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Posts Tagged ‘Varanasi

Kashi, the oldest, the illustrious

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The Mahapuranas speak of 96 jalatirthas along the bank of Ma Ganga in Kashi. By the end of the 16th century, these were arranged as 84 ghats over what we today measure as 6.5 kilometres. Over the centuries, many of our greatest thinkers, philosophers and sants have walked the steps of these ghats and drawn inspiration from the trinity of Ma Ganga, Kashi and Lord Shiva.

The year was no later than 1971 when, as a small boy of six, I first heard of Kashi. We were visiting one of my father’s college friends, and although my recollection is dim, the babu-moshai lived in a spacious flat with a large airy verandah overlooking a backyard full of trees. The area was New Alipur, in Calcutta. My father’s friends included artists, theatre actors, film critics, a boxwallah or two, newspaper columnists. Some of them were there that day, and when I heard the names ‘Kashi’ and ‘Banaras’ I had no idea they were not two different places.

This is what I remembered them saying: you have to go to Kashi by the river or by the Grand Trunk road, and if you are a devout Hindu you have to approach Kashi the way it has been approached for more centuries than any of us can count, by cart or boat, or on foot. At the first sight of the temple towers of the holy city you must salute it with shouts of “Jai! Jai! Kashinath!”.

Morning reading in a stately home near the Gauri kund, Kedar ghat part of the city. The 17th century traveller Bernier stated: “The whole city is a university. Unlike classes, departments and colleges, every house belonging to a Brahmin is a centre of education.”

Years passed, and as a youth, travelling by train through north and central India, I would now and then find a conversation in which Banaras and Kashi figured. In every corner where a tree will grow, I once heard on the long dusty journey from Bombay to Allahabad, the peepal and the ‘vad’ find a place, and under their wide branches there will be heaps of carved stones, fragments from temples so very ancient, before which we pray and to which we offer flowers.

I was older, and had seen something of our Bharat, but not yet Kashi, which seemed still remote and, in some curious way, unapproachable to one without the requisite devotion and basic knowledge. More years passed, and every now and then I would find, when fortunate to have in my hands a copy of a large-format book of photographs of India, an arresting scene of the ghats of Banaras, or one of its streets, a sadhu framed in an akhada doorway, a boatman on the river, a cow dozing on temple steps. And then the instruction heard long years earlier in a Calcutta verandah would sound, as if from a distance, “Jai! Jai! Kashinath!”.

On 12 Phalguna, Krishna Paksha, Dwadashi, Kaliyug Varsha 5120 and Vikram Samvat 2075 (3 March 2019) at the age of 53, I approached Kashi (with jeevansaathi Viva Kermani, whose efforts had made this long-awaited journey possible). In the taxi to the city from the airport I silently asked the Goswamis who knew Kashi before me to please excuse my conduct, travelling through mechanical means rather than on foot. It is not a small matter, for by now I knew that when bicycles were first brought into and ridden in Banaras, Hindus were strongly discouraged from using them to complete the Panchakrosi yatra, a distance of just over 55 miles which had to be completed by foot in three to five days.

Throngs of devotees outside the Kashi Vishwanath mandir. Here is one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Bharat. Whenever damaged and even substantially destroyed, it is Vishwanath, or Vishveshwar (ruler of the universe), who has ensured its reconstruction.

From the descent off the last stretch of elevated road and into old Banaras, it is much like every city in north India. There are malls, flyovers, unzoned new development where everything from hardware shops and mithai shops to tuition classes and call centres are crammed. Past the British colonial water administration headquarters, a club, and the campuses of two of the city’s five universities. And then you sense the nearness of the great water which alone is older than Kashi, Ma Ganga. But still hidden beyond the buildings and structures that are both smaller, older, odder, more embellished with decoration, more festooned with signboards and hoardings and posters and loops of cables.

A pustakalaya named after Tulsidas in Bhadaini, Kashi. Gosvami Tulsidas lived in Kashi in the early 17th century. He was a great bhakta poet who wrote the Ramcharitmanas (the ocean of Sri Rama’s deeds), in Avadhi, dialect of Hindi.

We had our lodgings in what had once been a mansion that had belonged to the family of the Raja of Varanasi, now divided into two and turned into a hotel. It stood at the entrance to Assi Ghat, which is when counted from south to north, the first of the 84 ghats. It is from this ghat that I first beheld the vista of Ma Ganga sweeping around the great nagar. When you look downriver (but north, for it is in this stretch of Ma Ganga’s length only that she flows back towards the Himalaya) the immense arc of the ghats curves slowly out, in the morning hours disappearing into the mists that curl from the water.

It is a sight to transfix you. The oldest, the very oldest, city in the world. Illustrious Kashi of unrivalled sanctity, and of boundless renown. So great is its antiquity that tradition tells us it was Banaras that first existed, and then the rest of the world was arrayed around it. Sushruta, the pitamaha of ayurvedic surgery, was educated here – but naturally, for Sri Dhanvantari, the seventh in the lineage of the Manu of our age, was an early king of Kashi. The very forms of oldest Kashi are from ages perhaps revealed only in the mahapuranas – the well of Jnanavapi was dug with Shiva’s trishul, the river Asi, which gives its name to one of those of the city, Varanasi, was where Durgamata’s terrible sword struck the earth when she chose to rest here after a battle.

The evening Ganga aarti, which is led by the Gangotri Seva Samiti at Dashwamedha Ghat. The first verse is: ओम जय गंगे माता, मैया जय गंगे माता। जो नर तुमको ध्याता, मनवांछित फल पाता॥

As you stand thus, the sounds of the city of today and the nagar of tremendous ages past swirl past (for that is why we speak mantras), there is movement up and down the ghats, on stone steps, in boats, on the wooden platforms, of bathers, families, pujaris, cows, groups of youth, vendors, sants and sadhus, here and there a dom, tourists and the touts that they draw. There is light, as Surya bestows it in the recesses of small shrines or casts it to flash on the gilded metal flags and trishuls that surmount the temples. There is colour, in the saris and the flowers, the arrangement of brighter colours against the stone of the ghats changing with every moment. Time wheels on but Kashi, they say, is not of this world.

(To be continued.)


The big money in India’s cities

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Almost seven out of ten rupees banked in India are to be found in the top 100 centres. They account for 68.5% of the total bank deposits in India.

Almost seven out of ten rupees banked in India are to be found in the top 100 centres. They account for 68.5% of the total bank deposits in India.

The concentration of the country’s bank deposits in India’s urban centres can be seen in this detail from a table I have assembled using data from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

This is the quarterly series that the RBI puts out and is called ‘Quarterly Statistics on Deposits and Credit of Scheduled Commercial Banks’.

The intriguing table which forms the image is of the top 100 urban centres ranked by bank deposits, and arranged alphabetically, for the years 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013. The city names and total deposits (in crore rupees) are seen. This is the lower end of the table, and I have coloured ten cities to show how their deposits have changed over six years.

The rate of growth has been extremely steep. We have here Panaji, Patiala, Pune, Ranchi, Shillong, Thane, Thiruvananthapuram, Udaipur, Varanasi and Visakhapatnam for no reason other than their entries for all four years are visible. The patterns for the rest of the top 100 centres is generally the same.

For these ten cities, the average growth rate of their total bank deposits over these six years is 190%! This is most significant to us, especially considering the food inflation, the cost of cultivation, wage rates of agricultural labour and allied issues I write about in this diary. Have the wage rates for agricultural labour grown over these last six years at even one-third this average rate? Not at all.

RG-bank_urban_deposits_detailFrom this small set of ten cities alone, the lowest rate of growth of total bank deposits is 88% (Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh) and the highest is 249% (Thane in Maharashtra).

The progression of the size of total deposits can be seen from Shillong (in Meghalaya) from Rs 2,577 crore in 2007 to Rs 8,311 crore in 2013 (which is dwarfed by the others). In Ranchi (Jharkhand) total bank deposits have grown from Rs 6,436 crore in 2007 to Rs 21,688 crore in 2013!

That is why the top 100 centres accounted for 68.5% of the total bank deposits in India – this is a ratio that has remained roughly the same for the last six years. In addition, as the ‘Quarterly Statistics’ has noted in its highlights, the top 100 centres also accounted for 76.9% of total bank credit.

And that is why it means little for central and state governments, and for businesses and NGOs and social entrepreneurships to talk about ‘financial inclusion’ when we have proof – quarter after quarter – of the persistence of financial inequality between India and Bharat.

Asia’s epic urban sagas

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Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines.

Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines.

National governments and planning authorities in Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi are tending more and more to follow a single ideology – economic growth will drive down poverty – and a primary route to that misplaced objective, which is greater urbanisation. These governments are therefore commissioning a welter of studies and reports, from within and without, to show their citizens why more cities and towns are a good thing (jobs and citizen services, they say) and why mobilising a great deal of money to build infrastructure for these settlements is a good thing (more jobs, more ‘development’).

The cleverer authorities are linking South Asia’s rising urban trendline to a variety of socio-economic goods, such as product and monetary innovation, such as cities being the wellsprings of social entrepreneurship, such as greater tax receipts which will help accumulate funds for social sector spending on the poor and marginalised. For companies and banks that deal with the building of big infrastructure, its engineering, its operation and its financing, this is a persistent swell of good news, and this group is doing everything it can to sustain the urbanisation wave.

[You can find my full essay at Energy Bulletin]

The raw numbers are on the side of the powerful urban-centric cabal. Among the world’s cities ranked by average population growth rate per year (in per cent) for 2006-2020, there are 37 South Asian cities (Afghanistan 1, Bangladesh 3, India 25, Pakistan 8) and 8 in China in the top 100. In the next 100, there are 20 cities in China and 11 in India. Asia’s two biggest countries have between them 64 of the top 200 cities that are projected, by the global group of city mayors, to grow the fastest in the next decade. This extraordinary prognosis for the two most populous countries – both of which have become economic powers – has enormous implications for global energy, food and resource flows.

When China and India buy material (as they have been doing, with China’s headstart over the rest of the BRIC/BASIC group placing it in a league of resource acquisition by itself), entire populations of supplier countries will face the consequences. Moreover, much of the material the two countries will commandeer will be directed towards their cities. China’s urban population is already 45% of its total population, while India’s is 30% and set to grow faster than it has at any period until now. There are combined numbers so large in the cities of China and India that the implications of the consumption by this grouping alone have become too profound to internalise for planners and administrators. Amongst the 300 most populous cities in the world, 97 are in China and these 97 are home to 243.98 million people (2010 estimate); 26 are in India and these 26 are home to 90.38 million people (2010 estimate).

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

What do we know about India’s food consumption patterns? Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate this. India’s most admirable National Sample Survey Organisation has just begun releasing summary data from its 2007-08 survey of household consumption (the earlier such ’round’, as it is called, pertained to the 2004-05 period). In rural India, average monthly per capita cereal consumption was around 10.3 kg for the poorest 10% of the population. (The survey distributes both rural and urban populations by ten ‘deciles’ – bands of 10% – which correspond to level of consumption expenditure.) It was between 11 and 12 kg for each of the next six decile classes, and was above 12 kg for the top three decile groups.

This means that for rural India, there is a strong positive correlation between ability to spend on food and quantum of consumption of cereals – the greater the household income, they more it is able to spend on staple foodgrain. In urban India, per capita cereal consumption increased from under 9.5 kg to about 10 kg per month over the first four decile classes but then showed a tendency to fall slightly rather than to rise in parallel with further increases in total expenditure.

This indicates the fulfilment of staple foodgrain needs and that expenditure on food thereafter is on cereal substitutes, processed food or eating out (what the surveys call ‘purchased cooked meals’), and fruit. Average cereal consumption per person per month was 11.7 kg in rural India and 9.7 in urban India. From this it would appear that the average urban person’s monthly cereal intake was about 2 kg less (a difference of 67 gm per day) than that of the average rural person. But it needs to be factored in that in urban areas the cereal content of processed foods and eating out (‘purchased cooked meals’) gets left out in the estimation of cereal consumption, which is why the difference in cereal consumption between the two may be less than it appears.

The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

India’s urban national average of per capita daily cereal consumption is 9.7 kg. At this average, we are able to gauge the cereal supply needs of cities with populations of over a million. Using population estimates for 2010 (from the City Mayors website database) we find:

Pimpri-Chinchwad (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 1.515 million consumes 483 tons of cereals a day
Nagpur (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 2.42 million consumes 772 tons of cereals a day
Varanasi (Bihar) with a metro population of 3.15 million consumes 1,005 tons of cereals a day
Ludhiana (Punjab) with a metro population of 4.40 million consumes 1,403 tons of cereals a day
Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) with a metro population of 6.29 million consumes 2,006 tons of cereals a day
Kolkata (West Bengal) with a metro population of 15.42 million consumes 4,918 tons of cereals a day
Mumbai (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 21.2 million consumes 6,761 tons of cereals a day

These daily consumption demands mean movement, by road and rail, of food produce citywards at prodigious scales. In Navi Mumbai, an urban satellite of Mumbai which is a fair-sized city by itself today, lies the food wholesale depot that marshals and redirects the daily procession of trucks, lorries, light commercial vehicles and pick-ups bringing food for Mumbai’s millions. The number of vehicular movements in this yard are reckoned to be over 2,000 every day which indicates the vast physical reach of the giant city’s food gathering subsystem, one that holds in its thrall a region that could comfortably encompass western Europe.