The people of Banaras witness change coming to the city of ashes.

Believers by Shreevatsa Nevatia; Illustration - Akshaya Zachariah

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March 2020, Rajendra Tiwari’s first thought was of divine retribution. “They ran a bulldozer over the heart of Vishwanath,” Tiwari told me. “The effects of that are there for the whole world to see.” He was referring to the demolitions carried out in the heart of Varanasi, preparatory work for the ambitious Vishwanath Dham project—the centrepiece of which is a gleaming 20m-wide axial path that will stretch from the city’s famous Kashi Vishwanath temple, all the way to the banks of the Ganga.

Tiwari was aggrieved. Authorities working on the corridor had forced his family to vacate their ancestral home just four days before the lockdown announcement. “Ours is a family of mahants,” [1] he explained. “We have served Lord Vishwanath for generations and the house they destroyed was as old as the Kashi Vishwanath mandir itself. It wasn’t just my home, it was my temple, too. I feel I’ve been rooted out and discarded.” The Tiwari house used to be difficult to get to, reachable only through a labyrinth of lanes, none wider than three feet, thronged by stray cows and choked, at points, by garbage. Pilgrims to the neighbouring Kashi Vishwanath temple faced the same challenges.

Modi, the member of Parliament for Varanasi, claimed he was troubled by the distress of these devotees. He imagined a Banaras where the faithful would have wide pathways to walk across, not narrow galis to suffer. The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, which the prime minister called ‘Vishwanath Dham,’ would clear away a dense, cluttered matrix of tightly packed houses, shops and lanes as part of an expansion and beautification project. Of the 294 properties Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh government had earmarked for demolition in 2018, four belonged to Tiwari’s family of eight cousins. They’d fought together, but in the end, he said, they were compelled to leave. The government had reduced their electricity and water supply to a trickle.

Compensation for his family’s properties had been divided equally among his brothers, and Tiwari had received ₹60 lakh. “But you need at least ₹1 crore to buy a decent three-bedroom flat in Banaras. The authorities have only paid us for two properties. They are now refusing to give us the money for the other two.” Not that it’s about the money, he insisted in the same breath. He is left with the feeling that his spiritual inheritance has been seized from him. “You can weigh the amount of sugar you put in a glass of milk,” he said. “But you’ll never be able to measure its sweetness.”

“You are making Kashi into Singapore”


hen I first met Rajendra Tiwari in 2015, he was laughing. “We have elected Vasco da Gama as our MP,” he said, joining in the widespread mockery of Modi’s well-publicised overseas visits. Modi had been saying he wanted to make “another Kyoto” of Kashi. Tiwari was in denial when the corridor was announced in 2018. “At best, he’ll build a resort for his industrialist friends, that is all,” he had told me. 

Once it became clear that his house would be demolished because of the corridor, denial turned to anger. Last year, through the pandemic, it seemed to me that the ire had finally given way to despondency. “Kyoto is an ancient city where everything—houses, walls, lanes—has been preserved,” he remarked recently. “You came here saying that you will make Kashi Kyoto, but now you are making Kashi Singapore. No one will come to see that.”

In the nineteenth century, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte tasked Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to clean up Paris, a centuries-old capital where the rubble of the past collided with the tumult of a transforming France. It was filthy, full of crowded little lanes in which people and history lived cheek-by-jowl. Haussmann razed this legendary city to create an imperial capital. He replaced the winding streets in central Paris with wide boulevards, knocking down 12,000 buildings and laying out long, straight, grand avenues.

This is the Paris we know today. Haussmann is hailed as the planner who made Paris the “City of Lights.” Few now think of him as an imperial stooge who crushed the poor and erased a diverse and cosmopolitan legacy. It’s hard not to think of the parallels between the ambitions of Louis-Napoléon and those of India’s current government. Future visitors may enjoy a Varanasi that is more clean, spacious, and, to some kinds of visitors, welcoming. But to living inhabitants like Tiwari, the plan has ripped out Kashi’s heart.

Vishwambar Nath Mishra downplayed comparisons with another storied European city: Venice. Venice’s monuments are only open to visitors and Banaras has all kinds of occupants, Mishra argued. “One can’t be certain what came over the government,” he told me, “but in one fell swoop, they erased everything––buildings, traditions, values.”

Mishra teaches students at the Banaras Hindu University’s technology college by day, then presides as the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple in the evening. For Mishra, Tiwari’s troubles represented a more collective trauma. “The social fabric of this city has been eroded,” he said. “For those who have lost their homes, I can only imagine an identity crisis. They enjoyed a certain recognition in this neighbourhood, and you have simply uprooted their lives. Heritage cannot be confined to a place; it must include people.”

“The houses were all dilapidated”


n February 2018, a bureaucrat named Vishal Singh, as CEO of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust (SKVTT), took charge of laying the groundwork for the Vishwanath Dham. By the time he was transferred to Ayodhya in September 2020, Singh had all but completed the tricky business of acquiring properties for the project. It cost over ₹400 crore. “These houses were all dilapidated,” he told me in January last year, referring to properties he had surveyed. “Even their owners couldn’t live there. I feel that the money they have received can keep their future generations happy, too.” The expense was by no means meagre. Kishan Nawalgaria, who owns a sari shop at the edge of the Vishwanath corridor, told me that the UP government had even doubled the commercial rate in certain circles of the precinct.

Some architects are horrified by the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to the built environment of Varanasi. “Every ghat had a different function, for instance,” A. G. K. Menon, one of the first architects to work on the development of the ghats in the 1980s, told me. “One was used for cremation, another for bathing and a third only by women. We solved problems based on the context. In a sacred place like Banaras, you find your answers through negotiation. No such thing has taken place in the present Kashi Vishwanath project.”

The authorities are confident of having dealt with residents fairly. Singh insisted that he had been holding continuous consultations with civic society. “But there cannot be a plebiscite on something like this. You can take architectural inputs when constructing, but you can’t leave every decision to people at large.”

“To those who come to Banaras, I ask—do you come here looking for a theme park or a temple?”

Rajendra Tiwari

“I would in no way question the sincerity of a person whose family has lived there for generations or the importance of how he feels,” Bimal Patel agreed. Patel, who I spoke to in December last year, is the architect of some of the biggest public projects in India in this century. He made a new complex of office blocks in the state capital of Gujarat and oversaw the restoration of the Sabarmati Ashram.

Headquartered in Ahmedabad, Patel’s HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt Ltd is now designing the Vishwanath corridor in simultaneity with its other big project, the partial razing of Lutyens’ Delhi to create a new Central Vista for the capital. Patel was sympathetic to Tiwari’s story, but pragmatic about it. “One cannot totally avoid that, especially when you’re looking at a situation where structural changes are inevitable. You can’t hope to make such change with zero disruptions,” he said.

Patel works frequently with Narendra Modi. For the corridor project, the prime minister had two things in mind, he explained. First, he wanted to solve some of the functional problems in the area. Second, he was keen on giving the temple “a befitting surrounding.” He said: “People tend to focus on the latter, but 80%-90% of the work involves solving functional problems.” He went on to tell me how the changes would make the Vishwanath temple more welcoming.

Menon likened the approach taken by Patel and Modi to a “bull in a china shop.” Rajendra Tiwari was more scathing still. “To those who come to Banaras, I ask—do you come here looking for a theme park or a temple?” he said. “What they are creating is a Chowpatty by the Ganga.” Vishwanath Dham is supposed to have guesthouses, toilets, a library, a museum and a river-viewing gallery. “This place is now becoming a religious mall, a place for entertainment, not introspection,” Tiwari told me. “Banaras was always a city of sadhana”––meditation. “They have reduced it to a city of sadhan”––means.

“How arrogant are you?”


iwari’s discontent has a backstory. His ancestral home had historic value. He said his grandfather had had the ear of freedom fighter and co-founder of BHU, Madan Mohan Malaviya. During the struggle for Independence, Lal Bahadur Shastri had sought refuge in the family home after an arrest warrant was issued against him. Tiwari’s prized possessions include two photographs of his father. He is posing with Shastri in one and with Lord Mountbatten in the other.

Tiwari was born in 1962, and the family groomed him to take over the management of the Vishwanath mandir. But in 1983, the Sripati Mishra-led Congress government in UP passed the Uttar Pradesh Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Act. The legislation created the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust to administer the temple. [2] Tiwari’s family had hoped the courts would intervene to restore their responsibility. As of this writing, no court has legitimised their claim to the temple.

Frustrated with the delays in UP’s district courts, Tiwari and his brothers recently moved the Supreme Court. Their petition contends that the family’s poornaadhikar or complete right to perform the temple’s religious duties are “well documented” and “judicially determined.” The temple is a private one, they argue. Following a hearing in March 2020, the SC issued a notice to the UP government, seeking its response on the matter. A year later, however, Tiwari said he was not hopeful. “They keep asking for postponements to stall us.”

Mohandas Gandhi first visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple in 1903. Met with “swarming flies” and an “insufferable” din, he lamented that the expected “atmosphere of meditation and communion” was “conspicuous by its absence.” In 1916, speaking at the opening of BHU, he didn’t hold back: “If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is it right the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are?” [3]

At the foundation stone ceremony in March 2019, Modi invoked Gandhi’s 1916 speech to justify the large-scale interventions being made by Yogi Adityanath’s UP government. “This Kashi Vishwanath Dham is, in a way, the occasion of Bhole Baba’s liberation,” Modi declared. Bhole Baba refers to Shiva, the deity believed to offer moksha or salvation to those who breathe their last in Kashi. Tiwari was outraged by the invocation. “Modiji said Vishwanath had been closeted within four walls, that he was not being able to breathe,” he recalled. “Every being in this world breathes because of Vishwanath’s grace and you have the audacity to say that it’s because of you that Shiva is going to breathe. How arrogant are you?”

“The city sits on top of Shiva’s trishul”


hen the Brahmins of Banaras tell the story of their city, Shiva is invariably the protagonist. Many in Kashi recount history as katha or story. They are interested in not just the facts of the past, but also their mythical interpretations. Tiwari, for instance, said there was a reason for the pre-eminence of the jyotirlinga worshipped at the Kashi Vishwanath mandir among the dozen jyotirlingas of India. [4] “When Brahma and Vishnu were quarrelling about who amongst them is supreme, it was in Kashi that Shiva settled that debate by first appearing as a shaft of light that penetrated the edges of the cosmos.” Tiwari said. “No jyotirlinga is as complete as the one here.”

The history of Kashi goes beyond dates and calendars, Tiwari told me. Kashi, in a sense, is beyond history. “You will find evidence of Kashi in every yuga, [5] and even when the cycle of four yugas has passed, Kashi will survive the hour of pralaya because the city sits on the top of Shiva’s trishul.” When Parvati, tired of her ascetic life in the Himalayas, yearned for earthly pleasures, Shiva built her a home in Kashi.

As a source of these tales, Tiwari pointed to the ‘Kashi Khanda,’ a set of verses found in the Skanda Purana that he took as gospel. The text not only proved Varanasi to be sacred, he said: it proved it to be timeless. But Rana P.B. Singh, a retired BHU professor, explained that this enthusiasm for scripture must be balanced with some scepticism. “The Kashi Khanda was first put together in the mid-fourteenth century but it was continuously revised, right up till the nineteenth century. There is no standard critical edition of this text. To then make sense of this Kashi Khanda, you must keep in mind other historical texts and facts,” he said.

The exalted tone of the Kashi Khanda may have been a response to foreign invasions that altered the character of the city. In 1194, for instance, the Vishweshwar temple, an earlier manifestation of the Kashi Vishwanath mandir, was singled out for destruction by Qutb-ud-din Aibak. In the thirteenth century, Razia Sultana of Delhi built a mosque on the site of the broken temple. That masjid still stands today.

In Tiwari’s telling, family lore is inextricably tied to recorded historical events. He also takes every opportunity to colour existing fact. His ancestors, he told me, were mahants of the Vishweshwar temple that Raja Todarmal—Mughal emperor Akbar’s finance minister—rebuilt in the late sixteenth century. “It helped that Akbar was secular-minded and that he worked towards bolstering the Hindu faith. Aurangzeb, however, had a very different mindset.” In 1669, when Aurangzeb ordered that the Vishweshwar temple be demolished to make way for the Gyan Vapi masjid, Tiwari said his forefathers protected the temple’s shiva linga by hiding it in their home.

By 1742, Mughal influence had waned enough for Malharrao Holkar, the Maratha chief of Malwa, to propose that the Vishweshwar temple be rebuilt at the site where Gyan Vapi stood. Over time, though, he was persuaded to consider an adjacent site for the temple. Ahilyabai Holkar realised her father-in-law’s plans by erecting the present Kashi Vishwanath mandir in 1781, at a site just south of the Gyan Vapi mosque. In Tiwari’s telling, the story took on a personal touch. “Shiva came to Ahilyabai in a dream,” he said. “Seeing the jyotirlinga in our family home, she said she would want to convert that very house into a temple.”

“All roads will start leading there”

As a city, Banaras is thought of as being eternal,” Madhuri Desai, author of a book on Varanasi’s architecture, told me. “However, this does not mean that it has remained static.” The Kashi Vishwanath temple only became central to Banaras’ pilgrimage landscape after the twelfth century. The temple then evolved over time, Desai said, to become “a central anchor for all representations of the city—pilgrimage maps, religious texts, travel narratives.”

“The Kashi Vishwanath corridor is yet another interpretation of the city and its pilgrimage landscape,” she said. It was much in line with the interventions of Raja Todarmal, who was working within Akbar’s policies, Aurangzeb, and Ahilyabai Holkar. “Like all previous attempts—including Mughal and Maratha—this instance is equally connected to contemporary politics and aesthetics.” Bimal Patel often quotes Desai in his presentations on Varanasi. “It has been the site of various people’s projects over the years,” he told me.

“I feel those who speak of Banaras’ unchanging essence are right if they are speaking of its spirit, but not so if they are of its physical fabric,” Patel said. It is acknowledged that almost all structures on the Varanasi riverfront are not more than 200-300 years old. “Yes, it is a site that is ancient,” said Patel, “but much of what we call Varanasi today is not ancient.”

“How will someone from Delhi or Ahmedabad know what life in Banaras entails?” Tiwari demanded to know. He thought the ₹1100 crore that the UP government has lavished on the corridor could have been put to better use. “If they wanted to retain Banaras’ Puranic antiquity, they could have repaired its houses and galis. Why destroy the heritage you want to preserve?”

“While we must be concerned about, for example, heritage or environmental issues, we must not be paralysed by our concerns.”

Bimal Patel

In an area as dense as the Kashi Vishwanath precinct, solutions cannot always be granular, Patel said. “Tiny patchwork solutions are not sufficient sometimes. At times, you need to find big solutions that tackle the problem as a whole.” Vishwanath Dham, he said, will do more than solve particular problems of the mandir or its neighbourhood. “It will send a message saying that urban problems can and must be tackled. While we must be concerned about, for example, heritage or environmental issues, we must not be paralysed by our concerns.”

There are others who know their misgivings are just belated reactions. No time at all passed between the announcement of the Vishwanath Dham project and its implementation, and they have realised that their protests are already behind the times. “It can now be talked of in the past tense,” Vishwambhar Nath Mishra of BHU and the Sankat Mochan temple said. “‘Once upon a time, Banaras looked like this.’ What could be worse? The corridor won’t resemble the Banaras it has razed.”

“Banaras is many thousand times larger than the 47,000 square metres that is being redeveloped for the corridor,” Patel pointed out.

From an architectural standpoint, the priestly holdouts are on the same page as many urban planners and conservation architects. A. Srivathsan, an architectural scholar who teaches at Ahmedabad’s CEPT University, explained that the physical character of Banaras comes from dense buildings that have been built over different periods of time. “It’s something like a changing collage. But Vishwanath Dham, by its sheer approach and geometry, will not allow for the kind of small blocks that already existed in the area.”

“How do you make something shorter?” he continued. “You do that by drawing something longer next to it.” Srivathsan felt that the corridor project is meant to underline the pre-eminence of the Kashi Vishwanath mandir in a city of innumerable other places of worship. “There are scores of other temples, and mosques, too, including Gyan Vapi. More or less, everything seems like an equal part of the puzzle, an equal chip in the mosaic. One chip will only appear grander if you focus on it. Activities will turn this corridor into a grand space. All roads will start leading there.”

A. G. K. Menon, too, felt that the government was essentially reorienting the city. “There are hundreds of temples here. The beauty of Banaras is its complexity. If you come wanting to simplify this innate complexity, the city loses its spirit.”

That isn’t just a blow to polytheism, but to secularism itself. “What sense does it make to empty out Shiva’s neighbourhood and leave him alone in the middle of it?” Vishwambhar Nath Mishra asked. “Banaras is a spiritual centre that has accommodated almost all faiths of the world,” Mishra said. “Islam, Buddhism, Christianity. We can’t erase all that and say it’s only Kashi Vishwanath that matters.”

“They’ll do their own tandav”


uthorities have claimed that only two of Varanasi’s 1700 galis have been destroyed in the rebuilding, but some locals say they are sure there have been more. “It’s these galis that people once came to see,” the Indian National Congress leader Gaurav Kapoor told me. “It’s also a bit like going to Paris and finding the Eiffel Tower gone.”

“I do not think that eliminating the crowding of the narrow lanes will add a bit to the pilgrimage experience,” the scholar Diana Eck said. Eck’s book, Banaras: City of Light, is one of the most well-known historical accounts of the city. For her, the complex of narrow galis is so much part of the character of the city that “it is not possible to plough through this to create a different urban area.” [6]

It was “desecration” to destroy wayside temples and shiva lingas for the project, Eck said. For pilgrims, “Shiva is everywhere,” she wrote in an email. “Kashi ke kankar, Shiva Shankar”––The very stones of Kashi are Shiva. There are countless Shiva temples in Kashi, and there is broad recognition that Shiva’s presence is not limited to one central temple.”

“The galis are all where they were, and we’ve restored all the temples we found,” the local BJP leader Ravindra Jaiswal told me last year. But Rajendra Tiwari said this wasn’t true. “We’ve lost count of how many temples they destroyed.”

“Even Babur, Humayun and Aurangzeb had not broken our temples with this kind of impunity.”

Swami Avimukteshwaranand

Other Hindus are willing to die on this hill, too, for different reasons. Late last year, I called Swami Avimukteshwaranand. [7] He is the head of the city’s Shri Vidya Math, and the BJP has put him in a recalcitrant mood. “Even Babur, Humayun and Aurangzeb had not broken our temples with this kind of impunity,” he said.

When he went to inspect the corridor’s construction on 3 April 2018, he saw that “they had destroyed eight temples and smashed their murtis.” That day, Avimukteshwaranand wrote letters to Modi and Adityanath. There was no response. Avimukteshwaranand began visiting temples in Varanasi to “tell people what was happening wasn’t right.” He lost all composure when he saw a Ganesha temple being demolished. The temple, he said, found mention in the Kashi Khanda. “So, I fasted for 12 days. As a result, 48 of the 150-odd mandirs in the area were left intact.” [8]

“The Mughal Aurangzeb broke down a place of worship and built another,” Avimukteshwaranand thundered. “These people are busy building toilets.” He thought the BJP governments ought to have simply brought down the Gyan Vapi mosque instead. “This masjid was built over the remains of a temple Aurangzeb destroyed,” he said. “If the government was serious about alleviating the pain of pilgrims, this mosque would have been removed and a temple would have been built in its place.” As part of work on the corridor, the walls that obscured the view of the mosque have been brought down. “Now that we can see it,” he told me, “our pain has become ever more acute.”

“We are feeling fear and joy right now”


n 1992, when bringing down the Babri Masjid, kar sevaks chanted an ominous slogan:  Ayodhya toh sirf jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai: Ayodhya is but a foretaste; Kashi and Mathura await. Avimukteshwaranand’s vitriol about Gyan Vapi reminded me of something that Tiwari had pointed out. “Won’t the corridor provide space for lakhs of people to congregate?” he had asked. “There’ll be no stopping them once they come for Gyan Vapi. They’ll do their own tandav.”

“Gyan Vapi should be left standing to remind people of Aurangzeb’s terror,” Tiwari said. “We keep Ravan alive to illustrate the importance of Ram. Similarly, if there is no mosque, how will people tell the difference between devta (God) and daitya (monster).” Gaurav Kapoor, the Congress leader, thought the corridor has been constructed with relative alacrity so that the masjid becomes an eyesore. “As a result,” he said, “people will accept their decision to bring it down when they do.”

On 7 September 2020, a month after Modi had laid the foundation stone for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Hindu organisation Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad claimed a temple’s remains had been found under Gyan Vapi.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [9] and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [10] have gone on record to distance themselves from the Kashi-Mathura agenda, but the prospect is unofficially sanctioned. In March last year, the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted, “Liberation and restoration of the Kashi Vishwanath Jyotirling Mandir is a fundamental part of Hindu Renaissance. I hope the Muslim community will cooperate with us Hindus on this and help us restore the temple.” [11]

The historian Audrey Truschke published a biography of Aurangzeb in 2018 in which she argued that his policies vis-a-vis temples were rooted in pragmatism, rather than the malignant zealotry associated with him in traditional Indian historiography. “He viewed temples as entitled to state protection and, also, as subject to state punitive measures if political circumstances called for it,” she explained in an email. “Calls to destroy the Gyan Vapi masjid have nothing to do with history and are, staunchly and openly, against historical preservation. India is continuing to transform into a Hindu Rashtra under Hindu majoritarian policies that are fiercely anti-Muslim. Calls to destroy the Gyan Vapi masjid are best understood in that modern context of aggression and bigotry.”

In 1658, 11 years before he ordered the demolition of Todarmal’s Vishweshwar temple, Aurangzeb issued orders for the protection of Banaras’ temples and their priests. The imam of Gyan Vapi, Maulana Abdul Batin Noomani, contradicts the view of some historians to argue that the mosque dates back to before Aurangzeb’s own time, as far back as the sixteenth century. “Aurangzeb only renovated this structure. He did not build something new. People must understand him better.”

On 25 October 2018, a government contractor demolished part of the mosque’s northern boundary wall, the Chhattadwar Chabutra. After Muslims from the area gathered in protest, the administration repaired the wall that very night. Then, in March 2019, a group of miscreants tried to bury a statue of Nandi [12] in the Gyan Vapi complex. “You might think them to be small, but incidents like these only remind us of the threat to our masjid,” Noomani told me.

Set up by the Sunni Waqf Board, Anjuman Intizamiya Masjid (AIM) was assigned the task of being Gyan Vapi’s caretaker. S. M. Yaseen is the committee’s general secretary. Until 2019, he was convinced that the BJP was using its 1992 Ayodhya playbook as a template for its Varanasi policies. [13] Of late, however, he has had a change of heart: “The population of Muslims in Ayodhya was very little—approximately 10,000. In Banaras, Muslims make up 25-30% [14] of the population. Namaz wasn’t performed at Babri Masjid after 1949. Namaz is performed here five times a day. As far as I can see, our masjid is secure.”

Yaseen was less sanguine in 2018. In November that year, AIM approached the Supreme Court, expressing the fear that an exposed Gyan Vapi would attract dangerous attention to itself. “Honestly, we hadn’t seen the whole plan,” Yaseen told me more recently. “They themselves were then not clear about what should or shouldn’t be made. Everything was in the dark.”

Vishal Singh, the former SKVTT CEO, recalled his testimony before the court. “I explained our plan to the judges, and they were convinced of it. They dismissed the petition.” Singh pointed to the three-fold security system around Gyan Vapi and the large paramilitary presence in the area. [15] “We’ll have command and control over every nook of the corridor to ensure the precinct is completed safe and untouched,” he said.

When Aurangzeb incorporated a wall of the older Vishweshwar temple into Gyan Vapi’s structure, it was one way in which he made his control over Kashi’s religious sphere visual. Centuries later, this jumble of architecture must, perhaps, come to symbolise modern co-existence, instead of historical subjugation. “The mosque takes on the very name of the Hindu sacred precinct on which it stands,” Diana Eck wrote in Banaras.

Eck felt that authorities would have to monitor the area around Gyan Vapi and that the military presence around it would have to stay. Yet, she said in her email, “the sentiments of Banarasi business people and residents, Hindu and Muslim alike, are likely to be the same: this is a city that thrives on its pilgrimage, its commercial life, and its relatively peaceful intertwining of peoples of various religious backgrounds. No one wants to strike a match to that mutually beneficial way of living.”

Muslims in Banaras have mixed feelings at the moment. “We are feeling both fear and joy right now,” Noomani said. “We pray to Allah to protect our masjid and the people of this great city.”

“For me, it is a building—just stone, nothing more”


Along with laying religious fault lines bare, the construction of the corridor has exposed an ‘outsider-insider’ binary that lurked under the surface of welcoming, tourist-friendly Banaras. Through our conversations, Tiwari couldn’t conceal the scorn he had for foreigners who might flock to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. 

The Vishwanath mandir has, until recently, disallowed the entry of non-Hindus. “Anyone with a ticket can now go inside,” he said. “You will soon see foreigners—Russians, Japanese—all entering the temple with their mineral water. They will pour on Shiva water from the same bottles they drink from.” Tiwari’s ideas of purity have been challenged by sacrilege he has imagined but not yet seen. “There is a reason why only followers of the sanatan dharma were allowed in,” he said. 

Another kind of disdain is even more covert: caste-based discrimination. Ballia-based social worker Jagdish Rawat lived for seven years in Varanasi, but he visited the temple only twice in this time. “Say, I don’t have money to eat, what meaning does an aeroplane have for me?” Rawat asked me. “Similarly, when temples don’t welcome Dalits, why should I go there? For me, it’s a building, just stone, nothing more.”

“This was much needed for Hinduism, for sanatan dharma, and for India as a country.”

Vishal Singh

Dalits can only pray at the Kashi Vishwanath mandir if they do not disclose their caste identity, Rawat explained. “If someone comes to know you are Dalit, you immediately become the object of humiliation and scorn. If a pujari, for instance, finds out you belong to a Scheduled Caste, you’re not allowed to enter the main sanctum.” Dalits received state sanction to enter the temple in 1954, but Rawat says no member of the Brahmin community has been welcoming. “If the Brahmin community of Kashi had reached out to Dalits and told them you should come and pray with us, our legal protection would have had social sanction.”

The Vishwanath corridor had done more than raze Tiwari’s house; it had upset the way of life that upholds caste hierarchy in Banaras society. The pain was not his alone. A Dalit colony near Jalasen Ghat was demolished during the drive that took Tiwari’s house, too. “What should these people do?” Rawat asked. “None of them has any means. They do not have any kind of strength.”

“I am satisfied I was probably able to do the right thing,” Vishal Singh told me in December. ”This was much needed for Hinduism, for sanatan dharma, and for India as a country.” Sunil Verma, Singh’s successor, stressed the secular credentials of the broader project. “People only think the temple is being expanded, but that’s not true,” Verma said. “We are building a cultural centre and city museum—anyone can enjoy these. They are not related to any one religion alone. The ghats are also going to see an uplift. There is a jetty that is being made. These, too, are for everyone.”

Tiwari didn’t believe claims that the corridor would be inclusive. “Don’t ask tourists how Banaras has changed,” he told me. “Ask those of us who live here.”

Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist. He is also the author of How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia. 

A note on sources: 

I have been reporting from Banaras since 2014 and was most recently there in November 2019. All the interviews for this piece were conducted between the months of January 2020 and March 2021. I would like to thank each of the following individuals for the time they gave me on the phone or over email: Rajendra Tiwari, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, S. M. Yaseen, Maulana Abdul Batin Noomani, Vishal Singh, Sunil Verma, Bimal Patel, A. Srivathsan, A.G. K. Menon, Swami Avimukteshwaranand, Ravindra Jaiswal, Gaurav Kapoor, Rana P. B. Singh, Jagdish Rawat, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Kishan Nawalgaria, Rishabh Chandra Jain, Madhuri Desai, Audrey Truschke and Diana Eck. 

While researching this piece, I referred to articles published in The Wire, The Caravan, The Indian Express, The Hindu, Frontline, Business Standard, India Today, Hindustan Times and The Times of India.

In addition, the following books and journal articles also proved essential reading:

  • Diana Eck, Banaras: City of Light (Penguin Books, 1983)
  • Diana Eck, India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony Books, 2012) 
  • Richard Lannoy, Benares Seen from Within (University of Washington Press, 1999) 
  • Audrey Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (Penguin, 2018)
  • Madhuri Desai, Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu City (Orient Blackswan, 2017)
  • Madhuri Desai, ‘Mosques, Temples, and Orientalists: Hegemonic Imaginations in Banaras’ Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Fall 2003), pp 23-37