TWO FAMOUS FRENCH TRAVELERS FRANCOIS BERNIER and TAVERNIER came to Varanasi between 1660 and 1665. There statements revealed the way of life in Varanasi around the 1660s. The description of Bernier and Tavernier shows that even in the 17th century, Varanasi was a major city from trade and religious point of view. While Bernier was amazed by the grandeur of the city, Tavernier condemns the city’s narrow, slippery streets. Tavernier also wrote that the crowded environment around the temples was not at all suitable for bullock carts and horse carts.
BENARES (KASHI,VARANASI) VISHWANATH TEMPLE & MAHATMA GANDHI
BENARES. I ARRIVED THERE IN THE MORNING a panda. (a person who performs rituals at places like rivers, Ghats, especially at places of pilgrimage, etc.) Numerous Brahmans surrounded me, as soon as I got out of the train, and I selected one who struck me to be comparatively cleaner and better than the rest. It proved to be a good choice. There was a cow in the courtyard of his house and an upper storey where I was given a lodging. I did not want to have any food without ablution in the Ganges in the proper orthodox manner. The panda made preparations for it. I had told him beforehand that on no account could I give him more than a rupee and four annas as Dakshina, and that he should therefore keep this in mind while making the preparations. The panda readily assented. ‘Be the pilgrim rich or poor,’ said he, ‘the service is the same in every case. But the amount of Dakshina we receive depends upon the will and the ability of the pilgrim.’ I did not find that the panda at all abridged the usual formalities in my case. The puja was over at twelve o’clock, and I went to the Kashi Vishvanath temple for darshan. I WAS DEEPLY PAINED BY WHAT I SAW THERE. When practicing as a barrister in Bombay in 1891, I had the occasion to attend a lecture on ‘Pilgrimage to Kashi’ in the Prarthana Samaj hall. I was therefore prepared for some measure of disappointment. But the actual disappointment was greater than I had bargained for. The approach was through a narrow and slippery lane. Quiet there was none. The swarming flies and the noise made by the shopkeepers and pilgrims were perfectly insufferable. Where one expected an atmosphere of meditation and communion, it was conspicuous by its absence. One had to seek that atmosphere in oneself. I did observe devout sisters, who were absorbed in meditation, entirely unconscious of the environment. But for this, the authorities of the temple could scarcely claim any credit. The authorities should be responsible for creating and maintaining about the temple a pure, sweet, and serene atmosphere, physical as well as moral. Instead of this, I found a Bazaar where cunning shopkeepers were selling sweets and toys of the latest fashion. When I reached the temple, I was greeted at the entrance by a stinking mass of rotten flowers. The floor was paved with fine marble, which was however broken by some devotee innocent of aesthetic taste, who had set it with rupees serving as an excellent receptacle for dirt.
The above paragraph is the way in which Mahatama Gandhi has expressed Varanasi and Vishwanath temple in his book ‘The story of my experiments with truth.’ Gandhiji mentioned this bitter experience of his in Varanasi before he got into politics and became popular. This is probably the agony of most of the common visitors of Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. Gandhi’s experience very well reflects the compulsion of millions of Hindus who were torn between 5000 years old religion and medieval convenience in Varanasi.
My Experience as a Banarasi Citizen:- I am a devout Hindu, but unlike others, I am not interested in religious activities instead I am more interested in the historical importance of temples. Like any other visitor, I have also seen all these problems, the noisy environment near the temple, the loud noise of the shopkeepers, the visitors, the suffocating atmosphere due to the limited space. All the major religious festivals of Banaras are associated with the tradition of bathing in the Ganges and darshan in temples, as a result, the situation becomes worse during festivals. Waiting in queues for hours to enter the temple, cumbersome, complicated, and boring procedures were an integral part of the darshan process.
Why are the streets leading to the temple narrow, crowded and slippery.
The oldest remains of Varanasi city were found in the Rajghat area which shows that the city extended from Rajghat to Assi Ghat. Since ancient times, the area adjacent to the Ganges has been considered the most sacred as the Ganges river itself is considered sacred, due to which a whole series of temples are located in this limited area. For this reason, this ancient area of the city has been a densely populated area for centuries. In addition to the local citizens, the devotees, and the people associated with various occupations also add up to the multitude due to which there is always a large crowd in the narrow streets of Varanasi. Ok, so this answers the question “Why the streets are narrow and crowded ?” now the third part. “Why are they slippery?”
After a holy bath in the Ganges, devotees visit the Vishwanath temple for Shiva Darshan, a tradition that has been going on for thousands of years.
At the time of the darshan of Lord Shiva, Gangajal(Ganges water), flowers are offered to him.
Due to this tradition, many shops adjoining the temple sell flowers and Gangajal in small earthen pots. Devotees can enter the temple premises only barefoot. Generally, the devotees take off their shoes at the same shop from where the devotees get Gangajal and flowers. In exchange of this service, the devotees give some money to the shopkeeper according to their will and reverence(there are no fixed charges for such services related to god). The narrow lanes leading to the temples become slippery as the Ganges water spills due to wambles made by the devotees as they enter the temple.
Vishwanath Temple Corridor Project
The project of expansion of the Vishwanath temple by the Government of India was welcomed by all sections. With the expansion of the temple, the centuries-old problem of “congestion” of the visitors was finally resolved, while the possibility of expansion of religious tourism in Varanasi was also strengthened. Since ancient times, many people get employment in Varanasi with the help of temples, and religious activities, while others though not visible directly get employment through temples, and religious activities in an indirect way. Inaugurating the new courtyard of Vishwanath temple, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi told that earlier the area of the temple courtyard was three thousand square feet and now it has been extended to five lakh square feet. A new pathway has also been created from Ganga Ghat to the temple, now devotees can easily take a bath in the Ganges and have Lord Shiva’s Darshan at the Vishwanath Temple. Varanasi is not only a major city for Hindus but also for Buddhism and Jainism. After attaining enlightenment, Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon here in Sarnath, Varanasi has been the birthplace of four out of the twenty-four Tirthankaras of Jainism. Every year lakhs of devotees from all over the world come here to Varanasi. The age-old Shiva Darshan tradition of Varanasi has now improved further and more devotees than before can easily carry out the tradition of Ganga Snan and Shiva Darshan without any hassle. The creation of new employment is also hidden in the expansion of the ancient temple. It is expected that with the expansion of the Vishwanath temple, the number of devotees will increase and the tourist industry of Varanasi will also get a huge boost.
The Prime Minister said the invaders attacked this city, tried to destroy it. The city is witness to the history of Aurangzeb’s atrocities and his terror. Who tried to change civilization by the sword, Who tried to crush the culture with fanaticism. But the soil of this country is different from the rest of the world. If there is an Aurangzeb, said the Prime Minister, Shivaji is also there. If any Salar Masood comes, then brave warriors like King Suheldev make him taste the might of India’s unity. And even during the British era, the people of Kashi knew what happened to Hastings, said Shri Modi.
GLIMPSES OF VARANASI HISTORY:- The process of converting temples into mosques, which started with the conquest of Varanasi by Ghori and Qutubuddin Aibak, continued for almost 500 years. The struggle of Hindus to get back their temples also continued with it. Hindus built new temples whenever they got a chance, these temples were then demolished again by the Mughal rulers. The process of temple construction and temple demolition came to a standstill in Akbar’s reign, but the construction of new temples gained its full flow during the reign of the Marathas.
The temple of Kashi Vishwanath was demolished by Aurangzeb in 1669 and a mosque was built at that place. Vishwanath temple was then rebuilt near this place by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1777. Varanasi has been the holiest city for Hindus in the whole India, with the reconstruction of the Vishwanath temple, Hindu devotees started visiting Varanasi once again. During that time, due to the devotees coming from different places across the country to Varanasi, the pandits of that particular place also came and settled in Varanasi. These pandits not only used to get the religious work done for the devotees coming from their respective areas, but they also used to make arrangements for the accommodation of the devotees at their own homes. It was the dream of every affluent Hindu to build a temple in Varanasi. Such people got great prestige in society. Small temples were built near Vishwanath temple in Varanasi by the princely states, rich people from every corner of the country. Priests were appointed in the temple. Many Pandits of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bengal, Nepal came and settled in Varanasi, many Pandits who were natives of Varanasi were also appointed in such temples because the Pandits of Varanasi had a great reputation. The number of local pandits, pandas, priests who performed religious rituals in Varanasi was already quite large, due to the settlement of non-native pandits, this number grew even larger. It was a normal process in those days, pilgrims coming from all over the country would stay here, bathing in the Ganges and visiting the temple, the pandits getting the religious activities done, arranging food for the devotees, etc. In other words, taking full care of them, in return a sum (Dakshina) was given to them by the devotees, this Dakshina was the means of the employment of such pandits. Later, due to the development of new and faster means of transport, the religious journey of Varanasi, whose tour took months to get completed, became just a matter of a few days. Travelers tired of long journeys (bullock cart or on foot) used to rest for a few days in Varanasi and were refreshed to return home back again. The development of railways changed the modalities of the age-old tradition to a jiffy. There was a huge increase in the number of Hindu visitors, but the number of devotees staying in the city started decreasing day by day. Due to the paucity of time in the modern lifestyle, it was not possible for the devotees to devote much time to religious rituals and due to the development of hotels, dharamshalas, devotees had many options to stay in the city and not just one. Such changing circumstances had limited the sources of income of the Pandits of Varanasi to a great extent.
When Mahatma Gandhi came to Banaras (1902), he found such pandits at the railway station searching for devotees who would stay at his residence and perform religious rituals so that the pandits could earn some income. which he has described. This shows how the railways had influenced the religious practices, prevailing beliefs of India till 1902. (The first train in India ran in 1853)
Many such small temples of Banaras were built by the people and handed over to the Pandits, which later became the private property of the Pandits. There are many cases pending in the courts of Varanasi regarding such properties and the general public has no clue about the management of these temples. The succeeding generations of Pandits converted those temples they had got into guest houses for accommodation. Temples were hidden within the boundary walls of the houses, not only this but the new buildings were also sometimes constructed adjacent to some temples. Many times when I passed by from such areas, I was curious to know about these temples, by looking at the walls of the houses and seeing their peaks. Some of these temples were wonderful as they had beautiful art engraved on them and were worth seeing. Most of the time I used to wonder “How were these temples inside the houses ?” My knowledge was only limited to books and the books were silent on this subject. I got the answer to this question from one of my seniors whose name I can mention ~ “Dinesh Bhaiya”, my photographer friend from the early days of journalism, who also had his ancestral home in that area. Dinesh Bhaiya’s knowledge about Varanasi was amazing, this was the reason why I also used to call him the pantomath of Varanasi, a great photographer, above all a great person. Unfortunately, he passed away a few months back, I always feel his absence, especially while writing a blog post on Varanasi.
At the time of the expansion of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, all these temples were taken inside the new courtyard of the temple under the corridor. 314 buildings were purchased by the administration by paying reasonable amounts for the respective buildings, there were temples inside 40 such buildings, these were accommodated inside the building through encroachment, it was a complicated process to get back such temples but it was possible with the cooperation of the people.
Varanasi is the holiest city of Hindus and the sentiments of all Hindus are attached to this city. This fact was used by some political parties for their petty political gains. They described the action of breaking the encroachment of temples as demolition of temples. Surprisingly, the media of the country and abroad was divided into two parts.
- Local media(Vernacular media)
- National & International media
During the removal of the structural encroachment of temples, the debris of the buildings that encroached upon the temples was being posted by the leftist media with captions as “temple demolition”.
Local media(Vernacular media): -Firstly the local media was publishing the news of the encroachment of the temples but as most of the people in the city were aware of it, so in the efforts of publishing something new and sensational and also because of media’s own cut-throat competition, the local media started publishing fake stories about such temples. Suddenly the temples built in the 18th and 19th century were stated to be thousands of years old, the people living in the houses where such temples were situated, were declared to be criminals by the local media for hiding the temples. The media suddenly took the role of the judiciary, they started presenting history in a distorted way, there was, as if, a competition in the local media about which newspaper can publish the maximum amount of fake news on this topic and thereby create the maximum possible amount of sensation so that to result in an increment in their sales.
The national and the international media were engaged in a different game, especially the left side. In the Soviet Union, the leftists who have justified the destruction of churches seized church property, and plundered church gold suddenly became messiah, protecting temples to spread their propaganda and fake news. The images in which the structural encroachments of the temples were being broken down were being shared with captions that the temples are being broken down. Trick photography has been an old weapon of the Red Terrorists. Soon the big guns of the media also started analyzing the incident in their own way. Even the Washington Post and the New York Times didn’t take long to catch up to this phenomenon. Soon they also started writing long articles on the demolition of old temples. What surprised me the most was the fact that many sites for Travel And Tourism were also mentioning this fake news.
Thanks to social media and citizen journalism for sharing the truth, it was because of them that this propaganda didn’t take long to get exposed.
Today the new courtyard of Vishwanath temple is complete and all these temples are not only preserved but are also in a much better condition than before. Many media groups and people are of the view that the antiquity of the city is being destroyed in this effort to beautify the city and I think this kind of view is incorrect. Varanasi is an eternal city, this city is still in its original form as it was thousands of years ago, it has naturally accepted the changes over time so it is pointless to say that its antiquity and archaism are being destroyed.
Prime Minister added that this whole new complex of Vishwanath Dham is not just a grand building. This is a symbol of the Sanatan culture of our India. It is a symbol of our spiritual soul. This is a symbol of India’s antiquity, traditions, India’s energy and dynamism. The Prime Minister said “when one comes here, they will see not only faith but will also feel the glory of the past here. How antiquity and novelty come alive together. How the inspirations of the ancient are giving direction to the future, We are witnessing this very vividly in Vishwanath Dham complex “.