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Modi’s Kashi project is living up to a continuing ancient tradition of rebuilding temples

We have enough legends, stories and texts to justify and praise the Kashi project. I only hope that the effort to reduce dirt and debris is taken up at other sites as well.

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There has been a lot of coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Kashi speech last week. Critics see his participation and the blanket publicity around it as divisive and against the secular traditions of India. Some votaries of an Indian version of secularism are mollified by the fact that he made references not only to the Buddha, Jain Tirthankaras and Sikh Gurus but also to Bismillah Khan and Vailankanni.

As one whose ancestors belong to the Vaishnava sampradaya, I noted that Modi did not mention Razia Sultana’s destruction of the magnificent Bindumadhava Vishnu temple. One could make the case that Modi was being sensitive to concerns of secular historians by only referring to Aurangzeb’s aggressiveness! Some others note Modi’s obsessive interest in India’s geographic and cultural diversity. In a relatively short speech, he quite nonchalantly managed to slip in Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada quotes, and roped in multiple states and regions as having an umbilical connection with Kashi/Varanasi/Benares/Avimukta.

I was also intrigued by the seamless switching back and forth into Bhojpuri. It reminded me of Laurence Olivier’s movie version of Henry V, produced during World War II. Olivier was clearly working on a theme of wartime unity across Britain when he consciously drew our attention not just to the English element in the Bard’s writings, but to the Scottish, Welsh and Irish characters, making a case for a national penumbra. Modi’s speechwriters have probably watched Olivier’s film. Or perhaps they independently arrived at a similar strategy.

And finally, there are a group of persons who are quite comfortable, even welcoming of a robust Hindu renaissance and see no reason to take the critics seriously. Many analyses of Modi’s speech will doubtless be done in the days to come. Here’s mine.

Also read: From Ayodhya to Kashi, BJP changed its strategy from ‘demolition’ to construction

Change over the decade

Usually when I go to Benares, I turn up at the Hanuman Ghat where you can find several Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam speakers. It was from one of the Kannada speakers there that I heard of Kashi being referred to as Bindumadhava Vishnu’s abode. Some years ago, when I had the opportunity to spend time with the American scholar Diana Eck, we talked about the grand Vishnu temple that was destroyed by Razia. We both gave ourselves a moment of wistful silence.

My friend Telegar Satish once had the opportunity of walking along with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti at Rajghat in Benares. Satish told me that Krishnamurti referred to the fact that the Buddha had walked there and that the land was sacred. In her biography of Krishnamurti, Pupul Jayakar refers to sacred spaces that have a transformational energy. I thought of the last queen of Kodagu turning down the East India Company’s request to act as the Regent for her daughter and deciding to go to Kashi, where she passed away, presumably with Shiva’s blessings.

When I visited Benares some 10 years ago, even the traditionalists there advised me not to bathe in the Ganga. Talk about reaching the nadir! A few days ago, I visited the magnificent Chola Veerattaneswarar Shiva temple in Panruti in Tamil Nadu. For the uninitiated or the aggressively secular, it might be worthwhile getting acquainted with the fact that three great Tamil saint-poets – Thirunavukkarasar, Thirugnanasambandar, and Sundaramurti Nayanar – have written in praise of Shiva here.

As I was leaving the temple, I ran into two sadhus who were associated with the Thiruvaduthurai Adheenam, a prominent South Indian Mutt. The sadhus regaled me for a few minutes with the details of their pilgrimages including a dozen to Kashi. I have spent the last week in and around Kumbakonam, which lies at the heart of the Kaveri delta. While going around Kumbakonam’s sacred Mahamaham tank, I discovered a temple dedicated to Kashi Vishwanatha. In Tamil, it is called Kasi Viswanathar Kovil. I was sharply reminded that the cultural thread that binds our country did not start on 26 January 1950, as some worthies would have us believe, even as we concede that the date is a significant one. Mentally, I congratulated Modi and his speechwriters for having been able to capture thoughts and ideas that seem to be osmotically floating past me as I traverse this haunting, sacred peninsula of ours.

A friend presented me with a UNESCO monograph entitled “Sri Ranganathaswamy: A Temple of Vishnu in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu India”. It is written by curator Jeannine Auboyer from France, a nation known for its hard laicite secularism. The book has a fine foreword by the well-known Indian scholar Malcolm Adiseshiah. This slim book gifted to me by my friend ended up explaining much and became, in large measure, my reason for writing this column.

Auboyer provides us with an abridged version of the history of the Srirangam temple in a few pages. As I read this book, suddenly many things came together, many abstractions fell into place and a compelling pattern emerged in my mind. Contemporary India is not doing anything novel or unprecedented. We have a long tradition not only of building temples, but of rebuilding, renovating, re-consecrating and re-dedicating temples. Adding new corridors, new spaces, new mandaps and new shrines in and around older temples is something that our ancestors have done all the time, quite casually and quite nonchalantly.

The Koil Olugu or the Temple Chronicle of the Srirangam Temple records many of these events. Auboyer refers to the Koil Olugu several times. In 1415, several of the destructions of the previous century were attended to. To quote Auboyer: “The Vimana was rebuilt and gilded over, a new statue of the bird Garuda, in copper, replaced the original one destroyed in the Muslim invasions, and was ceremoniously installed before the sanctuary in 1415.”

Also read: ‘Har Har Modi’ in Kashi – TV channels gave Modi a mythical status & aura none can challenge

Discovering through the corridor

The story of the dhwaja stambha or flagstaff is even more interesting. “The flagstaff is said to have been first installed by Sundara Pandya (1251-1268); it was destroyed by the Muslims and replaced in 1461, by Mallikarjuna Raya, with a copper flag-pole covered with gold plates.” The restoration efforts did not stop in 1461. Auboyer says: “This part of the court was covered over at the beginning of the twentieth century and tiled with gilded copper plates, a gift of rich devotees.” Now the actions of Ahilyabai Holkar, Ranjit Singh and the current dispensation were clarified in my mind as being nothing more than living up to a continuing ancient tradition of periodic renovations, restorations, embellishments and additions.

In Tamil, the re-consecration is referred to as Kumbhabhishekam and in Sanskrit as Jeernoddhara. Incidentally, damaged or lost images can be and frequently are replaced and formally dedicated by invoking the spirit of the divine in a ceremony known as prana-pratishta or invocation of the breath of life. Auboyer states that after Malik Kafur’s 1311 raid,  “new statues were cast and installed in the place of stolen ones.”

The fact that so many old temples of Kashi were “discovered” and rehabilitated during the implementation of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project, resembles the Srirangam activities. Lest it appear that the Muslim incursions had only negative consequences, attention should be paid to some of the Muslim cultural influences in Srirangam where one of Ranganatha’s dresses has a Muslim flavour as does one of his prasadams. Auboyer says: “The temple of Srirangam has undergone many alterations and is a good example of a temple which has survived the passage of centuries.” One can use pretty much the same words to justify the alterations, changes and overall activities associated with the current Kashi project.

A friend of mine was telling me that while Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist temples and their environs are clean, this is missing from most Hindu temples. I am therefore personally thrilled that the Kashi project has included a refreshing focus on cleanliness, hygienic facilities and on sanitation. I am looking forward to taking a bath in the Ganga on my next visit instead of admonishments against it, which I received 10 years ago.

Also read: Kashi Vishwanath has become a construction site. Varanasi’s piousness is the cost

For Modi’s future speeches

In Modi’s speech, there was a sarcastic and negative reference to Warren Hastings, who was impeached for, among other reasons, harassing Chait Singh, the Raja-Zamindar of Benares. But I cannot close this essay without paying tribute to some aspects of the Raj and I do this understanding the risk of criticism by William Dalrymple and Shashi Tharoor, while hopefully getting some appreciation from my friend Zareer Masani.

Auboyer, who is French and is unlikely to have a soft corner for the British, has this to say: “The whole area was, however under Muslim domination; this created difficulties for the temple, since the Muslims insisted on the right to exert their authority. In 1801, the Carnatic passed into the control of the English East India Company… Stability returned to the temple, though under the authority of the English, which it should be emphasized was exercised discreetly. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, visited the temple on a tour of Southern India in 1875 and donated a large gold cap which is still part of the treasure”.

The researchers behind Modi’s future speeches would do well to read up on one John Wallace who, in 1803, “brought together all existing chronicles in the town of Srirangam and had them compiled into a single complete and up-to-date version. One copy, bearing the seals of the five administrators (Stanattar), was placed in a stone chamber in the southern part of the temple”. The officials should also ensure that there are sub-titles at a minimum in English and, if possible, in multiple Indian languages. Missing this is not smart or sensible.

In any event, Modi got a couple of things spot on. Kings, empires and rulers come and go. Vishwanatha, Ganga, and Annapoorna abide forever. And we are inheritors of a tradition that believes in renovation, restoration and re-dedication. We have enough legends, stories and texts to justify and praise the current Kashi project. I only hope that the effort to reduce dirt and debris is taken up at other sites as well.

The author is an entrepreneur and writer. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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