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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