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Making Sense Of Modi’s Temple Investment: Cities Of Gods And A New Idea Of Urban Aesthetics

This year’s Deepavali witnessed a celebration at Ayodhya like never before, with the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy participating in the aarti on Sarayu river. A few weeks back, PM Modi had inaugurated the re-developed Mahakaleswara temple complex in Ujjain.

Earlier he had presided over the transformation of Kashi dham from a medieval neighbourhood with its dirty and narrow lanes to an ideal temple town with amenities and conveniences that is already the envy of any planned city.

An unthinking mind would take the easy path of dismissing this inauguration spree as perpetual electioneering and as part of Modi’s endless campaigns aiming at Hindu consolidation. A more nuanced way would perhaps be to see in this investment a performative strategy to reiterate India’s civilizational foundation and to catalyse a cultural Renaissance.

While engineering this, Modi is also offering a counter narrative to conventional secularist urban planning while prodding us to reimagine the city as a sacred space.

Modi, the moderniser Even then, Modi as a moderniser and avid market advocate is much more complex than simply a cultural consciousness raiser. Seeing him as a revivalist does not have much merit beyond rhetoric. Even as he converts urban space to sacred geographies, he converts these spaces to public spaces, thus going beyond the binaries of market and religion, or modernity and faith. The dingy alleys of Varanasi with its unredeemable traffic may invoke some nostalgia among sections of intelligentsia, but one of the holiest shrines of India deserved better.

Now that the electric cables are no longer hanging like a Damocles sword, roads are wider than they ever were and the ghats are spanking clean, pilgrims are happy and so are the residents. The Kashi Vishwanath corridor boasts of wide roads, LED lights and multi-level parking spaces along with sidewalks. There are passenger service centres, shopping complexes, galleries and auditoriums, a Vedic kendra, museum, art gallery and food court.

More examples galore: the Kedarnath project is progressing fast and is now part of Char Dham corridor; the restoration of Somanth temple is being carried out under the aegis of Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual, Heritage Augmentation Drive (PRASAD).

The latter boasts of a seaside promenade, exhibition centres, a plaza for tourist facilities, covered walk-track, musical fountain, theatre etc.

The town of Ayodhya is being developed like Kashi Vishawnath Corridor and is projected to be a global city as well as a religious and tourism centre.

This may sound bourgeoisation, but actually refers to the Hindu philosophy of Purushartha where dharma is not in an antagonistic relation with artha. Not only that; a religion with designated gods and goddesses for wealth, Hinduism is always tolerant of material practices and does not privilege one over the other.

Temples at the heart of city planning bring that multidimensional character of Hindu life. These exercises have the public at the heart of the design that can have spaces and activities for a larger public.

Some may argue that such a project creates a consumerist and indulgent pilgrim, but as we know, temples have always been spaces of transaction including divine communication.

Modi is not only redefining public space, so far confined to their secularist character as in squares or parks, but also transforming the idea of public itself, usually seen as bound by situation, interest, awareness etc. to an organic sense of collective where national, economic and cultural interact and converse.

Temples as public places is not a new concept, but never before this idea has been operationalised with such zeal in recent times.

Even as it offers conveniences to the modern pilgrim, the modern temple today is a contemplative and reflective space that transforms the city and establishes its aiswarya. It is not gentrification, it is bringing people to the heart of planning.

Today, temples are becoming central to the modern urban imaginary, the reason many gated communities have their own temple and every household its own shrine.

Whether people come to temples for entertainment and leisure, or for spiritual experience is an open-ended question. We have no evidence to suggest that visiting temples in a clean and convenient environment impedes divine experience. Modernisation projects built around temples as in Varanasi or Ayodhya offers a new kind of organic and rooted citizenship.

The restoration and rejuvenation of these temples are moments of recognition for millions of Indians after decades of forced amnesia who grew up internalising the reality of their cultural erasure that believed progress and urban life to be an irreligious or even anti-religious (read anti-Hindu) activity. Modi thus is rewriting development theory that believed in linearity and forward movement. The hubris of secularism and the Nehruvian project of secular modernization was a subtle way of deracination and de-culturalisation of India’s development as a postcolonial nation.

The sectorisation of a new city like Chandigarh or the conversion of an old city like Delhi to a non-aligned fantasy world (by naming city roads after Third World leaders) created the template for postcolonial city planning.

Many such vanity projects were intended to erase the place’s political as well as sacred history. This sacred dimension was the unconscious of Indian city planning and remained buried under the weight of administrative and secularist labels.

Thus renaming of cities (such as Prayagraj) wrests history from externally imposed labels and integrates it with India’s past as a livable present. Modi is not only providing people what they need materially in terms of welfare measures or other developmental interventions, but also what they have missed so far culturally. He is helping that unconscious assert itself, so far buried under the burden of ‘secular’ history.

A New Urban Experience Cultural authenticity and placeness are important for urban planners and both can be brought about by policy intervention. But what we are witnessing here is not crass commercialisation of heritage projects, but a rejuvenation that liberates a place from the shackles of modernist historiography. It may be said that by making temples the locus of urban planning, Modi is making Indian unconscious assert itself.

This is not the same like invented traditions that many postmodern scholars have the habit of using for anything they do not like. If Mark Twain believed that Varanasi is older than history, Modi is freeing Varanasi from the crushing burden of history and giving it a pride of place outside of culture-denying effort known as history writing.

Modi’s modernisation-cum-traditionalisation may look like commodification for some, but it is actually a sacralisation of the commodity where everything that is consumed has an association with the placeness of the place.

Nehru was doing what prophets of urban sociology have been arguing all along and in the name of understanding Western society were creating templates for postcolonial leaders like Nehru. For Max Weber, Oriental cities were beset with tribal and sectarian identities which will not allow the urban residents form citizenship.

Anthropologist Robert Redfield, while not sounding prescriptive, also imagined the urban as an impersonal and secular space. He had contrasted this image of the city with an image of the folk community which he characterized as small, sacred, highly personalistic, and homogeneous. This meant as the folk community moved to the city, there would be a fragmentation in cultural traditions.

Elsewhere, Redfield with Milton Singer distinguished between cities that are characterised by orthogenetic and heterogenetic functions, the former performing and conserving the society’s traditions and the latter promoting technology and economic change. In most such articulations, cities were expected to move from tradition to surplus generation; such a movement was not only seen as inevitable, but also healthy and progressive.

The placeness of most Indian cities remained divorced from that buried past. Well, until the correction of history started in earnest, courtesy Modi.

Before Modi embarked on blurring the culture/economy binary and making cities sites of the sacred, UNESCO’s International Conference on “Culture for Sustainable Cities” and the resulting Hangzhou Outcomes (December 2015) had aimed at identifying the key role of culture and cultural heritage in contributing to the New Urban Agenda.

Modi understood that city planning cannot simply be confined to heritage management which is another name of desacralisation. He made a conscious effort to convert these cities to what they have always been, but were not often celebrated. He made these centres tirtha kshetras carrying purifying power and mahatmya.

Is Modi trying to yoke two contradictory ideas by violence by bringing a sacred city converse with a modern city? Not really; such thinking may have a Western bias that believes in linearity, something even the West no longer believes in.

Modi is bringing a sense of Aucitya to our city imaginary, which means propriety or appropriateness or proportion, something that had lost out to infrastructure development and economic surplus generation.

This new thinking is concerned with beauty in an organic fashion where each part coheres with the whole. The city must evoke senses of fulfillment or siddhi.

For Bharata muni, there are two types of siddhimanusi and daiviki; the first is concerned with ordinary reactions which the spectators exhibit as per their like or dislike. Daiviki siddhi has two varieties: when there is emotional exuberance and overflow of feelings, and two, when the spectator is in a state of calm, completely silent, absorbed in himself and not showing any agitation.

Like art creation and appreciation, urban experience cannot do away with alaukika happiness – a deeper sense of happiness that is not dualistic in nature.

Conventionally, appreciation of a modern city and its conveniences and infrastructure have been a one-dimensional experience. More often than not, this experience is laukika or worldly. The bhavas that urban planners have emphasised is visual experience – vismaya or wonder at best and bhaya or fear at worst.

Its massive infrastructure and soul destroying life-style may engender rati and utsaha for some and soka and krodha for some others.

Modi is trying to add an alaukika or non-worldly dimension leading to a contemporary version of Ananda.

He is recreating urban space as an affective space with conditions for transcendence.

Indian cities have history, with religion at its core. Aesthetics is about sensitivity to the city’s cultural core and guiding people to experience the same. That makes the experience more intimate, humane and personal. Varanasi and Ayodhya are leading the way.

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