Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, is a place where spirituality and squalour coexist unabashedly. But now, Temsutula Imsong purges its ghats of their filth, and Mission Prabhu Ghat has generated over 30 lakh tweets in a month. She tells Kareena Gianani what made PM Narendra Modi sit up and take notice
Every evening, the Dasaswamedh Ghat at Varanasi gears up in piety. Pundits in billowing saffron robes prepare to take stage. The conch shell reverberates as the sun goes down and incense sticks are waved with a flourish. Tourists with folded hands pray from balconies of homes around the ghat (they pay a fee to the residents who live near the ghat).
Far in the distance, at Prabhu Ghat, at the same time every evening, Temsutula Imsong secures a mask around her face, picks up a broom and a bucket, and steps into swathes of filth. Withered marigolds offered by pilgrims squelch under her feet. She sidesteps the piss, the sh*t.
Prabhu Ghat before Temsutula Imsong began cleaning it
On Mission Prabhu Ghat
Soon after, passersby join her. Tourists pick up the buckets Imsong and her friends line up at a corner, fill them with water from the Ganga and splash it across the ghat. Some locals avert their faces and walk on. But Imsong is sure the ghats of Varanasi will be as clear as the spiritual epiphanies pilgrims claim to have here.
Prabhu Ghat after Imsong's team cleaned it up
“My aim through Mission Prabhu Ghat is simple: to clean all the ghats of Varanasi,” 32-year-old Imsong says over the telephone one afternoon, an hour before she would head out for her daily cleaning ritual.
It all began after a boat ride across the Ganga. Mid-February, Imsong and her friend, Darshika Shah, bobbed away at the stretch between Assi Ghat and Prabhu Ghat. “I remember we were speaking about the evenings we had spent gazing at the Ganga, sharing our lives and secrets, when it hit us – Prabhu Ghat was nothing but an open lavatory. It is the prettiest ghat in Varanasi. But in broad daylight, it makes for a pathetic sight,” remembers Imsong.
Temsutula Imsong (in red) cleaning up Prabhu Ghat at Varanasi with other volunteers
Imsong works for the NGO, Sakaar, which focuses on rural initiatives. Every day, at 4 pm, she, Shah, and two other volunteers assemble at one of the ghats (Prabhu Ghat, at present), and begin cleaning it. In no time, she says, at least 15, even 40 people join them. Over the past six weeks, Imsong and her group of volunteers have cleaned four ghats in the Varanasi.
Imsong first approached the civic authorities to ensure she had the requisite permissions in place. When asked whether the officials offered to help her, Imsong smiles. “Not really. They seemed busy, and asked us to go ahead.” Imsong and Shah pooled in R5,000 for Mission Prabhu Ghat, and have already spent half the money on cleaning equipment. “Mission Prabhu Ghat has received an overwhelming response on social media — more than 30 lakh tweets. Even PM Narendra Modi acknowledged our work on Twitter. In the coming months, we want to use this attention to find enduring solutions to Varanasi’s plight. We could keep cleaning the ghats, but we realise that, in the long run, Mission Prabhu Ghat will work only if people stop littering the ghats in the first place,” says Imsong.
Some indifferent locals
Of course, Imsong and her team get their share of brickbats — men openly ogle at the girls, and locals who have living at Varanasi since decades tut-tut at the initiative. Others are plain indifferent. “I choose not to look at them. Because, for every person who dismisses this mission, there is a local, tourist or a pilgrim who joins in and cleans with us for hours. Once, a French tourist saw us, and exclaimed that she would go and bring her friends along. She did, and they stayed the evening to help us. That’s what matters to me,” says Imsong.
In many ways, Mission Prabhu Ghat is just an extension of the work she has been doing since she was eight years old. As a child growing up in the village, Ungma in Mokokchung district in Nagaland, Imsong would take up the task of cleaning up her village as part of the youth group at church. “Once a month, for years, we would visit different areas of the village and clean it up. If the days were too dusty, I’d spray water on the streets. Otherwise, I’d carry a broom bigger than myself and sweep the streets,” she laughs.
Changing the face of Kashi
Imsong came to Varanasi two-and-a-half years ago because she wanted to be more involved with Sakaar. After graduating from St Mary’s College at the North East Hills University in Shillong, Imsong worked as an online educational tutor in New Delhi, and also finished her masters in Human Rights. “But my heart lay in working for rural initiatives,” she says.
When Imsong first came to Varanasi, she was appalled at the dirt, the traffic and the apathy. “People have thrown up their hands here, saying Varanasi will be as it is — spiritual yet full of squalour.” But Imsong refuses to accept this. “So, I will change it. One ghat at a time.”