During the general election, I was among journalists that visited Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s constituency. In the evening we went down to the famous Dashashwamedha Ghat, winding our way through crowded bazaars full of beggars, sadhus, religious offerings and mementos. Most photos you see of Varanasi are of the Dashashwamedha Ghat and its neighbouring one. These two major ghats are flanked by palaces, forts, the famous house of widows, and by cremating ghats on either side where the fires burn endlessly.
The highlight of the evening is a maha-aarti held on the two main ghats. It is performed by over a dozen groups of Brahmins representing famous shrines and religious orders, each wielding a giant vertical brass triangle festooned on all three sides with flaming diyas. They perform the aarti (offering of fire) to the chanting of shlokas.
The ghats have a standing capacity of just a few thousand people, few of whom can see the entire array of aartis. Another thousand or so people get onto boats that anchor in the Ganga River just opposite the two ghats.
The view from the river allows spectators to see the entire range of aartis, and the palaces and ghats beyond.
It is a breathtaking sight, enough to move atheists like me, so I can imagine the phenomenal impact it has on pious Hindus.
But I was shocked that such a fabulous sight could be seen by so few. The two main ghats have very limited capacity, are choked with rubbish and cow-dung, and are not designed to give a proper view of either the maha-aarti or the majestic river front. The historic riverfront itself cannot be modified -it is holy and irreplaceable. How, then, can we create the infrastructure to enable at least a lakh people to enjoy the sight every day?
The answer came to me when I read of transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s plan to dredge the Ganga and make it navigable from Kolkata to Varanasi. Dredging provides huge quantities of sand that are typically used to create new riverfronts. But the historic riverfront of Varanasi cannot be touched.
Instead, the dredged sand should be used to create a new island in the Ganga, called Kashi dwip, whose centre will be right opposite the Dashashwamedha Ghat. Kashi dwip should be at least three kilometres long though not very wide. Three kilometres on either side of the island will add up to six kilometres of riverfront. This will provide all the space needed for secular tourism (restaurants, hotels, parks) as well as dozens of new ghats. Hindu ashrams, mutts, and groups from all over India will vie with one another to build and maintain their own ghats on the island: it will not cost the government a penny. The two ends of the island can be connected by bridge to the main city. In due course, the island can, if required, be extended a few kilometres more.
This seems to me the only way of providing massive new space in the religious centre of Varanasi without disturbing the existing historic ghats and buildings. The new ghats will in due course become part and parcel of the religious centre of the city. These will doubtless start holding their own maha-aartis in the evenings, and we could end up with over 50 maha-aartis at the same time. What a sight that will be! Kashi dwip can be a model for urban development with zero rubbish or sewage disposal in the river. Probably no private residences should be allowed (hotels and dharamshalas will give many more people per year access to the limited space). No private vehicles should be allowed on the island -the only transport should be electrified train or bus, coming every five minutes and stopping every 200 metres, so that movement is quick and simple.
Modi says tourism should be given top priority as an industry with huge employment potential. That’s an excellent idea. When incomes rise above subsistence level and a middle class develops, as in India, people want to travel and see new places.
By far the biggest attractions are religious shrines and cities. Secular tourism comes a distant second to religious tourism. The famed Kashmir Valley attracts 1.4 million tourists a year, but this pales in comparison with the 11 million visiting the Vaishno Devi shrine in the same state.
Kashi is far holier than Vaishno Devi. Given the right infrastructure, it should attract 50 million or more people per year. Modi knows that tweaking the existing infrastructure cannot possibly accommodate so many people.
Bold new ideas are required. Will Modi grab the idea of Kashi dwip?
1 thought on “Will Modi grab the idea of Kashi dwip?”
Sir, your article is really awe-inspiring; at least to me. Ganges is the holiest river for Hindus. Why can’t we take advantage of it and purify the holiest river in India? As you mentioned, dredging can be one of the best techniques to make Kashi a sight of appeal and beauty. I hope your article stirs up immense motivation in our politicos so that they think of implementing it.