Monthly Archives: September 2014

Facelift of a Historical City – From Kyoto to Kashi

Negotiating Heritage, Preserving the Soul – From Kyoto to Kashi
Navina Jafa
At the turn of the century a series of World Conferences saw the debates addressing renewal of historical cities. Noted historian Arnold Toyenbee had expressed that cities can survive and prosper only as they meet challenges of the current age and they need to be renewed every 100 years. It is extremely convenient to develop templates as part of development projects, however, the challenge is the tailoring of such projects that are aligned with the inherent character defining each city. The Kyoto to Kashi agreement initiated by Prime Minister Modi is indeed a bold step, but the genetic complexity of Varanasi/ Kashi/ Anandvan/Banaras needs to be kept in mind. Having worked on the urban cultural geography of the city along that of 6 others, as part of my PHD thesis, I wonder how this will happen. Will the new players realize that no one wants to move out of the demarcated spiritual psychological urban geography perceived as Moksha Sthan? This is the area believed to be where your soul is released from the cycle of life and does not have to take a rebirth. It includes the river front along with onion like layers in the aligned back- lane areas. Along these areas is constructed the space where roads and sewage systems were created by the colonial rulers. Both the riverfront dense neighborhoods and roads remains clogged, dirty, congested and comprises the main area of the city from Assi, Lanka to Gaudauliya . This stretch covers the main part of the historical city and stretches for several kilometers. It does not include the other side of the river bordering RamNagar. The area represents the living heritage of an ancient heritagescape which refuses to be compromised in face of contemporary needs. It is that unchangeable, non-negotiable, inherent character which has retained its magnetism over centuries and has always made people around the world to visit this ancient city.
It is not the intention of the Prime Minister Modi that I am doubting, it is negotiating with sustenance of the spirit ‘wonder that is India’ in Basham’s words by the application of the proposed renewal technique; since, many a time, creating world class cities is normally about efficient management of cities in a contained canvas. For the renewal Kashi project we could not have had a better partner than the Japanese who are steeped in tradition, and are known for meticulous delivery. Yet, will the will of Modi, and the systematic approach of the Japanese be able to negotiate spaces for preserving the plural categories human societies and traditions that have existed, and adapted since centuries? Varanasi, like the rest of India is an ever dynamic process of multiplicity and not monolithic structures. Each of several cultural and regional social groups in Kashi want and have always vied for representation in the area around the Moksha Sthan that defines the internal network of the main city. Is super- imposing the idea of the concept of monolithic renewal of this evergreen urban space a challenge to the city’s inherent Indian Spirit of plural cultural spaces? The methodology of the idea of World class Urbanization is usually about doing away with plurality adopting a reductionist approach for efficient administration leading to creating soul-less cities. India as a civilization has always defied being put in a canvas, and Varanasi with the flowing Ganga river is constant reminder of plural dynamism. The honeycomb coexistence of contradictory community cultures is the mark of Kashi: the wild co-existence of Aghors and Vishwanath with that of shasthi peeth Valabacharya seat of Vaishnavism, echo of Buddha’s First Sermon with that of the silence of Jain saint Parashavnath, rhythm of looms of thousands of Muslim weavers with the bold beats of Kathak playing the Banaras gharana of tabla, lilting sensuous sound of tappa and thumri singing with coexisting with chants of the women of Panini Vidyalaya defying patriarchy, the colorful religious ethos of Tulsi’s Ramayana with fervor captured in edifices built by Rani Ahilya Bai and Marathas represented in temples and ghats, where the Maulvi of a mosque offers flowers to the priest of the Vishwanath temple. The stern, modern nationalist spirit of Banaras Hindu University, and temple of India is balanced with the wildness of aroma of cannabis smoked populace and stained beetle leaf lips opening with carefree laughter. I hope that this complex contradictory terrain of the intangible heritage is addressed in the renewal program.
In my opinion the renewal program needs to fill the vacuum that exists between two metaphorical spaces namely between the Cosmic, and individual nirvana, and that space is the civic public space. The most important part of the program therefore needs to create an educational awareness where the citizen’s wisdom of life, forces them to come together along with efficient infrastructure to address in a sustainable manner clean public spaces (both on land and river), functional, clean toilets for women, large number of dustbins, and mechanism for disposing garbage. Sometimes I think Kashi or the city of light is a metaphor to find our soul in the chaos and dirt, but that is perspective that needs to be changed so that there is a tangible truth of finding Vishwanath in every nook and corner renewing the famous saying that goes for Kashi is jitney kankar utne Shanker. (There is Shiva in all pebbles of Kashi).