Old and New in Kasi

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The previous post started with a specific place and ended with an idea: the idea of the new, overlapping the old, in an ugly manner in Kasi/Varanasi/Banaras. Like any other city, Varanasi is being modernized at a very fast pace. It is some kind of future/culture shock, to me at least. My response: centering the ruins and pushing the new to the periphery (the image above does just that). But the gesture is just symbolic, and it fails as it begins to work for its purpose. The rotting logs and the old eroded bricks that peep from the half fallen walls sing their own dirge. The light orange coloured bricks of the (more than a century) old house and the loose bricks stacked at the front make a contrast to the strongly cemented new bricks of the walls on both the sides. Both the new buildings are at least a century younger. And then, there’s a brand new mosque peeping from the corner, outshining everything else in the image.

The old house belongs to a Bengali gentleman who probably lives there alone. It’s right behind my family house in Varanasi. I have been watching the house perish, section by section, for more than the last three decades. There’s a dry branch at front centre. It’s the branch of that guava tree which used to bear fruits every year: regularly and in abundance. Not anymore. The most recent menace of the monkeys has ruined the tree’s health. It is sick. The garden area around the tree’s base is covered with debris. The roof of the whole second storey has fallen and that of the second one is precariously close to falling. There’s no future prospect of the house seeing better days. My prediction: it’ll first be abandoned and then sold at some absurdly high price to the moneyed class who will convert it into a multi-storeyed, at least semi-commercial, ugly modern behemoth. My tone is acerbic and reeks of some kind of antinomy between the new and the old. It’s not completely true. I am pro-modernization. But I am not blind. I can see that change is not always good, or bad. In case of Varanasi, some bad changes are taking place and some changes are warranted yet not materializing at all.

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The two images above are of two different and very old buildings on two very busy roads of Varanasi. They have their grace, beauty, majesty and place in the overall architectural environment of the city. They are parts of the cultural heritage of the city. How can they be replaced? They need and deserve full and expert care which they aren’t getting. The brick and cement repaired section of the building to the left shows how ugliness can be imparted to beauty.

There is an identity of a city, just like that of a person. There is no point in smearing black ink over a finely done water colour. Varanasi is known by its ghats, temples, galis, people, culture, university and Gangaji. The old mohallas of the city have houses built with stone and bricks. The Pakki Mahaal has many storied buildings whose history goes at least a hundred years back or more.  There are many very old buildings in various parts of Varanasi that make an essential part of its identity.

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In the image above, the buildings at the back are as old as the ghats. The colour, texture, overall feel of the buildings merges seamlessly with that of the ghats. It’s strange but true that they appear quite “natural” in this setting, as if they’d always been there and always will be. They also make an integral whole with the cultural mosaic of the city. I’d been to the house of stone that has not been painted, only faintly white washed, that’s to the right. Shashank used to live there. His family probably still does. It has (if I remember correctly) five floors of the old construction style that used to have high ceilings. There are many tenants in the building. It’s between Munshi and Dashaswamedh Ghats and can be accessed by a narrow gali that starts right behind Sheetla Mata’s famous temple. There’s a house painted yellow in the centre of the same image. It’s my personal taste and opinion that the old looking stone house, if restored to its old strength and glory, will definitely look better than the new yellow one. It is more Banarasi even now. It has a character that is quite natural to the ghats. Whether on ghats or on roads or galis, the old construction of Banaras somehow looks more beautiful and closer to the flavor of the city than the more recent one.

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There’s one thing that disturbs me a lot. Nothing is being done to save the beauty of my city. More than that: I am doing nothing for it. I’m not even there. The building in the image above is one of those hundreds of (fast) perishing buildings of Varanasi whose loss will be much lamented. Losing them will mean losing the identity of the city. I first saw this building when my parents had taken me to get me a Hercules bicycle from the  cycle shop at its ground floor. It was just there, naturally. There was nothing strange in its being there. Where else would it be? With each time I used to pass that building on that very busy road, it entered my consciousness as an essential part of the overall ethos of the place. I can’t imagine that place in any other way. There’s a combination of aesthetics with nostalgia here. I want to do something to save and restore the building to its previous glory. But how?

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The two images above are of two structures that stand on the opposite sides just before the steep rise of the road towards Chowk Police Station. Imagine a many storied building in place of the katra at the base of the stone structure, covering the whole view. Again imagine a mall in place of the restful house. It’s true that both the changes will mean economic development. It is equally true that such a development will be at the cost of an irreparable and irreversible damage to the overall architectural-cultural identity of Varanasi.

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2 thoughts on “Old and New in Kasi

  1. Hello Rajnish,
    I’m an architecture student looking for some specific information about architecture of Varanasi.
    I would like to contact you privately regarding my query.
    I request you to give me some contact detail of yours so that I can discuss with you regarding the same.
    -Simon

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