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Varanasi – The Soul of India

Varanasi – The Soul of India

By Sakshi Singh

The Indian Economist Special Correspondent

Brief introduction to the city of Varanasi:

Varanasi, or Benaras, (also known as Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi’s Prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrevealed. Mark Twain, the English author and literature, who was enthralled by the legend and sanctity of Benaras, once wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.

 Varanasi City lies between 25015’ to 25022’ North latitude and 82057’ to 83001’ East longitude. This is the only place where River Ganga flows from South to North having the world famous ghats on the left bank of the river. The ancient city of Varanasi was not built in a day. The city has two remnants of holy past: the first being Rajghat plateau, where the archaeological findings of wares date back to the date of the period of very existence of urban settlement and the second being Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, “Turning the wheel of law ”in 528 BC. Later during the 3rd century King Ashoka built a monastery township there, which continued its existence until the 12th century and was later destroyed.

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.

That was a brief introduction to Varanasi and its prestige. Going back to our topic of discussion, it is important that we develop the places that tell a story to the people to come to them. With this in mind I want to draw attention to the areas that need to be thoroughly looked into. As we know that India is a developing country and tourism industry is one of the main sources of revenue to the country which makes the development of the infrastructures a necessity.

It is not what we think we should that matters, it is what we do that makes a difference. As a wise man once said actions speak louder than words. And I here to throw light on what hustle a common goes through every single day. Every now and then people complain about litter on the roads; how bad the roads are; and how unhygienic it is. But at one pointing time you were one of those who opted to throw their garbage on the roads instead of putting it in its rightful place that is the dustbin. Speaking of dustbins how many people will bother to walk to a dustbin. ‘Hrghh, who is going to walk to the or carry all this piece of junk to the dustbin I rather throw it here on the sides of the road after all it is Varanasi.’ How do you mean by “after all it is Varanasi”, doesn’t Varanasi or in fact any place of tourism deserve to be clean. Places of tourist attraction are suppose to paint a picture of the country and if I may ask what kind of a picture does  half dug roads, dusty roadside stalls and  pits of garbage on the sides of the roads are suppose a to paint. A very good picture I suppose that’s why everyone is doing it.

A country that is known for its culture and prestige is present in such a filthy manner. This is a place the richest of the country can survive but not even the poorest from the developed countries will be able to survive in goodness this country has to offer. And who are we to blame for that the government or the people themselves. People usually compare India with foreign countries and put up a long list of negativity in the country but the question remains the same- Who is to be blamed for all this? – And still unanswered.


India is said to be the fastest developing countries today of course after China. Although India is doing exceptionally well in fields like education, industrialization and fashion there are still certain areas where the country is lagging behind. India’s road network is gigantic and said to be only after the United States of America. But one of the striking underlying facts is the condition of the roads. Since roads indirectly contribute to the economic growth of the country it is extremely essential that the roads are well laid out and strong. India is home to several bad roads be it the metropolitans, the cities or the villages. Bad road conditions are nothing new to India and the problem is being addressed since the last 30 years.

Every politician who comes into power makes very pleasing promises but the people are still waiting for the day when these promises finally get a direction into becoming true. The question is what are they waiting for? Maybe for the sun to rise from the west. Varanasi as I said earlier is the home to cultural treasures of India but they are not well taken care off. The roads in Varanasi that we can actually call roads are the “VIP roads” as called by the localities are the roads which are built especially for the so called VIP’s –the political leader-travel on.

Varanasi is also the home to approximately 4,000 slums and 38% of the slum population settled in 227 clusters.

It’s a pity that the people have to suffer so much in monsoon; the roads in Varanasi are usually dug up in the rainy season which makes it almost impossible to travel with water collecting on either sides of road and poor drainage system makes life so difficult. Some civilians of Varanasi say that if you want to see hell come to Varanasi. This powerful statement surely describes what the people who are used to this have to say now what about those people who are completely unfamiliar to this would have to say is beyond my imagination.

Some roads in Varanasi are not even proper roads it is just layer of gravel and sand that gives the rider a bumpy ride. Riding on these roads makes it feel as if your bones are literally knocking each other which at times is the cause of severe stomach, if one is not used to such roads.

Traffic Jams roads should not surprise anyone as they have become very common, if you get out of your houses to even cover the shortest distance possible who know that it would take you at least an hour to get to your optimum destination and should would ask me why is that. This is due to several reasons some of which include the following:

  • Construction work being done on the roads every now and then.
  • Roads not being wide enough to allow the free flow of vehicles.
  • Indiscipline among the road user.

The main reason of traffic jam being: Too many vehicles on road simultaneously, at a given point of time and location.

Possible Solutions to manage Traffic Jams are as follows:

  • Developing adequate infrastructure for handling traffic volume. Sick and slow moving vehicles should not be allowed to hamper smooth traffic flow. Vehicle parking on roads takes away major chunk of driving space. Provide scientifically thought & metered parking bays. (Administrative)
  • Road users too should have consideration for other road users/pedestrians. (The right of way that is driving in your own lane)
  • RTO licensed drivers – must strictly adhere to the traffic rules (mandatory & customary) stipulated.
  • Start early. Plan wisely. Drive neatly. Reach safely. Prevent pollution. Protect Environment.


VARANASI: The city, which is a tourist hotspot as well as an important pilgrimage centre of the country, is facing a serious threat of unsanitary situation as the sewage tanks are always at the peak of overflowing especially when monsoon is just around the corner, the overflowing becomes a great drawback to the travellers or the user of the road as the solid waste of sewage collects on to the roads which is hazardous as well unhygienic. It is not just the sewage tanks are the source of poor sanitation in the city. A major role is played by the waste thrown onto the roads which gradually turns into heaps and heaps of solid waste. This is waste not recycled forget recycling it is not even collected and thrown into dustbins. There is no separate storm water drainage system.

What are the economic costs of sanitation?

The health impact of inadequate sanitation leads to a number of financial and economic costs including direct medical costs associated with treating sanitation-related illnesses and lost income through reduced or lost productivity and the government costs of providing health services. Additionally, sanitation also leads to time and effort losses due to distant or inadequate sanitation facilities, lower product quality resulting from poor water quality, reduced income from tourism (due to high risk of contamination and disease) and clean up costs. Increases in female literacy (due to increased school attendance where proper sanitation facilities exist) contribute to economic growth.

How does sanitation affect the environment?

In regions where a large proportion of the population is not served with adequate water supply and sanitation, sewage flows directly into streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands, affecting coastal and marine ecosystems, fouling the environment and exposing millions of children to disease. Particularly in the context of urbanization, domestic wastewater, sewage and solid waste improperly discharged presents a variety of concerns from providing breeding grounds for communicable disease vectors to contributing to air, water and soil pollution.

The results of poor waste management also contribute to a loss of valuable biodiversity. In the case of coral reefs, urban and industrial waste and sewage dumped directly into the ocean or carried by river systems from sources upstream, increase the level of nitrogen in seawater. Increased nitrogen caused overgrowths of algae, which in turn, smother reefs by cutting off their sunlight. Improved sanitation reduces environmental burdens, increases sustainability of environmental resources and allows for heal there, more secure future for the population.

What are the reasons for slow progress on sanitation?

Many people do not realize the health and economic benefits to the individual, the community and to society from improving sanitation. The high cost of improving sanitation is often cited as a barrier to implementing sanitation projects. Improving sanitation is often low on the list of priorities. There are so many other pressing needs for the attention of governments: food supply, education, medical treatment and dealing with war and conflict. Most people are aware that poor sanitation has a health impact, but there is a lack of awareness of the extent of ill-health that it causes.

How can we achieve sanitation targets?

To achieve the targets, action must start NOW. Now is the time to act. Households, communities, local and national governments, civil society, and private companies all need to work together. Media and public opinion around the city can influence political leaders to act now. For the principal target audience of politicians and government officials (particularly aid administrators), the strategy for this year’s World Water Day is designed to increase substantive awareness, ideally leading to decisive actions in support of improved sanitation. Related communication also considers the media, in developed but especially in developing regions, since the media have excellent capacities to inform the population and guide their opinions.


Besides being a holy river for Hindus, the Ganges also provides water to millions of people in India. Unfortunately, billions of litres of human faeces and other sewage are dumped into this river, threatening not only humans, but the natural ecosystem of the river. Fortunately, there are people in the Indian government and regular citizens looking to bring attention to this problem.

Most of the main pollution issues with the Ganges deals with improper sewage management. Some of the tributaries of the Ganges, like Yamuna, have already become unusable since 70 percent of the pollution is caused from human excrement. While there are around 300 processing facilities in India, many are poorly managed and oft times treated waste is mixed in with untreated and then thrown back into the water. This kind of pollution can cause serious water-borne diseases like severe diarrhoea, a leading cause of death among children in India. Besides the pollution, the river is facing other hardships. Due to the changing climate, scientists have stated that the Gangotri glacier, which provides up to 70 percent of the water of the Ganges during the summer months, is decreasing at a rate of 40 yards a year. By 2030, the glacier may be completely melted and the Ganges will become a more seasonal river largely dependent on monsoons. Not only would this put India in danger, the river provides water for 500 million in India alone, many other Asian countries depend on the river as their main water source. Of course, climate change is already affecting the Ganges fresh water supply. Due to rising sea levels more salt water has begun flowing into the Ganges. This has been noted by the appearance of mangroves along the Ganges river belt, as well as an increase in of salt water fish in the river.

The Ganges River is not only a holy sanctuary for many Hindus; it is literally the lifeblood of Asia. Not only does the river provide drinking water to the people, it also waters the crop and offers food. Unfortunately, there is more than pollution that affects the Ganges, and if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed then the river will either become too salinated for normal use or disappear completely.


The murky dawn knits river to sky on the banks of the holy Ganges river in Varanasi. Even at sunrise, the city’s 4.5-mile waterfront bustles. Bathers brush their teeth, soap themselves, and scrub their children. Legions wash laundry, gather water, and scour dishes. Men swim and lounge on ghats (steps that descend into the Ganges). Black noses and curving horns betray the presence of submerged water buffalo.

Women in bright saris gather in groups or with their families at the water’s edge. Up to 60,000 pilgrims journey to this sacred, 3,000-year-old city from across India each day. They sculpt altars in slick, gray mud, making offerings of flowers and candles. They pour Ganges water, pray, take a sacramental sip and immerse themselves in the turbid river for spiritual healing.

At the “burning ghats,” flames consume the bodies of the dead: Hindus believe casting their remains into the Ganges guides their souls to heaven. To them, this river is the mother goddess, Ganga Ma, who washes away humanity’s sins.

Four hundred million people rely on the Ganges watershed for drinking water, including Varanasi’s 1.6 million residents. But along its 1,560-mile journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the river absorbs raw sewage from 116 cities. Waste has turned these waters into a highway for viruses and bacteria, including deadly, dysentery-causing microbes like E. coli O157 and Shigella, and those that cause cholera, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever. Last year, the Indian government pledged $4 billion for river cleanup to stem the tide of waterborne disease.

But the problem of environmental water pollution extends far beyond the Ganges. Municipal waste, pesticides, and industrial chemicals foul waterways and drinking water across the globe, with the worst pollution concentrated in developing countries.

India’s success and it’s tradition as well as it folkways is slowly killing the holy river Ganga without even knowing.


Although the city has its own ups and downs or shall I say beauty and flaws but the beauty can only be enjoyed when the above infrastructures can are improved. And to do this we –the citizen of India- have to work as a rock solid team. As I mentioned earlier we can go on with the criticism on how filthy and nasty the country is but that won’t help if we sit and do nothing. The quote by Mahatma Gandhi  “BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD” acts as an eye opener and encourages us to stand up for ourselves if not the country as a whole. It’s high time we stand up for what is right, the elections are around the corner and this could make a powerful issue that needs urgent attention. It would be very interesting to watch the neck to neck fight between Arvind Kejriwal of AAP and Narendra Modi of BJP. The localities wish to see these leaders change the fortune and the face of Varanasi in best way possible. They wish to see a Varanasi that leaves tourists mesmerised with not only its cultural beauty but also its natural beauty .


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