My greatly beloved and much esteemed friend, the late Rev. M. A. Sherring, years ago published a handsome volume under the title of The Sacred City of the Hindus
, in which he gave ample information about its history, temples, castes, festivals, commerce, and religious pre-eminence in Hindu estimation. To that work I must refer readers who are desirous to be furnished with details. My aim is to describe as concisely and vividly as I can the marked peculiarities of the place.
Benares is the largest city in the North-Western Provinces, though it is approached in population by some others, as Delhi, Agra, and Allahabad. It is among the largest purely native cities in India, but it is greatly surpassed in population and wealth by Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, the great seats of British rule, and the great emporia of Indian as well as of European commerce in the East. These cities under our rule have risen to be among the greatest in Eastern Asia. For many a day the population of Benares was said to be above 500,000, but this has turned out a very exaggerated conjecture. When the first careful census was taken, the resident population was found to be under 200,000, and every succeeding census has confirmed its substantial accuracy. In the last census the number given is 207,570. When the first census was taken great surprise was expressed at the result, and some asserted no dependence could be placed on it. The ground of this assertion was that in the houses of some of the wealthier classes there are many females, who live, in native phrase, behind the curtain, who are never seen by outsiders, to whom the officials of the Government have no access; and on this account the accuracy of the return made to the enumerators entirely depends on the faithfulness of the head of the household. It has been said that when the first census was taken the general impression was a capitation tax was to be imposed, and that in consequence the inmates reported were far below the actual number. If there was error on this account it was to a very limited extent, as every subsequent census has agreed with the first, although the notion of a capitation tax has entirely died out. One going through Benares, from street to street, from one end of it to the other, does not get the impression its resident population exceeds the estimate found in official statements. The city has a great floating population, as it is the resort of strangers from all parts of India. It is reckoned that on the occasion of the great festivals there may be 100,000 visitors, some say 200,000, but we are not aware any attempt has been made to number them.
[Footnote 1: Bishop Heber visited Benares in 1824. He says in his journal, |The population, according to a census made in 1803, amounted to above 582,000 -- an enormous amount, and which one should think must have been exaggerated.| The census which gives such a return must have been taken in a very singular manner.]
[Sidenote: TRADE AND COMMERCE.]
In commerce, as in population, Benares holds a high, but not the highest, place among Indian cities. The district of Benares is not so large as some others in the North-West; but it is very productive, is densely peopled, and the city has on this account a large local business. Besides, the merchants and bankers of Benares have dealings with the other districts of the province, and indeed with all parts of India. The city has many artificers. It has workers in stone, wood, iron, brass, silver and gold. They produce articles which command a large and profitable sale. God-making and toy-making are among the staple businesses of the place. The making of idols in different materials to suit the taste and means of purchasers, gives employment to many. The images while being made are only stone, brass, or gold, as it may be, and no reverence is then due to them. It is when certain sacred words are uttered over them, and the god is supposed to take possession of them, they become objects of worship. Benares is well known for its toys made of very light wood, and lacquered over. Of late years the enchased brass vessels made in Benares have been much admired, and have secured a large and profitable sale. Perhaps the most important manufacture of the place is kimkhwab -- kinkob as it is called by Europeans -- cloth made of silver and gold tissue, in which the princes and grandees of India array themselves on state occasions. I believe this business has fallen off, as with the incoming of European influence the love of barbaric pearl and gold has declined, if not among the rajahs of the land, among a class beneath them, who formerly thought they could not retain their rank in society if they did not appear on special occasions in gorgeous robes.
While in population and commerce there are cities in India which surpass Benares, in Hindu estimation it stands above them all in religious pre-eminence. Perhaps at the present time more eyes are turned reverently towards it than to any city on the face of the earth.
[Illustration: A JEWELLER AT WORK.]
I must attempt a brief sketch of the history of Benares. We are sure it was not among the first cities erected by the Aryans after leaving their home in Central Asia and crossing the Indus. They first took possession of the land in the far north-west of the great country they had entered, and gradually made their way to the south and east. Wonderfully acute and painstaking though the Pundit mind be, it has so dwelt in the regions of speculation and imagination that it has paid no attention to historical research. Its laborious productions have left us ignorant of recent times, and we need not therefore wonder that, except by incidental allusions, it throws no light on the early settlements of the Aryans in India. We know that they brought with them a considerable measure of civilization, and soon erected cities. Indraprastha, built near the site of the present city of Delhi, and Hastinapore, some thirty miles from it, figure largely in the Mahabharut, the giant Hindu epic. Kunauj, lying east and south of Delhi, became some time afterwards the capital of a widely extended empire, which lasted, with vicissitudes, down to Muhammadan times. Benares is seen in the dim light of antiquity as a favourite abode of Brahmans, and as sacred on that account, but it does not appear that it ever was the seat of extended rule. For many a day it was subject to Kunauj, and it afterwards came under the sway of the Muhammadans, to whom it was subject for six hundred years.
A clear proof of the influential position of Benares centuries before the Christian era, is furnished by the fact that Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, deemed it well to commence his public ministry there in the sixth century B.C. The spot where he first unfolded his doctrine was a grove at a place now called Sarnath, about four miles from the present city. At this place there is a large Buddhist tower, which is seen from a great distance, and around it are extensive remains, which have been excavated under the direction of Major-General Cunningham, and have been found to be of Buddhist origin. The success which Buddhism had achieved and maintained for centuries in the country where it arose, is strikingly confirmed by the testimony of two Chinese Buddhists who went on pilgrimage to India, the one in the fifth century A.D., and the other towards the middle of the seventh. Their narratives have been preserved, and furnish us with most interesting details. From them we learn that down to the time of their visits Buddhism had temples, monasteries, and thousands of adherents; but it had not the field to itself, for these strangers tell us, especially the later of the two, that a large and increasing number of the people were warmly attached to Hinduism. We have no historical account of the overthrow of Buddhism, but we have reason to believe that towards the close of the eleventh century, or earlier, the devotees of Hinduism rose against it, and so stamped it out that not a temple was left standing and not a monastery remained. Major-General Cunningham says that about that period |the last votaries of Buddha were expelled from the continent of India. Numbers of images, concealed by the departing monks, are found buried near Sarnath; and heaps of ashes still lie scattered amidst the ruins, to show that the monasteries were destroyed by fire.| This is confirmed by excavations made at a later period by Major Kittoe, who says, |All has been sacked and burned -- priests, temples, idols, all together; for, in some places, bones, iron, wood and stone, are found in huge masses: and this has happened more than once.| From Benares having been the scene of Gautama's early ministry, and the place where his first disciples were called, it stands high in the reverence of the millions who compose his followers, although their only living representatives there now are a few Jains, whom orthodox Buddhists regard as heretics.
[Footnote 2: The names and titles of this famous teacher are perplexing to those who do not know the meaning. His father was chief or king of a tribe called Sakyas, and therefore Gautama received the name of Sakya-Muni, or Sakya-Saint. When he announced himself as the inspired teacher of the nations he took the name of Buddha -- the wise man, the enlightener, the inspired prophet.]
[Sidenote: THE SACREDNESS OF KASEE.]
Long before the time of Gautama Hinduism prevailed at Benares, and we have observed its rites were practised side by side with those of Buddhism when the city was visited by two Chinese pilgrims. Some time afterwards it obtained full sway under the form of fanatical devotion to Shiva the Destroyer, and that sway it has maintained down to our day. What Jerusalem is to the Jews; what Mecca is to the Muhammadans; what Rome is to the Roman Catholics -- that, and more than that, Benares is to the Hindus. They form by far the largest portion of the population of India, and to them Benares -- or as they delight to call it, Kasee the Splendid, the Glorious City -- is the most sacred spot on earth. They say, indeed, it is not built on the earth, but on a point of Shiva's trident. They assert that at one time it was of gold, but in this degenerate age it has been turned into stone and clay. In their belief the Ganges is sacred through its entire course, but as it flows past the sacred city its cleansing efficacy is supposed to be vastly increased. The rites performed at Kasee have double merit, and its very soil and air are so fraught with blessing that all who die there go to heaven, whatever their character may be. With this belief diffused among the millions who, differing widely from each other in nationality and language, are devoted to Hinduism, it may be supposed how many eyes are reverently turned towards Kasee, and with what eager steps and high expectations vast numbers resort to it. I have frequently seen persons entering the city, not on foot -- that they did not deem sufficiently respectful -- but prostrating themselves on the ground, measuring the ground with their bodies, and approaching the sacred shrines. And then, especially on the occasion of great festivals, bands may be seen entering the city, often composed of women -- hand-in-hand lest they should lose each other in the crowd -- singing the praises of Shiva and the glories of his city. Many aged people come from distant parts of India -- the greater number, I believe, from Bengal -- to reside and end their days in it, that by becoming Kasseebas (dwellers in Kasee) they may when they die become Baikuntbas (dwellers in heaven).
Though Benares be par excellence the sacred city of the Hindus, strange to say they are proportionately fewer than in ten cities of the North-West. According to the census of 1872, there were 133,549 Hindus and 44,374 Mussulmans: that is, a little more than three Hindus to one Mussulman. In the great commercial city of Mirzapore, about thirty miles distant from Benares, there were five Hindus to one Mussulman. The fact thus certified is entirely at variance with the conjecture made by those who look at the crowds bathing at the riverside, and frequenting the temples, and contrast them with the small number seen in the mosques, even on Friday, the Muhammadan weekly day of worship. In the district the Hindus vastly out-number the Muhammadans.
Benares is built on the left bank of the Ganges, and extends in a crescent shape three miles and a half along the bank, and a little more than a mile inward. The most imposing view is from a boat slowly dropping down the stream in the early morning -- the earlier the better, especially if it be the hot season, as then the people betake themselves to the river in greater numbers than at any other time. Travellers in many lands who have seen this view, have declared it to be one of the most remarkable sights of the kind which the world presents.
Photographic and pencil pictures of Benares have appeared in illustrated newspapers, in periodicals and books, and give a more vivid and correct impression than can be conveyed by a verbal description. These pictures can, however, be better understood when those who look at them are furnished with information which no picture can afford.
The right bank of the Ganges at Benares is very low, and is always flooded when the river rises; but the left bank, on which the city stands, is in many parts more than a hundred feet high. The river sweeps round this high bank. The city is connected with the river by flights of stone steps, called |ghats.| This word ghat often meets the reader of books on India. It has various meanings. It means a mountain-pass, a ferry, a place on the riverside where people meet, and, as is the case at Benares, the steps which lead down to the river. Two small streams enter the Ganges at Benares -- on the southern side the Assi, on the northern side the Burna. Some have supposed that the city has received its name from lying between these two rivulets -- Burna, Assi, making the word Burunassi, Benares; but this derivation is more than doubtful. Others maintain the word comes from a famous rajah called Bunar; but this, too, is a mere conjecture.
[Sidenote: A TRIP ON THE RIVER.]
Let me take my readers with me on a trip down the river. We embark at early dawn on a native boat at Assi Sungam, which means the confluence of the Assi with the Ganges, at the southern extremity. Towards that end of the city some of the houses seen on the high bank are poor, some are falling into decay; but as you advance, lofty buildings, some of them of a size and grandeur which entitle them to the name of palaces, come into view. Their numerous small windows, their rich and varied carving, their balconies and flat roofs, give them a very Eastern look. Perhaps the most notable of the buildings are an observatory, built by a famous Rajput prince, Jae Singh, and a massy and extensive structure, with its buttresses and high walls looking as if recently erected, which was built in the last half of the eighteenth century by Cheit-Singh, the Rajah of Benares at that time, who was deposed by Warren Hastings on account of his refusal to comply with the demands of the British Government. In Macaulay's famous Essay on Warren Hastings there is a long narrative of this contest, which is amusingly at variance with the narrative given by Warren Hastings himself. This building is still called Cheit-Singh's Palace, but since his day it has been the property of the British Government, and has been for many years the residence of princes of the old imperial family of Delhi, who on account of family troubles had come to reside in Benares, and were, happily for themselves, far from Delhi during the mutiny of 1857. Some of the mansions facing the river belong to Indian princes, who occupy them on the rare occasion of visits to the city, and leave them in charge of servants, of whom a number are Brahmans performing sacred rites on their behalf.
There is one spot on the riverside from which most visitors avert their eyes with horror -- the place where the dead of Benares and the surrounding country are being burnt, and the ashes thrown into the stream. The fire at that place never goes out. Cremation, not burial, it is well known, is the Indian mode of disposing of the dead.
The peculiarity of Benares as the sacred city of the country is strikingly attested by the temples, which crowd the high bank of the river, and arrest the special attention of the visitor. Some of these are much larger and more expensive than others, but there is little variety in their form; and all of them, even the largest and most frequented, are small compared with Christian and Muhammadan places of worship. They are circular, with heavy domes narrowing towards the top, and, as a rule, with a narrow doorway alone admitting light and air. Some domes are of respectable height, but none approach that of many of our church towers and steeples. Most of the temples are sacred to Shiva, Mahadeo, the Great God, as his devotees delight to call him, and are surmounted by his trident. Many have a pole at their side with a flag attached to it. One sees at a glance they must, though small, have cost large sums, as they are most solidly built of hewn stone, and have all more or less of ornamentation. A few temples are built close to the water's edge. One has got off its equilibrium, and looks as if it were about to fall into the stream; but for many years it has remained in this tottering position.
[Sidenote: BATHING IN THE SACRED STREAM.]
While the houses and temples on the riverside are viewed with interest, the visitor, as he looks from his boat, is still more interested in the living mass before him. It is the early morning. The sun has just risen above the horizon, and is shedding its bright rays on the river and the city. It looks as if all the inhabitants were astir and had made their way to the river. Crowds are seen on the steps, some even then making their way back after having bathed, and others going down to the stream. Thousands are in the water. Men and women, boys and girls, are there -- the men and women at a short distance from each other. Immediately above the water are platforms with huge stationary umbrellas over them, and on these men are squatted, whose portly appearance betokens ease and plenty. These are Gungaputrs -- sons of the Ganges -- a class of Brahmans, whose duty it is to take care of the clothes of the people as they bathe, to put a mark on their forehead to show they have bathed, and who receive a small offering from them as they retire. All bring with them their bathing-dress, and they most deftly take off and put on their scanty clothing. When the bathing is over they wring out the clothes in which they have bathed, fill with Ganges water a small brazen vessel, which each person carries with him, and make their way into the city to pay their homage to their favourite gods before proceeding to their homes. I have been told that the very devout among them visit some thirty temples of a morning.
You watch the people as they bathe. It is evident they are not engaged in mere ablution, so important for health and comfort in that hot climate. They are engaged in worship. You see them taking up the water of the Ganges in the palm of their hands, and offering it up to the sun as they mutter certain prescribed words. You observe them making a circular motion, and if sufficiently near you see them breathing heavily, which you are told is their way of driving away demons, who even in that sacred spot are said to haunt them. There is no united worship: each worshipper apart performs his and her devotion. There is incessant movement among the crowd. As the words of worship -- I might rather say the spells -- they have been instructed to use are not whispered but uttered, and by many with a loud voice, a stream of sound falls on the ear. If, at some spot where bathers are not inconvenienced, the boat be moored, and the visitor ascends the steps, he may find on certain days, in two or three places, pundits reading and explaining the Ramayan, or the Mahabharut, the great Hindu Epic Poems, to a crowd of people, mainly composed of women. Sentence by sentence is read from poetical translations made long ago, which require to be re-translated into the ordinary language of the people to be generally intelligible. We have occasionally stopped to hear these pundits, and, judging by what we heard, we concluded they satisfied themselves with a loose paraphrase of what they were reading. These men are rewarded with a respectful and attentive hearing, and with something more substantial when the work is over.
If the visitor is bent on obtaining a full impression of the work continually carried on in Benares, he will make his way into the city from one of the principal bathing-places. He will speedily find himself in long narrow streets, with lofty stone houses on either side. The buildings are of hewn stone, and of the most substantial description. They have for the most part a narrow doorway, opening into a quadrangle, around which are the apartments of the inmates. The streets are so narrow that through some of them a vehicle cannot be taken, and in others conveyances pass each other with difficulty. There are parts of the narrower streets and lanes on which the sun never shines. In the few cases where houses on both sides of the street opposite each other belong to one proprietor, there is at the top a bridge by which the inmates pass from one to the other.
[Sidenote: WORSHIP IN THE TEMPLES.]
Not the houses, however, but the temples, secure the chief attention of the visitor. They are seen on every side. Numerous though they be, they are not sufficient to meet the demands of the people. At every few steps objects of worship meet your view. In niches of the walls are little images, so worn by the weather and by the water poured on them by worshippers that it is difficult to determine what they are intended to represent. At your feet, close to the walls, you see misshapen stones which are regarded as sacred. As you proceed you find yourself accompanied by a crowd who have bathed, and who are going to complete their morning worship by acts of obeisance to their gods. They are seen, as they walk, bowing their heads and folding their hands before the sacred objects that line their way. Every now and then one of a party will raise the shout |Mahadeo jee kee jae!| -- (|Victory to the Great God|), that is to Shiva, to whom this title is given; and the shout is taken up and repeated by others till the street resounds. It has occurred to me that this is done with peculiar force when Europeans are within hearing.
[Sidenote: THE TEMPLE OF BISHESHWAR.]
You speedily find yourself at the principal temple of Benares -- the temple of Bisheshwar, sacred to Shiva under this name, which means Lord of All. This temple is in the midst of a quadrangle, covered in with a roof; over it are a tower, a dome, and a spire. The tower and dome glitter in the sun like masses of burnished gold, and on this account it is called the Golden Temple. Natives will tell you that it is covered with plates of solid gold, but in fact it is merely gilded with gold leaf, spread over plates of copper overlaying the stones beneath. Under the dome is a belfry in which nine bells are suspended, and these are so low that they can be tolled by the hand of those who frequent the temple. We are told that the temple, including the tower, is fifty-one feet in height. |Outside the enclosure is a large collection of deities, raised upon a platform, called by the natives 'The Court of Mahadeo.'| Though the gods in the Hindu books are represented as continually quarrelling with each other, and their devotees take up their quarrels, not only at the temple of Bisheshwar, but throughout the city which is regarded as Shiva's own, they are seen side by side, as in perfect amity, and there is not a single god who does not secure the special devotion of some worshippers. It is, however, required of all who dwell in Kasee, or frequent it, to acknowledge that Mahadeo is entitled to supreme homage, and that to him in the first instance obeisance must be made. The symbol of Shiva, or Mahadeo, which is found wherever he is worshipped, is the Linga, a conical stone, which does not in itself suggest any impure notion, but which is intended to be a vile representation. In this famous temple this conical stone receives special honour. There, too, are figures of Shiva himself in all his hideousness, with his three eyes, covered with ashes, and his eyes inflamed with intoxicating herbs. Outside the temple there is a figure cut in stone of a bull seven feet high, sacred to the god, as this is his favourite animal for riding. Within the quadrangle there is a well called Gyan Bapee, the well of knowledge, to which it is said the god betook himself when he was expelled from his former temple by the bigot Emperor Aurungzeb. On this account the well is deemed specially sacred. It is surmounted by a handsome low-roofed colonnade with forty pillars. It is covered with an iron grating, in which there is an aperture for small vessels to be let down into it, which when full are drawn up, and the water thus drawn is highly prized. As from day to day a large quantity of flowers are thrown into it, it may be supposed how horrible its water and how offensive its smell; it is a wonder the people are not poisoned by it.
We must not proceed further with this description of Bisheshwar's temple. Those who wish for more information can find it in the ample details given by Mr. Sherring.
To this temple thousands resort every day. It is open, and priests are present, we are told, twenty hours in the twenty-four. It is only shut from midnight till four in the morning. The temple itself holds a very small number, and the entire quadrangle would be crowded by one of our large congregations. The people press into it in one continuous stream, toll a bell to draw the attention of the god, make their obeisance, pour on the object of their worship a little of the Ganges water from the small brazen vessel they have in their hand, throw on it some flowers, give a present to the attendant priests, go round the building with their right hand towards it, and pass away to give place to others.
How does the visitor regard this scene? Apart from the consideration of the dishonour done to the ever-blessed God by worship rendered to images representing gods that are no gods -- by which, if a Christian, he must be painfully affected -- there is much in the scene before him to impress him with the sottish folly into which man can sink in his religious views and practices; and there is nothing to draw forth his regard and sympathy, except it be the fervour, the deep though mistaken fervour, of some of the worshippers, especially of the women, who may sometimes be seen with children in their arms teaching them to make obeisance to the idol. In Roman Catholic worship there is much which, as Protestants ruled by the Bible, we rightly condemn; but in the gorgeous vestments of its priests, in the magnificence of many of the places in which they minister, in the grand strains of their music and in their processions, there is much to impress the senses and awe the mind; but in the worship carried on in the temple of Bisheshwar it is difficult to find a redeeming quality. The whole scene is repulsive. The place is sloppy with the water poured out by the worshippers, and is littered by the flowers they present. The ear is assailed with harsh sounds. The ministering priests -- Pundas as they are called -- are, as a rule, coarse-looking men, with shaven head, save with a long pendent tuft from the crown, with the mark of their god on their forehead, and are very scantily attired. They clamour for a present when a European appears, and if given it is declared to be an offering to the god of the place. Among the crowd you see men with matted hair and body bedaubed with ashes, who have broken away from all domestic and social duties, and devote themselves to what is called a religious life. Some of these ascetics are no doubt impelled to follow the life they lead by a superstitious feeling, but many are idle vagabonds ready for the practice of every villainy, who find it more pleasant to roam about the land and live on others than support themselves by honest labour. The people dread their curse, but many give them neither respect nor love. At a place like Bisheshwar's temple there is always a host of ordinary beggars, who clamour for alms, and receive from some two or three shells, called cowries, sixty of which go to make up a halfpenny, from others a little grain, and from the more liberal or more wealthy a small coin.
[Sidenote: THE MOSQUE OF AURUNGZEB.]
From this stirring scene you have only a few steps to go to find yourself in the large mosque built by the Emperor Aurungzeb on the site of the old temple of Bisheshwar, which was thrown down to give place to it. The contrast is very striking. You have left the bustling, noisy crowd, and see only a few individuals in the attitude of devotion -- now standing with folded hands, then on their knees, then with forehead touching the floor, engaged in supplicating the Invisible One. Instead of grotesque and repulsive images meeting your view, you see very little ornament of any kind, and are impressed with the severe simplicity of the lofty building. The more one knows of Muhammadanism, the more grievous are its defects and errors seen to be; but in the simplicity of its mosques, which has nothing in common with the sordid barn-like bareness too characteristic at one time of many places of worship in our own land, there is much from which Christians might learn a useful lesson.
Within a stone's throw of Bisheshwar's temple there is a host of temples, none of them very large, some of them small, but most covered with carving, to some extent for mere ornamentation, but chiefly for the purpose of illustrating the objects of Hindu worship. If you visit them you will see everything is accordant with the great shrine you have left. You will see Shiva, sometimes seated on a bull, sometimes on a dog; his hideous partner Durga, with her eight arms and her ferocious look, indicating her delight in blood; Hanuman, the monkey-god, with his huge tail; Krishna engaged in his gambols; Ganesh, the god of wisdom, with his elephant head and protuberant belly; and many others beside. Everything you see is wild, grotesque, unnatural, forbidding, utterly wanting in verisimilitude and refinement, with nothing to purify and raise the people, with everything fitted to pervert their taste and lower their character; and yet, I must add, with everything to give a faithful representation of the mythology prepared by their religious leaders. The pundits who wrote the sacred books of the Hindus were men of great talent, of abundant leisure; and it is a marvel to me, of which I can give no explanation, how they spent their days in spinning the wildest legends, and in setting forth their gods as performing the most fantastic, capricious, foolish, and wicked deeds, when they had a clear canvas before them, and might have filled it with something worthy of our nature, and worthy of objects to be worshipped.
Aurungzeb's mosque has two lofty minarets, rising about a hundred and fifty feet above its floor, and thus having from the river an elevation of two hundred and fifty feet. From a boat on the river the visitor has the nearest and most impressive view of the city, with its peculiarities as the high place of Hindu worship. If he proceed to the top of one of the minarets, which is reached by a steep, dark spiral stair, he will have a most commanding and extensive view of the city, the river, and the country for many miles around. He will see that while the streets in the centre of the city are long and narrow, and have very lofty houses, beyond these the roads widen, and many of the houses are poor and mean. As his eye falls on the part beyond the most crowded portion, he will observe here and there fine mansions with gardens around them, evidently belonging to the wealthy portion of the community, but surrounded by poor streets.
[Sidenote: RETURN TO THE EUROPEAN STATION.]
After seeing what I have endeavoured to describe, the traveller is well pleased to get back to his boat, and to drop down the river to Raj Ghat, the northern end of the city, where, after his fatigue, he is happy to find a conveyance to convey him to the European station more than three miles distant.
During my residence in Benares I often made this trip from Assi-Sungam to Raj Ghat, generally in company with strangers. The last time I made it I was accompanied by the late Dr. Norman McLeod of Glasgow, and the late Dr. Watson of Dundee. They were greatly interested in what they saw, and repeatedly said the reality exceeded their expectation. Dr. McLeod was specially eager to see everything that could be seen, and in his own strong genial way expressed the feelings excited by the strange scenes before him.
I must press into the concluding part of this chapter, as concisely as I can, some additional facts which call for special notice.
The city as it now stands is quite modern. Though foundations dug up, and pieces of masonry seen in existing buildings, testify to its antiquity, we are told by those who are best qualified to judge that there is not a single house or temple the erection of which can be relegated to a more remote period than the reign of Akbar, who was a contemporary of our Queen Elizabeth.
Various estimates have been given of the number of temples. According to the census of 1872 the number is 1,454. This does not include smaller shrines in niches in the walls, which may be reckoned by thousands. The temples are constantly increasing in number; at no previous period were there so many as at present. Traders and bankers have prospered greatly under our rule, and, if devout Hindus, they deem themselves bound to devote a part of their wealth to the erection of a temple. A regard to their honour as well as to their gods prompts them to this spending of their money.
So far as I have been able to ascertain, the temples of Benares have very little of either funded or landed property. The vast sum required for the support of the priesthood comes mainly from the offerings of the people.
The |Imperial Gazetteer| of India gives no account in its last census of the castes of Benares, but we are sure that many thousands of the inhabitants are Brahmans. They are greatly subdivided, and are so different in rank and occupation that they keep as separate from each other as if they had no caste in common. The Pundas officiate in the temples; the Gangaputrs, the sons of the Ganges, minister at the waterside; the Purohits are the family priests; and the Pundits, the most esteemed of all, are the learned men who study the Shastres, and expound them to the people as occasion requires. Hindus generally have their Gurus, religious guides, who perform to them very much the work done for Roman Catholics by father confessors. These may be family priests, learned men; or, in the case of the lower castes, the lower orders of Brahmans. A vast number of the sacred caste have nothing to do with religious services. They are engaged in various businesses. A considerable number are cooks in the houses of the wealthy, as from their hand all can eat, while they in many cases would consider it an intolerable insult to be asked to eat with their masters. Not a few are beggars.
There are places in Benares to which people resort almost as much as to the temple of Bisheshwar. Among these I may mention the tank of Pishachmochan, a word meaning deliverance from demons, as bathing in it is considered very efficacious in securing this end, and the temple and tank of Durga at a place called Durgakund. At this latter place there are many hundreds of monkeys -- some say thousands, though this is doubtless an exaggeration -- which scamper about in all directions, and fare well at the hands of Durga's worshippers. These animals are deemed gods and goddesses, and woe to the person who does them any harm.
The monkeys are not the only animals deemed sacred at Benares. All who have heard anything about the city have heard about the well-fed lazy bulls prowling about the streets, and insisting on making free with the goods of the vegetable and grain sellers. These are no longer to be seen going about in their former fashion. I shall have something to say afterwards about them.
[Sidenote: FESTIVALS AT BENARES.]
Mr. Sherring gives an account of forty melas, or religious festivals, in the course of the year in Benares. The principal of these are the Holee, the Saturnalia of the Hindus, the Ram Leela (the dramatic representation of the life of Ram as given in the epic poem, |The Ramayan|), and the Pilgrimage of the Panch Kosee, when the people make the circuit of the city, and halt for the night at certain assigned stations. On the occasion of eclipses vast numbers resort to Benares from all parts of India.
Benares has long been considered the Oxford of India. Its learned men have from ancient times been famed for their learning, and the aspirants for Hindu lore -- all members of the same caste with themselves -- have from generation to generation sat at their feet. They have had no grand academic halls in which to give their prelections; they have taken no fees from their pupils; they have met in very humble rooms, or in the open air in a garden under trees; but both teachers and students have been characterized by an assiduity and a perseverance which the most laborious of German scholars rarely attain. The very modest requirements of these learned men have as a rule been met unasked by the princes and wealthy of the land.
In 1791, a very short time after Benares was brought directly under British rule, a Sanscrit college was founded by the payment of certain pundits, who were left to carry on their work unchecked by any authority, or even suggestion, from without. It is said that pundits of the highest repute refused to have anything to do with the foreigner. In 1853 a very fine Gothic structure, said to be the most imposing building erected by the British in India, was opened under the name of the Queen's College, for the accommodation of students in both Western and Eastern learning. Here both English and Sanscrit are studied, and under the first Principal, the late Dr. Ballantyne, vigorous, and I hope to some degree successful, effort was put forth to infuse Western literature, philosophy, and science into the pundit mind.
I have mentioned the number of Muhammadans residing at Benares. It is officially stated they have 272 mosques, of which that of Aurungzeb, with its lofty minarets, is the largest. Hindus must have looked with horror on the sacrilegious deed by which this mosque was erected on the site of the demolished temple of Bisheshwar; but the power of the bigot emperor was so great that they could do nothing more than invocate curses on his head. The close neighbourhood of this mosque to the most frequented temple, and the remembrance of the building which formerly occupied its site, have produced a bitter feeling towards the followers of Muhammad. Early in this century there was a furious contest between the two classes of religionists, which lasted for some days, and was at last quelled by the military. During the fight every conceivable insult was offered to each other's feelings, and lives were lost. The Muhammadans suffered most, and since that time they seem to have been cowed, so that there has been much less fighting between them and their Hindu neighbours than in some other cities in the North-West.
The city has two great squares, occupied as market-places, in which goods of every description are exhibited and sold in the Eastern fashion. They present a stirring scene of an afternoon, which is the principal time of business.
[Sidenote: CENSUS RETURNS.]
In the census of 1872 the occupations of all males above fifteen years of age are noted. I give some of the items --
Priests (temple or ghat) 2,809
Purohits (family priests) 1,273
I suppose the distinction between alms-takers and beggars is that the former class deem it beneath them to ask, but have no objection to take alms, while the latter class both ask and take. Among the latter, beside the blind and helpless, many able-bodied men make beggary their profession. On one occasion, in the neighbourhood of Benares, I met a man in the prime of life who said he had just returned from a long journey. On referring to his business he frankly said that he had never had any other occupation than that of a beggar. This was his hereditary profession. We have no Poor Law in India. The people, from varied motives, are ever ready to give aid to those who cannot support themselves, and in addition exercise an indiscriminate charity, which has a demoralizing effect.
The census informs us there are in Benares 16,023 masonry houses, and 21,551 mud houses -- that is, houses many of which are of mud moistened and dried as the walls rise -- and others of sun-dried bricks. I do not wonder at the disappointment felt by some who have been much impressed with the front view of the city, and have then traversed its streets.
Till recently, from the commencement of our rule, our Government has never been at peace with all the native rulers of India. In various ways we have come into collision with them, and the final result in every case has been their overthrow. The deposed rajahs have as a rule been sent to Benares, as if our Government wished to compensate them for the loss of their dominion by conferring on them special religious advantages.
On the opposite side of the Ganges, a little above the southern end of the city, is the town of Ramnuggur, with a population of 10,000. It is the residence of the Rajah of Benares, who is simply a large landowner, and has no authority beyond that which wealth confers. His palace, or rather fort, is close to the river. Behind the town, close to the Rajah's garden, there is a large tank, and a temple facing it which is remarkable for the exquisite carving on its walls illustrative of Hindu mythology.
[Sidenote: MACAULEY'S DESCRIPTION OF BENARES.]
I end this account of Benares by an extract from Macaulay's Essay on Warren Hastings, in which, in his own high rhetorical fashion, which so readily yields itself to exaggeration, he describes the city. If I remember rightly, there is no mention in his biography of his having visited the North-West, and his description is therefore not that of an eye-witness.
|The first design of Warren Hastings was on Benares, a city which in wealth, population, dignity, and sanctity was among the foremost in Asia. It was commonly believed that half a million of human beings was crowded into that labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines, and minarets, and balconies, and carved oriels, to which the sacred apes clung by hundreds. The traveller could scarcely make his way through the press of holy mendicants and not less holy bulls. The broad and stately flights of steps which descended from these swarming haunts to the bathing places along the Ganges were worn every day by the footsteps of an innumerable multitude of worshippers. The schools and temples drew crowds of pious Hindus from every province where the Brahmanical faith was known. Hundreds of devotees came thither every month to die, for it was believed that a peculiarly happy fate awaited the man who should pass from the sacred city into the sacred river. Nor was superstition the only motive which allured strangers to that great metropolis. Commerce had as many pilgrims as religion. All along the shores of the venerable stream lay great fleets of vessels laden with rich merchandise. From the looms of Benares went forth the most delicate silks that adorned the balls of St. James's and of Versailles; and in the bazars the muslins of Bengal and the sabres of Oude were mingled with the jewels of Golconda and the shawls of Cashmere.|