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Books > Hindu > Varanasi Vista (Early Views of the Holy City)
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Varanasi Vista (Early Views of the Holy City)
Varanasi Vista (Early Views of the Holy City)
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One of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the holiest in India. Varanasi has attracted pilgrims from all over India for over 2500 years. No account of the travels of Indian visitors and pilgrims to the city, however, is available because of the non-existence of the tradition of recording impressions of such visits by Indians

Nor is there any record of foreign travelers visiting Varanasi until four centuries ago. It was then that travelers form the West started visiting Varanasi on a regular basis, and left animated accounts their visit. Later a number of landscape artists, almost entirely from Britain, began coming to India towards the end of the eighteenth century, and made superb sketches of Varanasi when they visited the city.

The views of Varanasi by the visiting landscape artists gave not only the outside word but also the Indians themselves the first ever visual impression of the scenic splendours of the holy city,. Until then so such visual record existed because of the lack of the genre of landscape painting in an otherwise rich Indian art.

Assembled from public and private art collections in India and abroad, these views are now being published together, along with a short survey of travelers;' accounts of their visit to Varanasi, for the first time.

 

About the Author

Jagmohan Mahajan has written extensively on British landscape artists in India as also on Ganga. His publications include Picturesque India: Sketches and Travels of Thomas and William Daniell. The Raj Landscape: British Views of Indian Cities and the Ganga Trail: Foreign Accounts of the River Scene.

 

Travellers' Accounts

Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the holiest in India. It has long been recognized as one of the most important places of pilgrimage and ritual bathing on the banks of the Gang, and has attracted pilgrims from all over India for over 2500 years. It is no wonder, therefore, that a massive literature of Sanskrit texts containing paeans to the sanctity of the city has grown over the ages. Many myths and legends too have gathered round Varanasi, also called Kashi – city of Light – to account for its sacredness, much of which stems from its steady development as the foremost centre of worship of Shiva.

No account of travels of Indian visitors or pilgrims tro Varanasi is, however, available because of he lack of the tradition of recording the impressions of such visit by Indians. With the exception of the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang (seventh century) and the Persian visitor Abu Rihan Al-Biruni (Eleventh century), there is also no record of foreign travelers visiting Varanasi and leaving account of their visit. This changed about four centuries ago when travelers from the West started visiting the city on the a regular basis. They were a diverse lot, consisting of merchants, missionaries, East India Company officials and also plain travelers. They also belonged to different nationalities: English, French, German and American.

For the first time another type of traveler also appeared on the scene in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. A number of landscape artists, almost entirely from Britain, began coming to India. Poor financial prospects of landscape painters in Britain and the allure of novelty in pursuit of the cult of the "picturesque" in vogue in British art circles at the time were the principal reasons which brought them to India.

Moreover, India was completely virgin territory for visiting artist because the non-existence of the genre of landscape painting in an otherwise rich indigenous India Art. Their sketches thus gave the outside world, in fact even the Indians themselves, the first visual impressions of the spectacular Varanasi ghats, as indeed of the magnificent monuments and scenic beauties in India.

The foreign travelers have left excellent narratives of their visits to Varanasi. The information provided by them is vast and varied, and we find detailed and delightful descriptions of life in the city. They were especially struck by the splendid panorama of the Varanasi riverfront, thronged with vast crowds of people engaged in various occupations from sunrise to late after sunset. What made up a stunning view of incredible appeal, in particular, were the picturesque ghats or flights of broad stone step s leading down to the great river swarming with people performing their daily lustrations at down. All these naturally figure prominently in the animated accounts and superb sketches of the visitors.

Almost the first account of Varanasi by a foreign traveler is that of Hiuen Tsang who visited India in the first half of the seventh century. He was the most renowned of the long line of Chinese pilgrims who came to India from the fifth to the seventh centuries to visit the holy places of Buddhism in India and to collect Buddhist manuscripts and images.

Varanasi (Po-la-na-ssu) according to Hiuen Tsang was already the holy city of Hinduism by then. Hiuen Tsang was impressed by the wealth of Varanasi is ancient culture as well as the large number of its Hindu temples. "These temples", he wrote, "stand several stories high and are richly adorned with sculptured decoration, the wooden parts being brightly painted in many colours. They are set in thickly wooded parks and surrounded by pools of clear water". He specially mentions seeing in one of these temples a huge stature of Shiva "full of grandeur and majesty: at the sight of it one is filled with a fearful respect as if one were in the very presence of the god".

Four centuries late, the Persian traveler Abu Rihan Al-Biruni arrived in India and left a highly perceptive account of his visit. He makes a particular reference to the Indian customs of making pilgrimage to holy places, specially for ritual bathing. Varanasi was even then the holiest place in India, and he wrote: "The Hindus have some places which are venerated for reasons connected with their law and religion, e.g. Benares. For their anchorites wander to it and stay there forever, as the dwellers of the Ka'ba. stay forever in Mekka. They want to live there to the end of their lives, that their reward after death should be the better for it. They say that a murderer is held responsible for his crime and punished with a punishment due to his guilt, except in case he enters the city of Benares, where he obtains pardon."

The curtain now rings down upon the scene for almost five centuries again until travelers form the West started visiting Varanasi at regular intervals and leaving animated accounts and delightful drawings of the city. The first really exhaustive account of Varanasi is by Ralph Fitch, an English merchant, who traveled down the Ganga from Allahabad to Patna towards the end of the sixteenth century. Describing Varanasi as "a great towne", he writes: "in this place they be all Gentiles, ad be the greatest idolaters that ever I sawe. To this towne come the Gentiles on pilgrimage out of farre countreys. They never pray but I the water and they wash themselves overhead, and lade up water with both their handes and turne themselves about, and then they drink a little of the water three times, and so goe tom their good which stand in those houses. Some of them will wash a place which is their length, and then will pray upon the earth with their armes and legs at length, all will rise up and lie downe, and kisse the ground twentie or thirtie times, but they will not stirre their right foote."

The next traveler to leave ad detailed description of the city is Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the celebrated French Jeweller and traveler, who went round the country extensively in the middle of the seventeenth century. His description of the great ancient temple dedicated to Vishnu under the name of Bindu Madhava at the Panchganga Ghat in Varanasi, considered to be one of the most sacred temples in the city, is particularly valuable. This is indeed the only account by foreigner of this famous temple before it was destroyed in 1669 by orders of the bigoted Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who had a mosque constructed on the site which has dominated the riverfront ever since.

The building, Tavernier says, "is in the figure of a cross having its four arms equal. In the middle a lofty dome rises like a kind tower with many sides terminating in point, and at the end each arm of cross another tower rises, which can be ascended from outside. Before reaching the top there are many niches and several balconies, which project to intercept the fresh air: and all over the tower there are rudely executed figures in relief of various kinds of animals. Under this great doe, and exactly in the middle of the pagoda, there is an altar like a table, of 7 to 8 feet in length and 5 to 6 wide, with two steps in front, which serve as footstool, and this footstool is covered with a beautiful tapestry, sometimes of silk and sometimes of gold and silk, according to the solemnity of the rite which is being celebrated. The altar is covered with gold and silver brocade, or some beautiful painted cloth. From outside the pagoda this altar faces you with the idols upon it; for the women and girls must salute it from the outside, as, save only those of a certain tribe, they are ant allowed to enter the pagda. Among the idols on the great altar one stand 5 to 6 feet in height; neither the arms, legs, nor trunk are seen only the head and neck being visible; all the remainder of the body, down to the altar, is covered by a robe which increases in width below. Sometimes on its neck there is a rich chain of gold, rubies, pearls, or emeralds. This idol has bee made in honour and after the likeness of Bainmadou [Bindu Madhav], formerly a great and holy personage among them, whose name they often have on their lips. On the right site of the altar there is also the figure of an animal, or rather of a chimera, seeing that it represents in part an elephant, in part a hors, and in part a mule. It is of massive gold, and is called Garou [Garuda], no person being allowed to approach it but the Brahmans."

Tavernier also visited the nearby college founded by Raja Jai Singh for the education of the youth of good families. He has given a lively description of the dignity of the establishment where he saw two of the young princes of Jaipur being taught Sanskrit and astronomy by skilful Brahmans. He naturally makes no mention of the famous observatory for that was erected on this site much later.

William Hodges, the first British professional landscape artist to visit India from 1780 to 1783, not only made several drawings of Varanasi but also left a vivid account of what he saw. Varanasi, Hodges wrote, "is built on the North side of the river, which is here very broad, and the banks of which are very high from the water, its appearance is extremely beautiful; the great variety of the buildings strikes the eye, and the whole view is much Improved by innumerable flights of stone steps, which are either entrances into the several temples, or to the houses. Several Hindoo temples greatly embellish the banks of the river, and are all ascended to by Gauts, or flights of steps, such as I have already noticed. Many other public and private buildings possess also considerable magnificence. Several of these I have painted, and some on a large scale, such as I conceived the subject demanded.

"The streets in the city are narrow, and not kept in such good order as I expected, from some Hindoo villages I had before seen. The houses are very high; I observed some in which I counted five stories, each inhabited by different families. The more wealthy Hindoos, however, live in detached houses, with open courts, surrounded by a wall. The heat, in this place, is considered as very great in the hot months, not only from its natural situation, but from the houses beings all built of free stone, as well as from the narrowness of the streets, which produce double and treble reflections of the sun's rays."

An animated account of Varanasi is given by Lord Valentia who traveled extensively all over India at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A charming picture of the city by Henry Salt, the British landscape artist who accompanied him on the Indian tour, appears in Valentia's travelogue. "The river", he writes, "forms here a very fine sweep of about four miles in length. On the external side of the curve, which is constantly the most elevated, is situated the holy city of Benares. It is covered with buildings to the water's edge, and the opposite shore being, as usual, extremely level, the whole may be beheld at once. From passing through the streets, or even from viewing it from the minars, I could have formed no conception of its beauty. Innumerable pagodas of every sizes and shape occupy the bank, and even have encroached on the river, Uniformly built of stone, and of the most solid workmanship, they are able to resist the torrents, which in the rainy season beat against them. Several are painted, others gilded, and some remain of the colour of the stone. They generally have domes, often finished with trident of Mahadeva. Gauts are very frequent for the convenience of ablution; and wherever the houses approach the river, they are necessarily built thirty feet high of large stones, before they reach the level of the street above. The contrast between these elevated masses of solid masonry, and the light domes of the pagodas, in singular and pleasing. Trees occasionally overhand the walls, and the thousands of people constantly either bathing, or washing line in the water, add not a little to this most extraordinary scene. None of the drawings that I have seen give me the least idea of it."

He also visited Aurangzeb's mosque, and found that the approach to the mosque was "through the most frequented and populous part of the town, and a more extraordinary one I never beheld. The streets are so extremely narrow, that it was with difficulty I prevented my horse from touching the side. The houses are built of stone, some six stories high, close to each and the architectures is as extraordinary ….The windows are extremely small, and probably they are formed in this manner to answer two purposes; first, to prevent the opposite neighbours from overlooking the apartments; and, secondly, to keep the houses more cool during the hot winds." He did not feel particularly happy on reaching, the mosque, for he wrote; "I felt myself sufficiently a Hindoo when viewing the lofty minars, to which that hereafter Government may restore the spot to its original owners, and remove the cruel eyesore fro the holy city."

Lieutenant-Colonel C.R. Forrest a highly talented amateur landscape artist visited Varanasi early in the nineteenth century, and was enthralled by what he saw, Varanasi, he wrote, "is one of the most ancient cities of India. It is there that Brahminic influence exerts unbounded sway; while its opulence and trade entitle it to rank among the principal cities of the world. It is situated on the left bank of the Ganges, here a noble stream, and its extent along the bank of that river is full five miles; its breadth inland being in proportion. Built upon a rising ground, sloping gradually upwards from the water's brink, its buildings appear very lofty when seen from the boats in passing it. Some of the ghauts are very fine edifices; one especially has six stories. Indeed the whole face of the city towards the river is one continued line of these ghauts, which, exclusive of the ornament they are to Benares, are highly commodious and useful in the facility for bathing which they present to its vast population; and the immense crowds of all sexes, in their varied and graceful costumes, who constantly frequent these public resorts, is truly wonderful."

Reginald Heber, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta made a journey up the river from Calcutta in 1824-25 and spent a few days in Varanasi. He describes Varanasi as a "very remarkable city, more entirely and characteristically eastern than any which I have yet seen, and at the same time altogether different from anything in Bengal." Like many other foreign visitors to the city, he found the streets "so, crowded, so narrow, and so winding, that even a tonjon (sedan chair) sometimes passed with difficulty". "The houses", he writes, "are mostly lofty; none I think less than two stories, most of three, and some of five or six, sight which I now saw for the first time in India. The streets, like those of Chester, are considerably lower than the ground floors of the houses, which have mostly arched rows in front, with little shops behind them. The houses are richly embellished with verandas, galleries, projecting oriel windows, and very broad and overhanging eaves, supported by carved brackets. The number of temples is very great, mostly small, and struck like shrines in the angles of the streets, and under the shadows of the lofty houses. There forms, however, are not ungraceful, and they are many of them entirely covered over with beautiful and elaborate carvings of flowers, animals, and palm-branches, equaling in minuteness and richness the best specimens that I have seen of Gothic or Grecian architecture."

An accomplished amateur artist, Captain Robert Elliot, who traveled fairly widely during his service in India, made numerous sketches and left vivid accounts of the places he visited. In the course of a description of Varanasi, e wrote in his Views in the East, published in 1833: "The city of Benaras stands on the left bank of the Ganges, at a part where the river forms a fine sweeping curve of nearly four miles in length. The bank on which the city in situated is the convex side of the river, and is considerably higher than the opposing shore; so that if the town is viewed from a position in the upper part of it, from the breadth of the Ganges at this place, and the lowness of the opposite side, it has the appearance of standing on the margin of a beautifully formed bay…

"The immense flights of steps, called the Ghauts of Benares, form a great ornament to the river face of the city; and, in the early part of the day especially, they present a very beautiful, though, at the same time, a very awful spectacle. Crowds of people come down to wash in, and also to worship the Ganges. The gracefulness of many of the washing figures, the various colours of their dresses, the easy and elegant attitudes in which they stand, and the admirable groups into which they occasionally fall, would form excellent subjects for a painter."

Elliot has also given an account of the commercial activity in the city. Varanasi, he wrote, "is one of the great marts of the riches of the East. Diamonds, pearls, and other precious gems, are brought from all parts of Asia, together with shawls, spices, gums dyes, and perfumes. It is perhaps only here and at a few other places, that the finest products of the looms of Dacca are procurable. Hindoostanee females of rank delight in attiring themselves in a drapery of a texture of thin and transparent, as scarcely to be visible except when folded many times together. This is called night dew; and it is said that a certain monarch objecting to the indecency of his daughter's dress was told that she had clothed herself in several hundred yards of muslin. This delicate article is very expensive, and in all probability never found its way into European markets."

A contemporary of Captain Elliot, Emma Roberts visited India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her articles and books about her Indian travels are highly interesting and informative. Her description of the panorama of Varanasi from the river is particularly engaging; "The views of Benares from the river", she writes, "are exceedingly fine, offering an infinite and untiring variety of scenery, of which the effect is greatly heightened by the number of trees, whose luxuriant foliage intermingles with the parapets and buttresses of the adjacent buildings. In dropping down the stream in a boat, an almost endless succession of interesting objects is presented to the eye. Through the interstices between tower and palace, temple and serai, glimpses are caught of gardens and bazaars stretching inland; an open gate displays the terraced court of some wealthy noble; long cloistered corridors lead to the secluded recesses of the zenana, and small projecting turrets, perched upon the lofty battlements of some high and frowning building, look like the watch-towers of a feudal castle. The ghauts are literally swarming with life al all hours of the day, and every creek and jetty are crowded with craft of various descriptions, all truly picturesque in their form and effect."

"No written description, however elaborate", she goes on to say. "can convey even a faint idea of the extraordinary peculiarities of a place which has no prototype in the East. Though strictly oriental, it differs very widely from all the other cities of Hindostan, and it is only by pictorial representations that any adequate notion can be formed of the mixture of the beautiful and the grotesque, which, piled confusedly together, form that stupendous wall which spreads along the bank of the Ganges at Benares."

In the text she wrote for Robert Elliot's sketches, she said that "although the view of Benares from the river must be considered the most beautiful and imposing, no correct idea can be formed of this singular city, without penetrating into the interior, threading the mazy labyrinths, and taking a bird's eye-view from some towering height. Looking down from the minarets, or some other commanding height, upon the city of Benares, as it lies spread out like a map beneath us, we are surprised by the stately gardens and spacious quadrangles occupying the ground between the high buildings which line the narrow streets. Some of these secluded retreats are remarkably beautiful, surrounded by clusters of stone, decorated with a profusion of florid ornaments, and flanked by some high tower, whence the most delighted prospect imaginable may be obtained of the adjacent country, with its fertile plains, umbrageous woods, and ever-shining river, Others, smaller, are laid out in parterres of flowers, with a fountain playing in the centre, and all are tenanted by numerous birds of the brightest and most resplendent plumage, flocks of every variety of the pigeon and the dove common to the plains, blue jays, yellow-breasted sparrows, and whole battalion of ring-necked paroquets, with their brilliant feathers gleaming like emeralds in the sun, as they skim along soaring far above the mango trees which bear their nets, yet seldom overtopping the crowning pinnacle of the minaret, whence the spectator surveys the singular and beautiful objects revealed to his admiring gaze." The British artist Edward Lear, who visited Varanasi in December 1873, too was struck by the plentiful birds he came across in the city, and noted in his journal: "The pretty myna birds are numerous everywhere; pigeons by 10,000,000."

A fascinating description of a pagoda standing in the river at Varanasi is given by Hobart Caunter, whose account of his Indian travels is really based on the facts obtained by him from the artist William Daniell. Writing in The Oriental Annual, 1834, Caunter Says: "One of the most extraordinary objects to be witnessed at Benares and which is generally one of great curiosity to the stranger, is a pagoda standing in the river, there is nothing to connect it with the shore. The whole foundation is submerged, and two of the towers have declined so much out of the perpendicular as to form an acute angle with liquid plain beneath them….It has been surmised, and with probability, that this temple was originally erected upon the bank of the river, which then offered a firm and unsuspected foundation; but that, in consequence of the continual pressure of the stream, the bank had given way all round the building, which, on about of the depth and solidarity of the foundation, stood firm while the waters surrounded it, thought the towers had been partially dislodged by the shock. Or it may be that even the foundation sank is some degree with the bank, thus projecting the two towers out of the direct perpendicular, and giving them the very extraordinary position which they now retain." Two charming views of this leaning temple were made by Lt-Col. Forrest and Captain Elliot.

In 1853 Lady Canning traveled from Calcutta to Allahabad by boat as was usual at that time. She made a halt at Varanasi and was absolutely fascinated by the city. "The great sight of all", she wrote, "Was Benares – one afternoon I spent in the civil station and outskirts and the next morning made an expedition thru' the Hindoo city. I now feel really to have seen India. Not a trace or touch of anything European exists there. Sounds, sights and smells are all wholely [sic] and entirely Hindoo as they would have been 200 years ago. We were carried in silver tonjons of chairs thru" narrow alleys paved with flags between high carved stone houses interspersed with temples and trees. The great temple with its offerings all wet with Ganges water, and its domes covered with sheets of gold is a curious and horrible sight with its nearly naked painted priests and Faquirs but the main thing is the river's bank clustered with temples and flights of steps to the water crowded with gaily dressed bathers in the most holy spots of the sacred river."

More than anything else, what continued to impress foreign visitors the most was the panorama of the Varanasi riverfront. A delightful description of the Dashashvamedha Ghat is given by Louis Rousselet, a Frenchman who arrived in Bombay in July 1864 and spent about six years traveling widely in India. His voluminous travelogue entitled India and its Native Princes contains a large number of drawings, including a few charming sketches of Varanasi, by some noted French artists. The Dashashvamedha Ghat, he writes, "is situated at the western extremity of the large bend which the Ganges makes at this point, so that we took in at a glance the whole view of the town, standing in tiers like an amphitheatre on the right site of the stream, the situation occupied by Benares has often been compared to that of Naples, and the comparison is not without some accuracy. The bed of the stream, in fact, which is half a mile in breadth, forms a sort of calm blue bay, in which the picturesque façade of the city ranged along its banks in reflected like a crescent. We entered an elegant gondola, and soon were gliding gently in front of the city, gazing on the long succession of admirable pictures unfolding themselves before us. Seen at a little distance from the river, the ghat of Dasasvamedh forms a picture no painter could wish to heighten by a single touch. Its large flights of steps crowned by small temples with their bristling spire have for background, on the one side, the stately masses of a group of palaces surmounting the crests of the plateau, and on the other the plain and elegant façade of the Man Munder [Man Mandir], the great observatory of Benares, erected by the celebrated Jey Singh, of Jeypore [Jay Singh of Jaipur]."

Rousselet found a protestant missionary preaching the superiority of Christianity and the "errors of paganism" in a public place in Varanasi, and the quiet manner in which the people listened to him made a deep enough impression on the traveler to comment on the spirit of religious tolerance of the Hindus. He also witnessed "one of the most brilliant religions festivals of Ganesa [the elephant headed god] celebrate in Benares", with the idl of the diet passing 200 sanctuaries in a procession. A charming drawing of this "truly fairy-like scene" appears alongside his description.

Mark Twain, the celebrated American writer, visited India in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He was not only one of the best known humorists of his generation, but was also one of the greatest travel writers of all time. Like countless foreign travelers before him, he was enchanted b Varanasi. He describes the city "in effect just a big church, a religious hive, whose every cell is a temple, a shrine or a mosque, and whose every conceivable earthly and heavenly god is procurable under one roof, so to speak - a sort of Army and Navy Stores, theologically stocked". Varanasi he writes, "is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together".

Mark Twain found the Ganga as "the supreme show-place of Benares. Its all bluffs are solidly caked from water to summit, along a stretch of three miles, with a splendid jumble of massive and picturesque masonry, a bewildering and beautiful confusion of stone platforms, temples, stair-flights, rich and stately palaces nowhere a break, nowhere a glimpse of the bluff itself; all the long face of its is compactly walled from sight by this crammed perspective of platforms, soaring stairways, sculptured temples, majestic places, softening away into the distances; and there is movement, motion, human life everywhere, and brilliantly costumed – streaming in rainbows up and down the lofty stairways, and massed in metaphorical flower gardens on the miles of great platforms at the river's edge."

The noted German thinker, Count Hermann Keyserling, who traveled extensively all over India immediately before the First World War, has expressed his enchantment with the city in metaphysical terms. The spell cast by Varanasi on him can be appreciated by the fact that a large part of the Indian portion of his Travel Diary of a Philosopher deals with it. He describes the city as "the focus of all the religious thoughts which are connected with the Ganges, and this fact bestows its unique sanctifying power upon it … I feel inclined, like the pilgrims on the Ganges, to sink down every morning before it in fervent gratitude for it si immeasurable what it gives me. I feel nearer here than I have ever done to the heart of the world; here I feel every day as if soon, perhaps even today, I would receive the grace of supreme revelation."

The great photographer of Varanasi and author of books on Indian culture, Richard Lannoy, who has made several visits to Varanasi, has gone into raptures in his first description of the city half a century ago. "The November day on which I arrived in Banaras", he writes, "was one of the clear, brilliant light, and though I was tired after a journey of over a thousand miles. I could at once sense a clarity in the air which, during the ensuing months. I came to recognize as a particular quality of Banaras. I walked on that first day along the curving back of the Ganges for the two mile extent of the beautiful stone stepped bathing ghats leading down to the water, past palaces and temples, one of the loveliest sky-lines in the world."

"On climbing the ghats and entering the crowded Banaras streets," he goes on, "one is assailed by the bewildering variety o the scene, no much as that in the simultaneous assault of the senses, it seems that colours have sound, and sounds colour…Though the crowds wander old men who have come to the sacred city to die, men resembling Father Christmas or King Lear, while on who carried the trident of Siva looked like Neptune. Once I saw what seemed to be a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and Dante, while Nebuchadnezzar wandered by, quietly reciting some Sanskrit verse."

While Lannoy has compared some "old men" in the Varanasi crowds with known and easily understood historical figures in the West, many other visitors have made comparison of the city itself with familiar places in the West. The French traveler Francois Bernier called it the "Athens of India", while a later traveler Norman Macleod said that it was "to the Hindus what Mecca is to the Mohammedans and what Jerusalem was to the Jews of old. It is the "holy city of Hindustan." Another visitor, Edwin Arnold, described it as "the Oxford and Canterbury of India in one". Writing rather extravagantly of the antiquity of the city, the nineteenth century missionary in Varanasi, the Rev. M.A. Sherring said: "Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added luster to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory."

Some aspects of life in Varanasi also appalled foreign visitors. Many of them refer to the crowds of beggars making a nuisance of themselves. A typical account is that given by Emma Robberts: "In an account of the temples of Benares, some notice of the crowds of beggars, of every description, which block up the avenues to pagodas in peculiar request, must not be omitted. Many of these mendicants are of the most hideous description – maimed cripples, distorted by accident, or the religious inflictions by which they acquire the reputation of extraordinary sanctity. Numbers have no covering whatsoever, except filth and chalk, their long beards and matted hair; but there are others sturdy, well-clad, and in excellent case, beggars by vocation, who would esteem themselves degraded, should they endeavour to obtain a subsistence by any other means. I have seen one of these seek suppliants absolutely worry the servants of our establishment out of a portion of the grain intended for their own meal, using the most violent gesticulations in enforcing their pertition, and weeping bitterly at refusal." Rousselet too was dismayed by "hosts of hideous beggars, cripples, and hunchbacks, assembled here {who} torment you with their lamentable cries, and will not leave your until they have extorted a few coppers."

Some travelers were shocked by the "impurity and extravagance" of the "superstitious reverence" of the Hindus for all sorts of idols. A quaint description of these idols has been given by Ralph Fitch who visited Varanasi towards the end of the sixteenth century: "Many of them are black and have clawes of brasse with long nayles, and some ride peacocks and other foules which be evill favoured, with long haukes bils, and some like one thing and some another, but none with a good face…Their chiefe idoles bee blacke and evill favoured, their mouthes monstrous their eares gilded, and full of jewels, their teeth and eyes of gold, silver, and glasse, some having one thing in their handes and some another." Three centuries later Mark Twain, who also found them "crude, misshapen and ugly, wrote: "They flock through one's dreams at night, a wild mob of nightmares."

 

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Varanasi Vista (Early Views of the Holy City)

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One of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the holiest in India. Varanasi has attracted pilgrims from all over India for over 2500 years. No account of the travels of Indian visitors and pilgrims to the city, however, is available because of the non-existence of the tradition of recording impressions of such visits by Indians

Nor is there any record of foreign travelers visiting Varanasi until four centuries ago. It was then that travelers form the West started visiting Varanasi on a regular basis, and left animated accounts their visit. Later a number of landscape artists, almost entirely from Britain, began coming to India towards the end of the eighteenth century, and made superb sketches of Varanasi when they visited the city.

The views of Varanasi by the visiting landscape artists gave not only the outside word but also the Indians themselves the first ever visual impression of the scenic splendours of the holy city,. Until then so such visual record existed because of the lack of the genre of landscape painting in an otherwise rich Indian art.

Assembled from public and private art collections in India and abroad, these views are now being published together, along with a short survey of travelers;' accounts of their visit to Varanasi, for the first time.

 

About the Author

Jagmohan Mahajan has written extensively on British landscape artists in India as also on Ganga. His publications include Picturesque India: Sketches and Travels of Thomas and William Daniell. The Raj Landscape: British Views of Indian Cities and the Ganga Trail: Foreign Accounts of the River Scene.

 

Travellers' Accounts

Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the holiest in India. It has long been recognized as one of the most important places of pilgrimage and ritual bathing on the banks of the Gang, and has attracted pilgrims from all over India for over 2500 years. It is no wonder, therefore, that a massive literature of Sanskrit texts containing paeans to the sanctity of the city has grown over the ages. Many myths and legends too have gathered round Varanasi, also called Kashi – city of Light – to account for its sacredness, much of which stems from its steady development as the foremost centre of worship of Shiva.

No account of travels of Indian visitors or pilgrims tro Varanasi is, however, available because of he lack of the tradition of recording the impressions of such visit by Indians. With the exception of the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang (seventh century) and the Persian visitor Abu Rihan Al-Biruni (Eleventh century), there is also no record of foreign travelers visiting Varanasi and leaving account of their visit. This changed about four centuries ago when travelers from the West started visiting the city on the a regular basis. They were a diverse lot, consisting of merchants, missionaries, East India Company officials and also plain travelers. They also belonged to different nationalities: English, French, German and American.

For the first time another type of traveler also appeared on the scene in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. A number of landscape artists, almost entirely from Britain, began coming to India. Poor financial prospects of landscape painters in Britain and the allure of novelty in pursuit of the cult of the "picturesque" in vogue in British art circles at the time were the principal reasons which brought them to India.

Moreover, India was completely virgin territory for visiting artist because the non-existence of the genre of landscape painting in an otherwise rich indigenous India Art. Their sketches thus gave the outside world, in fact even the Indians themselves, the first visual impressions of the spectacular Varanasi ghats, as indeed of the magnificent monuments and scenic beauties in India.

The foreign travelers have left excellent narratives of their visits to Varanasi. The information provided by them is vast and varied, and we find detailed and delightful descriptions of life in the city. They were especially struck by the splendid panorama of the Varanasi riverfront, thronged with vast crowds of people engaged in various occupations from sunrise to late after sunset. What made up a stunning view of incredible appeal, in particular, were the picturesque ghats or flights of broad stone step s leading down to the great river swarming with people performing their daily lustrations at down. All these naturally figure prominently in the animated accounts and superb sketches of the visitors.

Almost the first account of Varanasi by a foreign traveler is that of Hiuen Tsang who visited India in the first half of the seventh century. He was the most renowned of the long line of Chinese pilgrims who came to India from the fifth to the seventh centuries to visit the holy places of Buddhism in India and to collect Buddhist manuscripts and images.

Varanasi (Po-la-na-ssu) according to Hiuen Tsang was already the holy city of Hinduism by then. Hiuen Tsang was impressed by the wealth of Varanasi is ancient culture as well as the large number of its Hindu temples. "These temples", he wrote, "stand several stories high and are richly adorned with sculptured decoration, the wooden parts being brightly painted in many colours. They are set in thickly wooded parks and surrounded by pools of clear water". He specially mentions seeing in one of these temples a huge stature of Shiva "full of grandeur and majesty: at the sight of it one is filled with a fearful respect as if one were in the very presence of the god".

Four centuries late, the Persian traveler Abu Rihan Al-Biruni arrived in India and left a highly perceptive account of his visit. He makes a particular reference to the Indian customs of making pilgrimage to holy places, specially for ritual bathing. Varanasi was even then the holiest place in India, and he wrote: "The Hindus have some places which are venerated for reasons connected with their law and religion, e.g. Benares. For their anchorites wander to it and stay there forever, as the dwellers of the Ka'ba. stay forever in Mekka. They want to live there to the end of their lives, that their reward after death should be the better for it. They say that a murderer is held responsible for his crime and punished with a punishment due to his guilt, except in case he enters the city of Benares, where he obtains pardon."

The curtain now rings down upon the scene for almost five centuries again until travelers form the West started visiting Varanasi at regular intervals and leaving animated accounts and delightful drawings of the city. The first really exhaustive account of Varanasi is by Ralph Fitch, an English merchant, who traveled down the Ganga from Allahabad to Patna towards the end of the sixteenth century. Describing Varanasi as "a great towne", he writes: "in this place they be all Gentiles, ad be the greatest idolaters that ever I sawe. To this towne come the Gentiles on pilgrimage out of farre countreys. They never pray but I the water and they wash themselves overhead, and lade up water with both their handes and turne themselves about, and then they drink a little of the water three times, and so goe tom their good which stand in those houses. Some of them will wash a place which is their length, and then will pray upon the earth with their armes and legs at length, all will rise up and lie downe, and kisse the ground twentie or thirtie times, but they will not stirre their right foote."

The next traveler to leave ad detailed description of the city is Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the celebrated French Jeweller and traveler, who went round the country extensively in the middle of the seventeenth century. His description of the great ancient temple dedicated to Vishnu under the name of Bindu Madhava at the Panchganga Ghat in Varanasi, considered to be one of the most sacred temples in the city, is particularly valuable. This is indeed the only account by foreigner of this famous temple before it was destroyed in 1669 by orders of the bigoted Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who had a mosque constructed on the site which has dominated the riverfront ever since.

The building, Tavernier says, "is in the figure of a cross having its four arms equal. In the middle a lofty dome rises like a kind tower with many sides terminating in point, and at the end each arm of cross another tower rises, which can be ascended from outside. Before reaching the top there are many niches and several balconies, which project to intercept the fresh air: and all over the tower there are rudely executed figures in relief of various kinds of animals. Under this great doe, and exactly in the middle of the pagoda, there is an altar like a table, of 7 to 8 feet in length and 5 to 6 wide, with two steps in front, which serve as footstool, and this footstool is covered with a beautiful tapestry, sometimes of silk and sometimes of gold and silk, according to the solemnity of the rite which is being celebrated. The altar is covered with gold and silver brocade, or some beautiful painted cloth. From outside the pagoda this altar faces you with the idols upon it; for the women and girls must salute it from the outside, as, save only those of a certain tribe, they are ant allowed to enter the pagda. Among the idols on the great altar one stand 5 to 6 feet in height; neither the arms, legs, nor trunk are seen only the head and neck being visible; all the remainder of the body, down to the altar, is covered by a robe which increases in width below. Sometimes on its neck there is a rich chain of gold, rubies, pearls, or emeralds. This idol has bee made in honour and after the likeness of Bainmadou [Bindu Madhav], formerly a great and holy personage among them, whose name they often have on their lips. On the right site of the altar there is also the figure of an animal, or rather of a chimera, seeing that it represents in part an elephant, in part a hors, and in part a mule. It is of massive gold, and is called Garou [Garuda], no person being allowed to approach it but the Brahmans."

Tavernier also visited the nearby college founded by Raja Jai Singh for the education of the youth of good families. He has given a lively description of the dignity of the establishment where he saw two of the young princes of Jaipur being taught Sanskrit and astronomy by skilful Brahmans. He naturally makes no mention of the famous observatory for that was erected on this site much later.

William Hodges, the first British professional landscape artist to visit India from 1780 to 1783, not only made several drawings of Varanasi but also left a vivid account of what he saw. Varanasi, Hodges wrote, "is built on the North side of the river, which is here very broad, and the banks of which are very high from the water, its appearance is extremely beautiful; the great variety of the buildings strikes the eye, and the whole view is much Improved by innumerable flights of stone steps, which are either entrances into the several temples, or to the houses. Several Hindoo temples greatly embellish the banks of the river, and are all ascended to by Gauts, or flights of steps, such as I have already noticed. Many other public and private buildings possess also considerable magnificence. Several of these I have painted, and some on a large scale, such as I conceived the subject demanded.

"The streets in the city are narrow, and not kept in such good order as I expected, from some Hindoo villages I had before seen. The houses are very high; I observed some in which I counted five stories, each inhabited by different families. The more wealthy Hindoos, however, live in detached houses, with open courts, surrounded by a wall. The heat, in this place, is considered as very great in the hot months, not only from its natural situation, but from the houses beings all built of free stone, as well as from the narrowness of the streets, which produce double and treble reflections of the sun's rays."

An animated account of Varanasi is given by Lord Valentia who traveled extensively all over India at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A charming picture of the city by Henry Salt, the British landscape artist who accompanied him on the Indian tour, appears in Valentia's travelogue. "The river", he writes, "forms here a very fine sweep of about four miles in length. On the external side of the curve, which is constantly the most elevated, is situated the holy city of Benares. It is covered with buildings to the water's edge, and the opposite shore being, as usual, extremely level, the whole may be beheld at once. From passing through the streets, or even from viewing it from the minars, I could have formed no conception of its beauty. Innumerable pagodas of every sizes and shape occupy the bank, and even have encroached on the river, Uniformly built of stone, and of the most solid workmanship, they are able to resist the torrents, which in the rainy season beat against them. Several are painted, others gilded, and some remain of the colour of the stone. They generally have domes, often finished with trident of Mahadeva. Gauts are very frequent for the convenience of ablution; and wherever the houses approach the river, they are necessarily built thirty feet high of large stones, before they reach the level of the street above. The contrast between these elevated masses of solid masonry, and the light domes of the pagodas, in singular and pleasing. Trees occasionally overhand the walls, and the thousands of people constantly either bathing, or washing line in the water, add not a little to this most extraordinary scene. None of the drawings that I have seen give me the least idea of it."

He also visited Aurangzeb's mosque, and found that the approach to the mosque was "through the most frequented and populous part of the town, and a more extraordinary one I never beheld. The streets are so extremely narrow, that it was with difficulty I prevented my horse from touching the side. The houses are built of stone, some six stories high, close to each and the architectures is as extraordinary ….The windows are extremely small, and probably they are formed in this manner to answer two purposes; first, to prevent the opposite neighbours from overlooking the apartments; and, secondly, to keep the houses more cool during the hot winds." He did not feel particularly happy on reaching, the mosque, for he wrote; "I felt myself sufficiently a Hindoo when viewing the lofty minars, to which that hereafter Government may restore the spot to its original owners, and remove the cruel eyesore fro the holy city."

Lieutenant-Colonel C.R. Forrest a highly talented amateur landscape artist visited Varanasi early in the nineteenth century, and was enthralled by what he saw, Varanasi, he wrote, "is one of the most ancient cities of India. It is there that Brahminic influence exerts unbounded sway; while its opulence and trade entitle it to rank among the principal cities of the world. It is situated on the left bank of the Ganges, here a noble stream, and its extent along the bank of that river is full five miles; its breadth inland being in proportion. Built upon a rising ground, sloping gradually upwards from the water's brink, its buildings appear very lofty when seen from the boats in passing it. Some of the ghauts are very fine edifices; one especially has six stories. Indeed the whole face of the city towards the river is one continued line of these ghauts, which, exclusive of the ornament they are to Benares, are highly commodious and useful in the facility for bathing which they present to its vast population; and the immense crowds of all sexes, in their varied and graceful costumes, who constantly frequent these public resorts, is truly wonderful."

Reginald Heber, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta made a journey up the river from Calcutta in 1824-25 and spent a few days in Varanasi. He describes Varanasi as a "very remarkable city, more entirely and characteristically eastern than any which I have yet seen, and at the same time altogether different from anything in Bengal." Like many other foreign visitors to the city, he found the streets "so, crowded, so narrow, and so winding, that even a tonjon (sedan chair) sometimes passed with difficulty". "The houses", he writes, "are mostly lofty; none I think less than two stories, most of three, and some of five or six, sight which I now saw for the first time in India. The streets, like those of Chester, are considerably lower than the ground floors of the houses, which have mostly arched rows in front, with little shops behind them. The houses are richly embellished with verandas, galleries, projecting oriel windows, and very broad and overhanging eaves, supported by carved brackets. The number of temples is very great, mostly small, and struck like shrines in the angles of the streets, and under the shadows of the lofty houses. There forms, however, are not ungraceful, and they are many of them entirely covered over with beautiful and elaborate carvings of flowers, animals, and palm-branches, equaling in minuteness and richness the best specimens that I have seen of Gothic or Grecian architecture."

An accomplished amateur artist, Captain Robert Elliot, who traveled fairly widely during his service in India, made numerous sketches and left vivid accounts of the places he visited. In the course of a description of Varanasi, e wrote in his Views in the East, published in 1833: "The city of Benaras stands on the left bank of the Ganges, at a part where the river forms a fine sweeping curve of nearly four miles in length. The bank on which the city in situated is the convex side of the river, and is considerably higher than the opposing shore; so that if the town is viewed from a position in the upper part of it, from the breadth of the Ganges at this place, and the lowness of the opposite side, it has the appearance of standing on the margin of a beautifully formed bay…

"The immense flights of steps, called the Ghauts of Benares, form a great ornament to the river face of the city; and, in the early part of the day especially, they present a very beautiful, though, at the same time, a very awful spectacle. Crowds of people come down to wash in, and also to worship the Ganges. The gracefulness of many of the washing figures, the various colours of their dresses, the easy and elegant attitudes in which they stand, and the admirable groups into which they occasionally fall, would form excellent subjects for a painter."

Elliot has also given an account of the commercial activity in the city. Varanasi, he wrote, "is one of the great marts of the riches of the East. Diamonds, pearls, and other precious gems, are brought from all parts of Asia, together with shawls, spices, gums dyes, and perfumes. It is perhaps only here and at a few other places, that the finest products of the looms of Dacca are procurable. Hindoostanee females of rank delight in attiring themselves in a drapery of a texture of thin and transparent, as scarcely to be visible except when folded many times together. This is called night dew; and it is said that a certain monarch objecting to the indecency of his daughter's dress was told that she had clothed herself in several hundred yards of muslin. This delicate article is very expensive, and in all probability never found its way into European markets."

A contemporary of Captain Elliot, Emma Roberts visited India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her articles and books about her Indian travels are highly interesting and informative. Her description of the panorama of Varanasi from the river is particularly engaging; "The views of Benares from the river", she writes, "are exceedingly fine, offering an infinite and untiring variety of scenery, of which the effect is greatly heightened by the number of trees, whose luxuriant foliage intermingles with the parapets and buttresses of the adjacent buildings. In dropping down the stream in a boat, an almost endless succession of interesting objects is presented to the eye. Through the interstices between tower and palace, temple and serai, glimpses are caught of gardens and bazaars stretching inland; an open gate displays the terraced court of some wealthy noble; long cloistered corridors lead to the secluded recesses of the zenana, and small projecting turrets, perched upon the lofty battlements of some high and frowning building, look like the watch-towers of a feudal castle. The ghauts are literally swarming with life al all hours of the day, and every creek and jetty are crowded with craft of various descriptions, all truly picturesque in their form and effect."

"No written description, however elaborate", she goes on to say. "can convey even a faint idea of the extraordinary peculiarities of a place which has no prototype in the East. Though strictly oriental, it differs very widely from all the other cities of Hindostan, and it is only by pictorial representations that any adequate notion can be formed of the mixture of the beautiful and the grotesque, which, piled confusedly together, form that stupendous wall which spreads along the bank of the Ganges at Benares."

In the text she wrote for Robert Elliot's sketches, she said that "although the view of Benares from the river must be considered the most beautiful and imposing, no correct idea can be formed of this singular city, without penetrating into the interior, threading the mazy labyrinths, and taking a bird's eye-view from some towering height. Looking down from the minarets, or some other commanding height, upon the city of Benares, as it lies spread out like a map beneath us, we are surprised by the stately gardens and spacious quadrangles occupying the ground between the high buildings which line the narrow streets. Some of these secluded retreats are remarkably beautiful, surrounded by clusters of stone, decorated with a profusion of florid ornaments, and flanked by some high tower, whence the most delighted prospect imaginable may be obtained of the adjacent country, with its fertile plains, umbrageous woods, and ever-shining river, Others, smaller, are laid out in parterres of flowers, with a fountain playing in the centre, and all are tenanted by numerous birds of the brightest and most resplendent plumage, flocks of every variety of the pigeon and the dove common to the plains, blue jays, yellow-breasted sparrows, and whole battalion of ring-necked paroquets, with their brilliant feathers gleaming like emeralds in the sun, as they skim along soaring far above the mango trees which bear their nets, yet seldom overtopping the crowning pinnacle of the minaret, whence the spectator surveys the singular and beautiful objects revealed to his admiring gaze." The British artist Edward Lear, who visited Varanasi in December 1873, too was struck by the plentiful birds he came across in the city, and noted in his journal: "The pretty myna birds are numerous everywhere; pigeons by 10,000,000."

A fascinating description of a pagoda standing in the river at Varanasi is given by Hobart Caunter, whose account of his Indian travels is really based on the facts obtained by him from the artist William Daniell. Writing in The Oriental Annual, 1834, Caunter Says: "One of the most extraordinary objects to be witnessed at Benares and which is generally one of great curiosity to the stranger, is a pagoda standing in the river, there is nothing to connect it with the shore. The whole foundation is submerged, and two of the towers have declined so much out of the perpendicular as to form an acute angle with liquid plain beneath them….It has been surmised, and with probability, that this temple was originally erected upon the bank of the river, which then offered a firm and unsuspected foundation; but that, in consequence of the continual pressure of the stream, the bank had given way all round the building, which, on about of the depth and solidarity of the foundation, stood firm while the waters surrounded it, thought the towers had been partially dislodged by the shock. Or it may be that even the foundation sank is some degree with the bank, thus projecting the two towers out of the direct perpendicular, and giving them the very extraordinary position which they now retain." Two charming views of this leaning temple were made by Lt-Col. Forrest and Captain Elliot.

In 1853 Lady Canning traveled from Calcutta to Allahabad by boat as was usual at that time. She made a halt at Varanasi and was absolutely fascinated by the city. "The great sight of all", she wrote, "Was Benares – one afternoon I spent in the civil station and outskirts and the next morning made an expedition thru' the Hindoo city. I now feel really to have seen India. Not a trace or touch of anything European exists there. Sounds, sights and smells are all wholely [sic] and entirely Hindoo as they would have been 200 years ago. We were carried in silver tonjons of chairs thru" narrow alleys paved with flags between high carved stone houses interspersed with temples and trees. The great temple with its offerings all wet with Ganges water, and its domes covered with sheets of gold is a curious and horrible sight with its nearly naked painted priests and Faquirs but the main thing is the river's bank clustered with temples and flights of steps to the water crowded with gaily dressed bathers in the most holy spots of the sacred river."

More than anything else, what continued to impress foreign visitors the most was the panorama of the Varanasi riverfront. A delightful description of the Dashashvamedha Ghat is given by Louis Rousselet, a Frenchman who arrived in Bombay in July 1864 and spent about six years traveling widely in India. His voluminous travelogue entitled India and its Native Princes contains a large number of drawings, including a few charming sketches of Varanasi, by some noted French artists. The Dashashvamedha Ghat, he writes, "is situated at the western extremity of the large bend which the Ganges makes at this point, so that we took in at a glance the whole view of the town, standing in tiers like an amphitheatre on the right site of the stream, the situation occupied by Benares has often been compared to that of Naples, and the comparison is not without some accuracy. The bed of the stream, in fact, which is half a mile in breadth, forms a sort of calm blue bay, in which the picturesque façade of the city ranged along its banks in reflected like a crescent. We entered an elegant gondola, and soon were gliding gently in front of the city, gazing on the long succession of admirable pictures unfolding themselves before us. Seen at a little distance from the river, the ghat of Dasasvamedh forms a picture no painter could wish to heighten by a single touch. Its large flights of steps crowned by small temples with their bristling spire have for background, on the one side, the stately masses of a group of palaces surmounting the crests of the plateau, and on the other the plain and elegant façade of the Man Munder [Man Mandir], the great observatory of Benares, erected by the celebrated Jey Singh, of Jeypore [Jay Singh of Jaipur]."

Rousselet found a protestant missionary preaching the superiority of Christianity and the "errors of paganism" in a public place in Varanasi, and the quiet manner in which the people listened to him made a deep enough impression on the traveler to comment on the spirit of religious tolerance of the Hindus. He also witnessed "one of the most brilliant religions festivals of Ganesa [the elephant headed god] celebrate in Benares", with the idl of the diet passing 200 sanctuaries in a procession. A charming drawing of this "truly fairy-like scene" appears alongside his description.

Mark Twain, the celebrated American writer, visited India in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He was not only one of the best known humorists of his generation, but was also one of the greatest travel writers of all time. Like countless foreign travelers before him, he was enchanted b Varanasi. He describes the city "in effect just a big church, a religious hive, whose every cell is a temple, a shrine or a mosque, and whose every conceivable earthly and heavenly god is procurable under one roof, so to speak - a sort of Army and Navy Stores, theologically stocked". Varanasi he writes, "is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together".

Mark Twain found the Ganga as "the supreme show-place of Benares. Its all bluffs are solidly caked from water to summit, along a stretch of three miles, with a splendid jumble of massive and picturesque masonry, a bewildering and beautiful confusion of stone platforms, temples, stair-flights, rich and stately palaces nowhere a break, nowhere a glimpse of the bluff itself; all the long face of its is compactly walled from sight by this crammed perspective of platforms, soaring stairways, sculptured temples, majestic places, softening away into the distances; and there is movement, motion, human life everywhere, and brilliantly costumed – streaming in rainbows up and down the lofty stairways, and massed in metaphorical flower gardens on the miles of great platforms at the river's edge."

The noted German thinker, Count Hermann Keyserling, who traveled extensively all over India immediately before the First World War, has expressed his enchantment with the city in metaphysical terms. The spell cast by Varanasi on him can be appreciated by the fact that a large part of the Indian portion of his Travel Diary of a Philosopher deals with it. He describes the city as "the focus of all the religious thoughts which are connected with the Ganges, and this fact bestows its unique sanctifying power upon it … I feel inclined, like the pilgrims on the Ganges, to sink down every morning before it in fervent gratitude for it si immeasurable what it gives me. I feel nearer here than I have ever done to the heart of the world; here I feel every day as if soon, perhaps even today, I would receive the grace of supreme revelation."

The great photographer of Varanasi and author of books on Indian culture, Richard Lannoy, who has made several visits to Varanasi, has gone into raptures in his first description of the city half a century ago. "The November day on which I arrived in Banaras", he writes, "was one of the clear, brilliant light, and though I was tired after a journey of over a thousand miles. I could at once sense a clarity in the air which, during the ensuing months. I came to recognize as a particular quality of Banaras. I walked on that first day along the curving back of the Ganges for the two mile extent of the beautiful stone stepped bathing ghats leading down to the water, past palaces and temples, one of the loveliest sky-lines in the world."

"On climbing the ghats and entering the crowded Banaras streets," he goes on, "one is assailed by the bewildering variety o the scene, no much as that in the simultaneous assault of the senses, it seems that colours have sound, and sounds colour…Though the crowds wander old men who have come to the sacred city to die, men resembling Father Christmas or King Lear, while on who carried the trident of Siva looked like Neptune. Once I saw what seemed to be a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and Dante, while Nebuchadnezzar wandered by, quietly reciting some Sanskrit verse."

While Lannoy has compared some "old men" in the Varanasi crowds with known and easily understood historical figures in the West, many other visitors have made comparison of the city itself with familiar places in the West. The French traveler Francois Bernier called it the "Athens of India", while a later traveler Norman Macleod said that it was "to the Hindus what Mecca is to the Mohammedans and what Jerusalem was to the Jews of old. It is the "holy city of Hindustan." Another visitor, Edwin Arnold, described it as "the Oxford and Canterbury of India in one". Writing rather extravagantly of the antiquity of the city, the nineteenth century missionary in Varanasi, the Rev. M.A. Sherring said: "Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added luster to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory."

Some aspects of life in Varanasi also appalled foreign visitors. Many of them refer to the crowds of beggars making a nuisance of themselves. A typical account is that given by Emma Robberts: "In an account of the temples of Benares, some notice of the crowds of beggars, of every description, which block up the avenues to pagodas in peculiar request, must not be omitted. Many of these mendicants are of the most hideous description – maimed cripples, distorted by accident, or the religious inflictions by which they acquire the reputation of extraordinary sanctity. Numbers have no covering whatsoever, except filth and chalk, their long beards and matted hair; but there are others sturdy, well-clad, and in excellent case, beggars by vocation, who would esteem themselves degraded, should they endeavour to obtain a subsistence by any other means. I have seen one of these seek suppliants absolutely worry the servants of our establishment out of a portion of the grain intended for their own meal, using the most violent gesticulations in enforcing their pertition, and weeping bitterly at refusal." Rousselet too was dismayed by "hosts of hideous beggars, cripples, and hunchbacks, assembled here {who} torment you with their lamentable cries, and will not leave your until they have extorted a few coppers."

Some travelers were shocked by the "impurity and extravagance" of the "superstitious reverence" of the Hindus for all sorts of idols. A quaint description of these idols has been given by Ralph Fitch who visited Varanasi towards the end of the sixteenth century: "Many of them are black and have clawes of brasse with long nayles, and some ride peacocks and other foules which be evill favoured, with long haukes bils, and some like one thing and some another, but none with a good face…Their chiefe idoles bee blacke and evill favoured, their mouthes monstrous their eares gilded, and full of jewels, their teeth and eyes of gold, silver, and glasse, some having one thing in their handes and some another." Three centuries later Mark Twain, who also found them "crude, misshapen and ugly, wrote: "They flock through one's dreams at night, a wild mob of nightmares."

 

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The Ganga Trail (Foreign Accounts and Sketches of the River Scene)
by JAGMOHAN MAHAJAN
Hardcover (Edition: 2004)
Indica Books, Varanasi
Item Code: IDD696
$40.00$30.00
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THE HINDU PANTHEON IN NEPALESE LINE DRAWING (Two Manuscripts of the Pratisthalaksanasarasamuccaya)
by Gudrun Buhnemann
Hardcover (Edition: 2003)
Indica Books, Varanasi
Item Code: IDD699
$31.00$23.25
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The Wisdom of Ananda Coomaraswamy (Great Thoughts Selected from his writings, letters and speeches)
by S. Durai Raja Singam
Paperback (Edition: 2001)
Indica Books, Varanasi
Item Code: IDD712
$14.00$10.50
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Metallurgy in Indian Archaeology
by H.C. Bhardwaj
Hardcover (Edition: 2000)
Tara Printing Works, Varanasi
Item Code: NAK474
$30.00$22.50
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