Interview: Bimal H Patel, architect
Bimal H Patel is one of India’s most reputed architects. He also handles some of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet projects. The man behind the Central Vista project spoke to ULLEKH NP about the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor project which, he says, was different from all his previous assignments because of the logistical challenges in one of the world’s most ancient living cities. Patel, president of CEPT University in Ahmedabad, heads HCP Design Planning and Management.
When did the proposal for the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor land on your desk? What was your immediate response?
The Vishwanath Dham proposal was awarded to us in late 2018. The process of acquiring properties for building the corridor had already started by then. Our first response was that it was a challenging task, and that this proposal would require careful thought and a deep understanding of the context. A new architectural vocabulary needed to be developed that would provide a befitting setting to the temple, enrich the neighbourhood, and merge with the urban fabric of the city.
Who were the key people you held discussions with before drafting the master plan?
We had several discussions with different stakeholders and specialists before we designed the master plan. This included architects who specialised in temple construction, representatives of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Special Area Development Board, local residents in the area and others.
How many times did you have to revise the master plan based on new inputs and discoveries, for instance, of new temples?
We revised the master plan several times, for three reasons: One, many temples were unearthed from within private houses during construction. These were restored, in consultation with a conservation architect and included in our design, enriching it greatly.
Two, the master plan was revised again when new properties and additional space became available to us.
And finally, when we discovered the possibility of creating a memorable ghat and a gateway on the banks that would make the temple’s presence felt. Our design also ensured that the privacy of mourners at Manikarnika Ghat was protected.
Which were the texts you relied on to know more about the area where the corridor has now come up?
We referred to several books about the city, including the classic works of Diana Eck (Banaras: City of Light), James Prinsep (Banaras Illustrated), Amita Sinha (Ghats of Varanasi on the Ganga in India: The Cultural Landscape Reclaimed) and Madhuri Shrikant (Banaras Reconstructed).
Did you get hold of any watershed works so you could fall back on them to know about early temples in this region? How did you tap traditional knowledge about the place? Did you consult the works by Pt Kuber Nath Sukul, for instance?
We did not do anything to the temples themselves other than cleaning them up and integrating them well with our master plan. Therefore, we did not need to tap traditional knowledge about specific temples. Our design dealt with the buildings and facilities around the temples.
What were the precautions taken to ensure there is a Banarasi touch to the new corridor?
The temple and the redeveloped precinct are a very tiny portion of Varanasi.
The temple Parisar (surroundings) was made entirely in Chunar stone from Mirzapur, which is the same stone used in the temple, that adds a Banarasi touch. The outer court, the temple Chowk, is modern yet uses traditional arch-shaped torans (gateways), to blend in with the temple architecture. The gateway to the Chowk draws inspiration from the Ramnagar Fort gateway. The rest of the buildings, including new pilgrim facilities that have been added, are modern and functional buildings that match the bulk and height of the surrounding development.
New architecture in any ancient city always generates a discordant note, however feeble. Did you face any such criticism from the locals or other architects?
We did receive some criticism from conservative architects and commentators who seemed to suggest that all change is problematic, and everything is worthy of preservation. Such criticism was not very helpful in addressing any of the practical problems we were trying to resolve, such as the provision of facilities, infrastructure, space, etcetera.
Sewerage systems may have been non-existent in this area. What was done to revamp the place and manage solid waste?
There were extant sewage lines and an active sewage pumping station at Lalita Ghat, which is currently in the process of being relocated. We have used the same to manage solid waste from the project precinct.
What will the final plan look like? Is it meant to ensure entry to the temple corridor from the Ganga or are there alleyways also being developed to let devotees and tourists in?
The final plan is, in essence, the architectural expression of a journey towards self-discovery.
From the river, the temple’s presence is announced by a gateway atop a pyramid of steps. Thereafter, the Chowk, which is centred on an axis with the gateway, guides one towards the temple. From there, one descends to reach the gateway of the Parisar, which is also centred on the same axis. The experience of the pathway is, in a sense, a slow unfolding of self-realisation.
The approach from the Ganga will be the primary access to the temple. However, all the present access routes from the city will also remain functional and accessible.
When do you expect to finish this project?
The main temple precinct is ready and was inaugurated on December 13th. The ghat area will be completed in another three months.
How challenging or different was this compared with the other projects you have/had undertaken?
The construction of the project was a huge logistical challenge because the only access for transporting construction material was either through a narrow 40 feet road that reached one end of the site or on barges on the river. Much of the demolition had to be done manually because of the space constraints.
How many people can be accommodated at the guest house inside the complex?
The Mumukshu Bhavan, a place for people who choose to spend their final days in Kashi, will have the capacity to host 50 people at a time. The guest house will have 18 rooms.