I’ve just spent a few days in Varanasi, India’s holiest place, celebrating my brother-in-law’s 70th birthday.
Coming back to this city and seeing India’s mightiest river brought back all kinds of memories.
In 1999, 24 years ago, my brother and I said farewell to our father and scattered his ashes in the Ganges. As children, we would come to Varanasi and visit the ghats, the temples and the shrines.
The difference from those days to the present is astonishing. Just to take one example: the Kashi Vishwanath temple – the holiest of the holy places for Hindus – has been completely renovated and is now at the centre of a wide, calm, beautifully-designed precinct and avenue leading down to the river, allowing pilgrims to worship and visitors to enjoy the extraordinary architecture and atmosphere.
Spread over 5000 hectares, the project cost $95 million and included the restoration of 40 temples along the route, which had been ‘lost’ over the centuries through haphazard development.
Varanasi – or Benares (‘City of Light’) as it is sometimes known – is one of the world’s oldest cities. This is one of its charms. There are layers upon layers of history jostling together next to the holy river.
It had also become a problem. As India’s population rose and ever more pilgrims made their way here, the overcrowding became oppressive, even dangerous. Varanasi is the Hindu equivalent of Mecca: worshippers are encouraged to visit at least once in their lives.
The transformation of the Kashi Vishwanath temple is an example of 21st Indian development at its finest. It welcomes international visitors, who would previously be alarmed by the chaotic bustle. It elevates one of the country’s great architectural marvels to its proper status. And it showcases a new kind of India: clean, orderly, proud of its heritage and appealing to a new generation.
Anyone who has spent time in India knows that there are thousands of amazing places to see. But for those who are yet to come here, the stereotypical view is: let’s go to the Taj Mahal. And maybe the Gateway of India in Mumbai.
Broadening this narrow vision is a great service to India and to its visitors. They could consider visiting the majestic peaks of the Indian Himalayas, the idyllic waterways of Kerala, the Ajanta caves of Maharashtra, the tiger reserves of Tamil Nadu or the ancient, ruined temples of Hampi.
Many visitors remark on how much has changed in India in recent years. It’s true and welcome. I would say that the transformation of Kashi Vishwanath is one of the most important and profound changes and I’d urge anyone coming to India to see it for themselves.
Dinesh Dhamija founded, built and sold online travel agency ebookers, before serving as a Member of the European Parliament. His latest book is The Indian Century.