Unholy mess in Varanasi

Shome Basu | Updated on May 17, 2019

Varanasi gets a new corridor as part of the state government’s development plan, leaving some residents homeless and jobless

The debris and the dust remind you of war-torn lands. But this is Varanasi, where large-scale demolitions have been on for several months now. The Uttar Pradesh government plans to build what is billed as the Kashi Corridor. According to the blueprint, a 50-metre wide road will connect Lalita ghat to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

Locals claim that nearly 300 homes and temples have been razed for the corridor. The winding, crowded lanes are a distinctive feature of this ancient city and among its major tourist draws. While the demolitions and other work for the corridor began two years ago, the foundation stone was laid in March by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the city’s MP, who is seeking to be re-elected from here.

“My vote will not go to Modi this time, I am finished,” says Bholanath, a 56-year-old sweetshop owner. His shop and residence were demolished for the corridor and the land forcibly acquired by the administration for ₹10 lakh, he says. Today, he is homeless and jobless. His family has gone back to the ancestral village they had migrated from generations ago.

Like Bholanath, there are many in Varanasi who are without a home as rehabilitation is still awaited. Sanjiv Mishra, one of the dispossessed, has moved court over the demolition. Local workers of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have been pressuring him to drop the case, he says. Meanwhile, more buildings are coming down.

The Vishwanath Temple now dominates the landscape. Beside it is the Gyanvapi Mosque, said to have been built in 1664 by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after razing the temple on its original site, to avenge Maratha ruler Shivaji’s escape from prison. The temple that stands today was built in the 19th century by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore.

Mishra, a devout Hindu, fears that Varanasi may become another Ayodhya, with the temple and the mosque pitted against each other. Wary of any move to brand Varanasi as a temple city, he points out that the city has for centuries been defined by its multicultural heritage and multi-layered history.

One is reminded of Mark Twain’s words, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Shome Basu is a Delhi-based photojournalist

Published on May 17, 2019

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