Open Essay

Regaining the Past to flow into the Future

Saraswati Nandini Majumdar is the author of Banaras: Walks Through India Sacred City. She is associated with NIRMAN, an NGO that works for education and the arts (
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The Ganga is moving away from the ghats. Can Modi save it?

The other evening, as is my routine whenever I’m in Benares, I took a walk to the Ganga. It was twilight, and Assi ghat was full of people young and old, there just like me to mark the end of a long day and to escape the chaotic city, to take in the open, changing sky, the broad river and the solid stone buildings. Some were sipping tea, others simply sitting and chatting on the steps a few feet above the water or high above the ghat. Some paused at the old Hanuman shrine and the Shiva idols under the peepal tree where boatmen wait for customers.

Sitting there that evening, I was filled anew with a sense of awe and happiness that I should have such easy access to this unique and wonderful space—a space both communal and private, filled with the beauty of both the natural and the human, so constant, yet constantly shifting, responsive at each moment to the subtlest changes in the environment. I was filled also with a sense of awe at a physical space capturing and perpetuating the spirit of a city—in this case, the Benaresi spirit of mauj and masti, or revelry and abandon, and of khulapan or openness, which has bound together its residents for centuries, and for which the city continues to be celebrated the world over.

For Benaresis, the Ganga is not just a goddess to be worshipped, Ma, but she is also a dear friend and constant companion. In winter or summer, night or day, she is there to provide entertainment— kite flying, cricket matches, and picnics—and to calm and inspire with her grandeur and gentility. I have myself experienced everything—swims and boat rides in childhood, meandering walks in adolescence, and times of solitude and camaraderie in adulthood. Just as for thousands of others in Benares, Ganga Ji has been as much a part of my life as the closest companion could be.

Many of the individuals that one sees on the ghat on an average day belong to communities whose livelihoods depend wholly on the river. These are the nishads or fishermen, the mallahs or boatmen, the doms or cremation pyre workers, and the pandas and purohits, or various kinds of ritual priests. Their homes and mohallas, or neighbourhoods, overlook the ghats and are tucked within the lanes leading to the river, often complete with their own shrines and deities, gymnasiums and communal spaces. There are also the many individuals and families whose smaller and larger businesses thrive all along the river, such as the owners of tea shops, barber shops, guest houses and snack stalls.

If you’re an insider to Benares and you are asked by someone outside the city about the Ganga and the ghats, it is difficult not to wax poetic or to sound as though you are romanticising reality. But the truth is that there is little in the world (on the three continents I have seen, and I have not been to the Amazon forests or the Cape of Good Hope) to compare with the Ganga and the ghats. Together, they make for a kind of magic difficult to find in the modern world—spaces within spaces of poetry and dreams, and also of real life in its most tangible and sensual, gentle and carnivalesque forms. They constitute ‘heritage’ in the widest and deepest sense, emotional and ethical, economic, environmental, cultural and artistic.

The Ganga has always been the life-nerve of Benares, fuelling its commercial and spiritual vibrancy from the very start.

At the start, in around the eighth century BCE, Benares was a fortified settlement on a high plateau overlooking the Ganga, far north of its current location. This point was an important dock, and the ancient trade route connecting Bengal to the northwest passed through here. The larger area surrounding the city, called ‘Anandvana’ in Puranic texts, was nourished by the Ganga in the form of a series of interconnected streams and ponds. Its lush forests housed the ashrams of the most radical thinkers.

Qutb-ud-din Aibak demolished the fortified city in 1194 and Benares began to shift south along the river to take its present form. As it did so, it continued to thrive as a centre for commerce, religion and culture, with the river Ganga at the heart of all the activity. Ships went up and down the river, loaded high with cargo, including the fine silks and brocade for which Benares was already long famous. Royal families wanted to establish their presence in the city, and so they constructed ghats and riverside complexes complete with a palace, shrines, gymnasiums and resthouses for pilgrims. Pilgrims poured in, and communities from all over India settled down in the city, giving it a cosmopolitan air. Mohallas or gated neighbourhoods developed, with narrow lanes opening out to the river. A rais or elite class formed, consisting mostly of businessmen. They had boat races down the river and sponsored music concerts on the ghats. The painters of the British Company School captured this vibrant riverfront of Benares. Commerce, religion and culture worked together to build Benares over the centuries, and the Ganga and its ghats were crucial in this collaboration.

In Hindu mythology, the Ganga is a celestial stream that descends from the heavens to earth. The Ganga—each wave of her waters—is a tirtha or ‘crossing place’ from the material world to the far shore of liberation. The ghats were built to provide access to her sacred waters and are thus themselves sacred. They were built on this concept of the tirtha.

Last year, over 5.2 million tourists, Indian and international, visited Benares —more than four times the population of the city. Of these, nearly 5 million were Indian, mostly pilgrims who travelled to Benares solely to take a dip in the Ganga. Fairs and festivals such as Lolark Chhat and Kartik Purnima, as well as other auspicious days in the Hindu calendar, particularly attract hundreds of individuals from nearby towns and villages. Those from far south, east, west and north, come all year long. For out- siders, the Ganga curving north and the stone façade rising gloriously from the river is iconic of Benares itself, the city’s most celebrated image.

One of the most popular myths of Ganga’s descent to earth tells of how Shiva caught her in his tangled locks to prevent the force of her waters from shattering the earth. As Ganga flowed from the mountains onto the plains, she passed the shining city of Benares. She was so taken that she nearly turned back to stop there. Benares is the only point in her course that she flows south to north. Just as Benaresis are attached to Ganga Ji, so is she to them.

Any plan for the revitalisation of the Ganga and the ghats would ideally have to demonstrate a holistic understanding of the heritage that they together constitute and all the interwoven layers of living, evolving culture that they have given birth to and continue to nourish—rather than focusing on any one aspect of development over another, such as economic or environmental. In order to be truly meaningful and impactful, such a plan should work closely with the needs and desires, fears and dreams of the hundreds of individuals whose lives are inseparable from the river. That is, revitalisation and conservation should happen for the people of Benares themselves and for Ganga itself, which have always been interdependent.

The two main governmental efforts at revitalising the Ganga and the ghats have been the Ganga Action Plan and the National Ganga River Basin project. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was conceived during Rajiv Gandhi’s term and consisted of three portions of funds allocated to UP, Bihar and West Bengal, aiming to put into place drains, sewers, sewage treatment plants, and electric crematoria, and also to beautify the ghats. For a number of reasons, despite the massive funds allocated and plans drawn up, the GAP was never successfully implemented or seen through to satisfactory results by the state and municipal governments.

The second major effort, the $1.5 billion National Ganga River Basin project, has been undertaken by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, supported by the World Bank since 2011. But, similar to the Ganga Action Plan, the National Ganga River Basin project has also failed to deliver, perhaps in large part because, as Vijay Jagannathan notes, the work has been channelled through the same state engineering agencies that were engaged in the GAP.

Today, the Ganga continues to suffer from the pollution of untreated sewage that flows directly into the river at a number of point sources. Water becomes dangerous for drinking or bathing when the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BoD) level exceeds 3 mg/L. The BoD level at Benares is 3.4 mg/L, lower than that at Allahabad or Kanpur, but still exceedingly dangerous for humans, as well as for aquatic life such as the Ganges River Dolphin, now endangered.

Another major concern is that of illegal constructions along the riverfront. Existing laws prohibit construction within 200 metres of the river. However, even the briefest boat ride down the Ganga or walk along the ghats exposes the viewer to the uncontrolled addition of new buildings to older ones, which are demolished or simply unprotected and thus disintegrating, and on the ghat itself—almost all of them eyesores in their ugly design, and also structurally dangerous. This clear violation of the law suggests many decades of complicity on the part of the municipal authorities and a chosen disregard for illegal activity.

In fact, as recently as this past August, the Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court on two different occasions questioned the Varanasi administration’s failure to carry out its duties and demanded evidence of action taken to prevent illegal construction on the ghats. The hearings and court order were in response to a PIL filed by a Benares-based NGO called Kautilya Society that has been working for over two decades for the preservation of the ghats and for Benares to be recognised as a World Heritage city. However, as its members will tell you, they have had to face opposition and harassment, rather than cooperation and acknowledgement.

The case of the Darbhanga Palace rather pitifully represents the situation of extreme irresponsibility in Benares. Built in 1915 by the Raja of Darbhanga in present-day Bihar, the Darbhanga Palace on Darbhanga Ghat is an exceptionally beautiful structure, towering and intricate, just one example of the several exquisite palaces that line the riverfront. In 2013, the owners began to demolish the palace and erect a new four-floor structure towards its rear. The VDA included this new structure in a list of 57 unlawful constructions on the ghats. However, on two different hearings at the Allahabad High Court in response to the PIL filed by Kautilya Society, the VDA submitted clearly contradictory statements: first it stated that the new four-floor building was in violation of the law prohibiting constructions within 200 metres of the river, and later it stated that no illegal construction had taken place in the palace.

The case of the Darbhanga Palace represents the overt and extreme lack of efficiency, transparency and accountability that has characterised all the action taken place thus far towards revitalising the Ganga and the ghats at Benares.

Most recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced plans to revitalise Benares as a heritage city. He has allocated massive funds towards ending sewage pollution and preserving the ghats, in addition to other aims. Panels of experts have met in the city and plans have been drawn up. No work is yet visible to the average resident of Benares, but Modi’s determination and ambition is in itself a breath of fresh air and a reason to hope. In order to achieve its goals, however, his team will have to address past and continuing governmental failings and successfully eradicate complacency and corruption in their own workings, apart from developing smart and imaginative plans. Only if it can achieve that level of successful management can we also think and talk realistically of achieving anything in the way of imaginative heritage revitalisation and conservation. For holistic revitalisation, not only must efficient management take place, but also a variety of experts, from engineers to architects to anthropologists, must be involved, and most of all the residents of the city themselves.

How the people of Benares can become more active stakeholders in revitalising their river and their own river-based lives is a complex topic for thought and discussion. Larger projects that address the needs of communities whose livelihoods depend on the river, as understood and expressed by them, need to be developed. Small steps that become a part of everyday life are equally necessary and powerful—steps that encourage Benaresis to develop within themselves a sense of awareness, concern, and activism, and that make even the one-time visitor feel urgently involved. These could include imaginatively designed signs and boards on the ghats, informative videos, one-time workshops and clean-up campaigns, and a trained and friendly ‘river team’ to ensure discipline and explain rules, answer questions and impart information.

The latent energies and insights of the people of Benares have never been sparked, and who can say once this happens, how much we can achieve?

As a Benaresi, the Ganga is woven into my past and future dreams. It is difficult to resist the temptation to allow my imagination to run free. I imagine the water of the Ganga swimmable again. I imagine the steps and embankments clean, the buildings restored and beautified. I imagine rules not just being imposed but being understood and practiced by the people themselves. I imagine all this at the very least, and much more.

The Ganga turned back as she passed Benares and nearly stayed because she was so charmed by the city. Today, according to one report, she is moving away from the ghats, shifting course mainly because of sewage pollution.

For me it is a personal as well as a political act to win the Ganga back to Benares and to the world. Can we do it?