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  • Akshada Shrotriya

On Benaras : #readingcities

Updated: Jan 9, 2023

By Akshada Shrotryia

Located on the banks of the Holy Ganges, the ancient city of Kashi, or Banaras, as we now call it, has been a victim to several rulers’ whims. It was founded by a local zamindar named Balwant Singh in the 1750s, who acquired it after the hold of the Mughal Empire on the land weakened. Singh’s descendants further ruled the city until the independence of India in 1947.

It is only natural then, that the architecture in the city (monuments, remains of old buildings, etc.) is reflective of the abovementioned whims. One of the most popular examples in modern discourse is perhaps the temple of Kashi Vishwanath, known for the litany of destructions it has undergone. Not only has it resulted in a massive gap between religious communities (the consequent result of which is again, reflected in the architecture), but it also compels us to contemplate its ramifications with respect to culture and how we understand the space of a city.

This essay aims to interrogate the same with the question of urbanity (in the spatial setting of Banaras) as its locus. Due to the recent attention that the present government has called towards the city, this is especially relevant.

कितना बनारस बचा है बनारस में

कितनी गंगा बची है बनारस की गंगा में

(How much of Banaras is left in Banaras

How much of Ganga is left in Banaras of the Ganga)

When Nilay Upadhyay poses the questions above, he confronts - by pointing a finger at the present state of the city - the very essence of Banaras. The changes and violence that the city has undergone has compelled the poet to arrive at the gut-wrenching realization that Banaras has lost its Banaras-ness. The poem can be read therefore, as an elegy.

It is only natural then, to ask: What constitutes this Banaras-ness? How do we define it? And how, if at all, are these characteristics related to how we define a city - an ‘urban’ city, to be precise?

A key agenda of the Government in 2015 was the creation of a Digital India and the idea of construction of a ‘smart city’ provided it with an imperative momentum. It claimed to perceive urbanization as a process to mitigate poverty by making cities self-sufficient with respect to opportunities in order to reduce the perpetual migration.

One out of the fourteen cities that were declared to become smart in U.P. was Banaras. Consequently, the city has undergone an eminent physical change.

To understand this better, I spoke to 5 friends who belong to Banaras. I asked them their favourite places to spend time in the city and 4 out of 5 of them replied with an enthusiastic “The ghats!”. 2 of them even named their favourite ones - Manikarnika, Assi and Dashashwamedh.

It made me think of the Bhakti movement, which gave us pioneers like Kabir Das and Tulsidas. Both of these poet-saints were born in Kashi and though Kabir was banished from the city, his verse didn’t cease to depict the love he had for Kashi.

Tulsidas, in fact, spent most of his life there. Even today, if one visits the ghat with a tourist guide, they will proudly claim that the saint wrote a large part of Ramcharitmanas sitting on the ghats of Kashi.

It is quite fascinating to note how some spots become symbolic of an entire city itself. In the case of Kashi, it is the ghats and what we may say constitutes the aforementioned Banaras-ness. Artists like M.F. Hussain and Manu Parekh have not tired of depicting, in their simplicity and nuance, the beauty of the ghats - in all its crowd and solitude.

Under the smart city initiative, the banks of these ghats - eroding under the weight of religiosity, gathering filth and dirt - were cleaned, and in some parts, reconstructed. In this case then, the intervention of the State seems positive since it revived a significant place of historical relevance which had become subject to human carelessness.

When Ashis Nandy studies the origin, expansion, and dynamics of the city in India, he talks of a “new city”, which was usually a presidency town under the British reign. The city of Banaras had, from an ancient time, sustained its position as a pilgrimage and under the weight of the formation of this “new city”, was somehow reduced in importance. For saints and worshippers, however, the significance of the Ganges never ceased to dwindle.

As a city in which history struggles to breathe amidst an emerging modernity, Banaras flourishes. The poet Kedarnath Singh notes:

इस शहर में धूल

धीरे-धीरे उड़ती है

धीरे-धीरे चलते हैं लोग

धीरे-धीरे बजते हैं घंटे

शाम धीरे-धीरे होती है

(In this city, dust flies slowly, people walk slowly, the bells ring slowly, evening sets slowly)

Evidently, time in these lines passes slowly, hinting at how immersive it becomes in the space of the city. Simultaneously, ascertaining the groundedness of Banaras. Somewhere else, Trilochan’s sings:

शव हिंदू के जले मुसलमान के गड़े हैं।

(Dead bodies of Hinuds are burnt, those of Muslims are buried)

By referring to how the two religions treat corpses and by accentuating historical time here (due to an almost ancient belief system), Trilochan suggests not merely the inevitability of death and its relevance with respect to the city of Banaras, but also the importance of earth itself - how it is unbiased, impartial, and just. Interpretative of being critical about the Hindi-Muslim conflict that the land of Ganges has forever been a victim of, the quoted line sends the powerful message that Banaras has seen it all, and is still thriving.

To quote Ghalib here:

इबादत ख़ानए नाकुसियां अस्त

हमाना काबए हिंदोस्तां अस्त

(यह घंटा बजानेवालों अर्थात् हिन्दुओं की पूजा का स्थान है। अवश्य ही यह हिंदोस्तान का काबा है)

(This is a land of Hindu worshippers. Indeed, it is the paradise of Hindustan)

It is true that Ghalib’s Banaras still retains its paradise-like charm. On a personal level though, I was drawn more towards the chaos when I visited it. Since the ancient city has become more and more a project of the present, as someone who is utterly fascinated by history and its manifestation into architecture, I thought of how political the (re)construction of cities can be.

Under the reign of Kings, the city was conquered and reconquered. Post a democratic establishment of government, it has again come under a similar scrutiny. What has Banaras not seen? It brings me to Upadhyay’s poem again, a point I had begun writing this essay from. Perhaps the essence of a city is subjective and perhaps we try to make sense of it through the present objects - through places that come to define a city, for example.

I loved my visit primarily because amidst the hubbub of U.P.’s crowd and traffic, a certain calm was discernible. When I spoke to some of the people belonging to the city, they appeared to be content and proudly claimed the heritage as well as the new developments taking place. A local guide, in fact, suggested that I come again and lamented that my visit was too short, “aur bahot cheezein dikhaate aapko” (I would’ve shown you more places).

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