India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves towards his supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, India.
(photo credit: ADNAN ABIDI/ REUTERS)
The day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi won his second Indian election by a landslide on Sunday, he traveled to the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, where he offered his prayers and thanks at one of the most famous Hindu temples, dedicated to the Lord Shiva. This is the very place that is often called Modi’s “dream project,” where he aspires to combine his devout belief in Hinduism and innovation. Modi hopes to renovate the temple and the holy sites with a $75m. project.
The temple, located in the city of Varanasi, is one of the holiest sites for Hindus, and coincidentally where Modi’s parliamentary constituency lies. A Hindu nationalist, Modi has controversial views on Hinduism and has cultivated a culture where many Muslims fear for their safety, according to South Asia director for Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly, The Guardian reported.
“People feel entitled to impose their voices, and to do so violently – and there is no assurance the state will step in and protect them,” Ganguly told the British daily, speaking of the religious tension in India under Modi.
But Modi’s supporters see the prime minister and his arduous task of renovating one of India’s holiest sites as a bold move by a leader who prioritizes Hindu traditions, The Washington Post explained. The move can be seen as akin to landing on the moon or building the world’s tallest building.
Varanasi has been inhabited for thousands of years and accommodates tens of thousands of pilgrims daily in its winding alleys. Pilgrims flock to the Ganges River, where they wash away their sins in the river’s holy water.
Modi hopes to demolish nearly 300 buildings and create a 12-acre site connecting the Vishwanath Temple to the river, according to the Post. The corridor will also include a plaza and a museum, as well as public facilities like lockers and toilets.
This is “very close to [Modi’s] heart” and will be “a very important milestone in developing Kashi,” said secretary of the Varanasi Development Authority Vishal Singh, who is overseeing the project, according to the report.
The grand nature of the plans has some residents worried. Shop owner Sanjeev Ratna Mishra, whose store was destroyed to accommodate the corridor, compared Varanasi to Japan’s Kyoto – another city with holy temples on a river – saying that “there they saved their culture,” but “here we threw it into the mud,” according to the report.
There have also been reports that small temples and religious idols were destroyed during the demolition process, according to Swami Avimukteshwaranand, head of Vidya Math, a Hindu religious institution.
Singh denied the reports. He said that two temples in private homes were buried by the work but new ones would be rebuilt above, according to the Post.
The projects has also brought fear to the Muslim community in Varanasi. Near the Vishwanath Temple is the Gyanvapi Mosque, a Muslim religious holy site that right-wing Hindu activists have voiced hopes to tear down.
Renovating holy sites often provokes anxiety, with fears of destroying holy artifacts and the spiritual character of the city. It is similar to what happened at Jerusalem’s Old City, when a parking garage was slated to be built in 2010
, caused much controversy because of fear of harming the city’s walls. There were misleading reports that the walls were to be destroyed. Architect David Sherki and his firm, Jerusalem Building Workshop, were creating a tunnel underneath the southern wall between the Zion and Dung gates. Sherki said that these reports were “simply untrue.”
“The goal of the project is to fill in the empty spaces and give more cohesiveness to the Old City from the urban standpoint,” Sherki had told The Jerusalem Post. “The parking garage is a by-product.”
The last time someone blasted through the walls of the Old City was in 1898, when Ottoman authorities knocked down part of the wall near Jaffa Gate to allow Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to pass through with his imperial entourage. Today, vehicles use the opening as one of the main entrances into the Old City.
While the renovating of ancient cities and holy sites will always be difficult, the restoration process can also be a simple routine. In 2017, Jesus’s tomb – the Holy Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – was renovated because of an accumulation of black soot from candles, according to NBC News.
“We didn’t dismantle the monument, we didn’t jeopardize its structural integrity,” said Professor Antonia Moropoulou, who along with 50 scientists from the National Technical University of Athens came to restore the tomb. “We just restored it.”
While the restoration process can be tricky, it can offer improvements to public spaces for residents and make areas more accessible to those with disabilities. As of February, the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter has $55m worth of projects under way to make infrastructure accessible and to make outdoor improvements, such as shaded areas and recreational areas in the Old City, according to JNS. The company plans on building an elevator and a tunnel that will lead directly to the Western Wall.
What will happen with Modi’s project is yet to be determined. In Modi’s first term, he helped create new infrastructure to Varanasi, building a four-lane road that links the airport and downtown. But his promise to clean up the Ganges has caused disappointment. Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, an engineering professor and religious leader in Varanasi who is in charge of a foundation that monitors the river, said that during Modi’s first term, the water quality has not improved, The Washington Post reported.
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