In his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi recounts his visit to Kashi in 1916 and wrote, “I went to the Kashi Vishwanath temple for darshan. I was deeply pained by what I saw there .. 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”.
The Mahatma’s observations were echoed by many in subsequent years as the city had seen neglect over a protracted period of time. After apathy, dereliction, and destruction that Kashi faced during the medieval period between the 14th and the first half of the 18th centuries, parts of it were rebuilt by the Maratha queen, Ahilyabhai Holkar between 1777 and 1780. This was the last such major rejuvenation that Kashi witnessed. Now, after 240 years since Queen Ahilyabai’s contribution, Kashi is seeing its first major transformation under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The journey has required grit, determination, creativity and consensus-building and a lot accrue to the Prime Minister’s steadfast resolve to enrich the experience of devotees, pilgrims and tourists visiting Kashi. The Kashi Dham and the various development projects being undertaken ensure that those visiting the ‘spiritual capital of the world’ enjoy a seamless, holistic and immersive experience.
In 2014, on a visit to Kashi as its Lok Sabha contestant Narendra Modi while interacting with the press remarked “Na Mujhe Kisi Ne Bheja Hai, Na Main Yahan Aaya Hoon, Mujhe to Maa Ganga ne bulaya hai” (Neither has anybody sent me here, nor have I come here on my own, but I am answering to the call of Maa Ganga). In various fora, the Prime Minister has spoken about his relationship with Kashi and compared it to the feeling of a child returning to her mother’s lap – a relationship of unconditional and eternal love. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to see the various development efforts towards rejuvenating the holy city to its spiritual grandeur.
Kashi is the most ancient and holiest of the dharmic centres and is one of the oldest continuously lived cities in the world. Every Hindu wishes to visit Kashi at least once in their lifetime and many wish to spend their last living moments in the holy city. The city has been a spiritual learning centre for generations where multiple faiths and philosophies emerged.
Every major kingdom in Bharat had a spiritual centre at Kashi and the many languages spoken in the holy city are testimony to this. The development of the Kashi Viswanath Dham has been done keeping in mind the spiritual ethos of the city. The rehabilitation of shopkeepers, Dharamshala, monasteries, and schools was done through a constructive outreach programme. The properties of the stakeholders were purchased well above market rates, at times as much as four times, and the stakeholders were supported in finding alternative means of livelihood. A majority of families residing inside the project area were extremely impoverished and their major source of income was the crematorium at Manikarnika Ghat, where they sold wood for the funerals and provided boating facilities, among other things. In addition, large families with smaller properties also received additional money for rehabilitation.
The construction of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham project led to the discovery of at least 40 ancient temples. All those ancient temples were buried under other constructions around them and are now visible. They will be preserved and will be opened to the general public. Just as Ahilyabhai Holkar envisaged, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple now has a direct link to the Ganga through the Manikarnika and Lalita ghats. A paved walkway that is 320 metres long and 20 metres wide connects the temple with the ghats of the Ganga.
This will give devotees unfettered access to the Maha-aarti that takes place at dawn and at sunset. Multiple amenities have been built for the pilgrims such as guesthouses, pilgrim facilitation centres, a library, a museum and a spiritual book centre. A grand Mandir Chowk which is spread over 3,500 square meters, Nilkanth Pavilion, a Ganga view cafe and seven ornamental gates are the other highlights of the Dham.
India has two capitals and both are being rejuvenated in their own unique way. India’s constitutional capital in New Delhi is slowly breaking the shackles of decades of substandard infrastructure and its past colonial hangover.
The Central Vista Project is making optimal use of the land while providing world-class facilities for parliamentarians and our Government staff that is necessary for a functioning 21st-century democracy. Similarly, the development that is taking place in the spiritual capital of Kashi will enhance the spiritual experience of visiting pilgrims as well as improve the living standards of its residents. The Prime Minister realises that spiritual rejuvenation by itself is not enough as the city requires the associated infrastructure rejuvenation through air, rail and road connectivity.
After seven years, the structural transformation is now clearly visible and the efforts to make the ancient city of Kashi a modern, accessible and vibrant centre have borne fruit. The Divya Kashi, Bhavya Kashi is not a slogan but a call to action backed with a clear vision, a long-term strategy and a well thought through action plan truly depicting New India.