It is not often that a city like Varanasi, not even the state capital, hosts a state visit by the prime minister of a foreign country. Since their Lok Sabha MP, Narendra Modi, signed a Varanasi-Tokyo pact in August 2014, the city has been thinking a lot about Japan.
“Aabey aa raha hai na!” rickshaw-pullers tell you, pointing out the sprucing up the city is getting. “Atithi devo bhava!”
Amidst cynicism that the new street lights will stop working in days after Modi and Abe have left the city, there is excitement that the Japanese prime minister will see aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat today. While some are complaining about how the city will virtually be shut down for security, others are busy championing Indo-Japan friendship.
A local Indo-Japan Friendship Club, which says it is associated with the Namami Gangay mission to clean up the Ganga, organized a ‘yagya’ to pray for Indo-Japan friendship – and to pray that Modi-Abe’s vision for Varanasi comes true. They even called some Japanese people to participate.
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Ashok Chaurasia, head of the Indo-Japan Friendship Club, hopes that Abe’s visit will bring more Japanese tourists to the city. “The Japanese don’t see Kashi as a tourist spot but a place of pilgrimage. They are attracted to the ghats and temples, and also to the city’s association with Buddhism,” he says, referring to Sarnath 15 kms away, where Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon upon enlightenment.
Across the river from Assi Ghat, they got fine arts students from the Banaras Hindu University to make a sand sculpture for Indo-Japan friendship, the two countries locked in a handshake under the auspices of the Gautam Buddha. Back at the ghat, anNGO got women to make a Indo-Japan rangoli, with the red ball of the Japanese flag at the centre. Children playing around the ghat ruined it the next day. Dalimss Sunbeam, a private school known for its aggressive marketing, dressed up its students in Japanese clothes and took them on a boat ride on the Ganga, waving flags of India and Japan.
“There is great awareness of Indo-Japan relations in Varanasi now,” said mayor Ram Gopal Maholey.
Officials of JICA, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency have been working with local authorities on sewage management and cleaning up the Ganga. JICA, which Banarasis addres as ‘Jaika’, recentky organized a seminar to discuss Varanasi’s civic problems.
The Banaras Hindu University has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Japan Foundation to promote the Japanese language in the city. Local newspapers have been finding Japanese connections to the city: 23 Banarasis found Japanese spouses in the last 12 years.
That isn’t a new phenomenon. One 66 year old Japanese woman, Kumiko, has been living here since 1976, when she married her Bihari husband, now 85. They now run a guesthouse on the Pandey ghat, called Kumiko Pension Home. Is Kumiko planning to meet Shinzo Abe? “If I get a chance,” she giggles like a girl, speaking in Hindi, “I have put in a request.”
Japanese officials have been touring the city for days, wearing suits and pollution masks, overseeing projects and preparations for the Abe visit. At the Dashashwamedh ghat, the stage set for Modi-Abe looks befitting for kings. The ghat has been decked up as if for a royal ceremony, chattris and saffron flags adorning the steps.
Modi and Abe will spend little over four hours in the city. At the airport itself, they will be welcomed by a shehnai recital and the blowing of trumpets by Buddhist monks.
Not everyone is as excited by the fresh coat of paint on the pavements. People are dismissive of the Kyoto-Varanasi pact, which is meant to use Kyoto’s expertise in waste and traffic management, developing the Buddhist tourist circuit and other development work. People point to the cosmetic nature of the clean-up for Modi-Abe’s visit. On the ghats and the streets, the repeated word is, come back after a few days, when the VIP visit is over, and see how dirty it will be once again.
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