Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to file his nomination for the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency on 26 April. In the constituency, the average resident is concerned not with the Balakot strikes and nationalism, but the way around 300 multi-storeyed buildings in the heart of the city were demolished to construct the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Corridor.
When these 250-year-old buildings were being brought down last year, the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust headed by CEO Vishal Singh and the nodal authority responsible for the building of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor found a large number of old temples that had been covered by these houses. Singh is also the secretary of the Varanasi Development Authority.
Several owners of these houses and shops that were demolished have received some form of monetary compensation. Now, the immediate task before the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust is restoring and integrating 43 old temples with the milieu and ethos around the Kashi Vishwanath temple. This ethos, characterised by labyrinthine lanes, flower shops, tea and sweetmeat stalls, shops selling saris, wooden toys and items of religious use, has helped Varanasi acquire its distinctive culture.
These temples were built in the 18th in the 19th century, when Varanasi witnessed an unprecedented temple-building spree following the disintegration of the Mughal empire. The buildings that were brought down belong to the same period. The rationale for bringing these buildings down was to provide devotees easy, and, some say, motorable access to the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
The redevelopment of these 45,000 square metres of land spread between Manikarnika Ghat and Lalita Ghat is being done under the supervision of the Ahmedabad-based HCP Design Planning and Management Pvt Ltd. The firm was founded by architect Hasmukh Patel, who helped design the Sabarmati riverfront development project.
Vishal Singh, responding to accusations that the demolition work led to the destruction of several temples, insists not a single temple has been broken down in order to build the corridor.
Singh said, "One of our prime objectives is to restore these temples to their pristine state. We are waiting for the master plan to be finalised. I expect the master plan for this area to be finalised by the end of April. Then, we will float tenders in order to get specialists involved in this restoration bid."
"I want the whole process to be transparent," he asserted.
Superintendent Archaeologist and retired Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) officer Ajay Srivastava said, "Are they building CPWD flats, that they want to float tenders? If he does so, he will get a response from several builders. To restore temples, he needs to go to experts, and no organisation within the country possesses the expertise that can match that of the ASI."
After the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project faced a barrage of criticism from politicians and people for the high-handed manner of its execution, Singh had got in touch with Srivastava, along with other experts to ascertain their views. The other experts included professor Maruti Nandan Tewari and art historian Atul Tripathi.
Srivastava said, "We were asked to give our views in January 2019, after much of the demolition had been completed. I personally feel a visionary approach should have been adopted, and a much greater attempt should have been made to conserve the heritage of this ancient city."
He further said, "We were tasked to give our comments on the temples that had been recovered and we did so." He added that the Sri Vishwanath Temple Trust has not contacted them subsequently.
Niraj Sinha, regional officer of the ASI in Varanasi, said that he had visited the site when around 40 to 50 buildings had been pulled down. He said, "Many of these buildings were also homes of the pujaris living around the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The 43 temples that have been found need to be preserved. For this, there needs to be thorough documentation, which would involve detailed photography and videography of these temples. Only after this can restoration work be started."
Sinha believes the ASI has the competence to restore these temples. "Several countries tried their hands at conserving Angor Wat temples, but ultimately, it was the ASI that was shortlisted for this task by the Cambodian government. We have shown our competence to the rest of the world."
The ASI also looks after the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya. "The Mahabodhi temple is not the property of the ASI. Although the Thai government bore the cost of the conservation work, we are maintaining the temple, and are presently working under the deposit work scheme," Sinha explained.
At present, the ASI looks after nearly 4000 historical monuments within India.
Subhash Yadav, archaeologist with the ASI, believes the demolition work saw people "suffering from an identity crisis" because of their long association with the places, but added that the people have now moved on.
Singh, responding to the question as to which body he planned to assign the restoration work, said, "We may ask the ASI. We are also in touch with the Agha Khan Foundation, and other private agencies who work in the area of restoration."
Singh is reported to have stated that some of these temples go back to the Mauryan and the Gupta eras.
However, Maruti Nandan Tiwari, emeritus professor of history and art at the Banaras Hindu University, disagrees. "There was no concept of temple-building in the Mauryan period. Temple-building started only in the Gupta period. However, they built only small temples," he said.
Tewari added, "Nothing in that area is 2,000 years old. The ancient Kashi was situated north of the current settlement in Rajghat.'
He said that when he surveyed the area, he found 20 large temples and several small temples that are now visible due to the demolition around them. "All belong either to the late 18th century or early 19th century. Only two have inscriptions on them " one of 1820 and another of 1899. Interestingly, there is also a temple in Neelkanth mohalla which is an exact replica of the Vishwanath mandir."
Vishal Singh seconds this, and states, "All the temples that have become visible will be protected. There will be more grandeur. They will be preserved and they will be a part of the corridor."
During the demolition, rumours had spread in Varanasi that many of these temples were located next to toilets. But art historian Atul Tripathi, who had also been asked to give his views, insisted that he had not seen this in any of the buildings. "I did see a bathing room next to a temple, but that is all," he said.
Religious leaders, too, have opposed this Rs 600-crore project. The outspoken Swami Avimukteshwaranand, who is the head of the Sri Vidya Math at Kedar Ghat in Varanasi, remains a vociferous critic.
Avimukteshwaranand objects strongly to Singh's claims. He said, "They have broken many temples, and when we pointed this out to the administration and the prime minister's office, our letters were not even acknowledged."
He claimed that it was only after he and others protested the destruction of temples that the administration desisted from demolishing the temples that remained.
Vidula Jayaswal, a leading archaeologist who recently retired from the BHU, said, "One explanation being given for this large-scale destruction was that at last Lord Shiva can see the river Ganga. However, as I see it, Lord Shiva has the river Ganga on his head. You cannot get closer than that."
The experts are unanimous that the government should have adopted a much more humane approach. With little information being placed in the public domain, rumours were rife, with protesters saying that the soul of Kashi has been crushed by these demolitions.
Speaking about the master plan, Singh said, "We had wanted a cafÃ© to be built there, but the architects (HCP Design) shot down the idea, stating that this is a place of both religious and cultural sanctity. They suggested that a yoga and meditation hall would be a better idea. They also said we need to plant a lot of trees in the area."
However, the evicted residents remain in an unforgiving mood. "They have destroyed the lifestyle, lanes, temples, homes and culture of Kashi. Do tourists come all the way here to see our roads?," remarked a person who was forced to move, adding that he hoped that Modi would be taught a lesson in the election.