A six-metre high wall separates old Jaipur from the new. The boundary was built three centuries ago, along with the city, on the orders of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, the Rajput ruler who built Jaipur in 1727 AD. At that time, Jaipur didn’t stretch beyond the wall. Since then, it has grown, further and further southward. Today, the walled city is a tiny corner that occupies less than two percent of the geographical area of Jaipur city; it has, however, maintained its significance as a commercial hub. Locked in its periphery and unable to accommodate the bulging populace, old Jaipur has bloated. In 2011, its population density was seven times more than that of Jaipur city. Even the marble figure of the Maharaja prefers standing at the Statue Circle, comfortably out of the asphyxiating wall. The boundary, which once served to secure the city from outside forces, now helps contain the civic commotion within.
Cars, cows, auto rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, motorcycles, and handcarts with the occasional roving pack of stray dogs compose impenetrable bodies of traffic on the avenues, all of which are already suffocated by rows of parked vehicles on either side. Looking above, I could see wires dangle down clumsily from speakers blaring scriptures in shrill voices, creating a cacophony with the horns that honked incessantly. Add to this mix, cement-constructed structures housing various deities smack in the middle of the roads. The identical, matchbox-sized shops do not find it necessary to reveal their trade on the banner space—“Ramkishan Ramjivan Babu” (Shop No. 9) could be a stationery shop, a fertiliser seller, or a chemist. No one knows, and no one cares. Customers come to these shops through references for discounts, not for convenience. Over the shops, people huddle in houses and hotels. Everyone you see looks perplexed. Camera-toting tourists pass through the gates in air-conditioned buses that slow down near the Hawa Mahal, and head straight to Amer. This is the fabled Pink City: brick-brown, and fading.
It is difficult to think that this sordid neighbourhood could be revamped without a complete overhaul, but the Jaipur Metro Project hopes to solve some of these problems. It aims at the very least, to make the area accessible to Jaipur’s citizens—many auto drivers flatly refuse to take anyone there during rush hours. Phase one of the construction, the Pink Line, will have nine stations—three of them in the walled city. Even though the metro will run underground in Old Jaipur, the stations will need space on the surface and that means the razing of some temples.
Temples, I learned, are everywhere in the walled city. It is easy to miss the ones that are not in the middle of the road, but Bhawani Shankar can point out all of them. A lifelong ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Shankar works as a government appointed clerk in the department of electricity in Jaipur. On the evening of 13 July 2015, he had agreed to meet me at Choti Chaupar—a busy roundabout, and the site of one of the three metro stations. A temple here was razed in June to make space for the station. Members of the RSS and its affiliate organisations, along with some local residents, have been protesting under the banner of Mandir Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (MBSS) since. On 9 July, the MBSS organised a chakka jam—traffic blockade—at various sites in the state capital as an expression of its outrage. Shankar was eager to show me “the damage that had been done” to the temples.
A man of amicable appearance in his fifties, Shankar smiles by default; the shikha—that signature tuft of hair worn by an orthodox Hindu—was inconspicuous in the thicket of his close-cropped hair. “The Rozgareshwar Mahadev Mandir stood right here,” he said, pointing to a barricaded roundabout, where construction workers in yellow helmets scuttled around swooping beams of mechanical cranes. As we walked around it, he told me there were three other temples that were razed on the same roundabout. He looked on as I scribbled down their names. Shankar then pointed towards a temple on the other side. Its dome appeared slightly damaged by one of the cranes. By the time we finished walking around the circle, he had named over a dozen more temples that were razed in the area around the Choti Chaupar. Visibly vexed, he told me, “Trees will be cut down for the metro, where are the cows going to sit?” Some of the trees are also temples— effigies of Hanuman sit on their trunk, Shankar pointed out. The underground drilling, for the construction of the stations Shankar believes, will damage the walls of every temple within the walled city. The existence of this metro was akin to a curse for Shankar. Having lived all his life in the same neighbourhood, the talk of development frustrates him. Jaipur, for him, appeared to essentially boil down to just temples. “This government is unabashedly doing things that even Aurangzeb never dared to,” he said.
The RSS’s outrage over the metro project puts Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who has already been in the spotlight due to allegations of helping Lalit Modi, in a tricky spot. On one end of the spectrum is her image as a development-oriented leader, the kind advertised on billboards across Jaipur, the kind who would have the metro running in no time. On the other, there is the chance of betraying the party’s ideological parent, which wasn’t keen on her candidature to begin with. The Raje government has offered to reconstruct the temples wherever possible, but this is not going to be nearly enough.
Following the roadblock on 9 July, the MBSS put forth eight demands that include the filing of criminal cases against the officers who ordered the razing of the temples, and the reconstruction of the Rozgareshwar Mahadev Mandir on the spot that it occupied before it was demolished—this is also where the Choti Chaupar metro station is to be built. Geography appears to underline all of the RSS’ efforts. “Jaipur was built according to Vastu Shastra,” claimed Hemant Sethia, the co-convenor of the MBSS, when I met him in his home-office 12 July. “Scholars from all over the world—including Gujarat—prayed and studied for years before the civic plan for Jaipur was conceived,” he added. Shankar agreed with Sethia’s prognosis, and said, “you can’t just reconstruct the temple anywhere, these sites have tantric significance.”
The MBSS also demands an assurance from the government that in future, that all development projects would now be designed keeping in mind the temples of the city—“they boast so much about the technological developments, what’s the point of that if it is not being used in saving the temples,” said Sethia. “Roads and metros and flyovers will bring only doom if they are built on the debris of any temple,” he cautioned.
The dislike for the Raje government among the RSS cadre is not expressed subtly; they wear it on their sleeve. A group of about half-a-dozen people I met at the RSS office in Bharti Bhawan at Mirza Ismail Road expressed their disappointment with the way the state government has dealt with the temples, but “given the leader at the top none of us is surprised,” said a kurta-clad middle aged man who didn’t give me his name. To Sethia, the situation is particularly disheartening given the Hindu image of the government. “Inki to Hindu chavi thi, par ye hi aise kaam kar rahe hain ab—They [this government] had a Hindu imprint, but now they are indulging in these activities,” he said. Shankar theatrically, compared the state government to the legend of Bhasmasur—the demon who tried to burn Shiva into ashes, right after having been granted the boon to do so by the lord. “RSS ne inko vardaan diya, aurye to Bhasmasur ban gaye,”—the RSS gave this government the boon [of being in power] but they have turned into Bhasmasur—he said.
Sethia, a practicing doctor of herbal electropathy who has been associated with the RSS for about 20 years now, showed me a photographic dossier that the MBSS has been circulating. The pictures, which look like screenshots of a TV news report with graphic arrows and red circles, highlight the multitude of problems the MBSS has with the metro project. “Not only did they destroy the temples, they did it with the same JCB (a British corporation known for their array of construction equipment) machines that work in dirty places,” he pointed out. Sethia also feels that the government is indulging in minority appeasement by not destroying the mosques and shrines of Muslim faith that cause traffic blockades elsewhere in the city. “The underground drilling will also destroy the secret tunnels built in the eighteenth century that drain the rainwater coming down the hills and keep Jaipur from drowning,” he said. A day later, I saw the walled city turned into a cesspool after a 30-minute downpour.
No picture of these “secret tunnels” show-up in the dossier being circulated by the MBSS. When I asked Shankar if we can see the tunnels that Sethia mentioned, he said, “The tunnels are secret, and inaccessible. But they exist.” The only thing more bizarre than seeing a group of individuals agitating to save dysfunctional passages of dubious existence, is the fact that the state government is trying to pacify them.
A number of temples are already being restored inside the walled city. Six miniature temples have already been built in the past month-and-a-half in a small plat, so that devotees can come and pray there. Shankar remains unimpressed. During the entire evening that I spent with him, the only point at which I saw the perpetual smile on Shankar’s face disappear was then we went to this site. He was almost disgusted by what he termed “a museum of Gods.” “These are not the original deities that were in the temples,” he said. “The Gods are not facing the right directions even,” he exclaimed indignantly. The very fact that these temples were no longer on the main road seemed to irk him. “Whenever I passed that road, I looked at the temples and prayed in my heart,” he said, “I can’t even do that anymore!”
The MBSS has threatened to block roads again if the eight demands aren’t met. When I spoke to Sethia yesterday, he said that on 29 August, as a part of the RSS’s Rakhi celebrations, “we will be taking pledge to re-establish the Rozgareshwar Mahadev Mandir on the same spot. In the last chakka jam that was held on 9 July, some of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party members joined the RSS and the Congress. “None of them was a minister,” the media co-ordinator in BJP state headquarters is quick to point out; but that doesn’t negate the existence of what might be an internal rift within the party over the issue.
The local press has been carrying articles about the “miracles” that use to be a feature of the temples that were destroyed temples and the apparent brutality with which these structures were razed. (Only last month, the Rajasthan Patrika, for instance, published a piece on how the son of Mirza Ismail, the Diwan of Jaipur fell seriously ill when he ordered the razing of Rozgareshwar Mahadev Mandir, prompting him to take the order back.) The matter has become a talking point in the city. At a tea stall outside the Rajasthan University, the students I spoke to seemed to revel in Raje’s predicament: “Now we’ll see what she does. And she has to do something, because she can’t even escape to foreign countries like Modi,” said one of them with a laugh. It was a matter of consensus, however, among the group of the dozen or so students I met, that metro should go ahead. They wished that the University had a station as well—“like Delhi!”
Shankar, however, doesn’t share this enthusiasm. After he had showed me around the temples of the walled city—old and razed and newly formed—we sat down for a cup of tea. It was about 7 pm and market was starting to close for the day. People were going home. Another impenetrable body of traffic was forming on the waterlogged road in front of us. “If the metro gets completed, will you ride it to move around Jaipur?” I asked him. “No, I’d walk,” he retorted immediately. The road, swathed in a multitude of people, vehicles and scattered edifices, did not look inviting.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.