India

From Darkness To Light – Kashi’s Hidden Heritage

Being an archaeologist, I probably spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the hidden history that might be buried under my feet. During my time in Varanasi (Banaras, Kashi) earlier this year, such thoughts often came to the forefront of my mind. Here is one of the oldest continually inhabited places anywhere in the world, and whilst most of the structures we see in the city today are not particularly ancient, there must be a wealth of archaeological evidence stretching back probably thousands of years, all completely sealed and hidden by layers of subsequent human occupation.

Opportunities to peel back any of these layers are of course few and far between in such a densely packed and populated city, but recently some chance discoveries have occurred thanks to the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project.

Due to be completed in the early summer of 2021, this is PM Narendra Modi’s dream project which will not only change the look of the ancient city, but will help ease congestion and provide much needed amenities. The 20m wide corridor will connect the Vishwanath Temple, also known as the Golden Temple and one of the most famous Hindu temples in India, with the famous ghats on the Ganga 300m to the east.

To create this corridor, many houses and shops have had to be leveled and the inhabitants relocated. The whole area (43,636 square metres) was earlier characterised by serpentine lanes lined with older structures that had become fused, hidden, and sometimes even buried by newer structures. Thus far, the process of creating this flattened plateau of land in the heart of the city has led to the discovery of no less than 53 temples, many of them hidden inside the now demolished houses.

A short distance from Manikarnika Ghat amidst demolition rubble stands two such rediscovered temples; Shri Kumbha Mahadev Mandir (Samudra Manthan) and Shri Chintamani Mahadev Mandir.

During my visit to Kashi in February 2020 these were the only two such temples that were easily accessible. Many of the other rediscovered temples are still standing in areas where work is continuing at a pace, swarming with security guards ensuring nobody strays onto the building site or even attempts to take photographs from a distance. At these two temples at least it seemed ok to explore them, although to this day I’m still not sure if I was strictly allowed to do so.

I have blogged a few times about my experiences with horrific examples of encroachment of temples in India, in particular at Bhubaneswar in Odisha. Here however, I don’t think this encroachment could get any more extreme. The process of demolishing the structures to create the corridor has revealed temples being used as shops, bedrooms, kitchens, storage, and in a few instances even toilets.

Archaeologists are well aware that often the best way to preserve an ancient building is to actually bury it. This got me to think about whether this encroachment had actually helped preserve the temples in some way, but any notion of that was short lived. Looking at where the temples had been fused with more modern structures, it was clear that in some instances the carvings have been knowingly damaged to facilitate the insertion of vertical walls.

Of the two temples, Shri Kumbha Mahadev Mandir is the most elaborate in terms of exterior ornamentation.

There is a small noticeboard by the side of this temple, ironically itself now almost buried under the rubble, which describes the monument thus :


Shr Kumbha Mahadev Mandir (Samudra Manthan)

This temple is believed to be more than 500 years old. It is an old temple of Lord Shiva, displaying the tableaux of Shiva’s wedding procession. It also has glimpses of deities including Lord Brahma, Vishnu, Bhairav, and Goddesses Kali and Durga.

There is a figure of samudra-manthan at the back side of the main entrance. In another figure, Lord Brahma is emerging from the navel of Lord Vishnu, and Lord Kuber seated on Ervat. It also has the image of Lord Hanuman and a scene of Lord Krishna’s Raseela.

This temple became visible after the removal of residential/commercial structures of the property No.CK10/27.


I am not entirely convinced that this temple is “more than 500 years old”, at least not the structure we see today. Although I’m far from being an expert in specifically dating Indian temples, my gut feel is that this is more recent. I’d be interested in the thoughts of any of my readers who may be more qualified than me to pass comment.

The adjacent smaller temple is known as Shri Chintamani Mahadev according to a similar noticeboard that offers little else in terms of information.

Although much plainer and not having so much sculptural embellishment, the architectural style is very similar to it’s neighbour and so is likely to be contemporary.

Whilst I stood by these two temples looking across at the wide expanse of flattened ground in front of me, I was struck by what a great opportunity this would be to open up some archaeological trenches. This is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to look at a significant area in the centre of Kashi and excavate down to it’s origins.

Who knows what could be discovered ? It’s an exciting thought, for me at least, but clearly much emphasis is being placed on getting this corridor project completed and I doubt the authorities have the time nor will to explore this possibility.

The process of clearing 300 properties comprising of over 43,000 square metres in the heart of the city has of course had a human cost, by displacing hundreds of families. Many of the owners were paid double the price of their properties, although surprisingly there were instances where houses were donated for free. Even illegal encroachers were compensated.

Almost every need these displaced people had was taken care of, including helping with the psychological pressure that they may have felt. Counselors were employed to counsel them, and any medical need was treated. Whilst this is all good news, I’m sure some will feel less than content with the situation that has been imposed upon them.

It would seem no expense is being spared with the Vishwanath Corridor Project. I have tried to find what the total cost will be, but my research is coming up with conflicting totals. At the upper end, and assuming these projects almost always go over budget, I’ve seen an estimate of 600 crore rupees documented a few times – that’s around $100 million US Dollars.

During the last year rumours started to circulate claiming that the clearances have themselves destroyed some ancient temples. The authorities have refuted these claims, stating that all the work has been recorded using time lapse videos, and as soon as a temple is discovered machine works stops and everything is chiseled out by hand.

So how did these temples become lost ? A number of theories present themselves as a possible answer. The people of Kashi say that the temples were covered because they wanted to save them from those who wanted to demolish them.

Another theory is that previously these were the houses of Muslims as Aurangzeb, after the demolition of the Vishwanath temple, gave this place to his soldiers. This theory is probably unlikely, as the constructions that occurred are relatively modern and during a time when the whole area was lived in by Hindus.

The most likely explanation, backed up by the evidence as the temples were being revealed, is that the encroachments occurred purely as a need for space due to the ever increasing pressures of urban living in the city. Did the need to simply survive outweigh the religious beliefs of those who lived here ? – it’s hard to say.

Thankfully for the most part these temples have remained intact, undergoing preservation, and are being incorporated into the Kashi Vishwanath pilgrimage route. Once lost and shrouded in darkness, supreme light now shines on these temples, resurrected for worship once more in the holy ancient city of Kashi.

This pin is the closest location to the two temples I could find on Google Maps :


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If you’re interested in using any of my photography or articles please get in touch. I’m also available for any freelance work worldwide, my duffel bag is always packed ready to go…

KevinStandage1@gmail.com

55 replies »

      • Thank You for reassuring the rediscovered temples are to be incorporated in new complex. You are doing a wonderful job for all of us in India and world . Do you have group of youngsters and retired people who can join you and share your passion and preserving nature which is very much needed amongst the public.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Devi. I’m based in the UK for 10 months of the year, this blog’s content is driven by the 6-8 weeks I spend in India every year. I have to say that when I am in India, I have a very hectic schedule as you can imagine, I’d not sure anyone who would join me would remain that way for very long 🙂 But perhaps having a day set aside to explore somewhere with a group of people could be arranged, I’m not sure what the level of interest would be.

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  1. Fantastic work! Done with an eye for detail, appreciation of art/architecture and skilled photography. I think just the Kashi part of your blog could be compiled into a book, on the revealed (by the corridor project) beauty of kashi. Or Kashi as existed. In collaboration with an art historian this could be an important contribution to India’s heritage.

    As a matter of curiosity: why did you think that the two temples were more recent? Aurangzeb died in 1707 — not too long ago historically, and it is well known that his great pleasure was to both kill Kafirs, convert them and at his most humane destroy the temples. It is quite possible that many of the buildings were initially built by residents to cover up these temples from Aurangzeb’s marauders and over decades/centuries strengthened to make them continuously habitable

    Liked by 1 person

    • Namaste Satya, and thank you so much for taking the time to comment here. My comment specifically about the age of the two temples was questioning their age as stated on the makeshift noticeboards (“over 500 years”). Stylistically I think they are quite a bit newer than that, maybe someone more qualified than me will just in and help me out with that.

      You’re right that these temples could have been initially concealed from Auranzeb’s troops (if they are old enough) and later on became more permanently hidden – but it seems odd that if these temples were important enough to protect, then why did their use become so degraded (e.g. a toilet). Of course it’s dangerous to assume that all 50 temples went through the same process at the same time, perhaps all the theories hold an element of truth.

      It would be interesting to interview some of the displaced families. Almost certainly some would have had generations living in the same place, they probably have some stories to tell.

      Ah yes, the book idea. You are not the first to mention this, my friends in Pune often suggest this to me. It’s something I will think about at some point for sure !

      Thanks again for taking the time to visit my blog, and for your comments!

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      • The concealment of temples by enclosing them in houses would most likely have been a desperate and hastily done measure. So also filling them up with their inhabitants — probably peasants who lived in the vicinity. Anyway, even among the educated of today the curiosity and pride about India’s heritage is sadly lacking, compared to those in Europe/Japan/even China. What can be said of peasants of 350 years ago? The circumstances in which the temples were concealed and their importance would surely have been lost in a couple of generations, especially as it got more crowded.

        Your future book could stand alongside “Hampi Vijayanagara” by John Fritz and George Michell — a classic work!

        Anyway, thanks for bringing out the beauty of India’s heritage. Pranaam!

        Liked by 1 person

    • These rediscovered temples are they been reconstructed or moved to another safe place .if in Egypt they can move abu simbel temple complex from flooding due to Aswan dam this should be suggested . The real sacred space is inside the gyan vapi mosque which selfish, ungrateful Shameless Muslim community will never give up.the encroachment ….must have begun when the main temple was destroyed and mosque was built ……a s sure Muslims during Aurangzeb time settled there . This kind of converting it into toilet we see in Pakistan where many temples have been done like this also in recent Kashmir …..no where else …..the Hindu population there would have been completely demoralized who later must have moved into maybe during British rule.The new temple and changes were made in Kashi vishwanath was recent under Queen Ahilya Bhai and later post independence.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While one is aware of the story, your photographs have brought out the beauty and grandeur of these hidden temples in a remarkable manner. A beautiful piece. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Capacities to Build Public Social Structures by affluent Sanatanis e.g Temples n Dhramshalas is seem in every older town of Bharat
    Kashi Vishwanath ever being a Popular Hindu Pilgrimage Centres has many Rajas and Lalas patronizing it.
    Yes Many Structures are few Hundred Years old as a mean to ReBuild what was Broken by Mughals
    Thanks to These Temples i am Convinced every One of us Bharatiyas have a Rich Extremely Skilled and Knowledgeable Past
    More than the Beauty of these Discoveries the Quality of the Blood in us has risen
    PAN India we are One, We were Educated, Every One was Knowledgable and Master of their Trade
    Time we shed the false Notion of Gawar Ghulam Bharat and Become Shrest Uttam and Vishwa Guru

    Like

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your account of these temples! So lucid and engaging. You have a very keen eye. Wish you luck for your future explorations, and hope to read many more such wonderfully written articles.
    Also wishing that you remain unscathed by the uncertainty, helplessness and morbidity that surround COVID-19!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Chandni for your kind words. I have quite a lot to do still on Kashi before then working through my two weeks in Pune earlier this year (and a little Bangalore). So I’m keeping very well occupied during this lockdown period, and I’m lucky to live in a cottage in the countryside which means I can go out for a walk and not encounter anyone else. Having said that, my neighbour has COVID-19, so I’m doing her shopping and walking her dog. Anyway, best wishes to you and stay safe !

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  5. That was long due and only Narendra Modi could have accomplished this tough task. Without applying force, this would have been impossible. The unnecessary flag had to be removed.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. wonderful work ji.a simple thanks wont justify the passion.
    i am a publisher and i think you must write your thoughts on this wonderful project of our beloved modi ji.
    kasi temple remains a must for every hindu ..and every time a hindu visits kasi he feels disappointed and belittled by the surroundings.
    from now on it will be a complete divine trip!!keep it up..look forward to your blogs or articles and eventually a complete book.
    padmini ravichandran

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Padmini. Funnily enough I did think of tagging Modi on my tweet pointing to this blog, but I figured it would almost certainly not be read by him anyway. Goodness knows how many times people try to reach him across a population of 1.3 billion. So I decided not to bother 🙂

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  7. Kevin,
    Thank you for producing this beautiful account of Kashi’s hidden treasure. India probably is the only country that neglects the beauty of its treasure. People may forget the glory but those stones still can speak. Are we listening?? Please keep up the good work. God bless!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Noble effort indeed.Every Hindu should be proud of your sustained work.
    The charming educational photographs , tempt me to visit Varanasi again.
    Namasthae, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Kevin
    Thank you . Showing the real treassures, burried for How long? I enjoyed the Temple archtectures at close as if I am visiting them.

    Honorable Prim minister Modiji’s efforts really paying off dividents.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I remember reading this fascinating story in the newspaper when these temples were first discovered. But there were hardly any photographs accompanying them. Thanks to you I got to see detailed pictures of at least a few of them. The security around the temple is sad but necessary. I guess you will have to visit again next year.:) I hear there were about 30 temples discovered.
    The temple being about 500 years old does actually makes sense actually. I am no expert in archaeology, so I could be wrong but that architectural style is not present in other temples from that era.
    Moreover, I am pretty sure all of the temples discovered are not from the same time period.
    There was a circular structured Ganesha Temple I saw in some articles which is definitely newer because of its style. But there was also some chatter about Samudragupta era temples. Not sure how right the claim is, but if it is true, then this thing is quite the treasure.

    Liked by 1 person

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