In the heart of Varanasi's bustling Godowlia crossing, a magnificent Nandi statue stands in solemn reverence, its gaze fixated upon the legendary Kashi Vishwanath temple. This centuries-old custom of the guardian deity pointing the way to Lord Shiva's abode reflects the city's enduring connection to its spiritual roots.
Once known as Banaras, the city has been eloquently described by Mark Twain as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend." Today, Banaras is experiencing a remarkable transformation, with a surge in its tourist footfall.
During a recent Mann Ki Baat address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of Varanasi's tourism surge as a "cultural reawakening." This sentiment is vividly reflected in the numbers. The Uttar Pradesh tourism department's official website attests to a tenfold increase in tourist arrivals compared to the pre-pandemic era. In 2019, nearly 68 lakh visitors explored the city's treasures. Fast forward to 2022, and this number has soared to an impressive 7.2 crore, surpassing even bustling Mathura with its 6.5 crore tourists. Varanasi's meteoric rise has firmly established it as the most frequented destination in Uttar Pradesh, outshining even Agra, home to the iconic Taj Mahal.
The catalyst for this phenomenal growth is widely attributed to the revitalization of the Kashi Vishwanath Dham Corridor. Since its inauguration in December 2021, the corridor has welcomed a staggering 10 crore visitors to the revered Kashi Vishwanath temple, breathing new life into the city's tourism sector. This sprawling complex, sprawling across 5 lakh square feet, has rekindled the spiritual fervour of devotees who stand in queues, intermittently chanting "Har Har Mahadev" as they await their cherished "darshan" moments.
Sunil Verma, CEO of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, shares that daily footfalls have surged, reaching up to 1.5 lakh-2 lakh devotees during the auspicious Sawan month. Sanjay Modi, hailing from Gujarat, said: "The improvements have made everything more accessible. The facilities for darshan and accommodations are excellent."
Banaras Hindu University student Satyam Srivastava and his friend Amit Kumar Rao assert that the rejuvenation of the ghats and the temple's transformation have been pivotal in nurturing the city's tourism boom. As the city pulses with life, tourists flock to its vibrant heart, Godowlia, a nexus of energy and exploration. Amidst the honking two-wheelers and the symphony of raindrops, visitors march resolutely towards the resplendent temple and the enchanting Dashashwamedh Ghat. Here, the city's dynamic spirit prevails, undeterred by the lively chaos.
Varanasi's hospitality landscape has flourished in the wake of this burgeoning tourism. Hotel Ganges Grand's Anand Srivastava reveals that customer numbers have doubled in the wake of the corridor's redevelopment, resulting in a supply shortage and price escalation. However, not all sectors have witnessed similar booms. While some shopkeepers report increased sales, others remain unchanged, emphasizing the nuanced impact of the city's transformation.
Abhishek Goyal, Vice Chairman of the Varanasi Development Authority, highlights the city's concerted efforts to harness its economic potential. Acknowledging the evolution, Goyal suggests that Varanasi is in a transition phase, with transformative projects on the horizon—from the new ring road to the expansion of the city's airport runway.
However, beneath this burgeoning success story lies a flip side for the city's locals. Tanya Khatri, a native, highlights the dual nature of tourism's impact, praising its economic benefits while lamenting the traffic and pollution endured by residents. Ashwini Agrawal echoes these sentiments, observing how the sea of tourists at Assi Ghat's Ganga aarti has pushed locals to the periphery.
As Varanasi balances on the precipice of transformation, it is a testament to the enduring spirit of a city that has withstood the sands of time.
(With inputs from PTI)