The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/Description
The Riverfront heritage Zone, Core Heritage Area and other properties. The riverfront heritage zone is flanked by a wide sand belt on the Eastern banks. The sand belt is covered by the Ganga river during the three months- July to September. Beyond the sand belt is a protected green belt of trees within which lies a reserved area for turtle breeding. The sand is utilised for construction purposes and during the winter months, a portion of the sand belt is used for vegetable and melon farming. Many ascetics and wanderers also camp on this sand belt and hold various sermons during the winter months. The Western banks of the river are marked by lofty palatial buildings built mostly by kings and feudal lords from different parts of India between eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Stone steps flank the river on its western bank and lead down from the city to the river water. These steps are called “Ghats” and although they seem to be a continuous stretch of stairs, they were built in different historical moments. There are around 40 to 60 stone steps on each ghat, depending on the height of these ghats. The area along the ghats is dominated by various shrines and temples. The ghats are marked by octagonal raised platforms built for public use and smaller rectangular platforms that are closer to the river, built for use by the Brahmins for religious rituals. This is where takes place the ritual bathing of the pilgrims and the daily bathing of the inhabitants of the city. The ghats are give access to the boats on the Ganga river and are also a place for sports, exercise, meditation, socialising and relaxation.
The beautiful lanes, called “Gali-s”, lying behind the palaces that flank the ghats, are magnificent and unique in their own way. There are houses on both sides of these lanes. The ground floor, of most of the houses that flank the lanes, is converted into little shops, making the lanes a virtual always-open bazaar and expressing a rare sight of co-existence between the commercial and the residential. Although the entrance doors of the houses are small, inside there sometimes exist huge courtyards. Like most traditional houses in Indian cities, the houses in the old city too are constructed around an open square central courtyard flanked by rooms on all sides. The houses are usually a soft combination of private and common spaces to be shared by the residents. Such open spaces inside the house were built, keeping in mind the hot weather. The open square space emerging from the courtyard permit hot air to rise and leave the house and the many doors and windows in each room permit cross ventilation. The construction materials of old buildings also respect the local weather conditions and help in keeping the house cool. Many lanes together make a “mohalla”- a term that comes from “mahal” which means palace. The names of these mahallas and lanes communicate their historical, natural or commercial connotations. For example: the Nati imli mohalla is so called after a dwarf tamarind tree, the Tatheri bazaar which is a brazier’s market, bhandari gali which is the storehouse lane, macchodari which was historically a kund, kunj gali which is a silk market, etc.
The historically older site area of this heritage zone is on the Rajghat in the north of the city. The density of heritage site areas and properties is the highest in the above defined Core Heritage Area between the Durga ghat and the Manikarnika ghat, being also the most important according to cultural and religious parameters. As we move south from the Dashashvamedh ghat to the Asi ghat, the density of heritage properties becomes lower.
The conservation of most heritage properties faces intense pressure. Even if these properties are presently in quite the same physical conditions as in the last couple of decades and their architectural characteristics are being maintained without many legal and administrative measures, their architectural integrity is now being threatened. In the name of development, especially for tourism, old structures are being modified or demolished even where structures are made of stone and are not weak. Since the ownership is collective or remote (like maths, ashrams, palaces, etc.), and renovation work is expensive, buildings are often left to degrade and lack maintenjance. Unless stringent measures are taken for protection, there is a high probability that new structures, using new building materials, will increasingly replace old architectural shapes and materials. Recent construction work and events in the old city centre demonstrate that even when ownership is in a single proprietor’s hands, he prefers rebuilding rather than renovating. Besides these risks, the buffer zones and the skyline of the old city, whose status quo is preserved at this moment, are also being threatened by encroachments and rising heights of buildings.
Detailed description of trhe proposed zone and each heritage site/property included thereof and the of the conservation status of the same is given in sequence.