Varanasi

   ‘’So, has Varanasi really transformed in last 7 years?’’

This is the most common question about my city that I am asked these days from acquaintances and colleagues. (apart from, Are Kashi, Benaras and Varanasi the same cities or different?) As I cast my vote last week at the same school which I had last visited in 2017, I noticed the narrow lane leading to it; it was in a bad shape back then, but was top-notch this time. The little pond nearby had almost dried though and was overridden with weeds and trash, mostly plastic. That image for me summarized the developmental status of the city – which I am privileged to call my hometown and have most of my childhood memories (and in last 1.5 years, a lot of them as an adult as well.) associated to it.

While the holy river (Ganga ji, as we refer ‘her’) remains the soul and heart of this city, the 2 tributaries of it – Varuna and Asi which give the city its name, have also been an integral part of our life and culture. While the Varuna has been flowing over the years in the similar way – narrower than usual river still making the presence felt, Asi river has been almost missing – existing more as a drain and in the files than in reality. In last 7 years – there has been no change whatsoever in the condition of either. As far as the Holy Ganga herself is considered, for the bare eyes, perhaps clouded to some extent by spiritual beliefs, the water has also remained the same ever since I can remember it.

On the banks of the river is where the major transformation has happened. The ghats have become definitely cleaner and more organized; the surrounding markets and the famous lanes look fancier and chic with lights, stones, paints etc.; the tourism avenues including Aartis, boating have been better managed with introduction of new services and amenities from parking to cruise services to cleanliness. For the first time this year, we had a family party on a river cruise on my father’s birthday and as we breezed through the river with a beautiful view of the  colourful ghats all lighted up and shining – what was most visible was the change!

Through the city, the roads have got dividers and those artistic streetlights (though a lot of them function at will). The ring road and the beautiful elevated corridor around the airport is the stuff that we were not used to seeing earlier in our Benaras. The walls across the city which were covered with movie posters or paan stains are seen covered with beautiful paintings of mythological stories and at times over-written by hate messages as well (Though the administration made sure they were removed and culprits held up to task). The railway stations have become much cleaner and well-managed.

The memories of power-cut happening as a daily routine seem distant in the past, though I think those had stopped even before 2014.

The health facilities in the city seem to have improved if we go purely by number of hospitals and facilities available, but the fact remains that like most of the country, Varanasi also saw breakdown of the machinery and trust in the second COVID wave last year.

The biggest transformation by a huge margin, in terms of effort, outcome and impact is the all new Kashi Vishwanath Dham. Even the harshest critic of the ruling party cannot deny that it was a monumental task – which has been actualized in a record time and strikes all the right chords with us. The temple premise looks majestic now and with the corridor linking it to the Holy river now open for public, this one change alone would have won them the elections and hearts. If you visited the temple last year, unless you were visiting solely with a religious and devotional eye (like most of the visitors here), the first impression of the temple would definitely have been underwhelming but now it seems grand and worth its fame – and that is no mean feat to achieve by removing obstacles of mushroomed-over-decades-constructions in the narrow by-lanes around the temple, which had it gasping for space and breath. While one can debate the relevance of politics around temples and religion and its significance in a nation struggling in various human development indices, there is no denying that this move is also an economic one- with a major boast to tourism and spiritual industry. For the city where we grow up chanting Har har mahadev, the city where the common tradition is to take the blessings of Kashi Vishwanath in any auspicious event (Apart from the main event and the court registration, I also had a small wedding ceremony in the temple), the city where there is an actual police station where the Kotwal (station in-charge) chair is occupied by a deity of the God (as he is supposed to be the Kotwal of Kashi) while the officer assigned sits on another chair nearby – no change could have been bigger.

Culturally, there has been an increased visibility and prominence of the city in terms of political, cultural, filmy and artistic events being hosted here or the mention of it in national and internal news.  

However, for residents and tourists, a lot of the existing problems in daily lives continue undeterred – overcrowding, narrow roads, traffic jams, money extortion by the middlemen around temples, lack of job opportunities in the private sector being the most prominent. But on all these, perhaps it is the general consensus that any solution will take long to show its impact and change or the problem just cannot be solved, at least in most of our lifetimes. (e.g. overcrowding).

Walking out of the polling booth I noticed amidst the entangled hyacinth weeds, a sole lotus blooming in all its glory, that seemed to be answering the question on its own.

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