The Unity of the Aesthetic Experience of the Ghats

Despite the presence in Banaras of thousands of temples, the centre of religious practice in this city is a vast hidden altar. Most people can’t see it even while moving over it. There is a threshold to cross over in order to perceive it, the threshold of devotion. The altar is revealed to the pilgrim performing purification’s rituals.

It is the altar of the great Sun Temple, that rises on the banks of Ganga-ji, (the name devotees use to refer to their mother, the river Ganges). It is a temple in the form, of an amphitheater, where the ghats form the platforms, the water the altar and the sun is God. Here Ganga-ji, which normally flows eastward, takes a sudden turn towards the North. Banaras is situated on its Western banks where it flows Northwards. That is why the sun rises perpendicularly to the river forming a burning line of light that cuts across the river at dawn.

Raising from the purifying dip in the river, the devotee opens joint hands and pours the Ganga water into the burning stream of light. In the offering of Water to the Sun, a unity is created between the Sun and Earth, between the fire and the water, between the source and receiver of the offering, between the soul of man and the soul of nature.

Though a bit forgotten in today’s Hindu pantheon, the Sun God was at the core of the original Vedic experience. That was the first religion of the Aryans who had declared Banaras to be the holiest amongst their cities, because of its unique combination of primary elements. Here, they worshiped Aditya, Surya the Sun, Usha- the Dawn, and Indra- the Rain with elaborate rituals.

Hinduism has changed in the past five thousand years. It is Shiva and Vishnu, with their female counterparts and their incarnations who are praised in the temples and addressed in the religious songs. Vedic Gods receive little attention in daily worships. But even now the holiest prayer of Hinduism has remained the Gayatri Mantra, the Vedic hymns to the Sum God. It is this mantra that the Hindu devotee recites as he /she rises out of the cold water, eyes closed, facing the warm, rising Sun.
Though over the centuries, temples and palace have been built long the river, such constructions have always represented an a cycle of respect around this sacrifice performed on the altar of the Sun Temple. The kings built their palaces, but bowed before austerity. Wealthy merchants, as well, lived in palaces, but they came to Banaras to adopt a discipline. The flaunting of one’s status was expressed through the promotion of learning the building of schools, the erecting of temples. One came to Banaras to make contact with the beyond, not to exhibit wealth.

The adhesion to this philosophy of life laid the foundation for the architectural and social unity of the Sun Temple which, astonishingly enough, continues to exist. But even if palaces crumbled to rubble, the place would simply return to what it was before, nature’s temple where the sanctifying elements of water, sun and prayers are all that are needed.
For this reason, the Mogul armies failed to destroy the true altar of the temple though they destroyed its walls several times. They may have succeeded only if they had managed to change the course of the river, obliterate the sun rise, of cut the faith out of the hearts of devotees.


Mystery of Benares

by Fausto Aarya De Santis

I had been hearing from many friends about Varanasi, some of them described it as a dirty, noisy and chaotic place and others described it as peaceful, quiet; a place you can get inspiration from. The two viewpoints were just the opposite; which was the right one? That was the mystery I intended to discover, so I decided I would go to Varanasi.

It was noon time on a breezy day in February when I was entering the mystery. I was arriving from Calcutta, when I reached the Kashi station of Varanasi. As I got out of the station I was shocked. Inside me, my first reaction was “Oh…my!!! Where have I reached?” It was a chaos. People were pushing each other, getting on and off rickshaws and cycles. There were cows, horses and dogs on the road. Most horses were being used to carry people. In a fraction of a second, all these images came into my mind, and by the time I came out from the clouds of my thoughts and realized where I was, I saw a huge crowd in front of me. Somebody was asking me if I needed a hotel, others were offering to take me around Banaras and the rest were asking for money. All these things were happening so fast that they were spinning in my head like a top. I wasn’t able to understand how people could even like Banaras and the mystery seemed to be getting clearer. I wasn’t able to handle it anymore, I felt like going back from where I had come but it was too far away and I had to get over this “commotion” around me. At the end, with a strong and irritated voice, I said “Stop it!” All the people around me became quiet, but it only lasted for a few seconds and then they started “jumping” on me once again. I had to get in control of the situation. I asked one of the rickshaw drivers to take me to Assi Ghat. He asked for forty rupees. I didn’t know if the price was right or not, but I was so tired that I took the offer. On the road to Assi, I saw so many strange things: cows on the road, not only cows but bulls also, the roads and the houses were very congested, the population density seemed very high and the city was very dirty and noisy. I really wasn’t able to understand how some of my friends could say that is a peaceful and quite place, and the mystery became clearer and clearer.

As I reached Assi Ghat, I went inside one of the hotels and nobody was at the reception. I rang the bell but nobody came. After five minutes of ringing, somebody presented himself at the reception. He was half asleep. I asked him if I could have a single bedroom and he replied he didn’t know if there was a room. I thought to myself, “how can these people do business in this way?” After sending a man to check if there was a room, he told me that there was one left and that it was for a hundred rupees a day, I took it and went into my room. It was around two in the afternoon and I was so stressed and tired that I needed to sleep.

I got up at around six evening and I thought of going for a boat ride. The River Ganges was close to my hotel and so I went walking. Before reaching the Ganges in Assi Ghat, there were twenty metres of sand, and as I was walking towards it, I slowly started feeling relaxed. I took a boat. Looking at the Ghats and floating on the Ganges was making me more and more relaxed and the entire atmosphere around me had a sensation of quiet. I was able to think about my life, about myself and had a feeling I never had before. The mystery was puzzling again: is then Banaras a maddening or a quiet place? I was confused again, because I had a sensation of peace, of quiet and I was thinking about myself, about God and life. Therefore, the friends who said that this was a great place to live in, were also right.

The boat ride had ended, an hour had already passed but it seemed as if it was only ten minutes. I was back in Assi Ghat, it was dinner time and I was getting hungry. A friend of mine had told me about an Italian Pizzeria in Assi Ghat so I went there. The restaurant was full. I saw four people sitting at the right end of the restaurant. I recognized they were Italian because they were the noisiest table in the restaurant.

As I was Italian, I thought of joining them. I went there and asked them if I could join them. They gave me the permission. I introduced myself and then they did too. They were Ruggero, Antonella, Stefano and Vrinda. All of them had already stayed in Varanasi for more than 15 years. We started a discussion about Banaras. I liked a lot the discussion we had, and at the end of the day in my hotel I reflected a lot. All the activities happening in Varanasi were contrasting each other and making the mystery more and more complicated.

There are people who find peace; they like to get away from the world, not to follow materialism. The Ganges gives you a positive feeling, a feeling of quiet and relaxation. In Varanasi, a lot of professors, philosophers, writers and many others come, so there is a lot of “knowledge sharing”. In Varanasi, there is a lot of chaos, people “jumping” on you but the peace can also make you feel worse if you have a fragile mind and sentimental problems. The presence of dead bodies floating on the River Ganges. The presence of the “Babas” and of tantric rituals is difficult to digest. Banaras is also a very noisy and dirty place.

There are people who can not handle Varanasi and leave it as soon as they arrive and there are others who would remain there and never leave it again. The Gods also lived in Banaras and wanted to live here forever but then they were forced to leave. They did all they could to come back and finally they did and settled down, never to leave again; this is what the books on Banaras say.

I realized that there is not only one mystery in Varanasi but many more; some of them we might not know even as yet; like people who run away from Banaras the day they reach the city and those who remain for the rest of their lives; the city that cannot get dirtier than what it is; the masti or intoxicaiton of banaras; the presence of a quiet stillness in a chaotic city.

And many more which I haven’t discovered yet. The day I came, all these mysteries weren’t solved. As I sit here in the Pizzeria, seventy years old, talking to the youngsters coming to Banaras for the first time, I realsie how many are the mysteries I still haven’t discovered.


Rationale for Including Varanasi on the World Heritage List of UNESCO

Do you know that the Ganga riverfront ghats and the old city of Varanasi fulfill the criteria for being nominated as a World Heritage List of UNESCO: the criteria of being a cultural landscape, characterised by living traditions and constituting a unique artistic and aesthetic accomplishment.

The city represents a unique natural shape along the Ganga river which flows northerly in crescent shape for about 7km, rendering sacred the city that has grown along its western banks, facing the rising of the sun and making the ghats (stone steps that rise from the river towards its shores) sacred for all Hindu rituals. The area along the right side is a flood plain, preserving the natural ecosystem. The natural setting, the spirit of place, and the continuity of cultural traditions have all blended together to create and preserve a unique lifestyle known as Banarasi. It is the only city where textually described cosmogonic frame and geomantic outlines are existent in their full form and totality, thus the city becomes universally significant.

The city considered as the microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, is visited by thousands of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pilgrims and foreign visitors each day and known the world over as the “sacred city”, is rich in architectural, artistic and historical buildings (temples, palaces, maths, mosques, ashrams, etc.). Besides being an indelible part of our heritage, these buildings, along with the local religious and cultural life, constitute an immense resource for tourism, domestic and foreign, one of the major economic activities of the city. Varanasi is a living symbolisation and a living expression of Indian culture and traditions in all its religious rituals, in its multi-ethnic artistic traditions, in its architectural treasures, in its life-expressions, in its particular relationship with life and death, in its ancient educational forms and methods and in its multi-ethnic population.

Development pressures are altering irreversibly many aspects of the cultural, architectural, artistic and above all the historic fabric of the city that is the very base and the very resource of economic sustainability of the city. In order to make development economically, environmentally and socially sustainable, conservation has to become a determining factor for development plans and due attention must be given to heritage conservation issues and related action plans. In order to achieve this, the city needs broad-based policy initiative and stringent laws that help protect and utilise its tangible and intangible heritage. Destruction of the architectural heritage and modification of urban spaces in the old areas of Varanasi could negatively alter the religious and cultural life ad landscape for which the city is sacred and a priceless treasure for the world.

Why Varanasi Needs a Conservation Policy

In Banaras, the tourism industry is greedily investing in building new structures to lodge tourists who stop over for short visits to get a quick view of the life and those parts of the “old” city that are world famous for their unique features. It is little concerned with sharing the benefices of development with the local community. In fact, one of the features of the city is that here the tourism industry is less capable than elsewhere of preserving the resources upon which the tourism business is based, i.e. the architectural, social and cultural heritage of the historic city centre.

Many of the historic palaces, that are the stars of the city, are in a dilapidated state. The state blames this on the lack of budget provisions and pressing matters of higher national importance. Developers lobby for new constructions and not for conservation of the old. The result is the rampant erosion of an increasing number of neglected old structures along the Ghats. So the “developers” are raising this issue to force their solution, i.e. to transform these structures into luxury hotels along the Ganges. But unplanned commercial exploitation of the Ghats will lead to disharmony with the traditional life along the river, provoke crises in the identity of the resident community of the historic city centre and will also undermine the resources upon which tourism is based. So, the challenge is to contrast such an unsustainable model of development. This challenge is now being taken up by some people, including visionary administrators, responsible political people, motivated traditional stalwarts, professors, lawyers, media and civil society bodies like the Kautilya Society.

In Varanasi, we have the paradox of it being one of the cities where traditional life style is best preserved, but also where architectural heritage is least conserved. There is a timid ordinance that forbids new constructions within “200 meters” distance from the river banks but this ordinance is little policed and extensively disrespected. State Government will continue to forget monitoring its implementation unless local community is involved in the process of policy planning for the conservation and management of the historical city centre. In a vacuum of legislations, even aggressive initiatives like the one of demolishing the the Darbhanga Palace demolished by a chain of hotels to make a five star structure, have public support. This constructed has been stopped for the moment only because the media, some responsible political people and civil society synergised to move the administration the high court of the state of Uttar Pradesh and because it was within 300 meters of a “National Monument” (the Manmandir observatory), protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The population growth is over burdening the carrying capacity of the urban environment and the river eco-system and unplanned mass and luxury tourism could potentially have a hard impact on the cultural carrying capacity of the old city centre. Social hygiene and sanitation services too are beginning to bend under the pressure of a growing resident population and a constant large floating population. While demographic pressures force new illegal and low-standard housing to mushroom in the low lying areas along the River Ganga at the two ends of the city, beyond the river Varuna in the North and the river Assi in the South, new illegal structures get added on to old historical buildings, temples and ashrams along the river in the ancient sacred part of the city. Not only are the historical, cultural and religious buildings today in peril of being demolished or mutated forever in a misused interpretation of “development”, but so are the old trees of this once famous “city of the gardens”, the haveli-s of the benefactors of this city, the sacred water bodies or kunds, the riverfront and the Goddess Ganga herself. Like most urban areas in India, Varanasi is being submerged by steep demographic increase and urban migration. Tourism is seen as the potentially most promising industry. So there is an increased attention to look at tourism as the source to provide funds for the badly needed restorations. But should the buildings along the river-front be converted into hotels? Does development always have to imply construction? Can we not develop preserving our heritage? By betraying the traditional usage of urban space, would we not be destroying the very resource for tourism, which is the “personality” of Varanasi.