The Eleventh Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2009
Berkeley Prize 2009

Neelakshi Joshi

'Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.'-Mark Twain

The city of Banaras or Varanasi flourishes on the fertile banks of river Ganga in India. The southward river momentarily turns north creating a beautiful crescent riverfront ideal for human habitation. Carbon dating reveals that Banaras has been continuously habited since 500 BCE (Singh, Rana P. B. 1993)making it one of the oldest living cities in the world, rubbing shoulders with Jerusalem, Baghdad and Rome.

A walk down the 6.4 km long ghats (stepped embankments) shows how myth and history remain tightly intertwined here. The riverfront of lofty palaces, temples and ghats was developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth century and stands strong even today (can a grater proof of sustainability exist?). Built from the locally quarried sandstone and held together with dexterous joinery and at special places with metal dowels, palaces display both the skill and playfulness of the local craftsmen having everything from a manually operated lift servicing four floors, intricately carved cantilevered balconies to catch the breathtaking view of the sun rising over the Ganga and punctures at just the right places to channel in the cool river breeze (enough to humble any HVAC expert!).

Beyond the ghats, narrow streets and dense growth pattern facilitate mutual shading of streets and buildings and block out the harsh tropical sun and dusty winds. Houses, planned according to Vaastu Shastra( the ancient Indian art of building) move spatial activity according to the sun path. Courtyards act as private interactive spaces and natural ventilation mechanism while clay roof tiles provide excellent insulation.

Exceptional as its architecture may be, what prevents Banaras from being a museum of old buildings is its living heritage-the people. When the first rays of the sun wash the fawn colored ghats ascetics ,pundits, yogis, enthused artists, curious tourists, resilient devotee throng in seeking religion, spirituality, society, solace and recreation. The ghat is thus the common bath, the largest open space, meditation center and the biggest pub in town for cultural and social encounter and has been so for centuries untold.

Banaras has survived peacefully and charismatically for centuries because it is a fine balance of built, living and natural heritage, where each depends on the other for survival. However, today this timeless city is threatened by the acts of men-unchecked population growth and urban migration, abandonment of traditional building practices for imported solutions which neither suit the climate nor the culture, sewer discharged into the river which was once held sacred and is the lifeline of the city and erosion of local values at the onslaught of globalization.

Banaras has been proposed for UNESCO’s World Heritage List so it remains socially, economically, environmentally and culturally viable for future generations. We propose that in its regeneration traditional knowledge, common sense and context take precedence. Banaras beckons us to look backward in order to move forward. Its time we listen.


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Neelakshi Joshi, Birla Institute of Technology, MESRA, Ranchi, India
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