics of change A. Srivathsan MARCH 23, 2019 16:31 IST UPDATED: MARCH 23, 2019 18:50 IST SHARE ARTICLE 229 0 PRINT A A A Boats anchored on the banks of the Ganga. Boats anchored on the banks of the Ganga. | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt MORE-IN The new redevelopment project places the Vishwanath temple at the epicentre. Is it about conserving a heritage city or is it a political statement? Varanasi, the preeminent historic centre in India, is a cumulative city. Over many centuries, it has been accrued by design, reconfigured by rulers, lost parts to devastating demolitions, been replenished by meaningful additions, and disfigured by insensitive constructions. As Diana Eck perceptively says in her hugely popular book on Varanasi, there is ‘hardly a stone left upon stone.’ The city continues to churn, and the biggest of all changes has just been initiated. Prime Minister Modi recently inaugurated Vishwanath Dham, a project to redevelop areas around the Vishwanath temple and provide upgraded amenities to pilgrims. The details are now accessible, and it appears that the project is by far the most extensive attempt to intervene in the urban setting and historical landscape of the city. When completed, it will radically alter the ground and bestow singular importance on Vishwanath temple. In a multinucleated, labyrinthine and fine-grain city such as Varanasi, the new scale and order imposed by the project has set off fiery debates: some approvingly argue in favour of its decisive strategy to upgrade the place, while some clearly disagree and critique the extensive demolition, loss of historical character, and its potential to change the multicultural nature of the city. The key to understanding and engaging with the ongoing debate lies in knowing the details of the project, delving into the history of the place, and, importantly, unpacking the government’s shrill political views that undergird the project. Clean slate Vishwanath Dham is spread over about 11.6 acres or 47,000 sq.m. At the western end is the temple and 360 m away, on the eastern end, is the Ganges and the three famous ghats — Manikarnika, Jalasen and Lalita. There are 51 temples in this area, most of which were discovered during the site clearance. About 250 individual or family properties were acquired and cleared for redevelopment. In a sense, the project builds on a clean slate. The design creates a large Mandir Chowk or open space fronting the Vishwanath temple, and a smaller open space that provides the foreground for the Gyan Vapi mosque that is adjacent to the temple. One of the key features of the project is the pedestrian pathway that connects the temple and the Mandir Chowk with the river. Unlike the existing narrow and winding lanes, the proposed axial path is 20 m wide, which, towards the end, forks to embrace the ghats. It opens up the view to the temple on one side and to the river on the other. A relatively smaller pathway connects the temple with the Manikarnika ghat at the northern edge.