Cities Of Gods and a new idea of ​​urban aesthetics

This year’s Deepavali witnessed a celebration in Ayodhya like never before, with the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy attending the aarti on the Sarayu River. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the redeveloped Mahakaleswara temple complex in Ujjain.

Previously, he presided over the transformation of Kashi dham from a medieval quarter with its dirty, narrow lanes into an ideal temple town with conveniences and conveniences that are already the envy of any planned town.

A thoughtless mind would take the easy route of dismissing this nomination spree as a perpetual election campaign and part of Modi’s endless campaigns aimed at Hindu consolidation. A more nuanced way might be to see this investment as a performative strategy to reiterate India’s civilizational foundations and catalyze a cultural renaissance.

While designing this, Modi also offers a counter-narrative to conventional secular urbanism while challenging us to re-imagine the city as a sacred space.

Modi, the modernizer

Even then, Modi, as a modernizer and ardent defender of the market, is far more complex than just a cultural sensitizer. Seeing him as a revivalist doesn’t have much merit beyond rhetoric.

Even as he converts urban space into sacred geographies, he converts these spaces into public spaces, thus going beyond the binomials of market and religion, or of modernity and faith. The dark alleys of Varanasi with its unrecoverable traffic may invoke a certain nostalgia among sections of the intelligentsia, but one of India’s holiest shrines deserved better.

Now that the power cables are no longer hanging like a Damocles sword, the roads are wider than they have ever been and the ghats are clean, the pilgrims are happy and the locals too. The Kashi Vishwanath corridor boasts of wide roads, LED lights and multi-level parking bays as well as sidewalks. There are passenger service centers, shopping complexes, galleries and auditoriums, a Vedic kendramuseum, art gallery and food court.

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

The latter has a seaside promenade, exhibition centers, a square for tourist facilities, a covered path, a musical fountain, a theater, etc.

The city of Ayodhya is developed as the corridor of Kashi Visshawnath and is expected to be a global city as well as a religious and tourist center.

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

The temples at the heart of the town planning bring this multidimensional character of Hindu life.

These exercises put the audience at the heart of the design which can have spaces and activities for a wider audience.

Some may say 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 not only redefines public space, hitherto confined to its secular character as in squares or parks, but also transforms the idea of ​​public itself, generally considered to be bound by situation, interest, consciousness, etc. in an organic sense of collective where national, economic and cultural interact and dialogue.

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

Although it offers conveniences to the modern pilgrim, the modern temple is today a space of contemplation and reflection which transforms the city and establishes its aiswarya. It’s not gentrification, it’s bringing people into the heart of the planning.

Today, temples are at the heart of the modern urban imagination, which is why many gated communities have their own temple and every household has its own shrine.

Whether people come to temples for entertainment and recreation, or for a spiritual experience is an open question. We have no evidence to suggest that visiting temples in a clean and convenient environment hinders divine experience. Modernization projects built around temples like in Varanasi or Ayodhya offer a new form of organic and rooted citizenship.

The restoration and rejuvenation of these temples are moments of gratitude for millions of Indians after decades of enforced amnesia who grew up internalizing the reality of their cultural erasure that believed progress and urban life to be irreligious or even anti -religious (read anti-Hindu) activity.

Modi therefore rewrote the theory of development which believed in linearity and forward movement. The pride of secularism and the Nehruvian project of secular modernization was a subtle way of uprooting and deculturalizing India’s development as a postcolonial nation.

The sectorization of a new city like Chandigarh or the conversion of an old city like Delhi into an unaligned fantasy world (naming the city’s roads after Third World rulers) created the pattern of urban planning postcolonial.

Many of these vanity projects aimed to erase the political and sacred history of the place. This sacred dimension was the unconscious of Indian town planning and remained buried under the weight of administrative and secular labels.

Thus, renaming cities (like Prayagraj) tears history away from externally imposed labels and integrates it with India’s past as a livable present. Modi not only provides people with what they need materially in terms of welfare measures or other developmental interventions, but also what they have lacked so far culturally. It helps this unconscious to assert itself, hitherto buried under the weight of “secular” history.

A new urban experience

Cultural authenticity and local character are important to planners and both can be achieved through political intervention. But what we are witnessing here is not a crude commodification of heritage projects, but a rejuvenation that frees a place from the shackles of modernist historiography.

We can say that by making temples the place of urbanism, Modi asserts the Indian unconscious.

It’s not the same as the made-up traditions that many postmodern scholars are used to using for anything they don’t like. If Mark Twain believed that Varanasi is older than history, Modi frees Varanasi from the crushing burden of history and gives it pride of place apart from the culture-negation effort known as the writing of the story.

Modi’s modernization and traditionalization may sound like commodification to some, but it is actually a sanctification of the commodity where everything consumed is associated with the place of the place.

Nehru was doing what the prophets of urban sociology had been arguing from the beginning and, in the name of understanding Western society, they were creating role models for postcolonial leaders like Nehru.

For Max Weber, Eastern cities were plagued by tribal and sectarian identities that did not allow city dwellers to forge citizenship.

The anthropologist Robert Redfield, without sounding prescriptive, also imagined the urban as an impersonal and profane space. He had contrasted this image of the city with an image of the folk community which he described as small, sacred, very personal and homogeneous. This meant that as the folk community moved to the city, there would be a fragmentation of cultural traditions.

Elsewhere, Redfield and Milton Singer distinguished cities characterized by orthogenetic and heterogenetic functions, the former carrying out and maintaining the traditions of society and the latter promoting technology and economic change. In most of these articulations, cities were expected to move from tradition to surplus generation; such a movement was not only considered inevitable, but also healthy and progressive.

The local character of most Indian cities has remained separated from this buried past. Well, until the story correction begins in earnest, courtesy of Modi.

Before Modi embarked on the idea of ​​blurring the culture/economy binomial and making cities sites of the sacred, the UNESCO International Conference on “Culture for Sustainable Cities” and the results of Hangzhou resulted (December 2015) aimed to identify the key role of culture and cultural heritage in contributing to the New Urban Agenda.

Modi understood that town planning cannot be limited to heritage management, which is another name for desacralization. He made a conscious effort to convert these towns to what they always were, but weren’t often celebrated. He made these centers tirtha kshetras bearer of purifying power and mahatmya.

Is Modi trying to violently couple two contradictory ideas by creating a dialogue between a sacred city and 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 brings a sense of Aucitya to our imaginary of the city, meaning propriety or adequacy or proportion, something that had been lost to infrastructure development and the generation of economic surplus.

This new thinking looks at beauty in an organic way where each part is coherent with the whole. The city must create a sense of fulfillment or siddhi.

For Bharata muni, there are two types of siddhiManisi and daiviki; the first concerns the ordinary reactions that the spectators manifest according to their liking or disliking. Daiviki siddhi has two varieties: when there is emotional exuberance and overflow of feelings, and two, when the viewer is in a state of calm, completely silent, self-absorbed and showing no agitation.

Like the creation and appreciation of art, the urban experience cannot do without alaukika happiness – a deeper feeling of happiness that is not dualistic in nature.

Traditionally, the appreciation of a modern city, its amenities and infrastructure is a one-dimensional experience. Most often, this experience is laukika or worldly. The bhava that urban planners have emphasized the visual experience – Vismaya or marvel at best and bhayah or fear at worst.

Its massive infrastructure and soul-destroying lifestyle can spawn rati and utsaha for some and Soka and krodha for a few others.

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

He recreates the urban space as an affective space with conditions of transcendence.

Indian cities have a history, with religion at its heart. Aesthetics is about sensitivity to the cultural core of the city and orienting people to experience the same. It makes the experience more intimate, human and personal. Varanasi and Ayodhya lead the way.

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