On the evening of June 9, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra sat in his living room, recounting the story of how he performed “surgery” on his son’s iPhone that week. The phone had accidentally tumbled into the Ganga river. A diver fished it out. On the advice of a friend working in a semiconductor firm, his son placed the phone in a heap of rice in the sunlight. “Rice sucks away moisture,” explained Mishra.

Before his son could plug in the phone, Mishra decided to run a final check. He found a grain of rice lodged in the port. He removed it carefully. The phone came back to life.

“After all, many of those engineers working in the semiconductor firm are my students,” he chuckled.

A professor at the department of electronics engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Varanasi, Mishra, 54, is also the mahant or chief priest of the Sankat Mochan Temple. Established by Tulsidas in the 16th century, the temple dedicated to Hanuman is one of the most significant shrines in the city.

As if the priestly and professorial life was not enough, Mishra is an accomplished pakhawaj player and chief organiser of the nearly-century-old sangeet samaroh or musical festival at the temple, held every year in April or May.

This year, the nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus threw a challenge in every area of his life. Technology came to the rescue of the professor – he did final interviews of PhD scholars over Google Hangouts. Even the music festival went digital, drawing a larger audience than ever.

But the mahant was still struggling to find a balance between the desire of the devotees to resume darshan and the draconian strictures of the district administration, which had furnished a list of 24 conditions that needed to be met before any temple opened its doors to visitors.

“Government is only to assist us,” he said, “they are not our kings to rule on us.”

Mishra’s outspokenness has made him a rare, influential critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remaking of Varanasi. The most controversial part is the Kashi Corridor Project, which has flattened much of the old precinct around the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Work on the corridor did not pause even during the lockdown.

Mishra spoke to Scroll.in about the profound impact of the lockdown on the spiritual, social and material life of the ancient city. Did it mark a break in continuity in the tradition of the city? If so, what? Excerpts from the conversation.

On bathing in the Ganga

Never before had Ganga snan been disrupted in the history of Banaras, specially on the day of Ganga Dusshera and Ekadashi. Both are very auspicious occasions. Even those who are not regular bathers take a dip in the river that day. In the past, even during curfews, the police were liberal towards the Ganga bathers, since they know they are not crooks.

Just the way people do daily puja, the dip in the river is a daily ritual for many. The statistical data collected by our foundation shows there are at least 50,000-60,000 regular bathers in the river. You have broken the continuity of their practice for no reason.

The first day of the lockdown no one stopped me from taking a dip in the river. But the next day, a policeman said, ‘yeh bhi aa gaye’ (another one has come). Hum kahe matlab (I asked what do you mean). Another policeman came running and apologised for not having recognised me.

Hum agar maar khate to dekhte, nahaate zaroor. Even if they beat me up, I would have taken a dip. I did not let them break my practice.

But they are many others, even elderly people, who were insulted and pushed away from the river by the police. This had never happened in Banaras before.

You allow crowds to gather outside liquor shops but you have a problem with those wanting to take a dip in Ganga. What does the river have to do with the pandemic? I would argue it is the safest place. People bathe alone, away from each other, and leave quietly. If you are still worried about possible spread of the virus, you could have regulated the bathers and allowed them to go one by one. The snan could have happened with social distancing.

Policemen guarding the steps to the river on the day of Ganga Dusshera, June 1. Photo: Twitter/@MahantMochan

On temples closing down for darshan

For the first time in my lifespan, I saw people deprived of the darshan of their most loved deities. People can pray from home for a few days but when this extends for such a long time, it takes a psychological toll.

It is being said temples will be allowed to be opened from such and such date. This statement itself is wrong. Once you have established a deity in a temple with pran pratistha, you have to perform regular services. The deity is like us. They wake up in the morning, bathe, have their meal, take an afternoon siesta, interact with their visitors in the evening, then eat and sleep. This routine can never stop.

That’s why I say the temple can never be closed. It is not a shop, nor is it a museum. It is the residence of a living deity and as a mahant, it is my foremost duty to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

We had made all the preparations for the return of devotees but the day before yesterday we got a big form. It listed 24 requirements. Following this, the DM [district magistrate] was quoted in the media saying that if something happens, the temple will be solely responsible and action will be taken against it.

Now, Covid-19 cases are still rising. Even thermal screening will miss asymptomatic cases. Tomorrow if someone tests positive and the administration tracks them and finds they had visited the Sankat Mochan temple, then what happens?

Why will the temple take on the badnami? The temple exists to give you solace, not to take on blame. The temple never objected to the visits of devotees, we even made all the preparations, but if you put down so many requirements and then say if something happens the temple will be responsible, then what will the temple do. You are opening shops, now if something spreads in the market, will you get the shops auctioned?

A checklist of 24 points furnished by the Varanasi district administration to temple managements, a day before the temples were scheduled to open for darshan.

On ad hoc rules

Government is only to assist us, they are not our kings to rule on us. It is the job of the government to make arrangements, not to thrust their whims and fancies on us.

They are creating rules unthinkingly. For instance, the rule to keep shops on the right and left sides of the road open on alternative days [in Varanasi]. What a foolish decision. All the crowds get concentrated on one side of the road. How does this help?

Every week, the rules change. There are so many rules that people should abandon all other work to listen to their daily announcements of new rules.

If the rules are limited and user friendly, then it is easy to implement them. There should be some correlation between rule-making and implementation.

On the return of migrants

Whatever is the direct impact of Covid-19, we have multiplied its power by many times through an abruptly enforced lockdown. They should have told people, ‘you have four-five days to return to your native places, after that no one will be allowed to move.’ Instead, you stopped them from leaving, more people got infected, when they ran out of everything, they said better than dying in the city, let’s try to go home even if it means dying on the road.

Today the only coronavirus cases being detected in Baranas are migrants who returned from places like Mumbai. There are no locally transmitted cases. Everyone will have to bear the consequences of your follies.

While in other countries, the lockdown led to cases peaking and the graph falling, in India, the graph continues to rise. Which means the lockdown was ineffective. Yet, there is propaganda that if this government was not there, crores of people would have perished.

We are living in a world where no one in a position of authority has any sense of responsibility. And they want us to become self reliant. You save your own life. And if you falter, you will be picked up and put in jail.

On the Sankat Mochan Temple

You come as an individual to the temple to stand in front of God and to forge a connection. You ask for whatever you want. You create your own rapport there. The temple does not interfere in this. This is the concept with which this temple runs. It does not matter to us what you offer at the temple. This is not taxation.

And we follow the Constitution of India, not from my time, from the time of Goswami Tulsidas ji. No matter which religion you follow, which caste you belong to, if you have come to the temple, it is a sign of immense faith in Hanuman ji and the temple has to respect it, that’s all. We are here to assist you.

Now you may come with a specific prayer. At the back of the temple, people have scribbled the names of their spouses and fiances. Someone wants to be selected in IIT, someone wants to become an IAS [Indian Administrative Service officer]. Someone writes down their roll number in the BHU [Banaras Hindu University] exam. They are making an arzi or request. It is because they have faith.

Scribblings on the wall of the temple. Photo: Twitter/@MahantMochan

On finding a way out for devotees

It hurt me to see today that people brought flower garlands and left them at the gate. Wahin se matha tek kar chale gaye. They bowed to the ground outside the temple and left. I don’t want to be a barrier [to darshan]. I will have to find the balance. I have been thinking about this, after all, I am human, I too will have to do some engineering. Today I have installed sanitiser dispensers, we have acquired a thermal scanner. If needed, we will create a system where only five devotees enter at one time, and I depute five people to take them around, maintaining social distance.

While I was at the temple, an ardent devotee showed up. I said can you quickly run into the temple, do darshan and run out? He said 10 seconds. He ran in and out. That man was neither my relative nor do I know him. Maybe Hanuman ji instigated this.

Mishra makes a humorous comment on Twitter: 'During the lockdown, the army of Hanuman ji is safe.'

On ethical conduct in a crisis

We have priests and other staff at the temple. There isn’t much work going on. But I follow the precepts of dharma. I decided that not a single rupee will be deducted from the salary of our employees. If this crisis stretches for long, then if required, I will sell off a part of my land, but I will not abandon my people. Because I am not the government of India. The government of India can do this. I cannot.

Yet it is true that even we are facing difficulties. But I have immense faith in god, he will help me. I cannot do what industrial houses have done. Our employees have faith that as an employer I will not betray them.

We also run a high school in the name of Goswami ji, in which there are 100 teaching and non-teaching staff, and 2,800 students. Many private schools have halved the salaries of their teachers but we are giving them full pay. As for students, whoever pays the fees, we will take, but we will not press anyone to pay. Because we understand everyone is facing difficult times.

Our school runs on fees collected from students, not on government aid. Haan yeh zaroor hai ki school ka paisa humare yahan koi management committee ka member khata bhi nahi hain. No member of the management committee siphons off funds.

On the annual music festival

The festival was scheduled to start on April 12. It was Hanuman Jayanti on April 8. I remember that by April 6, I was thinking we would have to cancel the festival this time. But then Jasraj ji [Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Jasraj] called. He said I am in America, hum Hanuman Jayanti ke din kuch sunana chahte hain Hanuman ji ko. I want to sing to Hanuman ji on Hanuman Jayanti. I said on the condition that you also sing at the festival. He agreed.

We used his recital on April 8 to test our technical systems, to check if the digital streaming was working, etc. We were all set for the festival. And it was a roaring success. Last year there were 10,000 viewers. This year, 5.5 lakh. Even the number of artistes went up. Many people said that in the future too, we must make the festival available digitally. Even in the time of a pandemic, our tradition did not break.

On the Kashi Corridor Project

It is nothing but zidd [stubbornness]. It is zidd to spoil everything that Banaras is known for.

This city is the dwelling space of Shiva ji. After marrying Parvati, he took her on a reconnaissance visit and asked her to pick a place where she wanted to live. She said I like this place, let’s make this our dwelling space. Suddenly there was a great attraction to this place, all the gods wanted to come here. Usually, no one allows others to invade their kingdom. But Shiva ji is the most liberal deity. He let the others come and live here, and so they say, 33,000 gods have temples here with the consent of Shiva ji. Modi was not around then. His consent was not there.

Every afternoon Shiva ji goes for a walk in the lanes of Kashi, greets all the gods, all the residents of this city. They say every resident of the city is a tatva (element) of Shiva. Otherwise you cannot live here.

Now, the deity for whom this city was built, you have transformed the space in the name of the convenience of his devotees. In the name of convenience, one day you will uproot and move the Vishwanath temple itself.

The chief minister promised me not a single temple would be damaged, not a single deity would be uprooted. He announced this to the press. But what is happening is the exact opposite. I even said to him, “You are saying so, but all this is being done by your number 1 and number 2 [Narendra Modi and Amit Shah], aap usmein bechaare ban rahe hain. You are becoming the scapegoat.” I am sure he did not like it, lekin humko sunana tha hum suna diye, ab wohi ho raha hai. I spoke my mind. But sadly what I warned against is happening.

You talk about the heritage of the city but are bringing in architecture from Gujarat [the corridor project has been given to a firm from Gujarat]. This architecture will be a misfit in the city.

Change should be natural. And the people of Banaras should lead it. It should be a very very slow process. Not an abrupt change.

Now if you say I will raze an old settlement to the ground and create an entirely new settlement, this is not change, this is an imposition. You are imposing this on us.

Log kehte hai bahut ladne waala aadmi hai. People say I fight too much. Hum kahe lekin mein mara hua aadmi nahi hun. I say I am not dead. Mara hua aadmi koi harkat nahi kar sakta hain. The dead cannot move.