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

Neelakshi Joshi

Banaras- a continuing natural, cultural and architectural landscape

'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 story of human civilization often begins in a town by the river- Indus in India, Nile in Egypt and Tigris and Euphrates in Asia Minor. The ancient city of Banaras narrates another such story. Situated on the banks of river Ganga in India it boasts of being continuously habited since 500 BCE(1). Its history has been written and re-written over the passage of thousands of years. Through numerous rise and falls it has emerged as a city with a unique “personality” of its own. Assimilation of social and cultural values and continuing traditions has resulted in a cityscape which remains literally unparalleled in this world.

My study began with an analysis of geographical factor that set the stage for this timeless drama of life to be enacted upon. The southward bound river momentarily turns north creating a beautiful crescent shaped riverfront ideal for human habitation. The left bank (the convex end) was higher and stronger because of natural limestone concretion. The right bank (the concave end) automatically became the flood plain and point of silt deposition. Ancient maps reveal that though the population density was always high along the banks, the flood plain was never meddled with. It was reserved for agriculture and human settlement and construction activity was strictly prohibited.

When embankment of the left bank began, no attempt was made to canalize or alter the flow of the river. Steps were constructed to compliment its natural crescent. Because of the environmental ethics shown by our ancestors, silting has never caused any major problems and Banaras remains one of the few cities that has shown little shift in its site. The modern day river front projects that try to forcibly canalize the river, binding its two banks with high concrete walls fail miserably because of silting. The high walls also hamper the natural drainage pattern leading to water clogging in the city during rainy season. The lesson learnt here is that planning of the whole settlement was done complimenting and assimilating the bounty of nature. There was no attempt to twist and bind it to serve human needs. Rather human needs were molded according to it. Living thus, in perfect harmony with nature, our ancestors did not worry about flash floods, bank erosion and things many modern day trained town planners loose their sleep over.

Being situated on the banks of a river, people and water were intricately related. As the river nurtured life in this city, it was revered like a mother. Need was felt to provide a proper passage to access the river, both for ritualistic as well as daily needs. In the 17th century, under the patronage of various kings, consolidation of the riverfront began. Stepped embankments or ghats were the most sensible option as they catered to the fluctuating levels of water in various seasons. Fawn coloured Chunar sandstone was brought down from 22km upstream in boats with the flow of the river. Pieces were cut and set in place. Metal dowels further consolidated the structure. Generation after generation has walked down this flight of robust steps seeking redemption. Present day concrete ghats, made in a hurry without proper analysis of material or river dynamics, have begun to crack. The old ones, however, remain “set in stone”.

The ghats or stepped embankments of Banaras play many intangible roles too. They provide a truly democratic space which caters to all alike. Though they were built by wealthy merchants and kings, the ghats always belonged to the people. When the first rays of the sun wash the fawn colored ghats and shrink away in the evening, 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.

Today our worlds are becoming highly polarized. Urban spaces have redefined access and its degree for people of different classes. The skyscraper inhabitant and the slum dweller never encounter each other because the architect has divided their lives into two non-intersecting domains. As they never come across each other they know the other only by the class they belong to and not for the humans they are. The ghats of Banaras stand as an inspiration to me for bringing together all men-painters, ascetics, beggars, washer men and kings to the same platform. Nature’s bounty is not considered the prerogative of the man who can afford the property by the river. It is rather a thing of joy for all to be enjoyed together.

The riverfront skyline of Banaras has captured the imagination of generations alike. Lofty stone buildings rise majestically from the ghats. Each was constructed under the patronage of rulers or wealthy merchants who were enchanted by the mystique of Banaras. Building in Banaras was not for show of wealth rather in the nature of community service. It involved bettering the condition of ghats, building temples for the community and ashrams (rest houses) for the pilgrims. The construction techniques are commendable for their simplicity and awe inspiring in the results they achieved. Mortar less joints held together by iron dowels have sustained the structures for more than four hundred years. Mortar, when used, was a simple organic mix of mud, lime, chick pea, jaggery, turmeric and fenugreek. Chick pea and jaggery acted as a binding agent while turmeric and fenugreek repelled insects and retarded plant growth on walls. Teak, known to the Banaras boatmen for its strength and water repelling qualities, served as beams to support the heavy floor above. Ornate temples, carved balconies and decorative brackets with exquisite details would perplex people today for they achieved such precision by hand that we are still struggling to accomplish by machines.

Today, when we visit these majestic buildings as students, we have a lot to learn from the common sense of the ancient master builders. Not only can they help us conserve our built heritage but also act as cues from emerging out of the high cost and high energy construction tangles we have mired into. In fact, architects like Nimish Patel in Ahmedabad(2) and Chitra Vishwanath in Bangalore are working towards the revival of ancient mortar mixes for different situations. Diligent stone joinery stands as a cue for developing pre-fabricated blocks that do not require mortar and can stand up to the forces of nature. They also believe in the relationship between craft and construction and its necessity today to save many remarkable skills of the hand from getting extinct.

Behind these majestic buildings lives the true Banaras. The old city is characterized by its high density structures. The maze of lanes and by-lanes has amused researchers and tourists alike. The high density pattern was a natural shield from the harsh summer sun. Mutual shading of buildings brought some degree of relief and provided shade for pedestrian movement too. The thin and serpentine by-lanes Banaras is notoriously famous for were actually means to break the course of hot dusty winds that flow during summers. Roofing was done with three feet of earth and earthen pot in-fills to insulate the only exposed surface-the roof.

A detailed study of the spatial layout of houses further increased my reverence for the ancient builders. They followed the traditional science of Indian architecture-Vastu Shastra to guide them. Vastu Shastra is based on the principle of moving spatial activity according to the sun path in tropical climates. The east is for morning activities like praying, bathing and cooking. Bedroom was on the south so that it gets heated for the night. West was reserved for evening activities like studying, entertaining guests and dining. North was generally the store or cool summer room. The kitchen was on the upper floor so that fumes easily escaped out and not enter the neighbor’s house. There is a marked absence of large openings on the exterior walls. Windows, wherever they exist, are small and funnel shaped to minimize heat gain and maximize light. The central courtyard is relied upon for light and ventilation. Hot as an oven during the day, after the sunset the roof became the most coveted space in the house. Women chatted with neighbors, men discussed politics and children covered the sky with colourful kites capitalizing on the cool river breeze.

As we have grown dependent on artificial means of lighting, heating and ventilation the essence of Vastu Shastra is being forgotten. Simple climatological wisdom which was contextually developed is beyond the changing fads of global architecture. It is rooted in the physical and geographical realities of our lives which are unchangeable hence the wisdom remains timeless. These houses stand as a testament to the fact that human comfort level can be achieved by passive energy free methods. The comfort levels achieved inside these houses will put any HVAC expert to shame .When residents of modern concrete houses in the city keep turning up the cooling power of their air conditioners, residents of the old city happily chat in their cool courtyards, without even a fan!

However all is not well in the old city. Population density has increased almost three times. The strain on resources is immense and the city’s fabric is crumbling under its pressure. There is no proper sewage disposal system and sewer pipes crisscross across the narrow lanes. There is a visible unconcern amongst people for heritage, built or otherwise, when they are busy arranging two square meals for their family. The house owners in the mean time are too happy to move to new city areas which have better municipal services. Houses meant for single families are being let out to as many as twelve families on a room to room basis. On top of this the city supports a floating population of millions of pilgrims and tourists. Accommodation close to the river is coveted and hoteliers and rest house owners are ever ready to acquire any property available here.

Seeing the old city crumbled thus, I wonder what good are sustainable buildings if they are not backed by sustainable lifestyles. Banaras has a history of revering the sun as the source of all creation and the river as the sustainer of life. This automatically translated into religion and people’s everyday activities. The day began and ended with the cycles of the sun. Solid waste was never thrown into the river. The gifts of nature were consumed prudently and over consumption was a vice. There was always an effort to replenish what we took from nature. This symbiotic attitude was the primary reason why life could be sustained for so long in Banaras.

21st century has brought about a radical change in lifestyle of the people. Earlier, we licked our plates clean, wrote on both sides of the paper and switched off the lights when not in use. It was jokingly said that incinerators would fail in India because we drove the last bit of mileage out of everything. However technology spoilt us rotten. Grandmother’s lessons of tuning our body clocks to the sun have long been forgotten. In our technological cocoons the forces of nature have ceased to matter. It is severing the connection between man and his natural surroundings. Earlier houses were built to last generations and sons maintained it for their children. Today use and throw attitudes have been adopted from the west. Greed for property has resulted in tangled court cases while the house falls to pieces. Public space is treated with disdain and its encroachment for private good has become commonplace.

Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission offers a ray of hope. It has placed Varanasi among its list of 22 heritage cities. It is working towards providing basic services in the old city area to improve the quality of life. Work is also on for tracing the absentee landlords and making them accountable for their property. The scheme also hopes to bring back economic renewal by promoting and sustaining the local craftsmen who reside here. The idea is to make modern living compatible with heritage conservation and bring about socio-economic development.

INTACH( Indian National Trust for Art and Culture) is doing a great job raising public awareness. It has enrolled top five schools of Banaras into a heritage awareness campaign. Students from the new part of the city come to the ghats and are educated about the rich and vibrant heritage they are a part of. Maybe five out of the hundred students will listen and be spiritedly moved to make a difference.

Kautilya Society is another non-profit organization of a handful of enthused social workers who work closely with INTACH to improve and protect the ghats. They also guard the old city area against illegal construction and unlawful occupancy.

A nameless organization formed by the boatmen community of Banaras can be seen hard at work from five in the morning. They ask people not to use soaps and detergents in the river. They also collect polythene bags and other garbage that floats in the water. Sweeping and cleaning of the ghats is periodically carried out. They probably represent the strongest hope for betterment as they are the people who are closest to the river and have woken up to its degradation. For big policies can be drafted in offices and global funds can be mobilized but if people just wake up and protect what is around them a sea of difference can be felt!

Sustainability holds a different definition for different people. As I stand on the ghats of Banaras I discover its meaning afresh. Sustainability is to take all the facets of space making- nature, people and culture and cater to them all with honesty and diligence. It is to create timeless architecture that maintains continuity and accommodates change. Lastly, sustainability is stemmed in our attitude to this planet. It can be achieved only by treating this earth as an organic phenomenon and not as an exploitable resource. The biggest lessons we need to learn from posterity is thrift in our everyday life and it will automatically translate into architecture.


1. Singh, Rana P. B. (1993) Banaras (Varanasi): Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions. Tara Book Agency,Varanasi.

2. New Architecture and Urbanism: Development of Indian Traditions. INTBAU India, New Delhi

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