The fame of Varanasi or Banaras as an ancient metropolis, in many ways, overpowers its mundane urban histories. Diana Eck suggests that the city of Varanasi may have the world’s longest history of human habitation, being a key urban centre at the time of the Mauryan and Gutpa Empires, as well as a millennium of Muslim and British domination. It was a centre for the development of a range of religious traditions, reform movements, site of Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath, and the location of some of the most important educational institutions of the last two centuries. In many ways it is an archetypal ‘mythical city’, shaped and sometimes weighted down by representations of its past. Deeper historical notions of the city merge with its utopian trajectories: Perhaps it was the location of the fortress of the Kashi tribe mentioned in the Mahabharata, and capital of the Kashi kingdoms discussed in Vedic literature. Myth merges more clearly into narrative of a thriving trading and commercial centre in the 6th Century BC, at the confluence of the Varuna and Ganges, dotted with inland pools and lakes and colonies of ashrams – each adding to the value of the city as a Hindu centre (Eck, 5-25). We can think of Varanasi as the spatial framing of cosmological thought across at least two millennia – a place that transformed, for example, through humankind’s shift from ritual sacrifice to theism and the rise of more universal notions of god.
The city as ancient religious centre has shaped modern responses to social conflicts and consensus, as well as how its populations have reconciled its heritage with notions of urban development. Banaras, in common with other north Indian centres was a key location in the development of middle class notions of urban improvement from the late 19th Century. The focus of its philanthropists, patrons of religion, and commercial communities, was often the reform of the urban poor. This colonial/Victorian notion of improvement sat well with Hindu notions of ‘dharma’ but distanced urban elites from the popular cultures of urban workers. The latter always straddled the formal and informal sectors, moving between each over time. The existence of this interchangeability and mobility, manual work in bazaars, multiple small enterprises, transport and construction, and street-vending complicated the city’s industrial histories. More importantly, it created a rich array of social perspectives on the idea of the civic space itself: Citizens of Banaras, recently invited into bids for Smart City status, were drawn from all of these sectors as in the past, or from long term migration of cultivators into the city, floating populations of workers and seasonal labourers. In addition, the city has been the home for a diverse array of public arts practices, theatre, poetry and music.
Other visions for the modern city have been driven by administrative and commercial elites, and Banaras continues to be high on the list of state and central government initiatives around heritage and tourism development. From the early Twentieth Century, Varanasi was near the top of the urban commercial and administrative hierarchy of the colonial state of UP. From Mughal times it had been a centre for the production of silk fabric, muslin and perfumes. Eventually, as well as a town for silks, it also became a key city for agricultural redistribution and for brassware and artisanal industries. It emerged as a key political and commercial centre in the early colonial period, while under the patronage of the Rajas of Banaras. Under direct colonial rule from 1794, the city’s rail infrastructure gradually developed through the 19th Century, but it was unable to compete with the large industrial city of Kanpur. As civil service and military personnel settled in the town, its territorial boundaries extended, to accommodate municipal services, sanitary infrastructure and new residential settlements. From the early twentieth century, financial services also expanded to finance new (especially small scale) urban manufacturing units. Nandini Gooptu has explained the significance of the focus of financiers on small scale units: able to by-pass factory legislation, fundraise capital and find capital from within family networks, and a greater ability to adapt to rapidly fluctuating market conditions. (Gooptu, 37-8).
Over the Twentieth Century and new millennium then, the mobility and vibrancy of Varanasi’s population and built environment has been integral to its political and cultural iconography. It has always been a key focal point for the development of political, social and environmental activism, which was historically rooted not only in its diverse cultural institutions, but also in movements for ‘social service’ in the late colonial period. This history has allowed the city to spawn a wide range of arts and environmental NGOs in recent decades, not least those concentrated on sanitation and water supply – for example the BHU led Shrishti Sanrakshanam. Such movements have started to consider the relationship between demographic change, the built environment and alternative notions of heritage. These are rooted in urban realities: The city has experienced considerable changes in land use, significant slum populations, and a water supply system that is around 125 years old. Only 30% of the total area of the city is provided with an underground sewer network, which means that most sewage is directly disposed, untreated, in the Ganga. Door to door waste collection does not cover the whole of the city either. Ganga pollution is perhaps one of the key challenges for the city, with toxins in the waters reaching levels estimated to be around 3000 times over the ‘safe’ limit suggested by the WHO.
With a population of around 1.4 million today, which is gender skewed, the city is currently divided into 5 zones – the Core area, Trans Varuna, which includes Sarnath, the densely populated central area of South Varuna, South Assi, the location of the Banaras Hindu University, and the Trans Ganga Zone, outside municipal but inside planning boundaries. Although earmarked for the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (Hriday) project, Varanasi’s leaders were unable to its potential benefits. This is despite its 300 significant monuments, the preservation of 20 sites by the Archaeological Survey of India, 84 ghats and around 3500 temples and mosques which have been a significant draw for international tourists. Despite this palimpsest of utopian visions for the city, thrown up by its multiple social histories, Varanasi, like the other cities of UP, failed to make it to the final list of 20 cities identified within the Smart Cities initiative. Yet, its utopias continue to shape Varanasi as mythical city as well as key metropolis of the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Details of our Varanasi workshop can be found here
Eck, Diana, Banaras: City of Light (Arkana, 1982)
Gooptu, Nandini, The Politics of the Urban Poor in early twentieth-century India (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Kumar, Nita, The Artisans of Banaras: Popular Culture and Identity, 1880-1986 (Princeton, 1989)