A lot had changed in the vicinity of the temple since we were here last. The temple area was being renovated, encroachments being demolished, and a pilgrimage corridor was being built for beautification of the Gyanvapi area. The area of construction, or rather demolition, had been cordoned off but it was still possible to peek between the aluminum sheets and see what was happening on the other side. All the houses and shops in the area between the temple and the river Ganga had been acquired by the government and were in the process of being demolished so that the temple area may be beautified, and other structures, related to the temple, be erected there. Buried inside the houses, which were demolished, the government had discovered centuries old temples and sanctuaries, forgotten by generations and covered by the structures which grew around them like mold.
Peeping through these barriers, chatting and laughing, the entourage moved quickly from the main roads and into the narrow, barricaded corridor leading up to the temple area, beside the Gyanvapi mosque.
As we approached the temple, we could see that the security arrangements were even more stringent than what I remembered from my time here in Banaras. We were frisked and then allowed to proceed into the temple complex through a metal detector. After taking off our shoes and socks at a suitable place pointed out by Tej Singh, we tip toed towards the temple entrance. The ground was freezing, and the queue moved too slowly for comfort.
I looked around and could hardly recognize the temple or the areas immediately surrounding it. Gone were the narrow, crowded lanes of ‘Vishwanath Gali’ or the famed streets of Vishwanath temple. Gone, also, were the innumerable shops surrounding the temple complex in the myriad houses that dotted the area, selling a variety of wares, from artificial jewelry to mouth fresheners to sweets and flowers for the deity. The temple itself looked much cleaner and, more ‘open’. It was well lit, and a group of men, clad in saffron robes, washed and scrubbed the temple premises continually.
I sought out Shubhi and Mithi and, holding their hands, led them into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, murmuring the ‘Rudrashtak Stotram’ under my breath. The sanctum of the temple was very small and hence the priests did not allow the devotees to linger there for long. The continuous train of devotees had to be kept moving to prevent any jamming of the passageways by the visitors to the temple. I led the children inside, with Vaishali close behind us. Inside the sanctum, on one side, was a small pit with a small marble enclosure, and within that pit was a small ‘lingam’ or stone symbol of Shiva. We bowed our heads to the deity, and quickly made our way out into the courtyard again.
Outside, we put on our shoes quickly, and were served ‘prasadam’ inside a room, courtesy Tej Singh, before the queue formed again and Tej Singh started to lead us towards the ghats for a boat ride. This time the group took a detour through the actual demolition site so that we were able to see first-hand what work was being done. Scores of houses and other structures lay demolished, and from that rubble had emerged a couple of temples of antiquity. If one looked outside the perimeter of the cordoned off area, one could see a maze of houses, encroaching upon more such temples, growing over them and completely obscuring them from the public eye. It seemed as if a giant knife had sliced the structures and cleared away the rubble from the middle leaving a cross-section of the remaining structures open to public scrutiny. Looking at the maze it was easy to visualize how these houses and other structures had grown over the centuries, encroaching upon temple land, climbing over them, and burying the temples as if in an anthill. And now, the giant hand had sliced the anthill in half, cleaning away one half and leaving the other half open for visitors to see what had happened in the past.
‘Where are Vedant and Mithi?’ I asked Shubhi. Somehow, along the way, the two children had got separated from me and I was left holding the hand of only Shubhi. And now we had reemerged on the main roads again and I could not find them.
‘Mithi, Dantu’, I shouted, calling out their names, getting panicky now, looking around.
‘Don’t worry, they are here,’ came a voice from behind me.
Few steps behind me walked Ruchi, holding Mithi’s hand and guiding Vedant who walked in front of her. Her own son was with someone else.
‘Don’t worry, I will not let them go. Vedant is my favorite child,’ Ruchi chirped in her familiar tone, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
I smiled involuntarily.
Looking at Mithi and Vedant standing around Ruchi, safe and happy, I was suddenly overcome by emotion. And then I looked around some more. All the children were being taken care of, some by their parents but the majority by someone else. Everyone took care of everyone. All the children were safe as long as anyone of us was around. It did not matter who the child belonged to, today all the children belonged to us, as a batch, as a family. We took care of our own. A weight lifted off my shoulders as my heart welled with pride and love for our friends, our batchmates. Clutching Shubhi’s hand, I walked the rest of the way quietly, leaving Ruchi to guard Mithi and Vedant, while I observed things around me.
To be continued………………………………….
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