The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/Pressures and Heritage Scenario

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Development Pressures

Like most urban areas in India, Varanasi too has to affront intense development pressures. The impact of these pressures is harder in the old city centre where every inch is constructed, where population density is extremely high (400 to 500 persons/ per ha) and where the city is bursting at its seams. The development pressures can be thus classified:

Increasing Population[edit]

According to the Census of 2001, the population of the city was around 1.5 million. The first census made in 1828-29 by James Prinsep recorded a total of 181,482 persons. Since 1921 the city has recorded constant growth of population. The heavy influx of migration from rural to urban in search of better livelihood has supported the high growth rate of population, recording around 32.5% in 1991-2001. It is projected that by 2021 the population of the city will cross 2.5 millions!

There is, moreover, an estimated 30,000 daily floating population in the city. The riverfront and old city heritage zone of the city is densely populated (above 500 persons/ per ha), and it is here that development pressures are altering irreversibly the socio-cultural fabric of the city. The built heritage of the city, which is a priceless non-renewable resource, is seriously threatened today. The state and city administration have initiated efforts towards protection and management of heritage zones and this is making some leeway in stopping destruction in these zones but it is still far from slowing the process of degradation of these properties.

Shrinking spaces[edit]

With population growth, is increasing the demand for utilising every inch of free space. This is creating pressures for substituting existing spacious architectural forms with optimal space utilisation plans. Parks are becoming smaller and giving way to concrete residential or commercial structures. Trees are increasingly felled, making them a heritage at risk. The existing legislation is unable to prevent open spaces, even inside temple complexes, from being encroached upon by residential and commercial structures, often geared to satisfy the tourism demand . These constructions are increasingly suffocating an already thickly populated and constructed area. Legislations are also unable to prevent the conversion of public pilgrim resting places or buildings, called “dharamshala-s”, from being converted into private residential accommodations. These trends are increasingly disturbing and destroying the existing architectural beauty and harmony of heritage properties.


Modifying urban spaces[edit]

The modification of urban spaces in the old city centre of Varanasi could also negatively alter the religious and cultural life for which the city is sacred and destroy the tourist attractions – both of which are the major sources of earning for its population. Many of these are potential heritage buildings. They are either part of a collective ownership (like temples, ashrams, etc.) or are occupied by tenants, thereby making their maintenance or renovation difficult. In fact, when parts of these buildings collapse, they are often replaced by new, cheap construction alternatives. And these are often utilised as hospitality or other tourism structures that are potentially incompatible with the religious exigencies of the city and the urban carrying capacity of a congested city centre and are thus bound to have a hard impact on the long-term sustainability of the cultural assets of the city. This trend, over the next years, can contribute to a slow destruction of the heritage buildings of this city, leading to a transformation of the architectural façade of the old city, altering its skyline and affecting the aesthetic and sacred harmony of the ghats. The city is fortunate that many of the modifications being presently carried out in and around heritage properties are not always irreversible but some single cases of demolition, or the so-called “re-construction”, are irreversible. We are presently touching the tip of the iceberg.

One such case is an old palace on one of the most photographed and important ghats of the city. This palace was sold to a chain of hotels and was being demolished in order to make a five star hotel. The demolition activity could not be stopped because no permits were earlier required in the city for destroying any property, leave alone heritage properties. The Varanasi Development Authority, on the complaint of a local NGO and subsequent proof provided by it, has recently taken a very positive step in the direction of preserving the architectural heritage of the city. The authority has made it compulsory for owners of heritage properties to have special demolition permits before modifying any part of the existing structure. It has, furthermore, decisively disallowed further demolition of the palace and cancelled the construction approval given to the owners prior to this.

Increasing traffic[edit]

Increasing population is leading to traffic congestion, not only at peak hours but at most hours of the day. This leads to noise pollution and smog. Since roads in the old city cannot be widened, it is important that many of the roads in the city centre become pedestrian pathways and walking areas. Some traffic has been converted to one-way circulation but more roads need to become one way so as to make traffic flow much smoother.


These trends and events are strong indicators that unless stringent and positive intervention takes place through legislations, monitoring and impact evaluations, current trends of architectural degradation will become irreversible. The aim of this proposal for nominating heritage centres of the city in the UNESCO World Heritage List is also the first step in positive direction.

Tourism and Pilgrimage Pressures[edit]

Varanasi has always been the most important destination of domestic religious tourism and thus the unsustainable tourism pressures do not emerge from this segment of tourists, except for their increasing population. Every year more than a million pilgrims come to this city, and all of them bathe in the Ganga river, followed by worshipping in various temple. Tourism and related activities are a major source of earning for the local population but it is important to maintain a sustainable tourism development that is in harmony with the existing cultural and religious atmosphere of the city. Some efforts to this end are being taken by the concerned authorities through specific kinds of promotion activities and organisation and re-vitalisation of religious festivals.

The city of Varanasi and its surrounding region (Kashi Kshetra) is visited by thousands of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sufi saints and foreign visitors each day. Known the world over as the "sacred city" and "the ancient most continuously living city", Varanasi and its region is rich in architectural and cultural heritage (comprising temples, shrines, palaces, maths, mosques, ashrams; and fairs, festivals, musical performances, wrestling traditions, handicrafts, silk weaving, sari, Rama Lilas), natural aesthetics (e.g. the crescent form half Moon-shaped northerly flow of the Ganga. The local religious and cultural life of Varanasi together with its built architectural heritage and the natural landscape of the Ganga river constitute an immense resource for heritage and sustainable tourism, both for Indian and foreign visitors. The six months, from October to March, has always been the main season for international tourists (cf. Table 2 in appendix) but recent tendency shows a continuous pattern throughout the year (cf. Table 2 in appendix). In fact, the religious, cultural, natural, architectural and artisan heritages of Varanasi and related economic activities like pilgrimages, rituals and religious teaching, art and music, tourism, hospitality structures, silk and carpet weaving, metal craft, schools and universities, etc. form the backbone of the economy of the city of Varanasi.

Among international tourists visiting Varanasi, more than 40% is shared by four countries, viz. Japan, France, UK and Germany. While the Japanese come to the city because of its association with the Buddha, who in 528 BCE gave his first sermon in Sarnath, the British are attracted by the colonial tales of India, the Germans follow their indological perceptions and the French are guided by their aesthetic quests for selecting this city as destination point. There has been an increasing influx of tourists from Australia, Italy and Switzerland (cf. Table 3 in appendix). The foreign tourism inflow is largely seasonal concentrating in the months of July- September and then throughout the winter months from November to March. There are also many foreigners who are regular yearly visitors, staying for fixed periods of four to six months each winter. The kinds of tourists or foreign students who stay in guest houses spread throughout the city usually want to learnt he local culture and try to integrate with the local population. These tourists are adventurous and ready to adapt to local customs. They usually come to live and breathe the cultural atmosphere of Banaras or to learn music, dance, yoga, ayurveda, etc. This tourism is a soft-impact tourism and often socially, environmentally and culturally harmonious and sustainable.


The hard-impact mass luxury two-day tourism, that views the local culture as a museum, is the new major threat to the local urban and cultural environment that is the real tourism attraction. The pressure for developing this kind of tourism in the old city is immense. Since heritage zones naturally attract tourists, there is an increasing trend in the city to utilise heritage properties for hospitality and commercial purposes targeted at satisfying the exigencies of only foreign tourists. Where heritage properties are in spacious areas, such activities are in harmony with their surroundings. The negative impact of such tourism on the local culture and economy multiplies when such hospitality structures are inside densely populated heritage zones of the city, like the ghats, where they are in disharmony with the spiritual and religious atmosphere of the place and where they also overburden the carrying capacity of the urban and cultural environment, water resources, sewage systems, etc. This kind of tourism does not bring economic benefit to the city but only to the luxury hospitality structures. Since this kind of tourism brings greater economic benefits to the owners, the trend is to increasingly utilise heritage structures and the river to suit these ends. Unless counter measures are taken, this tendency will spread like wildfire.

Environment Pressures[edit]

The rich abundance of clay has kept the eco-system of the river still intact but increasing urban and industrial pressure and pollutant agricultural run-offs have started stretching the sustainable limits of the river system to the maximum. The river eco-system is facing pressures from the increasing population in the riverfront heritage zone and also from other parts of the city whose sewage flows directly into the river. It is also facing pressure from the pollutant agricultural run-offs from villages around the city. However, approximately 80% of the pollution in the River Ganga in Varanasi is urban waste. The river and the sub soil water are also the source of drinking water for the population that lives in the heritage zones. The river faces additional pressures on the days of the religious festivals when millions of devotees bathe in the Ganga. Besides these, the increasing use of plastics and un-dissolvable material clogs drains and contaminates the river water. In order to tackle these problems, broad based policy initiatives are required and must be supported by strict implementation, monitoring and impact evaluation of environmental legislation.

Of course, there are several Environmental Legislations in India, at both the levels, i.e. Central and State, their rational implementation is a crucial issue. The Acts at the Central level includes dealing with water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, marine pollution, hazardous wastes, radiation, pesticides, forest and wild life conservation. The state of Uttar Preadesh has already passed some acts, but nothing related directly to the major environmental issues. Around 60% of the total overall pollution concentrate in the Riverfront and nearby Old City heritage zone of Varanasi. The population density in this area is more than 500 persons/ per ha, and the number of persons per house is around 10. This zone is almost devoid of parks and open spaces. The disposal of solid wastes at every street corner gives obnoxious scene. Still we find domestic use of coal, wood, in addition to the burning corpses in areas of two cremation ghats. Due to contamination of water, the water borne diseases are common in this area.

Threat to the Ganga River[edit]

A sensitive walker has expressed that “a walk along the ghats presents another image too, one of poverty and crowding. And, another is of filthy and polluted scenes created by the garbage piles, sewerage, breeding diseases, drains carrying human waste directly to the stream, occasionally floating corpses and also pouring toxins from India’s burgeoning industrial sector”. The standard of purity set for the Ganga by the environmental ministry of India is a maximum biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of 3 parts per million or 3 milligrams per litre. Tests conducted along the Ganga report a BOD of over 5.5 parts per million and faecal coliform counts of 5,000 to 10,000 per 100 litres (cubic centimetres) of water, while the limit for the latter is only 3,000 per 100 litres of water. At some of the sewage outlets the faecal coliform counts exceed 100,000 per 100 litres.


In 1986 the Central Ganga Authority (CGA) was created and unveiled a master plan for the cleanup with its highly touted Ganga Action Plan (GAP) with a budget of 293 million rupees (equivalent to 18.5 million US dollars) for the first five years. It started its functioning in 1988. The Second Phase was planned for the period of 1994-1999 with a budget of Rs 491 million rupees (equivalent to 16.5 million US dollars), but has never been implemented. The Third Phase, including the budget of the Second Phase, is in process with a budget of Rs 2080 million rupees (equivalent to 45.2 million US dollars), and it was expected that by the end of 2000 it would be implemented. These proposals include pollution prevention, checking and diversion of sewage outlets, increasing the capacity of treatment plants and over 30 related schemes. Alas! The scheduled time has already passed, and the mother Ganga is still watching her children to unite for the cause to clean and save her.


The Swatcha Ganga Campaign (SGC), an NGO launched in 1982 dealing with ‘cleaning the Ganga movement’, is a widely publicised and propagated institution in this area. Both of these bodies make their own claims for the great success, and always blame each other for obstacles and misuse of money! To different degrees, both agencies seem more concerned with creating reputations at the local, national and international levels than with taking swift and decisive action to clean up the Ganga river. It is obvious on the basis of the sources and the first hand information that hardly about one-fourths of the granted money was used while the rest gone into the pockets of officials. The only visible evidence of the GAP is a huge white boat, which sails up and down the Ganga with high-level authorities on board. The clean-up campaign of the Ganga has failed miserably in almost all respects. There is a lack of public participation and a lack of awareness of the river’s problems. At the same time there has also been a failure to revive the old theological ethics of harmony with nature and the spirit of sustainability. The only solution is through the public awareness, civic sense and creation of moral character with a view to saving our cultural symbol and identity, the mother Ganga. Active participation of the NGOs would be a positive step in this direction.


The increasing impact of pollution and the decreasing volume of water in the Ganga together have a multiplier effect in Varanasi. By end of March the growth of a huge sand-island and speedily downing the water level of the Ganga will be soon proved as a threat to the existence of the Ghats. About a decade ago the width of the river had been 225-250m, however it reached to around 60-70m. The main stream has lost the high speed of the current due to less volume and pressure of water. The depth of the bed is drastically became victim of deposition. The natural capacity of the river to maintain its speed of the flow is now checked. Close to the Asi Ghat, the first one, the river has already left the bank about 7-8m. The existence of Ghats in Varanasi is in danger because the existence of the Ganga is in danger.


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