Banaras: Its Identity


The previous post had at its core the idea of the city’s identity and the challenges it faces today. This post continues on the same lines. Kasi is also known as the city of temples. Some say that it has 33 crore temples (the number of gods popularly accepted among the Hindus). I doubt that a little, but am not sure. Kasi can be anything and do anything. In a similar vein, some say there are eighty ghats in Kasi (Assi being the last and eightieth one), and some say there are a hundred complete. I counted them twice at an interval of nearly a decade, to settle it for once and for all. The count gave two different results. Mystery is a very important element of the identity of Kasi, an element present abundantly in the person of Bhole Bhandari.

To reach the temple in the image above, one has to enter through a large wooden gate into the compound and pass through a restaurant. The gate and the walls around the wooden frame carry minute carvings and designs. They are beautiful. On entering, one is faced with reconciling what obviously does not fit in with the overall structure and the open space with a well sculpted temple at its centre. What’s surprising here is the existence of such a space only five hundred metres away from one of the busiest crossings of Varanasi: Godowlia that is also one of the most densely populated areas in the city.

The image below is a part of the front of Satya Narayan Temple on Baans Phatak Slope. Right behind the temple, there is one of the oldest temples of Kasi: the Adi Vishweshwar Temple. Crossing the road, one reaches the Gyan Vaapi Mosque-Temple. Both these compounds are surprisingly huge and mostly left without any encroachment. Shiv temples were planned and constructed at the centre of the compound in both the cases. One of them is still there.


These, and many other temples of Kasi, are right in the middle of densely populated areas. An important aspect that I observed of its identity is that secular and religious do not occupy separate spaces in Kasi. There are many houses with attached temple. In the two images given below, the garden and some quarters for the staff of a temple near Bengali Tola Inter College can be seen. I have attended wedding ceremonies organized in the yellow building and the area in front of it, right in the temple compound. Such mixing of spheres is not uncommon in Kasi.

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There are houses owned by gods, taken care of by a group of trustees (including those whose capital went in building the houses). And then, there are temples with which residential areas were also constructed for the family of the priests. With the passage of time, some other people, unrelated to the priests also occupied quarters there. So, there are many temples in Kasi with which are attached residential buildings in which people of all types (Hindus only, as far as I have seen) live.

Trees have a tendency to convert into temples. There are several trees that started their career as trees. I myself saw their initial avatar for several years. Then they were gradually given the form of temples. Two popular mechanisms for the same are: to discern the shape of a god at the base of the tree-trunk and then to paint and adorn the shape with various things, or to place some idols or images at the base of a tree and gradually build a cemented temple around it.


Look at the gentleman riding bicycle in the image above. The snap was taken at around eight in the morning. He has just started his day wearing a tilak on his forehead and a garland, probably taken from a temple.He is not unique in Kasi. Many such people can be seen going to their work or coming from it via temples. I have seen it happening around me: the amalgamation of secular and religious. I have also seen the gradual generational dilution of religiosity. My grandparents and their contemporaries used to follow their religion religiously. My parents diluted the rigour and I…

No, I’m not mourning for the good old time, lost forever. I’m only documenting the loss here. There are losses I stand against. Loss of religion is not one of them. Yet, despite all changes and losses, Kasi remains devout.


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