Benares: A World Within a World (The Microcosm of Kashi Yesterday and Today)

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Item Code: IDJ557
Author: Richard Lannoy
Publisher: Indica Books, Varanasi
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 8186569251
Pages: 419 (Illustration throughout in Black and White)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.2" X 5.5"
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Book Description

About the Author

Richard Lannoy is the author of several books on India, including The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society, published by Oxford University Press in 1971 and still in print in India. He was on the founding staff of the ICA, London (1950-52), where he set up a celebrated forum, the Independent Group. He became a freelance photographer working for various international magazines, and on assignment for United Nations to the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza (1952). He became seriously interested in India back in 1947, but began his work there, and particularly in Benares, in 1953, and on several subsequent visits until 1960, returning again in the Eighties, but completing his magnum opus on Benares in 1999. His thinking on Benares has never ceased for close on half a century, despite the infrequency of opportunities to reside there. He lives in Bath, and equally regards his work as author, photographer and painter as ways to advance a holistic view of life.

Back of the Book

This major contribution to the study of urban culture, first published in 1999 as the magnificent photographic book Benares Seen from Within, is now issued in a more accessible format, its text substantially revised.

This book is the most inclusive presentation of this extraordinary city ever attempted. It is the fruit of a lifelong interest in Benares from 1953 until the present day by an author well known for his unusual combination of reflective thought, scholarship and poetic sensibility.

Lannoy show how the populace of Benares lives within a historical environment spanning at least three millennia of continuous habitation. Though now beset with all the characteristic urban ills of the age, it is arguably the oldest living city in the world to retain its original cosmic orientation. A center of learning since antiquity, its way of life has not essentially changed until the last few years.

The variety and range of themes is remarkable. Lannoy explains the metaphysical substructure of the city organized as a microcosm of the universe. He shows how the extremely ancient cults of the pillar and the sun-whell survive and continue to underpin the society's ritual calendar in unbroken continuity for millennia, and gives a vivid account of how the Buddha's life and teaching two thousand five hundred years ago had a profound influence on Benares. The city's association with Yoga as well as with thriving commerce and weaving, the location of the uniquely central burning ghat-all under the aegis of Shiva and Kala Bhairava- the importance to the city's economy of the pilgrim trade, are shown here to foster a distinctive blend of spirituality and worldliness.

Lannoy's survey extends right up to the present, with a searching critique of the city's troubled history of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, the politicization of the crisis between religion and secularism and a lively account of leading personalities from Shankara to Kabir and Tulsidas, Gandhi and Anandamayi Ma. Lannoy has pondered deeply over a lifetime the significance of this venerable city, infusing these pages with the sagacity of lived experience. Illustrated with many photographs by the author.


Kashi- or Varanasi or Benares- is Hindu India in miniature, both in its spiritual and material identities. Every single landmark in Kashi offers a multi-layered experience. Obviously they are a bundle of contradictions, yet comprise a mosaic of inner experience; in fact they complement each other. Their sum total is Kashi. As a child, some six decades ago, I felt confused by such diversity. While creating Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, my father Rai Krishnadasa introduced me to every kind of ancient and medieval artifact and in the process tried to assuage my expectation of easy answers to my persistent questioning. Though he encouraged my inquiries he gradually trained me to accept and attune myself to phenomenal diversity. For instance, a fifth century headless sculpture of the Buddha is discovered and installed on a platform. In the course of time a small and gaudy structure accumulates round it and it comes to be revered as a folk deity and worshipped as Murkatta Baba, "Headless God". Or a horn like projection on the trunk of a neem tree is smeared with vermilion and hailed as a manifestation of the Mother Goddess wielding unlimited powers of benediction. But "She" can equally well be roused to fury by the least neglect or minor delinquency of her votaries and visit ill fortune upon them.

Kashi defies historicism. Here present-day myth is wrapped in the timeless trappings of Puranic lore, even though it may only be an instance of family history, or even a non-Hindu-occasion. Historical personages or events are clothed in mythical garb. Modern Benares has buildings going back only four hundred years or so, while large areas considered old are hardly more than one or two centuries old. Yet as we enter the arabesque like labyrinthine alleys of the old city illuminated by the slate-grey light of day, we cannot miss the smell of an antique shop or the storeroom of a museum. The city of Benares lives in the past and the present simultaneously. As we look at a sapling bodhi tree ("botree": Gautama the Buddha "Realized the Truth" under its shade 2500 years ago), though the sapling is recent, yet we are transported at once into the times of the Buddha. Similarly, other old cities of the world, especially those with a religious base, never die. Benares has the added distinction of having an uninterrupted cultural and religious history. About twelve hundred years ago, the text Kuttanimatam depicted the easy going Benaresi lifestyle. The very same style was present in Benaresis of my generation at the time of Independence fifty years ago. Even now, the changes are only skin deep. In his free moments, every Benaresi is a mast (like an elephant)- living in an unfettered state of mind and in a world of his own. How long the Benaresi lifestyle will continue to remain under western influence nobody can tell.

Richard Lannoy is busier today than he was half a century ago. When he speaks the Tree speaks; a myriad birds perched on the Tree may all speak in different voices, but they are in harmony. One thinks of the way Sujata, a village girl, saw in Buddha a rukkha devata (vriksha devata), or tree sprit, and offered him sweets. In that particular situation Gautama changed course and attained Buddhahood. While still a rukkha devata to Sujata, and a tapasvi practicing religious austerities to his followers, he was not yet a Buddha. Thus the myth starts with the Tree, as it does at the time of his birth, when his mother clasped a tree branch as she delivered him. The same wisdom continues to reach us through the Speaking Tree on a different wavelength, and it presides over Lannoy's photography, lectures, and writing. (This is an allusion to his book on India with that title).

Lannoy calls himself a photographer in the first instance and, in whispered tone, an author. Both his writings and photography ponder the "whys"; he only asks a "why" after careful deliberation. His pictures are calligraphic while his writings are pictorial. Yet in either case he reveals a soft spot for India, and especially for Benares. He is indeed an Indophile, which simultaneously defies both pedestrian rationlism and materialism. His pictures are equally meaningful to us for containing shadow as for depicting light. India is a myth to him, perhaps an icon. He is always a pathfinder and sees through the frailties and decay, which beset India to reveal its inner strength. He maintains a detached view, yet can be likened to a painter who makes a place for himself as a co-actor within the scene he depicts. His writing and pictures brim with emotion as the basis for his "objective and analytical" stance, though rationalism does not mar his vision. He looks at India with an "integral vision". With his exposure to Benares during forty years he knows it intimately. Therefore when he speaks of Kashi it is very special to us. He has had the privilege of being in close contact with exceptional people of the city, especially Mata Anandamayi. Hs biography of the Mata captures the occult air which emanated from her.

What will Lannoy tell us about Kashi following on from his previous publications? He writes (or photographs) with introspective vision; one can discern an air of "belonging" to Benares rather than that of an outsider. He has a detached involvement with Kashi. At other times he is almost an oracle like the Speaking Tree, sounding an optimistic note, indicating that, despite contrary pressure, this "oldest living city" will possibly continue to "breathe freely". Lannoy is in tune with the inner self of Kashi. Even his more reserved comments compel us to take note; more often he seeks our participation in his thought processes.

As I write these lines under the ample shade of a tropical Molsiri tree, its tiny star like flowers keep raining down on my head and shoulders. Wave on wave of fragrance wafts over me and the great tree speaks to me. The immense vastness of such a tree speaks to me. The immense vastness of such a tree provides us shade and blossoms every night, pulsating with the twinkle of its starflowers. Indeed they speak to us in their own twinkling language. One of these on our good earth is Benares itself-which also speaks to us as the tree. Lannoy hears its whisperings and we also hear it through him.-Rai Anand Krishna


This book has only reached its final form after years of reflection and numerous revisions. It began, like the books of many photographers, as a photographic miscellany. However, it soon became evident that this rich and complex city culture called for a more carefully wrought design.

Following publication of the large-format edition with its numerous photographs (Benares Seen from Within, Callisto Books, Indica Books and Washington University Press, 1999), my publisher in Benares, Indica Books, thought that a smaller-format version at a much reduced price, including a small selection of photographs, but retaining virtually all the text, might make the book more accessible in India. I have therefore removed a few paragraphs from the original version, and made substantial additions to the text, along with a few revisions. Following the immense labour of writing, layout and production of the first version, I have had time for reflection and have tried to improve at least a number of the book's manifest deficiencies.

I have added designs to head each chapter be collages of small fragments from old pilgrim maps. To my knowledge these charming woodcuts, executed towards the end of the nineteenth century, were among the very last surviving folkloric engravings still available in Benares in the 1950s. It is a pleasure to snip at zerox copies of them and re-arrange them in new designs, for they transmit into my hands a vanished sensibility no longer accessible other than through ephemeral artifacts from a bygone age. My original woodcuts were actually used as scrap paper to wrap up the attractive painted wooden toys I purchased in 1954, for which Benares in renowned.

After living for a while in the heart of the city in the early Fifties, my whole perspective changed. I began to see the role of Benares as a microcosm of all India's main spiritual concerns down the ages, reflecting the unusually pluralistic ethnic composition of the city's population. With the help of comparative study of other ancient city cultures, I realized that this microcosm was the outcome of a protracted millennial attempt to reflect and condense the order of the cosmos itself. Other ancient cities followed the same course, but Benares is probably the last one that still continues to do so.

After living for a while in the heart of the city in the early Fifties, my whole perspective changed. I began to see the role of Benares as a microcosm of all India's main spiritual concerns down the ages, reflecting the unusually pluralistic ethnic composition of the city's population. With the help of comparative study of other ancient city cultures, I realized that this microcosm was the outcome of a protracted millennial attempt to reflect and condense the order of the cosmos itself. Other ancient cities followed the same course, but Benares is probably the last one that still continues to do so.

I allude to the city's cosmic layout and microcosmic function in the main body of the text. But I will do no more than offer a provisional distillation from the constituents of the microcosm. I do believe, however, that my parameters encompass just enough of the city's essential qualities, history and way of life to make it clear why its microcosmic totalisation is quite distinct from all other great Indian urban cultures. The text corresponds as closely as possible to the city's ancient two-fold mythical composition: Forest of Bliss and Forest of Worldly Prosperity- or Anandavana and Arthavana- Paradise of Spirit and Paradise of the Senses. So inextricably interwoven are the two domains that each echoes its opposite.

Benares has repeatedly been destroyed and then rebuilt from nothing but rubble. It has not lodged its history in buildings. The real past of Benares is a past of the mind, upon which nobody sets any store other in its capacity to inspire the present. Its imperishable elements are moments of human experience. In fact, despite pitiably few material remains from its more ancient past, the eternal moments of the city are recorded in the written word, embodied in extraordinarily durable, still potent, sacred sites, and evoked by a few surviving art treasures of exceptional quality. These moments of heightened experience which I call true sacred drama should receive attention even at this eleventh hour, just before the city's old way of life finally dissolves altogether.

An ancient Indian text puts an interesting gloss on the descriptive historian's efforts to express the timeless through the fugitive: "Consciousness of the 'Unmanifest' is experienced through the senses, shining forth in an instant and disappearing like the twinkling of a star" (Kena Upanishad). Despite an increasingly prevalent mood of disquiet, the sacred city continues to function. However, my account is intended to reflect our emerging global crisis, both spiritual and ecological. But then Benares has long beenb what Bernard Shaw called 'a flame that is always burning itself out'.

Living among the people of this extraordinary city opened my eyes to levels of psychological and spiritual awareness which we in the West, with our more externalized preoccupations, had thrust into the unconscious. Although the city's various belief systems and their respective symbolism are uniquely Indian, but universal, human proclivities. This is especially apparent in the city's unflinching attitude toward mortality and an unprejudiced assent to the cult of transgressive sacrality. With what seems to me the kind of sophistication which only comes to civilizations many centuries old, these are people who have created an all encompassing cultural environment with the power to return us to ourselves. The teeming life of Benares reflected back to me aspects of myself, which I had persistently overlooked. My outward pilgrimage took me into the inner recesses of my won being.

The response of others to photographs I brought back from this venture into the interior suggested that they too found, in a city, which they had never visited, something paradoxically, even uncomfortably, familiar. While I hesitate to put a name to this quality, I am clear in my own mind that it derives, quite simply, from a common tendency to view a city-any city, but especially one that is ancient- as a metaphor. While Benares is thus known as the City of Light, it also represents its psychologically constellated opposite: The City of Darkness and Dream. Certain writers-Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Rilke, Eliot, Calvino, and the almost totally unknown English poet, Lewis Thompson- the only one among them to have lived in Benares- all fashioned their urban metaphors in the light of a black sun. Words and pictures here give greater emphasis to a luminous brightness of spirit. Nevertheless, they are also inflected by the tenebrous quality peculiar to Benares.

I must at once acknowledge the debt I owe to four mentors, if the reader is to obtain some idea of the influences which have shaped my approach: Elias Canetti, with whom I had frequent discussions on the phenomenology of crowds; Mircea Eliade, with whom I discussed the absence of a word for 'sacred' in Sanskrit- while he was selecting my photographs for his book on Patanjali; John Irwin, who opened my eyes to the fundamental importance of the earliest pre-Hindu and pre-Buddhist culture of Benares; and finally Lewis Mumford, author of the magisterial The City in History, whom I met at the time of his lecturing at the London ICA in 1951. My point of departure for my study of Benares is a one-word concept used by Mumford to characterize the energy universally at the heart of urban of urban culture: the tendency of urban peoples to generate cultural implosion. He shows how the ancient city "concentrates certain 'spiritual' or supernatural powers, powers of higher potency and greater duration, of wider cosmic significance, than the ordinary processes of life". Mumford was adamant in his insistence that "the first germs of the city is in the ceremonial meeting place that serves the goal of pilgrimage". This is the essence of Benares culture and it sets the parameters of the present book.


The universal theme underlying all the civilisations of Asian and European antiquity can be stated in a single sentence: “They alone shall prosper who live from the powers of the cosmos.” Those are the words of a great philosopher of cities, WaIter Benjamin. He characterises the ancients' mode of intercourse with the cosmos as the ecstatic trance, and distinguishes between the communal nature of this holistic engagement and “the dangerous error of modem men to regard the experience as unimportant, even avoid-able, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it.” Not so long ago that note of warning behind Benjamin’s acclamation of cosmic awareness went unheeded. With the dawn of global concern over the planet’s ecological crisis and a spate of linked scientific research into the origins of the cosmos, and why man’s place in it is now under threat, this is no longer so.

In an age when cities everywhere in the world have begun to suffer from acute congestion, physical dilapidation and environmental pollution, in India we have a city still committed to cosmic vision, but in the throes of what might turn out to be terminal disintegration, yet which just manages to survive in a way little short of miraculous. For Benares uniquely, not only among Indian cities but everywhere else, is the last ancient city which still maintains active holistic intercourse with the cosmos. Renewed world-wide interest in cosmic processes gives this unusual, but fundamental, nature of Benares an intriguing new significance. For India’s millennia-old spiritual capital is not only a microcosm of all India, with people gathered from every corner of the sub- continent, but since the pre-Einsteinian cosmos was essentially the same no matter where one happened to be on the planet, it is also a historical microcosm of all cosmic cities of the ancient world. The defining quality of Benares, then, is that in a highly structured way it is a unique and complex micro-cosmos.

Since the word ‘cosmos’, synonymous with ‘universe’, expresses the idea of an ordered whole, we may apply it in the context of a study devoted to a sacred city. Both terms, ‘cosmic’ and 'sacred', carry metaphysical implications. But by expressly linking itself to the Cosmos, Benares has achieved something more complex than just an ‘ordered whole’: a physical and metaphysical totality so carefully calibrated as to be cathected with the powers of the Cosmos, be they divine or planetary. Its layout, its pilgrimage schemata and its seasonal round of sacred drama comprise a scale-model and functioning simulacrum of the all-encompassing Cosmos. No other Indian city in its entirety still possesses this integral function as a metaphysically coherent mirror to the All. Nor do any of the great ancient cosmic cities which survive physically still actually function cosmically in this manner - not Jerusalem, not Rome, not Beijing, not Lhasa, not Angkor. Because Benares still, even in its decaying condition - blighted by the cruelly neccessitous practicalities of technology - manages to de- ploy every art traditional to its several religions, providing a glimpse of unparalleled amplitude into the old pre-scientific cosmic culture from which our ultra-modem perception of Outer Space ultimately derives.

“Nothing distinguishes the ancient from the modem man so much as the former’s absorption in a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods. Its waning is marked by the flowering of astronomy at the beginning of the modem age” (Benjamin). Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler in Europe, the Chinese at Beijing, Uluk Beg at Samarkand, and Jai Sing at five Indian cities including Benares, “were certainly not driven by scientific impulses alone, “Benjamin reminds us. “All the same, exclusive emphasis on our visual connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come ... Technology is not the mastery of nature but the relation between nature and man. In technology... mankind's contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form. “This last precious remnant of the ancient cosmic commitment at Benares, by being the exact contrary, illuminates what we now know scientifically about the cosmos. Yet on the roof of the palace of the Jaipur kings, high above the Ganges at Benares, we find beautiful masonry and bronze astronomical instruments which mark the transition from the last of the ‘stone age' observatories to nascent scientific exactitude. Within a single sweeping glance over the panorama, which includes both observatory and sacred city, we can obtain an inkling of the momentous historical shift. For it is in this extraordinary combination of intercourse with, and precisely measured scrutiny of, the cosmos that learned men sought, in Benjamin’s words, “to gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never the one without the other.” If I were to choose a single figure in the history of Benares as the finest example on which to model my own much more limited approach to its world view, it would have to be its august eighteenth century visitor, the great astronomer king, Jai Singh, who not only designed and built its observatory but created from scratch his own cosmic city, Jaipur in Rajasthan, on principles laid down by the pandits of Benares in days of old.

The absolute distinction between the old cosmological eye and the new scientific mind is not as clear cut as the foregoing might imply - and it is the delicate connection between the two opposed views which actually helps us to obtain a sharper and more positive view of the earlier approach. The brilliant young cosmologist now challenging the scientific establishment, Juan Mgwaeshu, has come up with the most radical idea in this contentious field since Einstein discarded his own notion of the cosmological constant: restore credence to this very concept which had so embarrassed its first proponent. In so doing, Mgwaeshu’s new view of the cosmos as originating not in a single once-and- for-all Big Bang, but in a succession of cosmologically constant Big Bangs ad infinitum, bears resemblance to the ancient Indian idea of the Eternal Return, a cyclical universe that passes through a succession of cosmic holocausts, pralaya, at the conclusion of vastly protracted aeons, or yugas. While the premisses on which the two views are based are substantially different, their methodology contrary, their intellectual consequences divergent, nevertheless our focus on the holistic achievement of men like Jai Singh and the cosmological pandits of Benares reveals the power of aesthetic enthusiasm to desclose objective truths. "Western science," writes Northrop, "has been concerned with the indirectly verified, un- seen, theoretic component in things upon which the philosophy and culture of the West are based," whereas the Indian “conception of the nature of things and of the nature of the divine is essentially immediate, passionate and aesthetic in character.”

For three millennia people have come to Benares with the wonderful idea of dreaming up a city that contains everything, a totality in the image of the cosmos. The very presumption of such a vision is diametrically opposed to our modem empowering themes of non-completion, incessant revision, provisional resolutions, pressure against perfection, centrifugal dispersion, unfinished immensity. What gradually evolved in Benares over many centuries is, above all, the possibility - a botched and absurd possibility, a paradox in fact, but for all that intoxicating - of a city turned inside out.




  Acknowledgements 5
  Foreword by Dr. Anand Krishna 9
  Preface 15
  Introduction: The Last Cosmic City 19
I. The Center of the World 35
II. The Cosmogram 45
III. Benares as a State of Mind 49
IV. A Guide for Benares 63
V. The Interconnectedness of Things 67
VI. Forest of Bliss 79
VII. The Meaning of Pilgrimage 87
VIII. Ganga 97
IX. Hinduism in Practice 113
X. Abode of the Gods 127
XI. Shiva and the Lat Bhairo 135
XII. Dissolution, Death and Regeneration 159
XIII. Glimpses of History  
  1. The Indo-Aryans 195
  2. The Ten-Horse Sacrifice 211
  3. The Kingdom of Kashi 213
  4. Center of Learning 217
  5. The Buddha and Benares 221
  6. The Rise of Hinduism 255
  7. Center of Commerce 259
  8. City of Master Weavers 263
  9. The Brahmin and the Outcaste 269
  10. The Muslim Period 285
  11. Astronomer King 299
  12. The British Period 305
  13. A New Phase 315
  14. Modern Times: The Limits of Secularism 321
  15. A New Passage to India 333
XIV. Renunciates and Holy Fools 349
XV. Wisdom and Grace 367
XVI. Night Thoughts 389
  Glossary 397
  Bibliography 407
  Index 413


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