Varanasi could be India’s new God’s Own Country, amid effort to re-brand it as 'a home to all religions'

Efforts are on to shape Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, into the world’s spiritual capital and turn the city’s blatant juxtaposition of life and death into high-voltage commerce.

The move, claim those in the know, would possibly help the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government acquire stronger secular credentials and deflect the seemingly endless uproar over cow politics.

The department of tourism of Uttar Pradesh, along with top officials in Varanasi, is putting in place a host of plans that will bring members of different religions to a common platform, and turn one of the world’s oldest cities into an ideal spot for global religious travellers. According to the World Tourism Organisation, an estimated 300 to 330 million pilgrims visit the world's key religious sites every year.

If this happens, hopefully by the end of this year, Varanasi will be India’s new God’s Own Country, the city being the home to a little over 100 mosques, scores of churches, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage and the highly popular temples of Lord Shiva and Hanuman.

“You have to stand on the Manikarnika Ghat to get a feel of the city, and its spirituality. Varanasi is about life, death, respect and religion, the idea is to make it a centre for all religions, and tell visitors that its not all about sadness. The idea is to turn it into a city of liberators,” says Awanish Kumar Awasthi, principal secretary to Adityanath. He is working feverishly on the project, which also includes ensuring the city is free from power cuts and traffic snarls.

Temples and residential buildings are seen on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui SEARCH "SIDDIQUI GANGES" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. - RTX3ASD1

Temples and residential buildings are seen on the banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi. Image via Reuters

Linked to both Mecca and Jerusalem, Varanasi is one of the world's oldest cities. “The amalgamation of religion in one city is unique in the world and this will be garner great traction among Indian and global tourists,” says Awasthi.

This, in some ways, is the second step.

The first happened last year when Varanasi was named as one of the world’s “Cities of World Music” under the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. “The city’s rich musical heritage is famous the world over, its a great tag for Varanasi,” the city’s mayor, Ramgopal Mohle said in an interview.

Mohle said the UNESCO tag had already provided a fillip to tourism, helping artists and musicians from Varanasi to visit countries that are a part of this network. Nine cities — Glasgow in the UK, Hanover and Mannheim in Germany, Ghent in Belgium, Hamamatsu in Japan, Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, Bogota in Columbia, Seville in Spain and Bologna in Italy — are a part of the UNESCO chain. “Varanasi is immersed in both religion and history. It is already the world’s spiritual capital, we will be reinforcing the claim,” says Mohle.

For decades, the city — claims Awasthi — has remained high on the calendar of international travellers to India, also a large number of domestic travellers.

In 530 BC, the Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment near Varanasi, but by then the city was already 500 years old. As per Hindu mythology, Varanasi was founded by God Shiva, lord of destruction and creation, and is the physical and spiritual centre of the Hindu universe. The city is home to a little over 1.2 million people and an estimated 1,500 temples and shrines, attracting pilgrims from India, and the world.

Hindus who visit Varanasi have strong beliefs, so do Buddhists who visit Sarnath on the outskirts of the city. Hindu devotees believe that anyone who dies within the city limits attains instant moksha, or redemption, freeing the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Many spend thousands of rupees transporting bodies to be cremated at two sacred ghats — Manikarnika and Raja Harish Chandra — in the city, also home to many sick and elderly living in hospices, waiting to die.

Awasthi did not further spell out details of the project but it is reliably learnt that a host of Hollywood and Bollywood stars, performing artists, international and Indian scholars would be roped in for the project. Interestingly, the idea to turn the city into a spiritual centre was triggered after a visit to Varanasi last year by ageing Hollywood star Morgan Freeman for a six-part National Geographic series, The Story of God.

Morgan, who had travelled to seven countries for the series, had then told the Press Trust of India (PTI) that his experience was fascinating in Varanasi, one of the most prominent religious and spiritual centres in the world for centuries. “I found Varanasi extremely fascinating. The ambience in Varanasi is extraordinary. It is the holiest of holy cities in India on the holiest river in India. Learning that reincarnation, you can bypass it in Varanasi, did you know that? That was news to me,” said the Bruce Almighty star who loved the cacophonous traffic on the streets.

“There were no lights, there were no guides. It just keeps going. How in the world do they do that? You don’t see people lying alongside the road having been run over, you don’t see dead dogs or chickens lying in the road having been run over, everything manages to function on the roads,” Morgan told the agency.

It was not immediately known if the state government had approached Morgan.

Varanasi chronicler Gaurav Kapoor says the idea is taking shape slow, but steadily. “This is not a new phenomenon, the state government has been at it for long, probably now its taking shape.”

It is reliably learnt that the state government would also seek the help of the US-based Dr David Frawley, an acclaimed author on Indian spirituality and yoga practitioner who has deep knowledge of Varanasi and its history. A mail to Dr Frawley, a regular visitor to India, remained unanswered.

Kapoor said the move to push Varanasi as the world’s spiritual capital will have great backers, especially from the West. The list of top notch visitors from the West, claims Kapoor, is both huge and impressive.

Celebrated sitar artist Pandit Ravi Shankar’s ashes were immersed in the holy waters of Varanasi by his daughters, Anoushka and Norah Jones in March 2013. Celebrated models and actors Seal and Heidi Klum, till they were married, routinely sought priests from Varanasi every year to take vows as per Hindu rites because they were mesmerised by the city and its culture.

Singer Madonna took lessons in Sanskrit over the phone from Vagish Shastri of Kundalini Yoga Peeth way back in 1998, for her album Ray of Light, Grammy award winner Sting spent some time in Varanasi in 2013 along with filmmaker Ismail Merchant, then scouting for locales for Goddess, which he could never direct because he died of a heart attack in 2005. Pop icon Tina Turner, selected by Merchant to play the lead in Goddess, visited Varanasi.

The move could work wonders for the city, ostensibly because rarely an effort has been made to tag Varanasi as “a home to all religions”.

“Varanasi has a place for everyone, the living and the dead, and there’s solace. Its a city where Bismillah Khan lived and practiced on the ghats, a place revered by the Hindus. And he told me once that he had witnessed Ma Durga on the Ganges while practicing his shehnai. In Varanasi, various religions have evolved throughout the course of civilisation and shaped the evolution of society,” says Awasthi.

Hopefully soon, one of the holiest places in Hindu lore, will have a new tagline for spiritual seekers from all over the world.

Updated Date: Aug 05, 2017 12:55 PM

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