Where billions go down the drain
Visiting Benaras, also called Varanasi or Kashi, and not being able to stroll on the Ghats made famous in many books and by Satyajit Ray in his...
Visiting Benaras, also called Varanasi or Kashi, and not being able to stroll on the Ghats made famous in many books and by Satyajit Ray in his ‘Aparajito’ (1956) is heart-breaking. But with the Ganga in spate it is impossible. From a distance, the river looks majestic, but forbidding.
Equally famous for its beautiful mornings and as the “destination of the dead” for those among the Hindus seeking ‘moksha,’ this city of 1.5 million with high density is over-crowded at any time of the year, what with the Westerners seeking a feel of the Orient and Hindu, Jain and Buddhist pilgrims.
In Shravana month, perhaps, Benaras gets its biggest rush that everyone, from politicians, priests and pandas to police, finds it difficult to manage. There are many reasons for its perennial chaos, but about them a bit later.
Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India, is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) enumerated in Hindu and Jain scriptures. It also played an important role in the evolution of Buddhism. It is the abode of Shiva who, according to the legend, is supposed to be its founder as well.
This legend explains why there are no records, oral or written on when this city began its eternal journey. “The early History of Benares is involved in much obscurity. It is, indisputably, a place of great antiquity and may even date from the time when the Aryan race first spread itself over Northern India.
Although such a supposition is incapable of direct proof, the sacred city must, undoubtedly, be reckoned amongst the primitive cities founded by its people,” wrote Reverend M A Sherring, a Christian priest and Indologist, in his book ‘Benaras : The Sacred city of the Hindus,’ published in 1868.
“Allusions to Benares are exceedingly abundant in ancient Sanskrit literature. And perhaps there is no city in all Hindustan more frequently referred to. By reason of some subtle and mysterious charm, it has linked itself with the religious sympathies of the Hindus through every century of its existence,” he notes.
“The Hindu ever beholds the city in one peculiar aspect, as a place of spotless holiness and heavenly beauty, where the spiritual eye may be delighted and the heart may be purified; and his imagination has been kept fervid, from generation to generation by the continued presentation of this glowing picture,” Sherring wrote.
The city is bestowed with an eternal spirit. Sherring says the Hindus visit “this ideal seat of blessedness … possessed with the same longing to visit it as the Mohammedan visit Mecca, or the Christian enthusiast visit Jerusalem, and having gratified his desire, has left the memory of his pious enterprises to his children, for their example, to incite them to undertake the same pilgrimage, faithfully transmitting to them the high ambition which he himself received from his fathers.”
Sherring faults Indian scholars for failing to record the city’s birth and evolution. The result is that although its antiquity is great, it is robbed of much of the glory that is justly its due. He wonders, rightly, how a people who produced scholars in many other disciplines, failed to chronicle this city. This is understandable, but can’t be an excuse, even though mythology and history have always got mixed and the current trend is to give it much political boost.
Faith-wise, Benaras is not dear to the Hindus alone. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism at Sarnath around 528 BC with his first sermon, "The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma." Located about 25 km away, it is imaginatively developed and preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India. Considering that Sarnath gets a steady flow of pilgrim/tourists from much of the Buddhist community across the world, it is sad that it cannot be reached by a decent road.
Cannot the central and the state authorities collaborate to make Sarnath, and Benaras itself, more hospitable? Despite all the lofty talk of tourism, and millions spent, the inescapable feeling is that tourists come because they want to, not because Uttar Pradesh invites and hosts them.
History tells us that the city's religious importance continued to grow in the 8th century, when Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi. During the rule by Sultans and Mughals, Varanasi remained the centre of activity for Hindu intellectuals and theologians, which further contributed to its reputation as a cultural centre of religion and education. It was one of the centres where “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb,” the composite Hindu-Muslim culture, flourished.
Tulsidas wrote his epic poem Ram Charit Manas here. Varanasi produced several major figures of the Bhakti movement, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism. In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who invested in the city, and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. Today, there are 15 mosques of significant historical value in Varanasi.
While Kulluka Bhatt wrote the best known account of Manusmṛti in Varanasi in the 15th century, modern writers have included Bharatendu Harishchandra, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Jaishankar Prasad, Kshetresa Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Sudama Pandey (Dhoomil), Vagish Shastri, and Vidya Niwas Mishra.
Much of modern Varanasi was built during the 18th century by the Maratha and Bhumihar kings. The kingdom of Benares was given official status by the Mughals in 1737. Many ghats and buildings were built by Scindia, Holkar, Gaikwad and other Maratha rulers. All this is past. The present-day Varanasi, however, is a sad story. Because of its high population density, the government and international non-governmental organisations and institutions warn of the pollution and pressures on infrastructure in the city, mainly the sewage, sanitation, and drainage components.
Ganga symbolises Benaras, but also its pollution by the very people who worship it. They depend upon it as a source of drinking water. The sewage problem is exacerbated by people washing and bathing. The river traffic is difficult to control. Because of the sewage, people using local untreated water have higher risk of contracting a range of water-borne stomach diseases. Parts of Varanasi are contaminated with industrial chemicals including toxic heavy metal.
Ganga does not need just cleaning. Basic changes are needed, and not just in technology to be deployed and funds made available and utilised. The attitude needs changing. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has said the effort of the Central and Uttar Pradesh governments and billions spent have yielded “zero result” so far.
This is a repeat of what happened in 1980s when billions were also spent with no results. The governments of the states along the river did not comply with several Supreme Court orders and allowed mushrooming of industrial and other units who directly discharge the waste into the river with impunity. Fines imposed remain unpaid with equal impunity. Notices to the governments and from them to various authorities go un-responded.
Ganga suffers all along its route. Its Ghats are unique, but also filthy. There is need to develop a “Ghat Culture,” at least along the large cities and emulate (but not outright copy) the way the banks of Danube, Nile and Potomac and now Sabarmati, are maintained.
People of Benaras are not the only sufferers, but bear a big brunt and must take the lead. Their pleas will not be heard in the prevailing situation with the state heading for yet another election. There will be mutual name-calling and promises will be made, to be forgotten amidst prevarication.
Alas, if past is any indication, as the peoples’ sufferings continue; so will Mother Ganga’s silent benevolence. The people of Benaras – indeed all those who live on the Ganga – must compel the political parties to make effective, honest cleaning of the river and the city their highest priority during the elections. This may be their last chance.