UNSACRED VARANSI KASHI
Constructing politicized identities
Painting the town orange. Author’s own drawing, 2020.
On the 30th of May, 2019, Sri Narendra Modi was sworn in for the second consecutive term as the prime minister of India, reflecting his mass-popularity for decisive policies supporting anti-corruption and neo-liberalism under the umbrella of ‘vikaas.’ Feeding this populism, while hiding under these narratives, are the not so hidden neo-nationalist canons which have been mobilized, evidencing right-wing leanings. From the reclamation of Hindu identities through the return to the archaic names from the Mughal renamed cities (Allahabad to Prayaagraj), the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, to having priests and religious heads of Hinduism in positions of power, the BJP has been strengthening its propaganda around a Hindu Nation state. Modi’s exponential rise to popularity can be accredited to a multi-faceted form of politics, with the activation of place, identity and media at its nexus.
In 2014 and 2019, Narendra Modi stood for the Lok Sabha elections from the sacred city of Varanasi, and won both times with a handsome majority. The election of Modi has lent renewed patronage to the sacred Hindu narratives in the context of Varanasi and to the revival of the myth of an uncontaminated culture. Since his arrival, Varanasi has received an infrastructure boost worth over three billion pounds, with the projected intention of transforming the archaic city into a globally accessible and developed ‘smart city.’ But this development is not a neutral entity, it is drenched in the polarized colours of politics, mobilized for the stabilization of culture, which fixes meanings through the inertia of the invested economic capital. Centering this development, is an emergent sacred project, the Kashi-Corridor Temple precinct complex.
This research diverges away from the sacred narratives which have rendered Varanasi as an ahistorical spiritual construct, and delves into the operative realm of embodied identity politics. With the aim of broadening scholarship which frames the intersectionality of political-power, ideological representation and the built environment, this investigation focuses on the politicized appropriation of Kashi by the in-power right-wing government. Through the articulation of this politicization, this dissertation reveals the masked ideological agendas of the bodies in power which simulate an image of Hindutva. Employing the events revolving around the Kashi Vishwanath-corridor Temple precinct complex as the nexus of analysis, this research contextualizes the bodies in power, in activated sacred space. The research unravels the underlying socio-political and economic structures which lay dormant, but feed the projected timeless narratives of Varanasi. Through the lens of the Kashi-corridor project, the analysis also sheds light on the re-activation of the hegemonic structures of caste and religion which appendage post-democratic and post-secularist narratives, subverting the voices of bodies positioned in alterity.
With the temple-precinct complex still under construction, this research analyzes the events leading up to its construction, to decolonize Varanasi from its sacred narratives, and transcends it into the realm of the real. The research is structured to shed light on how events revolving around the Kashi-corridor project are activated as portal objects in larger narratives of politicized representations in place and time. To produce the final image of the jigsaw puzzle, one starts at the edges. In a similar way, the research explores four sections where each section caters to one event each: 1. the selection of the site, 2. the process of land acquisition and demolition, 3. the publication of the design, and 4. the foundation laying ceremony. By deconstructing the iconography and iconopraxis revolving around the Kashi-corridor precinct, the research explores larger existential conditions at global, national, local and bodily scales through the activation of Identity-politics, Body-politics, Theo-politics, and Noo-politics, along with the representation of power through the projected built.
The atmosphere in India since the rise of the radical right-wing conservative politics has carved a potent space for the exploration of the intersectionality of place, projection, power and politics. The research localizes various forms of power which are constructed from the ‘contingencies of site and society,’ activated through the multi-valent forms of politics, and elucidates the processes revolving around the built environment in the production of place, in an old-new space. The seemingly divergent theoretical discourses of these different knowledges, soundly based within their own paradigms, may be useful to a multiplicitous understanding of built form. With democracies all over the world observing a shift towards the ideologies of right-wing populism, the critical examination of social structures as products of power relations between hegemonic and subordinate cultures and its reflections in spatial constructions, positions the research within the domain of this leitmotiv of contemporary post-colonial political scholarship.
This study of the polyvalent forms of power aids in the construction of total assemblages of several processes operating in various registers converging at this very moment in time. The built environment provides physical evidence to how the governmental power is translated into embodied experience, where competing identities assert themselves in the visual order of a global neo-liberal consensus. These image cultures speak to a politics of recognition, exclusion and assertion, in an avowedly plural and religiously inflected post-colonial polity. The semblance of such pluralistic epistemologies and pervasive heterogeneity of power construct a more holistic image of the polarity of these theologically charged architectures. This plurality transgresses intelligible and embodied boundaries of self through mental, symbolic, physical and notional systems of image practices. Inimical to the ideas of nationalism, these forces appendage identitarian ideas of people that are mapped onto territories at various scales. Peeling the layers of religion, caste, place and representation, one can surface the existential hybridity that is masked under the unilateral narratives of the site as Hindu sacrilege which supplements the ideological aspirations of the bodies in power towards the construction of selective identities.
 Vikaas: growth. The notion of ‘growth’ is a very contentious in its very grounding in the Indian context. The recurrent use of the term in Modi’s orations is critical in the stabilization of his intentions.
 Recurrent use of smart city on the billboards within Varanasi position Modi as a harbinger of growth, hiding the politics of difference.
 Kim Dovey, Becoming Places: Urbanism/Architecture/Identity/Power (London: Routledge, 2009) 11.
Copyright of image: © Dhruv Shah Aka Lodaya