Essence of Banaras

Published : May 18, 2012 00:00 IST

The book looks at many hitherto unexplored aspects of the culture and history of Banaras and helps one understand its complexity.

BANARAS (officially Varanasi) is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is perhaps one of the few sites that have witnessed continuous habitation from ancient times. Even during the lifetime of the Buddha, it was a flourishing city. No wonder that it evokes images of the universal, the timeless and the cosmic, and is deeply embedded in the consciousness of an average Hindu. Foreigners have often viewed it through the prism of orientalist notions, adding to the romance and myth of Banaras.

However, as Michael S. Dodson makes it clear in a well-written introduction to the eight essays that constitute Banaras: Urban Forms and Cultural Histories, the book under review, actually set out to demystify and de-romanticise Banaras. The essays pull this hoary city out of its supposed timelessness and locate it in the nearly 200 years of colonial experience between the 18th and 20th centuries. The essays describe and analyse the uniqueness of the urban identities that were shaped by the city's encounter with British colonial rule, rooted as they were in its culture and history. The essays also remind us that Banaras is not an eternal, sacred or ahistorical city associated with any particular religious or cultural tradition but a city forged in the cauldron of British imperialism.

In the opening essay, Madhuri Desai describes Banaras as a city of negotiations, whose built environment mansions, temples, ghats, and other structures came into existence as a result of the religious politics of 18th and 19th century northern India. She pays attention to the construction activity of the Maratha Peshwas and other rulers that went a long way in constituting the Hindu religious identity of the city. Madhuri Desai argues that in the absence of an ancient city and its archaeological remains, continuous efforts were made by Brahmin scholars to make liberal use of the various Sanskrit texts such as the Puranas to establish and reinforce Banaras' identity as a major Hindu pilgrim centre. Such efforts were supported by British colonial officers, who often saw things in the Hindu-Muslim context. She offers interesting details and an absorbing analysis of the way tradition was invented and various new religious fairs and ritual practices such as the Ganga Saptami Mela and the Dangal Mela were introduced in these centuries to create a religious public sphere. Maratha ruler Ahilyabai Holkar played an important role in transforming the nature of the Dashashvamedha and Manikarnika ghats and built them to be used by the public for religious purposes.

Madhuri Desai also discusses activities of various organisations such as the Kashi Tirtha Sudhar Trust that contributed a great deal to this process. She draws attention to the fact that Banaras had possessed a marked Indo-Islamic character in the 17th and early 18th centuries as is evident in the built environment of that period. However, she seems to have overemphasised the role played by British colonial officers in engineering Hindu-Muslim tensions and presenting the contested sites, such as the Vishveshvara temple and the Gyanvapi mosque, as essentially Hindu sacred structures. In view of the large Muslim population of Banaras, they tried to negotiate religious differences within the public sphere.

Sudeshna Guha's essay, Material Truths and Religious Identities, discusses the role played by archaeological discoveries in creating the spatial demarcation of a Hindu Gaya and a Buddhist Gaya or a Hindu Kashi and a Buddhist Sarnath into mutually exclusive religious domains. While from circa 600 BCE Kashi or Varanasi had a multi-religious Hindu, Buddhist and Jain identity, it was only in the past 180 years that it was trifurcated into three separate identities as material remains from the hoary past were discovered in and around the city.

However, it seems to be an overstatement to suggest that archaeology has played a decisive role in this process. Its discoveries may have provided concrete evidence to the Buddhists who had all along believed that the Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, but one is not sure if they actually resulted in tearing the composite identity of Banaras asunder. However, Sudeshna Guha says that it was British archaeologists such as Alexander Cunningham and Markham Kittoe who imposed a strictly Buddhist identity on Sarnath, disregarding the presence of the followers of other religions. She also considers the role played by British photographers and illustrators such as Dr John Murray, William Hodges and James Prinsep in creating the picturesque stock image of Banaras and its sprawling ghats and reinforcing its Hindu religious identity. In her words, Banaras, thus, continues to remain a case study of the challenges to be met in any attempt to archaeologically unearth the past religious traditions of a living city that claims a primordial antiquity.

William R. Pinch has written a very interesting essay, Hiding in Plain Sight, on the Gosains of Banaras, who not only were armed ascetics but also were involved in vast commercial operations. They played a prominent role in the communal violence that broke out on October 20, 1809, over Kapal Mochan, a disputed site. The violence spread quickly to the centre of the city and to the disputed (shared, in Pinch's description) religious site of Gyanvapi mosque and to the famed Kashi Vishvanath temple and has been viewed as a typical example of the Hindu-Muslim conflict, without a discussion of the specific role played by the Gosains and their armies. The Gosains were present in Banaras in large numbers, and the acting Magistrate, W.W. Bird, estimated on April 14, 1810, that they represented one-fourth of the male population of the city. In the decades preceding the 1809 violence, two massive Gosain structures were built to dominate two prominent ghats Jalasen and Manikarnika. They were close to the Gyanvapi mosque. Pinch has tried to establish a tenuous sectarian connection between the Saivite Gosains and the worshippers of Hanuman to show that both fought in unison against the Muslims because the dispute was around Lat Bhairav. Hanuman is considered an avatar of Siva, or chastened Bhairav.


Because of the never-ending flow of pilgrims who brought wealth with them, Banaras has always been a prosperous city and a big trading centre. Its merchant bankers extended loans to native rulers as well as to the East India Company on a regular basis. In the 18th century, Banaras also became a city favoured by the colonialists to house rebellious elements in various royal households as pensioners.

The case of Shahzada Jahandar Shah (1749-88), son of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, is a typical example of this conscious policy. Such pensioners brought an element of politics and intrigue to Banaras. Vazir Ali in 1799 made an unsuccessful attempt by instigating a rebellion to regain the throne of Awadh. There were some like Baiza Bai, widow of Daulat Rao Scindia, who defied the will of the British and resisted settling down in Banaras, but other political prisoners such as Chimanji Appa, the brother of the Peshwa, were not as resourceful or brave and had to, often reluctantly, make Banaras their home.

In her essay Lost and Small Histories of the City of Patronage, Malavika Kasturi has detailed Banaras' role as a city sheltering political pensioners and has offered a moving account of the way Jahandar Shah's family was impoverished. While many of the political pensioners were a threat to the British, others were unwelcome in the royal households of their princely allies. As many descendants are still living in the city on the margins of society, Malavika Kasturi feels that the troubled relationship of the Mughal pensioners is yet to be adequately studied.

Michael Dodson in The Shadows of Modernity in Banaras and Leah Renold in A Hindu Temple of Learning: The Hybridization of Religion and Architecture examine the way Banaras encountered the colonial modernity of the British. Dodson looks at the British colonial architecture and the way the new rulers looked at pre-modern and modern spaces and conceptualised buildings associated with the structure of their governance. He makes it clear that this concept of modern was never unproblematic, and the city's residents interpreted it in their own way. Leah Renold sees an institutional merger of Western education and Hindu religious traditions in the setting up of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) by Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1915. It also represented a reversal of the British policy of promoting non-sectarian secular education. Malaviya called the BHU a temple of learning, and its various buildings did have a temple-like appearance. Also, it imparted compulsory religious education in Hinduism. Later, the compulsory nature of this form of education was dropped. It was viewed as a completely Indian endeavour although it embraced the ideals and characteristics of the Western university system.

Vasudha Dalmia has written authoritative books on Banaras and its literary traditions. Her essay Literary Modernity in the Holy City makes very good reading but offers nothing new to those who are familiar with her works as well as with the way Hindi literature has evolved in the past two centuries. Yet, it has interesting vignettes such as the mention of Jaishankar Prasad's relationship with a beautiful courtesan, Shyama. And, the reader is left wondering why there is no good biography of either Bharatendu Harishchandra or Jaishankar Prasad that would treat them as human beings and not as demigods.

Vasudha Dalmia's masterly account of the city's close relationship with top Hindi writers sheds valuable light on the evolution of literary modernity in a holy city like Banaras. It was in his stately mansion in the central city square, Thatheri Bazar, that Harishchandra fashioned modern Khariboli Hindi prose and collected a group of talented writers around him. He started several publications in Hindi, including a women's literary journal, Balabodhini. He earned wide recognition and renown for what Vasudha Dalmia calls the major foundational movements of modern Hindi literature.

Harishchandra was the scion of a famous family of merchant bankers. He led a colourful life and died young. Jaishankar Prasad, one of the three top Chhayavadi poets, too, came from a similar background. His friends and associates such as Rai Krishna Das were pillars of the cultural life of Banaras in the 20th century.

Muslims' role

While discussing Banaras as a Hindu, Buddhist and Jain holy city, one should not lose sight of the fact that Muslims have resided in the city since at least the 13th century. There are over 1,400 mosques and other Muslim shrines in the city. Muslims, who account for 25 to 30 per cent of the total population, have always played an important role in Banaras' economic and cultural life.

Christopher R. Lee looks at the city through the Banarasi Muslim poetry written by Rashid Banarasi and Nazir Banarasi, both of whom belonged to the weavers' community known as Ansaris. They celebrate the theme of communal harmony. In one of his poems, Rashid says that the Ganga protects those who respond to the conch of Hindus, the call to prayer of Muslims, the devotional songs of Sikhs, and the church bells of Christians. In Nazir's poetry, one's Banarasi identity overshadows the religious identity. It is not that he pushes the communal strife under the carpet. He takes cognisance of the phenomenon and expresses his helplessness. Before them, even Ghalib penned a masnavi on Banaras in 1827, and much before Ghalib, Sheikh Ali Hazin (1692-1766), a Persian poet, had said in a famous couplet that he would never leave Banaras as there were places of worship everywhere. Ghalib's masnavi is considered a celebration of the synergy of cosmopolitanism of Banaras. Even though Lee does not mention him, the late shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan was widely hailed as the embodiment of Banarasipan the quintessential Banarasi values.

This book looks at many hitherto unexplored aspects of the culture and history of Banaras and helps one understand its complexity.

It is a welcome addition to the body of scholarly literature that seeks to enhance one's awareness of the past and the present.

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