Kind attention Hon’ble Prime Minister
What makes Varanasi or Kashi less privileged than Ping Yao – a 14th Century Chinese city; Ouro Preto – a 17th Century Brazilian city; or Grand-Bassan – a late 19th century town of Côte d’Ivoire? While these relatively new towns are marked as world heritage sites by UNESCO, Varanasi – one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities – does not figure in the list?
By SHIVNATH JHA
While the spiritual significance of Varanasi is undisputed – it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism, it has the credentials that no other city in the world can boast of as none can match Varanasi in terms of its legend, history and mythological significance.
“Varanasi is the city where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon (at Sarnath, just 10 km away from the Varanasi town). It is the city which finds place in ancient scriptures such as the Atharvaveda, Rigveda, Skanda Purana, as well as the great Hindu epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is the place where the holy epic poem Shri Ramcharitmanas by Goswami Tulsidas was written. And it is the city which celebrated writer Mark Twain described Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition and legend”.
Not many cities can be richer in history and mythology than Varanasi – a holy pilgrimage believed to be created by Lord Shiva that stood on his trident! Shiva — the fascinating deity of the Hindu Trinity (Brahma and Vishnu are the other deities of the Hindu triad) represents death and destruction and for the Hindus, death in Kashi means salvation.
The opposite flow of Ganga in Kashi – from South to North against its usual North to South, is symbolically alluded to the life cycle, from death (south, the realm of death, Yama) to life (north, the realm of life, Shiva, i.e. Kailash). Thus, the 84 Ghats (embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the bank of Ganga) of Varanasi are representative of the physical, metaphysical and supernatural concept of divinity. It is believed that it was here that Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati stood when time started ticking for the first time.
The name ‘Kashi’ is derived from the word ‘kasha’ which means ‘brightness’ and signifies ‘spiritual luminance.’ For Hindus Kashi or Varanasi is a pilgrimage. It is a city which has withstood the onslaught of time. It has seen it all – from invasions to reverence. It was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi in the 6th century BC and historically Kashi is among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. It was the nucleus of Aryan religion and philosophy by the second millennium BC. Archaeological investigations confirm the existence of the city from 800 BCE to CE 800, and further the continuity of residential settlement.
Varanasi was invaded in 1194 A.D by the Muslim ruler Qutb-ud-din Aibak who destroyed thousands of the temples and religious monuments. The city remained a part of successive Muslim dynasties. Some of the other old temples were also destroyed by the rulers in the year 1496. It was destroyed innumerable times by foreign invaders only to be rebuilt with renewed vigour and faith. Today the city also has 1,388 Muslim shrines and mosques.
According to Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, a great humanist and social reformer of contemporary India, who has adopted over 2000 destitute mothers (widows) of Varanasi and Vrindavan on the request of the apex court, also joined the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Clean India Campain” including Varanasi, said: “Varanasi is a living symbolization 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.
He said: Varanasi has been a unique mix of culture, learning and artistic pursuits. It drew many learned men from around the world. The celebrated Chinese traveler Hsüan Tsang was one of them, who visited India around AD 635. Kabir Das, Ravidas who were the superior saints and poets of the Bhakti of the 15th Century, lived here; Guru Nanak Dev (founder of the Sikhism) had visited the city at the religious festival, Shivratri in the year 1507; The old glory of the city was restored yet again when it became an independent kingdom, with Ramnagar as its capital, when the British declared it a new Indian state in 1910.
After India’s independence in 1947, Varanasi became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. In recent times the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA) had, with the aim of achieving a sustainable development of the city based on its architectural preservation and the conservation of its cultural landscape, recently undertaken the creditable and immense task of documentation of the vast architectural and intangible cultural heritage of the city and its surrounding region and of formulating a legislative framework to protect the same. In present times, although the architectural heritage of the city is still preserved, its existence is seriously threatened by immense pressures from increasing population, modernization, economic development and tourism. The proposed and identified “The Ganga River and Riverfront & Old City Heritage Zone of Varanasi” satisfies the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Criteria as set out in Article 1 of the Convention, and as set out in the Operational Guidelines- Cultural Criteria Para 24 (a). i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, and para 27. ii, and the Cultural Landscape Criteria Para 39.ii. and iii.
The Ganga River, which the Hindus have held scared since time immemorial, is the most prominent physical feature of Varanasi. But Varanasi does not figure in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites despite the fact the city fulfills almost all the criteria stipulated by the UNESCO for its listing. Though the ancient Buddhist site of ‘Sarnath’ was included in UNESCO’s tentative list way back in 1998, it is yet to see the light in the main list.
The nature and the character of the bank of the Ganga have made the position of Varanasi so stable and enviable that it is amongst the few cities of the world which shows little shifting in its site. The city proper is built on a high ridge of kankar (lime concretion). The city considered as the microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, and known the world over as the “sacred city”, is rich in architectural, artistic and historical buildings (temples, palaces, monasteries, mosques, ashrams, etc.).
Said Rana P. B. Singh, head, department of Geography, and Professor of Cultural Geography and Heritage Studies, at Banaras Hindu University, “Varanasi occupies a special place in world culture. The living cultural heritage of the city is a unique asset – seen to be believed – for its residents and for the world, contributing to the cultural and philosophical knowledge, not only of Indian culture but also of the cultural community of the world.”
“The old part of the city, i.e. the historic heritage zone, records very high density of population. Most of this population lives in the narrow lanes of the old city that is also the commercial centre for retail and wholesale shopping in consumer goods, food items, handicrafts, etc. This increasing population is over burdening the carrying capacity of the urban environment and the water resource of the river. Social hygiene and sanitation methods too are unable to stand the pressure of a growing resident population and a constant large floating population,” he added.
Prof. Singh further said that in its convention in 1972 UNESCO instituted a special body called World Heritage Committee. Until March 2014 there have been 160 States Parties (countries) as members. In the World Heritage List, 981 properties are enlisted. It has been realized that the cultural and natural heritages are increasingly threatened by destruction not only due to the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions. It has further been decided to adopt a general policy, which aims to give the heritage a function in the life of the community, and maintaining it in a sustainable way for the future generation. For any property or site to be enlisted, the WHC has passed a general criteria and regulations.
On the 16th of November 1972, UNESCO officially adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The Article 4 of this Convention states that “each State Party to this Convention recognizes that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage (as referred to in Articles 1 and 2 of the convention) and situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State.” This article says further that “Each State Party will do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources and, where appropriate, with any international assistance and co-operation, in particular, financial, artistic, scientific and technical, which it may be able to obtain.”
Mr. Pathak further added: “India is one among the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) elected by the General Assembly of States Parties in its 30th session on 31 October 2001 and its term ended in the 34th session of the General Conference of UNESCO (2007). The WHC is responsible for guiding the implementation of the World Heritage Convention, and making the final decision to inscribe sites on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. By March 2014 the WHC has included 981 properties (759 Cultural, 193 Natural, and 29 mixed) in the List from 160 States Parties, of which 30 belong to India.”
“But Varanasi has never been proposed for inclusion in this list even though it is one the most unique cities in India and one of the most ancient continuously living cities in the world,” he said adding that “the issue is likely to be taken up with the Prime Minister and I hope for a better result.”
Meanwhile, in an attempt to remedy this perilous situation and to ensure, as far as possible, the proper identification, protection, conservation and presentation of the world’s irreplaceable heritage, the Member States of UNESCO adopted in 1972 the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, referred to as “the Convention“. The Convention complements heritage conservation programmes at the national level and provides for the establishment of a “World Heritage Committee” (WHC) and a “World Heritage Fund” (WHF). Both the WHC and the WHF have been in operation since 1976.
Prof Rana added: “Heritage is the mirror of mankind’s growth, progress and prospects; it is very important that it should be preserved. One has to remember that modern way of life and science, and ancient wisdom and its messages can work together to help in searching a harmonious and peaceful path of mankind’s integration with nature. In order that this heritage become a resource for development, it needs to be first documented, then protected, maintained and finally utilized according to specific heritage guidelines and legislations. Only then, combined with an increased citizens’ awareness and participation, will policy efforts and interventions become sustainable – environmentally, socially and culturally.”
Meanwhile, according to official records, in 1982, the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA, formed in 1974) assessed the earlier plan of the city. With the help of Town and Country Planning Organisation, the VDA prepared a comprehensive plan for 1991-2011. The Master Plan (1991-2011) was prepared for the population of Varanasi to whom expecting double of the 1991. This Master Plan was based on five successive areal units from lower to higher, and same has been incorporated in the Master Plan 2011-2031.
In a meeting held on September 5, 2008 in Lucknow, under the chairmanship of the chief Secretary of government of the Uttar Pradesh, the authorities have reconsidered the issue of inscribing heritage zones of Varanasi in the UNESCO WHL, and nominated INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art, Culture and Heritage, New Delhi) as advising and coordinating agency.
Meanwhile, The Archaeological Survey of India protects approximately 3500 monuments throughout the country and the Archaeological Departments of the states look after another 5000 (approx.) monuments. The unprotected heritage, however, remains largely neglected, threatened by urban pressures and even systematically eliminated.