Friday, August 19th, 2022 13:29:34

Varanasi: Its Role In Contemporary Society

Updated: April 18, 2015 2:34 pm

Since ancient times the natural and cultural landscapes of the city have played a vital role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life. The city is a place of pilgrimage and a holy site for sacred baths in the Ganga River, to have a good death, to get relief from transmigration, to learn and receive spiritual merit, etc. The city has still maintained its traditions. In spite of several downfalls and upheavals, traditions are fully alive even today

The ancient city of Varanasi is believed to have existed since beginning of the earth and finds its mention in the Arthavedas. The renowned American novelist Mark Twain once wrote, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Any history buff will be delighted to learn that this ancient city finds mention in most of the great epics of India. Hindu legend has it that Varanasi is the center of the universe, the first city created by the gods on Earth, and it is certainly true that it was already an old city when Rome was created. The original name of Varanasi was ‘Kashi,’ derived from the word ‘Kasha,’ meaning brightness. It is also known variously as Avimuktaka, Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana and Ramya. The present name Varanasi has its origin in the two tributaries of the Ganges­ Varuna and Asi, which flank its northern and southern borders.


Since ancient times the natural and cultural landscapes of the city have retained an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life. The city is a place of pilgrimage and a holy site for sacred baths in the Ganga River, to have a good death, to get relief from transmigration, to learn and receive spiritual merit, etc. The city has still maintained its traditions. In spite of several downfalls and upheavals, traditions are fully alive even today.

Being the holiest city of Hinduism, the impact of the religion is found everywhere in the city-the chanting bells and the monotonous, but oddly soothing, chant of Sanskrit hymns, in the fragrant flower offerings, and the coloured powders that are sold in a myriad roadside shops which decorate the foreheads of the devout, in the tens of thousands of worshippers and the thousands who offer them salvation or services. Ghats with stairways along the Ganga with presence of “dying homes”, charitable homes, pilgrims’ rest houses, are some of the city’s unique characteristics. Apart from that, silk weaving and sari making, metal, wood and terracotta handicrafts, toy making, particular painting forms, etc., comprise the continuity of historical and cultural tradition. Varanasi is famous for its fairs and festivals with respect to variety, distinction time, sacred sites, performers, viewers and sideshows.


Varanasi_Ganges_River_india_by_phototheoHistorians have now ascertained that the Aryans first settled in the middle Ganges valley and by the second millennium BC, Varanasi became the nucleus of Aryan religion and philosophy. The city also flourished as a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, ivory works, perfumery and sculptures. In the 6th century BC, Varanasi became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi. During this time Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, just 10 km away from Varanasi. Being a center of religious, educational, cultural and artistic activities, Kashi drew many learned men from around the world; the celebrated Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang, is one of them, who visited India around AD 635. From 1194, Varanasi went into a destructive phase for three centuries under the Muslim rule. The temples were destroyed and the scholars had to leave. In the 16th century, with the tolerant emperor Akbar’s accession to the Mughal throne, some religious respite was restored to the city. All that disappeared again in the late 1Th century when the tyrannical Mughal ruler Aurangzeb came to power.

The 18th century again brought back the lost glory to Varanasi. It became an independent kingdom, with Ramnagar as its capital, when the British declared it a new Indian state in 1910. After India’s independence in 1947, Varanasi became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya in the year 1916 founded BHU in 1300 acres, which is the greatest centre of learning in India. It has attracted a major migrating pooutauon during that period and the city started to grow in all directions.


The economy of the city is based on various sectors like tourism; export of famous Banarasi sari & silk material, musical instruments and also on the education sector, with world famous universities present in the city. Cottage industries along with small-scale industries form an important base for the economy of the city. The city is renowned for its silk weavers who prepare the finest types of woven silk fabrics. Silk weaving in Varanasi is a cottage industry, which is found in many areas of the city, and one can see looms at work all days.

Varanasi is also famous for its trade in wholesale commodities. Having trade links not only in different parts of country but also abroad, major commodities traded are Banarasi Sari, Betel leaves, handicrafts, carpets,rugs, and durries, exquisite pieces of brassware, copperware, wooden and clay toys and antique designs of heavy gold jewellery. Other commodities include the hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur, musical instruments, the ‘Langda Aam’, a popular variety of mangoes available during summer season and the famous betel leaf that is considered a specialty of the region.

The areas of retail business in Varanasi city are Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia or Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. Practically all these areas are unplanned. This is because that most of the structures exists since early days and front side of these dwellings have been converted into shops which is a common feature in such type of developments of the towns. The haphazard development of shops along roads has created problems of parking and traffic congestions. The wholesale business is spread out along main roads and petty shops are springing up indiscriminately. Non­ availability of parking space for vehicles is also a problem in the retail and wholesale business areas.

In India’s oldest city, Varanasi, infrastructure for garbage and sewage is insufficient. The Indian government has recently promised three million dollars to clean up Varanasi’s waterfront.

Varanasi, owing to its rich traditional fabric and ghats, attracts more than 30 lakh domestic and international tourists each year. The city, an Important centre for religious tourism in India is also a gateway to the Buddhist circuit; with significant foreign tourist coming from Japan, ::::hina, Malaysia, etc. With the influx of population, the city has Ieveloped naturally over a period of time resulting in unplanned Ievelopment of the city.

The religious activities performed daily on the Ghats add to the oollurion load to the river deteriorating the water quality to such an extent that at several places the Ghats are not even fit for bathing. The ack of proper sewerage and waste collection facilities in the area lead to iollution on river Ganga. The quality of living in the core city area is ioor and needs immediate attention. Increasing population is over iurdening the carrying capacity of urban environment; the river .cosystem and unplanned mass tourism could potentially have a lisastrous impact on the cultural carrying capacity of the old city center md the river ecosystem. Ultimately there is an urgent need to re-vitalize he city with re-establishing the ecological ordering by promoting civic .ense and active public participation.


The major problems that need immediate attention can be identified as follows:

The Ganga Ghats: Ganga is not an ordinary river. It is a life-line, a symbol of purity and virtue for countless people of India. Ganga is a representative of all other rivers in India. Millions of Ganga devotees and lovers still throng to the river just to have a holy dip, Aachman (Mouthful with holy water), and absolve themselves of sins.


Human Waste

The Ganges river basin is one of the most fertile and densely populated regions in the world and covers an area of 1,080,000 km (400,000 square miles). The river flows through 29 cities with population over 100,000; 23 cities with population between 50,000 and lOO,OOO, and about 48 towns. A large proportion of the waste in the Ganges is from this population through domestic usage like bathing, laundry and public defecation.

Industrial Waste

Countless tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and hospitals contribute to the pollution of the Ganges by dumping untreated waste into it. Industrial effluents are about 12% of the total volume of effluent reaching the Ganges. Although a relatively low proportion, they are a cause for major concern because they are often toxic and non-biodegradable.

Religious Events

During festival seasons, over 70 million people bathe in the Ganges over a few weeks to cleanse themselves from their sins. Some materials like food, waste or leaves are left in the Ganges for ritualistic reasons.

The Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan was first initiated by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. The fast shrinking glaciers, dams, barrages, canals and alarmingly high volume of pollution pose an ever increasing threat to the health and life of the river. The state of Uttar Pradesh alone is responsible for over 50% of the pollutants entering the river along its entire journey to the sea.

The Ganga Action Plan launched in 1986 by the Government of India has not achieved any success despite expenditure of approximately 2,000 crore rupees. Even though the government claims that the schemes under the Ganga Action Plan have been successful, ground realities tell a different story. The failure of the GAP is evident but corrective action is lacking. GAP has been dubbed variously as Ganga Inaction Plan, Pumps and Pipes scheme, a Colossal Failure … Media report that there are GAPING HOLES in GAP and it’s a shocking tale of official apathy and corruption … All the money has gone down the drain, People are quick to offer their opinion of why GAP has been doomed to failure. Mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence all rank high on the lists of accusations.


The river cleaning program was started with GAP in 1985 under the aegis of GPD established under the MOE&F. A CGA under the chairmanship of the PM was constituted to finalise the policy framework and to oversee the implementation of GAP. The Chief Ministers (CMs) of the concerned States, Union Ministers and Secretaries of the concerned

Central Ministries and Experts were its members. The GAP was later extended to GAP II in 1993 and was broad-based in the form of NRCP in 1995. The GAP II was merged with NRCP in December 1996. Since then a single scheme of NRCP is under implementation as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme.

Waste Management of Varanasi: Due to fast urbanization and lack of waste management, plastic bags, bottles and papers etc. littered the roads of Varanasi City. This is one of the major “visible” surface pollutant causing serious problems such as soil/ water pollution, livelihood for bacteria, insects and stray animals and sewer clogging etc. In order to improve city’s image and life standards, action must be taken from government and citizen. Varanasi district is divided into two administrative areas: governmental and non-governmental. The latter includes areas such as Banaras Hindu University, Diesel Locomotive Workshop and Cantonment. For these parts of the city, there exist own waste management, which appears to be effective. Picture on the right side shows one of the waste collecting trucks in university area. For the rest of the city, the government regulates the waste. Unfortunately, there has been less attention spending on waste management in the past. Not degradable waste littered the street causing unhygienic and sewer clogging, which again, cause flood on the streets. Unsuitable waste deposit is one serious problem the city is facing. Recently, government privatized waste management and action has been taken on this topic.

Green bins were set up in the city for waste disposal with an inviting slogan “use me” or waste containers were installed in many locations nearby living area. In some area there is a service that picks up waste from houses and transports them to the next container. Waste trucks empty the containers, which take the waste to disposal site situated in the south of the city next to the highway. Currently, this waste management system covered only 10-15% of total city area, but with growing tendency. This system can only be effective, if the citizen of the city is aware of the problem. New attitude of waste disposing must be introducing to the people, since throwing trashes on floor seems to be a common habit. Action has to be taken also from part of those who cause waste.

The VMC has engaged a private company A2Z in 2009 for solid waste management. The solid waste management in Varanasi is completely out of gear due to the tussle started between the company and VMC since 2012. The local authorities admit that the company has stopped waste collection but they are still looking towards the company for restarting the work. Though the company has stopped the work, the contract with them is still alive. The company undertook door-to-door collection of waste, collected user fees, segregated waste and transportation to the treatment plants for recycling and composting. After the company stopped work, the municipal corporation returned to the old system of waste management. Since then, the city continued to face pathetic condition of sanitation, though a series of meetings were held to streamline the garbage collection.

Though Varanasi is covered under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) for improved civic amenities and infrastructure, it is unfortunate to see that the management of municipal solid waste is in a deplorable condition in the city. Moreover, the Varanasi Municipal Corporation (VMC) is also working on ‘inclusive heritage based development programme’ for a facelift of the city. Interestingly, the practices restricted under the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, are in vogue in Varanasi that attracts huge footfall of religious pilgrims as well as tourists from across the country and abroad. The casual approach of municipal authorities, particularly regarding disposal of municipal wastes also indicates clearly that the rules are flouted at most levels-collection, segregation, storage and disposal of wastes. According to the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, the littering of municipal solid waste is prohibited in the city. The waste should not be burnt, and stray animals should not be allowed to move around waste storage facilities or at any other place in the city. The municipal authorities should establish and maintain storage facilities in such a manner as they do not create unhygienic and insanitary conditions around it. The vehicles used for transportation of wastes should be covered. Waste should not be visible to public, nor exposed to open environment preventing their scattering.

Varanasi Saree

The report says that a private company is usually unwilling to integrate waste pickers in their system. As the waste is now the property of company and as they are eager to earn money out of the by-products of the waste treatment processes and out of the selling of recyclable, they have strong interest in not sharing the waste with the waste picker. This will result in the situation that the waste picker do not get proper access to the waste and lose their livelihood.

Potable Water Problems: Varanasi city is located on the banks of the river Ganga. It is also situated right over parts of Indo-Gangetic plain which has the largest aquifer system in the country. The climate of the area is such that it receives good amounts of rainfall in monsoon season which recharges the aquifer system in good amounts. Although studies have mentioned that the groundwater level in the Varanasi area is going down, there is still enough water for the needs of the people. Then why is clean drinking water is so inaccessible to the people of the city? Why there are so many water borne diseases? Why do the people of the city complain about foul smell from the water being supplied to them? Most important of all, why is there not enough water for the entire population?

The water supply system was introduced in Varanasi in 1892. The Ganga takes care of about 45% of the water supply of the city while 50% of the water need is met by ll2 deep tube wells operated by jal Sansthan. The remaining 5% supply comes from hand pumps. Even the city development plan prepared under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) admits that problems have been identified in the water supply in the city area. At many places, the pipe network passes through sewer lines, nallahs and drains, and there are chances of contamination of treated water from the damaged portions of the pipeline. The century old distribution lines are deep down the ground, and it is difficult to maintain them.

Since about half of the water requirement is met by the Ganga, the increasing pollution of the river is a matter of serious concern. The main reason for the pollution of Ganga water is the pollution coming from industries and urban wastewater. The Japan International Cooperation Agency OICA) conducted a detailed study on ‘Water Quality Management Plan for Ganga River’. According to the report, the section of Ganga from Kanpur to Varanasi is excessively polluted because a large quantity of untreated wastewater is discharged into the river from cities located on the bank of Ganga. Besides, the other factors responsible for the contamination of river water include dumping of burnt and unburnt human and animal bodies into the river, throwing flowers and garbage at the ghat areas, and discharge of wastewater from local dyeing industries along with the sewage. According to the JNNURM report, it is estimated that out of the total pollution load runoff reaching the river stream, the load from point sources (urban wastewater and industrial effluent) is significantly high (94%), including 79% load from municipal sewage and 15% load from industries.

The industries that contribute to high pollution content are mostly from the dyeing industry, which is associated with the making of Banarasi saris and are located in old city area.

The remaining 6% is contributed by non-point sources such as agricultural and forestry runoff, livestock, and rural households.

Varanasi as a Heritage City: Though efforts have been made for the conservation of the rich heritage of Varanasi, the millennia-old living city still faces threat to its places of heritage importance. A total of 29 cultural and natural properties from India have been enlisted in the World Heritage List of UNESCO and 34 properties of the country are in its tentative list, but Varanasi is still struggling to find a place. However, the ancient Buddhist site of Sarnath has been included in the tentative list. Though agencies like the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA) and Varanasi Nagar Nigam (VNN) express their commitment for the conservation of city’s heritage, they are seemingly failing miserably to maintain its spirit. Today, one could see most of the ancient sites of heritage importance in a pathetic condition. “Basically it is the responsibility of the VNN to look after the issue and conserve the city’s heritage. There is no big role of VDA in this work,” said VDA vice­ chairman. He, however, said that the VDA had proposed for the inclusion of Varanasi’s heritage in the UNESCO World Heritage List. “But, the things have not moved further,” he admitted.


Roads: Traffic has always been a big problem for this city. The old streets are just too narrow for all the cars being bought by people every day. Adding to that is the laying down of new Sewer system, which is being constructed not just in the whole city ofVaranasi, but in the entire state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) at the same time. Many roads are dug up in many major cities of UP. Lucknow, the capital city is also having problems with this work in progress. But comparatively, Varanasi has suffered the most due to this unplanned, haphazard digging of all the roads at the same time. Many main routes are closed for up to 3-4 months, putting a lot of pressure on alternate routes which are even narrower. Why can’t one walk in the rain? Because if it rains for one hour in the city, you will instantly have water up to your ankles and with the roads dug up, you never know when you will fall in a hole. The condition of the roads is so bad that many schools postponed their reopening dates after the summer vacations stating un-drivable roads as the reason.

Development Pressures

  • Increasing Population: According to the Census of 2001, the population of the city was around 1.27 million. It is projected that by 2021 the population of the city will cross 2.5 million! There is, moreover, an estimated 30,000 daily floating population in the city. The riverfront and old city heritage zone of the city is densely populated (above 500 persons/ per ha), and it is here that development pressures are altering irreversibly the socio-cultural fabric of the city.
  • Shrinking Spaces: With population growth, is increasing the demand for utilising every inch of free space, including gardens. This is creating pressures for substituting existing spacious architectural forms with optimal space utilisation plans. Parks are becoming smaller and giving way to concrete residential or commercial structures.
  • Modifying Urban Spaces: The modification of urban spaces in the old city center of Varanasi could also negatively alter the religious and cultural life for which the city is sacred and destroy the tourist attractions-both of which are the major sources of earning for its population. Many of these are potential heritage buildings. Increasing traffic and increasing population is leading to traffic congestion, not only at peak hours but at most hours of the day. This leads to noise pollution and smog.
  • Tourism and Pilgrimage Pressures: Every year around a million pilgrims come to this city, and all of them bathe in the Ganga river, followed by worshipping in various temple. Tourism and related activities are major source of city’s economy. However, it is more important to maintain a sustainable tourism development that is in harmony with the existing cultural and religious atmosphere of the city. Some efforts to this end are being taken by the concerned authorities through specific kinds of promotion activities and organisation and re-vitalisation of religious festivals.

Among international tourists visiting Varanasi, more than 40% is shared by four countries, viz. Japan, France, UK and Germany. While the Japanese come to the city because of its association with the Buddha, who in 528 BeE gave his first sermon in Sarnath, the British are attracted by the colonial tales of India, the Germans follow their perceptions about India and the French are guided by their aesthetic quests for selecting this city as destination point. The foreign tourism inflow is largely seasonal concentrating in the months of July-September and from November to March. The hard-impact mass luxury two-day tourism, that views the local culture as a museum, is the new major threat to the local urban and cultural environment that is the real tourism attraction. The pressure for developing this kind of tourism in the old city is immense. The negative impact of such tourism on the local culture and economy multiplies when such hospitality structures are inside densely populated heritage zones of the city, like the ghats, where they are in disharmony with the spiritual and religious atmosphere of the place and where they also overburden the carrying capacity of the urban and cultural environment, water resources, sewage systems, etc. This kind of tourism does not bring economic benefit to the city but only to the luxury hospitality structures. Unless counter measures are taken, this tendency will spread like wildfire.


As per newspaper report, Modi is reportedly keen to bring back the city’s lost glory as an ancient spiritual hub. According to Modi Varanasi is not only regarded as the most pious city of the Hindu culture, but also holds vital importance in Jainism and Buddhism. “It was Varanasi where the Shehnaai of Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan kept echoing the Hindu-Muslim Unity.”

From clean-up drives to recalibrating traffic plans, some makeover schemes are already underway, and the report refers to plans for an auditorium, a music academy that could be a patron for Varanasi’s famed musician families and more. A mass rapid transport system including a Bus Rapid Transport System, like the one in New Delhi, is also being planned.

Plans for Tourism

To boost tourism, plans are underway to promote ‘walking tourism’ and get heritage tags for several havelis, kothis and akharas. A cooperation deal between Kyoto and Varanasi, signed by Modi when he was in Japan, will strive to preserve the art and culture of the ancient Indian city.

The government will identify, preserve and project more historical buildings as tourist attractions.

It has planned to adopt measures such as better access by walkways and improved lighting that can make the city’s heritage structures more attractive.

Plans for Citizens

A complete revamp of the CIVIC infrastructure with better sewage network, waste management and transportation. A plan to bring in intelligent street lighting is also on the blueprint as are initiatives to declog the city’s skyline that’s presently criss-crossed by jumble of wires

Plans for City Infrastructure

The government is kick starting the several central schemes that would better the civic infrastructure. Action would include releasing of remaining funds and spurring execution. The government is also looking at developing the suburbs as Greater Varanasi to help spread out the population. This plan will see the development of neighbouring towns like Sarnath, Ramnagar, Babatpur, Shivpur, Cholapur and Ganapur as satellite cities.

Plans for Ganga

The majestic ghats of Kashi and the riverfront are expected to get a facelift and the government is planning to get cracking on the ambitious ‘[al Marg’ project that would see transit on the 1,620 krn- Allahabad­ Varanasi-Haldia water stretch.

The above analysis, prima facie leads us to infer that Kashi is high on the agenda of the NDA government’s smart city project.

By N K Singh

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