Sunday, March 8, 2009

Unreal City : Dhrupad Nights in Benares

" 'How Do You Like London ? .... London, Londres, London ?' Mr Podsnap asked the Frenchman, putting - we notice - capital letters into his accent. 'And Do You Find, Sir,' he went on, 'Many Evidences that Strike You?'.

Nothing else but Evidence strikes us. The place is all Evidence, like the sight of a heavy sea from a rowing boat in the middle of the Atlantic where you are surrounded by Everything and see nothing. But Evidence of what? There is no possible answer".

Thus begins V.S.Pritchett's "London Perceived" but the words are even more appropriate as a description of Benares.

Benares : Luminous City, Surreal City, Unreal City! For more than 10 years Vasumathi (Mrs Blogger) and I had been wanting to visit the place. Firstly there were the fabled ghats, then the boat rides on the Ganges not to forget the throngs of pilgrims or the famous Banarasi vegetarian food, the sights and sounds, the colours, and the Firanghis, some of them in their matted and combined locks manifesting all the zeal and earnestness of newly converted acolytes. And of course, Benares is etched on all Indian, Hindu psyches, being the holiest of holy cities, so there were also a couple of temples that we planned to worship in.

But there were other compelling reasons too to visit Benares. Our friend Shivakumar and I had been wanting, for a number of years, to attend the annual Dhrupad music fest in Benares. Shivakumar one day informed us that this year's Dhrupad fest was scheduled for the 21st to 23rd February. That became the proximate or immediate reason for the visit but, as I said, there were other good reasons too. As a print junkie, I wanted to find out a little more about the Benares where, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, had lived two remarkable men who were also great artists : Samuel Davis and James Prinsep, both servants of the East India Company. Also, there was the architecture of Benares or what remains of it, both Indian and British. All this also added up, at least for Shivakumar and me who always have an eye to the main chance, to a good excuse to goof off from work for a few days.

Orderly Queues : Shiv Ratri A.M

We were going to be in Benares spank in the middle of Shiv Ratri which brings some two hundred thousand pilgrims to the city. But Shivakumar has friends in high places and we were able to get good accommodation in the Old Circuit House, as also VIP ushering in the temples. And, in line with our policy never to catch a cold whether at base or abroad, we also made sure to have a car and driver available to us for the duration of the visit.

Old Circuit House Benares

Framed in Corinthian : Circuit House Interior

The Benares Dhrupad Mela

The All India Kashi Raj Trust, an NGO established by the Maharajah of Benares began sponsoring an annual Dhrupad Mela (festival) in the city some 30 years back. The setting for the concerts couldn't be better, the Mela being held on the banks of the Ganges at Assi Ghat, the first of the bathing ghats on the Ganges in her northerly course past the city.

Mishrajee, A Dhrupad Musician of Benares : He Daubed Attar of Roses on Us

Dhrupad has its origins in the hymnal music of Hindu temples as sung for over a thousand years, the emphasis being on the tonal purity of individual notes or swaras, so the gamak or glide or glissando is usually eschewed in Dhrupad music. Dhrupad's counterpoint is the Khyal, a musical form that took shape in the mid 18th Century. Khyal is influenced by Mughlai or Persian music and by Sufi singing and is eclectic and improvisational in its presentation whilst remaining true to classical restraint and form. I have actually grown up on a diet of Khyal, it is very much the music I prefer to listen to but Dhrupad, ever classical and pure, is also a great attraction.

And the fest provided all that I had expected of it, the good , the bad and the indifferent. The last two are to be expected in a programme that lasts from 8 P.M to 4 A.M three days in a row and is unticketed. But we had some outstanding performers, Ustad Sayeeduddin Dagar, Pandit Abhay Narain Mullick, Pushpraj Koshti and so on. Also some very good up and coming women singers such as Kaveri Kar and Madhubhatt Tailang, dhrupad previously not being known for its lady performers.

Readying for the Programme : the Ganges to the Left

To my surprise two artists sang as the opening number Raag Desh , a haunting, tender and plaintive melody that is a favourite with me but one that is usually presented as a secondary or minor item in a Khyal performance. But the Dhrupadias were able to carry it off with aplomb in their grand and classical rendering and it was a great pleasure to hear Desh thus given pride of place. I actually removed to the steps of the bathing ghat where it was agreeably cool and dark and the impact of the melody on the banks of the river was something special. Of course, I could also smoke a surreptitious cigarette or two on the ghats which added to the enjoyment.

The Rajah of Benares (Middle) at the Dhrupad Fest

Kaveri Kar Who Sang Exceptionally Well

Here are some pics, the opening of the concert by the Maharajah, some performers and the audience, some of whom, especially the foreigners, seemed to be very knowledgeable about Dhrupad. Well, enough said about music by someone who can not sing for crying out loud. Also, something needs to be said about Benares itself before we move on to the two aforementioned very interesting and remarkable men, both Fellows of the Royal Society, who lived in the city.

Benares or Kashi

This was my first visit to Benares, although I intend to go again and see the place at leisure. So, all I can say is that it is well known that the city is thought to be 8ooo years old and ranks with Alexandria and Peking as one of the three oldest city civilisations in the world. We Hindus think it is even older, of course. When one sees the vibrancy and the bustle that animate the place, it is easy to understand what has sustained this urban chaos for so long. Bewildering it may be but the chaos, the throngs of pilgrims, the faith and good cheer they bring to the pilgrimage and the squalor cheek by jowl with great beauty contribute as much to the making of this great city as its location on the Ganges and its unique Vedic and musical culture nurtured over millenniums.

Withered Beldame : Palace of the Maharajah of Vizianagaram

Hindu pilgrims visit this city but do they go there only to acquire a reserve of merit in preparation for death, as is sometimes said? I don't think so at all. It seems to me that though they visit Benares as an act of pilgrimage, of recharging their spiritual reserves the question of death or its premonition has nothing to do with it. It may be that they undertake the visit calling to mind the great spiritual quest stated in one of the Upanishads :

असतोमा सद्गमय। तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमया।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय॥

Asato mā sad gamaya
Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya
Mrutyormā amṛutham gamaya

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.3.28)

From ignorance, lead me to awareness;
From darkness, lead me to light;
From death, lead me to immortality

One other thing that impressed me about Benares is that the Ganges is Uttara Vauhini here, that is to say she reverses her south easterly progression and courses north past the city, doing a complete dogleg in fact. That is supposed to be rather special in the Hindu conception but it is nothing to compare with the sheer pleasure of an early morning boat ride on the river, past the spectacular show afforded by a succession of Ghats, there are 64 of them over a 5 K.M stretch.

Jai Bajrang Bali !! Pahelwan (Indian Wrestler) Beefcake on Panch Ganga Ghat

We learnt a great deal about Benares by boaning up on two definitive, contemporary books about the city. One of them is "Benares, City of Light" by Diana Eck and the second is " Benares, World Within A World" by Richard Lannoy. Both books succeed in giving a sense of the ideas and the cultural continuum that animate and revitalise the city and of its primacy as a centre of religious and Brahminical scholarship. For a sense of what it is like to take up residence in Benares, read the Alice Boner Diaries 1933- 67.

Battering Ram in His Pomp : He is Chief of Security at Dashashwamedh Ghat

Samuel Davis & the Views of Bhutan

I got interested in Samuel Davis on reading "Views of Medieval Bhutan" by the late Michael Aris and after seeing some of Davis's picturesque views of the country. I was looking high and low for the book and, when in London in 1995, I contacted the publisher, Serindia, only to be told the 1982 book was out of print. But I don't give up so easily and asked if there was some place where I might be able to get hold of a copy. Pat came tha answer, "Katmandu". What, Katmandu? "Yes", he continued, "there's a Pilgrim Book House in Katmandu and the owner, Mr Ram Tiwary, specialises in books to do with Tibet and the Himalayas, he's conceivably the only one who might be able to give you a copy".

It was a moment's work to get the telephone number from the Nepal Embassy and I was immediately on the phone to Mr Tiwary who said, "Yes, how many copies do you want". That was that and the book arrived in about a week. I called the publisher to thank him and asked his name. "Aris". Aris? "Yes, I am the author's younger brother, Anthony". Small world, eh? But there is a Pilgrim Book House in Benares as well, the original store I believe, and it is worth a visit for the stack of books, new, old and rare, on Tibetan and Himalayan studies, History and much more. Michael Aris who, sad to say, died of cancer in 1999, was the husband of Aung Saan Su Kyi. Small world again, though I don't know either of them.

But we are forgetting Samuel Davis. He was born in 1760 in the West Indies where his father was stationed with the army commissariat and, on the death of his father, Samuel Davis returned to England a few years later. A friend of his late father secured for him a cadetship with the East India Army (but with the option of leaving the army for the civil service) and that is how the 19 year old Davis arrived in Madras in 1780. It is not clear how Davis attracted the notice of Warren Hastings, the Governor General, but he did and he was soon posted in the Bengal Presidency. Davis was confirmed in the Bengal Civil Service about 10 years later but, before then, he had undertaken the journey to Bhutan in 1783 as part of Samuel Turner's embassy to Tibet.

The Samuel Turner Embassy to Tibet was a follow up measure to the first such Embassy led by George Bogle in 1774. The objective in both cases was to explore possibilities for trade with this remote and little known country. Samuel Davis as appointed Draughtsman & Surveyor to the mission, a recognition of his drawing skills besides the surveying he had learnt as an engineer in the army.The Mission itself was judged a success, some form of trade with Tibet opened up further but Davis himself was never allowed into Tibet and had to return to India from Bhutan. The Tibetans were a very withdrawn, inward looking society and suspicious of foreigners and there is some speculation that they were wary of Davis's evident abilities.

It is not clear how Davis aquired his drawing skills and there's some speculation that, in his boyhood, he came into contact with Thomas Daniell the celebrated artist. Even if such were the case, it is not likely that Davis, aged only about 10 when the contact is said to have taken place, imbibed any special skills from Daniell. But that he was an outstanding artist is easily judged by his superlative views of Bhutan, even today a beautiful country of exquisite mountainscapes and tasteful architecture. Here are a few examples, of which the first only is mine (apologies for the poor scan), it is the palace of Punaka Dzong engraved by the famous engraver James Basire and published in 1800 (as part of Turner's account of his Embassy to Tibet).

Punakha Dzong

Davis, trained in survey and engineering in the army, was also fascinated by the elegantly designed, indigenous cantilever and suspension bridges in Bhutan and drew many sketches of them :

Suspension Bridge at Chuka

Cantilever Bridge at Thimphu

After his return from Bhutan Davis resumed his Bengal Civil Service career and, when posted in Bhagalpur, did renew or make contact with the Daniells, both Thomas and his nephew William. The Daniells were in the midst of their extended 7 year tour of India and spent nearly a year staying with Davis in Bhagalpur. That was how they became aquainted with his Bhutan drawings, six of which William published in 1813 as aquatints. Both these and the Basire engravings are almost impossible to get and the aquatints below are ones I filched from the net :

The Palace of Punakha Dzong Aquatint

Nandeshwar Kothi : The Night (Morning, rather) of the Long Knives

Davis served as Magistrate in Benares from 1795 - 1800 and though his time in this posting was marked by high adventure and heroics, the association with the city was also to be the making of Davis as a scholar. First the events at Nandeshwar Kothi, a large, rambling building in which he lived during his posting in the city. The building belongs to the Maharajah of Benares and is set in extensive grounds, although much changed from its original appearance what with shopfronts and hoardings cluttering up the view.

View from Murichom, Bhutan (Detail)

Benares had only in 1775 been ceded to the British by the Nawab of Oudh, Asoph ud Dowla, and in 1797 the Nawab was succeeded by his son Wazir Ali (Vizier Ali). But there were questions about his legitimacy as rightful heir. What really got Wazir Ali into trouble, however, was his wilful conduct after accession to the Musnud or the throne and the British intervened to depose and exile him to Benares in about 1798. The 19 year old Wazir Ali naturally felt hard done by, as there had been intrigue against him by his uncle, the brother of Asoph ud Dowla, in which the British had willingly connived. It was now Wazir Ali's turn to engage in intrigue and he bided his time.

Meanwhile, in early 1799, the British decided to relocate Wazir Ali to Calcutta, as it was finally realised that Benares, on the border of Oudh, was no place to base a deposed ruler in. Ali didn't take very kindly to this order, for order it was, and decided to strike. He agreed under duress to leave for Calcutta on the 15th January but began recruiting a numbe of armed men instead of making preparations for the journey.

Davis, as Magistrate, was one of the two senior Britons in Benares, the other being George Frederick Cherry, Agent to the Governor General, and an accomplished artist, and thus the man responsible for minding Wazir Ali. On the morning of the 14th January, Ali paid a visit to Cherry at his house, taking along with him 200 armed mercenaries. The visit actually turned out to be an ambush and Cherry and his English assistants were murdered in no time.

The mob now made for Nandeshwar Kothi but Davis was swift to act. The house has a narrow, winding staircase, wide enough for just one person, which gives access to the terrace. Davis moved his wife, children and servants upto the terace and with a spear in his hands stood guard at the top of the stairs, an entirely defensible position given the narrow, winding access up the stairs.

The rest is histoy. The action lasted an hour and a half but having, in the first few minutes, found that they did not fancy the idea of jousting (or fencing for they were armed with swords) up a narrow stairway with the entrenched Davis the assailants tried in vain to pick him off with muskets from outside the house. Some help arrived on the terace after about an hour, in the form of Davis's servants and the armed local constabulary, as Wazir Ali's men were all now on the outside of the house. They were figuring a way to ascend up the wall. But with the reinforecements available, Davis decided the terrace was perfectly defensible and so it proved until Ali and his men retired. With the arrival of further reinforcements, the action was over by eleven A.M, an hour and a half after it started.

And this from the book of travels by Lord Valentia, Viscount Annesley who was in Benares not long after the event : "I examined the staircase that leads to the top of the house, and which Mr Davis defended with a spear for upwards of an hour and a half, till the troops came to his relief. It is of a singular construction, in the corner of a room and built entirely of wood on a base of about four feet. The ascent is consequently so winding and rapid that with difficulty one person can get up at a time. Fortunately, the last turn by which you reach the terrace faces the wall. It was impossible, therefore, to aim at him while he defended the ascent with a spear; they, however, fired several times, and the marks of the balls are visible in the ceiling. A man had at one time hold of his spear, but by a violent exertion he dragged it through his hand and wounded him severely. This gallant defence saved the settlement as it gave time for the cavalry, ..... about ten miles from Benares, to reach (the house) and oblige Vizier Ali to retire .... ".

Here is an engraving of the 'Attack on Mr Samuel Davis's House' by Maj Henry Samuel Davis :

Wazir Ali's Siege of Nandeshwar Kothi

The three of us went up the winding stairway of Nandeshwar Kothi as I was curious to verify the facts of the story published in 1844 by Sir John Henry Davis, son of Sam Davis, titled "Vizier Ali Khan or the Massacre of Benares", available in the Internet Archive. Shivakumar and I re-enacted the episode jousting or fencing at each other with twigs, just to see if Davis could really have seen off such a mob. The stirway was narrow and winding and it did seem Davis would have had the better of the exchanges. V, unfortunately , refused to oblige by shooting a pic of the two of us, declaring "this is too juvenile for words". So, sorry, no pic of us re-eenacting history.

Astronomical Studies

Life in Benares for Davis was much, much more than self defence. Benares, in point of fact, was to be the making of him as a reputed academic and astronomer. The young Davis, in his Bhagalpur days, had got to know the renowned orientalist and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Sir William Jones (1746 - 94). With the encouragement of Jones and the assistance of the Hindu Pundit astronomers of Bhagalpur and Benares, Davis was to emerge as one of the foremost authorities of his time on Indian astronomy. He, in fact, was one of the earliest, if not the first, to present to the West an account of Indian astronomy in all its thorough and elegant ramifications of time divisions, eclipse computation and trigonometrical functions.

Man Mandir Observatory from the River

All this led to election to the Royal Society by 1792, when he was hardly 32 years old. And Davis's study of Indian astronomy got an added fillip upon his posting to Benares where there was a Hindu Observatory, the Man Mandir, built in 1710 by Raja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur . Davis went on to become the Accountant General of Bengal, retired to England in 1804 and later became a Director and then Chairman of the East India Company. I found an interesting tidbit in the autobiography of his grandson Rivett-Carnac (another family with India connections extending over five or six generations)that the Hon Mountstuart Elphinstone, Davis's assistant in Benares and later to become Governor of Bombay, used to visit Davis's house in London annually to do Pooja to the spear!

James Prinsep : A Man of Genius in Benares

Davis and his escapade have taken up more than his allotted space. Still, the real hero of Benares is another man, a true genius who left his mark on the city as indeed he did on every place he lived in and every subject he turned his formidable energy and intellect to. This was James Prinsep (1799 - 1840), also a Fellow of the Royal Society and, in fact, the youngest to be elected a Fellow of that body. And a blog post is hardly the medium to present the genius of this man, Assayer, Architect, Engineer, Linguist, Epigraphist, Artist, Demographer, Cartographer, Urban Planner and many other things rolled into one. A book running to a few volumes and meticulous research will be what it takes, so I will confine myself to a mere catalogue of his achievements.

James Prinsep fell in love with the city where he arrived in 1820 and where he was to spend the next 10 years of his short life. He was born on the 20th August 1799 in Chelsea, London and his father, an Alderman of the City of London, was reduced by business losses to straitened circumstances and had to remove to Clifton for the education of his sons (it was a large family, nine sons and two daughters). It is said that the three youngest boys, James included, had but one pair of trousers among them and had to go out by turn.

James Prinsep showed early aptitude for maths and for building and designing mechanical toys. So, an architectural carer was intended for him and he was apprenticed to the great Augustus Pugin for a time before quitting due to illness. As James had no inclination to go into the army, another opening in India suggested itself. This turned out to be a career in Assaying and Minting and Prinsep prepared himself for this by taking lessons in Chemistry. He was also apprenticed to the Assay Master of the Royal Mint and obtained a certificate of proficiency after a year.

Prinsep's Work in Benares

That was how, in September of 1819, the 20 year old Prinsep arrived in Calcutta, together with his younger brother who had got a commission in the East India Company's Bengal Army. He immediately commenced service in the Calcutta Mint as assistant to the Assay Master, Horace Hayman Wilson an eminent Sanskrit scholar and also Secretary of the Asiatic Society. Prinsep's job was in the Subordinate Service which, unlike the Covenanted Civil Service, carried few perks or privileges and also paid much less. But the opportunity to associate with a scholar like Wilson no doubt made up for all that. In less than a year Prinsep was posted to Benares as Assay Master.

James Prinsep(Medallion)

Apart from taking charge of the construction of the Mint building, James busied himself with producing a detailed map of the city which was ready in the end of 1821. He later had the map (29 x 19 inches) lithographed in 1825 at his own expense. After all these years it remains an outstandingly accurate map of the city, based on a survey carried out personally with the thoroughness and passion that Prinsep became known for. Here is a detail of the Cantonment or British Quarter from the map of 1821 :

Benares Map (Detail)

The survey done for the map also resulted in a Directory of Benares with details of the various Ghats, Temples, open spaces, important buildings and their ownership as well as family histories. The Directory also includes a comprehensive list of the Punditry and the subjects they specialised in. It was in fact a gazetteer of the city with details of commercial establishments and merchant houses. Unpublished, the Directory is in the archives of the Asiatic Society.

The map and the Directory led in due course to a Census of the city in 1826. A previous census, carried out in 1803, had produced wildly exaggerated figures for the population, so Prinsep was careful to avoid falling into the same error. Of course, the work on the map and the Directory had given him the necessary preparation and intimate knowledge of the city's labyrynthine quarters. Moreover the citizenry knew him and trusted him. That was important because the populace of those days had a not unjustified suspicion that a headcount was a prelude to higher taxes.

There was a unique difficulty attendant to a census of a pilgrim city with a large floating population : how does on reckon the floating population to determine the headcount of permanent residents? But Prinsep was equal to the task. With characteristic thoroughness and confidence, he also chose a period of high pilgrim influx, the Lunar Eclipse, to assess the pilgrim numbers in the city. Enumerators were stationed at the five principal approaches to the city and at all the landing stages of the ferries with bags of pebbles by their sides( a pebble being thrown into a basket, to be counted later, as each arrival passed through).

Prinsep's Architecture in Benares

Prinsep went on to design and build a bridge, the Karam Nasha bridge, over a waterway across the city. Besides helping overcome the superstition of pilgrims that contact with the waterway annulled the religious merits of their pilgrimage, the bridge also resulted in improved throughput of traffic within the city :

Karam Nasha Bridge

There were other buildings too though Nandeshwar Kothi seems to be wrongly attributed to Prinsep. Besides the Mint, he had a hand in the design of St Mary's Church in Benares. The church itself was consecrated in about 1824 but, when it was enlarged in 1827, Prinsep was the one who undertook the work, adding a handsome steeple. It is interesting that, though he trained under Pugin, all of Prinsep's designs are Georgian or Baroque.

Then there was the restoration of the Gyaan Vaapi mosque or Aurangzeb's mosque, built originally in about 1675. Prinsep dismissed the mosque itself as architecture unworthy of notice but thought the soaring minarets. 147 feet high, were an exquisite work of design. But the minarets were beginning to list by Prinsep's time in Benares. With great engineering and structural skill, Prinsep carried out maramut or restoration on the minarets and they are, even today, very much in the perpendicular.

Gyaan Vaapi (Aurangzeb) Mosque

Then followed the drainage system for Benares, a pilgrim city sorely in need of such an amenity. Prinsep's proposals for the system were accepted by the civic authorities in 1825 and the work, involving plane level surveys, sub strata analysis and a clear trace of the entire network, which commenced under Prinsep's supervision on the 1st of Jan 1826, was fully ready in 19 months with no accidents whatsoever. Prinsep's drainage system is considered to be a marvel of engineering even now. The same system, with a few extensions and new outfalls, serves the city to this day.

All this was accomplished in a 10 year period, before the man turned 30 and he still found time and energy for discourses with the Pundits, for Sanskrit and also for Astronomy, and for the establishment of the Benares Literary Society. The Man Mandir observatory, already mentioned, became a regular stamping ground of Prinsep and he fixed and periodically updated the longitudinal position of Benares beteen 1825 - 32. A meteorological profile of the city was also carefully compiled with instruments acquired with his personal funds. He also set up a printing press in Benares in 1822. I suspect it could have been a litho press but I do not know for sure. If it was a litho press it must have been the among the first such in India.

As a Family Memoir put together by Prinsep's brother says : "to extend the catalogue to a detail of the roads, bridges, drains and other works of every variety of description, .... would fatigue the reader".

Benares Illsutrated

Speaking for myself, I find Prinsep's drawings of Benares to be at leeast as important as his other contributions. Benares Illustrated was first published in 1831 with 35 plates lithographed by Louis Haghe of London. A further two volumes of 13 and 10 plates respectively were issued in 1832 and 33. I have reproduced a few of the plates rather than gush gush about the high quality of these drawings.

Bruhma Ghat

Dushashwamedh Ghat

View Westward from Ghoosla Ghat

View of Gyan Vapee Well

The Kharoshti & Brahmi Scripts

Election to the Royal Society had come through by 1828, making Prinsep the youngest person to be elected a Fellow of that institution. By 1830, he was transferred to Calcutta and, among other things, took up Secretaryship of the Asiatic Society. All those years hobnobbbing with the Pundits of Benares and soakig up the Sanskrit language and Indian history had not been in vain for then followed two major discoveries : the deciphering of the Kharoshti and the Brahmi scripts. These were landmark discoveries in Indian epigraphy and archaeology and were to make the name of Emperor Ashoka widely known in the world. Maj Markham Kittoe, himself a major figure in Indian archaeology (and of whose architectural work in Benares thre is a sampling below) had just then discovered Ashoka rock edicts in eastern India.

Enter Prinsep, to make a seminal contribution, for the edicts had to be deciphered. Following up on a hunch that the same letters occurred at the end of each edict, he cracked the entire Brahmi script. In the course of the work, he was regularly reporting progress to his friend Alexander Cunningham, one of the last lettrs ending : "chalo bhai, jaldee pahonchogae" ('come on my friend, we're getting there', a common cry of Palanquin bearers to help lighten their burden)!

Compared to the Brahmi, Prinsep's cracking of the Kharoshti was simplicity itself. He found that the old coinage of the Kushan period (BCE) was inscribed in both Greek and Kharoshit, so the deciphering was a piece of cake. To say that is hindsight really, for there were a number of other numismatists but the thought had occurred to none except to the enquiring mind of James Prinsep.

Sadly, Prinsep died of overwork in 1840, hardly 41 years old and it is said he was subject to insanity in his last days. Insanity? I wonder! It could have been delirium.

But I was surprised to find that he had been active in England as well, perhaps during home leave, as I found on this website, The Mausolea & Monuments Trust . Here is the relevant excerpt from a write-up by Lucinda Lambton, a really fine writer on a very inetresting topic, and I am going to follow her output henceforth: "Back though, to Bristol’s Arnos Vale, where there is singularly splendid Hindu temple; which, to my delight I discovered to have been be built by a James Prinsep, who studied under Pugin and who then was to spend an alarmingly fruitful life in India – working in the Calcutta mint for which he devised scales that could weigh a three thousandth part of a grain ! He redesigned the Benares Mint and became the authority on Indian currency. A prolific architect, he also devised the Ganges drainage plan of Benares. He devoted his later years to Indian antiquities ; deciphering inscriptions on temples which had even baffled the author of the first Sanscit-English dictionary. This Hindu Temple in Bristol is therefore a work of serious scholarship„.not to be confused with the fancy dress Eastern garb that was to clothe such British buildings as Brighton Pavilion. It was designed to honour the remains of Raja Rommahun Roy…..known as the father of modern India, and the first Indian to be buried in Britain, in 1833.
It is a beautiful little building, sadly all too rare an achievement today with monumental masony . For now I fear there is a quite lamentable quantity of ill designed modern monuments, sadly illustrating the descent of our funeray art. Gaze about you at memorial monuments of the c.18th and c.19th and your every artistic sensibility is satisfied,. Seek out that of the 20th and 21st centuries and every one is smashed".

Well, I don't know if Prinsep was in England at the time or if he sent the design from India but the picture below (from Wikipedia) of the tomb has a touch of the listing tower in the Manikarnika Ghat, doesn't it? I also came across this interesting site on Ram Mohun Roy, the stormy petrel of Indian social reform.

Raja Ram Mohun Roy Memorial, Bristol

Back to Benares

I am sorry that Davis and Prinsep hogged such a deal of blogspace. The fact is, they kept intruding into the post and refused to go away until I had said something about them. But they did have a lot to do with Benares, didn't they? I personally think it is the other way round, that Benares was the making of these two remarkable men, an instance of how the city continues to inspire men to this day.

At 4.30 A.M on Shiv Ratri day (the23rd Feb) we were ushered into the Vishwanath temple and had an easy time of it, an almost exclusive (but for the official escorting us and the priest) face to face with Vishwanath Iyer and his consort Annapoorna. It was only when we came out in about a half hour that we realised the waiting queue exceeded a hundred thousand pilgrims.

Vasumathi with Pilgrims from Andhra (Dashashwamedh Ghat)

We felt the usual pang of guilt but, to my great surprise, I realised that the crowd was very orderly, good natured, cheerful and patient, extraordinarily and commendably patient. There was no restiveness, we only saw good behavior all round. It then hit me that these folks had probably made long journeys from every corner of India by train, bus or ferry, that they were almost exclusively from the low income group and that the journey, a pilgrimage really, and the cost of boarding in Benares involved significant financial expense for most of them (unlike us who had flown in, us who have resolved never to catch a cold and who were housed in comfort in the city). And then the long wait of 10 or 12 hours or more to have the merest glimpse, if that, of Vishwanath. I am not being maudlin but seeing this orderly and cheerful, faithful queue was an extraordinary experience. This is the real India and you can see it round the year in Benares. No need to go anywhere else.

Shiv Ratri Queue 150 K Strong (End of Line @ Dashashwamedh Ghat)

There were a couple of other temples which impressed us, one of them being very small shrine for the monkey god Hanuman, actually a Bala Hanuman or Hanuman as child, at Assi Ghat, right where the Dhrupad fest was staged. It is said Tulsi Das who wrote the Ramayana in Hindi used to sit under a peepul tree next to the shrine and that, as he wrote the Ramayan, the Hanuman used to sit by his side and read it! It is a picturesque, idyllic spot with the Ganges below, sylvan and peaceful and the peepul tree still stands (is it the same after 400 years?) :

Assi Ghat : Tulsi Das Platform & Hanuman Shrine

The other temple was the Bindhu Madhav shrine at Panch Ganga or Madhoray Ghat, also a smallish shrine located in an old house by the side of the Aurangzeb Mosque. It used to be the largest temple complex in Benares, Akbar the Great having generously provided for its expansion in the 16th century. But in 1672, great grandson Aurangzeb, in a fit of iconoclastic zeal, had it razed to the ground and the eponymous mosque came up in its place. As is usual on such occasions, the beautiful idol of Bindhu Madhav (the youthful Vishnu) had been spirited away and, much later, it was installed in the old house where worship still continues. The idol is made of a huge block of Shaligram or ammonite (about 3 1/2 x 2 foot, extremely rare in that size), a fossil stone found in the Gandaki river in Nepal. The idol must be a thousand years old if not more and is a superb carving in the gleaming black Shaligram and very tastefully decorated :

The Shaligram Idol of Bindhu Madhav

We found in the shrine an old portrait of a dignitary and the articulate and friendly priest, Murlidhar Ganesh Patwardhan an ex bank official, told us that it is of Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, an erstwhile ruler of Aundh state, a small 800 square mile principality near Poona. It is, unusually, a Brahmin kingdom and the family have been managing the temple for several generations now. The last, distinguished scion of the family was the former ruler, Apa Pant, a diplomat who was High Commissioner for India in London, whose autobiography, "A Moment in Time", is well known. He was Oxford educated but, when at home, used to be dressed in a dhoti and remained bare chested (as customary in those days) and, in the 1930's, this was resented by the English. According to their notions or prejudices, an Oxonian ought to have known better!

Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi (late Ruler of Aundh)

The Ghats from the River

Manikarnika Ghat

Haveli (Indian Mansion) near Manikarnika

We took an hour long boat ride at 6 A.M, very bracing and invigorating in the cool of the morning; the early spring of India was still a couple of weeks away and the slow glide on the river was a therapeutic experience. The speed of the boat is at the most 2 1/2 miles an hour, a very relaxing if not stately progression with the panorama of the ghats on one side and the sunrise to the right.

A Close View : Manikarnika

Manikarnika : Another View

It is no use my trying to convey any further a sense of the sheer pleasure of an early morning boat ride on the Ganges, it is something one must experience oneself.

Dashashwamedh Ghat

Dashashwamedh : A Close-up

Tamaso Ma Jyotir Gamaya : Lead Me from Darkness to Light

Ganges Sunrise : Another View

Bhonsla Ghat in 18th Century Splendour

And Lo! The Hunter of the East
has captured the Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light
(with apologies to Omar Khayyam)

Bhonsla : Taken A Few Moments Before the One Above

Some Architecture

The Queen's College in Benares was built in 1847 - 52 by Maj Markham Kittoe,as much as enthusiast for architecture as for archaeology. It now houses the Sanskrit University and is a building in the "correct" Gothic style, Puginesque in its ovrall form and also in the detailing. It has been accused of making no concessions whatever to, nor having any empathy with, its Indian setting but Shivakumar and I found it one of the best examples of British architecture in India. It is certainly worth a visit and some gazing, here are a few pics :

Queen's College : Gothic Splendour or Kittoe's Folly ?

Queen's College (Sanskrit Univ) : Another View


A pair of splendid gatehouses designed by Kittoe caught my attention, they are worthy of note of and by themselves. Here's one :

Gate House Sanskrit Univ (Queen's College)

And there is a handsome, low slung outbuilding, the College Library, also designed by Kittoe :

Queen's College Library : Maj Markham Kittoe

And more architecture of note, both Indian and British :

An Old Haveli : the House in Which Laxmibai, Rani of Jhansi was Bron

The District Court

Anglo Bengal College (Built in 1905) : Typically Indian Kitsch in Foreground is A Latterday Addition

Another Haveli

And, one of the best, the Lal Khan Mausoleum at Raj Ghat built in 1773 (not much is known about Lal Khan except he was a General, probably serving the Nawab of Oudh):

Apparell'd in Celestial Light : the Lal Khan Mausoleum

A Minaret : Lal Khan Mausoleum

The Banaras Hindu University's Museum is one of the best kept in Indai and ought to be visited. Lots of sculpture, Kushan, sarnath, maurya artifacts, an impressive numismatic collection (so Shivakumar tells me) and losts else. There is a room specially for Alice Boner, the Swiss sculptor and artist, who lived in Benares and a room full of the paintings of Nicholas Roerich. Here is a grim looking Vasumathi, standing beneath a figure of Govardhan Giridhari (Krishna holdin aloft the mountain of Govardhana):

B.H.U Museum : Govardhan Giridhari (Kushan Period)

Prinsep on Benares

I will let the Master himself, James Prinsep, sum up Benares : "There are few objects more lively and exhilarating than the scene from the edge of the opposite sands, on a fine afternoon, under the clear sky of January. The music and bells of a hundred temples strike the ear with magic melody from the distance, amidst the buzz of human voices; and every now and then the flapping of the pigeons' wings is heard as they rise from their crates on the housetops, or whirl in close phalanx round the minarets, or alight with prisoners from a neighbour's flock. At the same time the eye rests on the vivid colours of the different groups of maale and female bathers, with their sparkling brass water-vessels, or follows the bulls as they wander in the crowds in proud exercise of the rights of citizenship, munching the chaplets of flowers liberally presented to them. Then, as the night steals on, the scene changes, and the twinkling of lamps along the water's edge, and the funeral fires, and white curling smoke, and the stone buildings lit up by the moon, present features of variety and blended images of animation, which it is out of the artist's power to embody. He may give in detail the field upon which these scenes of life are enacted, but the spectator's imagination must supply the rest."
(Intro to Benares Illustrated).

I am going back in the wintr, may be in January, to people gaze and to amble around in the ghats in exercise of my own rights of citizenship.

Lalita Ghat

Negotiating A Safe Return

As our return flight was about to land in Madras, Vasumathi, to my left and Shivakumar (from across the aisle) started inquisition proceedings.

V : Now that you've been to Benares you are expected to give up something, may be an item of food or a habit or something. What will it be?

Self : Give up something? No, I don't think I will give up anything, thanks.

Shivakumar : But as a good Hindu, you are expected to.

Self : Good Hindu ? I suppose I am. Well at least an OK one but I ain't giving up nothing. The idea!

V : What about your smoking habit ? (this somewhat hopefully.)

Self : No, certainly not. Besides, not smoking is also habit forming.

V & S (In one voice) : Then what will it be?

As I replied, "I will give up the notion,as if I ever had it, that I should give up something", the plane touched down in Madras. A feathertouch landing.



Your blog is wonderful madam.Bless you and your country

Unknown said...

Dear V.Narayan Swami,

I've just enjoyed your blog postings on Benares, but wanted to note out that some of the statements Lucinda Lambton made about about the tomb of Raja Rommahun Roy are incorrect -- you were right to wonder how James Prinsep managed to do some of the things she had attributed to him!

The tomb was actually designed by William Prinsep, James's brother, in 1842 and its construction was funded by William's Calcutta business partner and friend Dwarakanath Tagore. Although Raja Roy had died in 1833, he was only re-interred in this tomb about 1843. By the time James returned to England from Calcutta in 1838 he was already very ill, and died in 1840, before the tomb was designed. Happily the tomb was restored just last year, as it had fallen into disrepair.

Another update: Dr. O. P. Kejariwal, who first reproduced James's "Benares Illustrated" in 1996, has just published a new and expanded edition of the book in which I understand he accompanies many of the sites that James had pictured in the 1830s with recent photos of the sites.

Sudarshan said...

Thank yo Tim and sorry for the late responses to yourcomment but I have been deluged with work and have just found time to write. You credit me with having wondered if James Prinsep was in England at the time the Ram Mohun Roy tomb was built but I should have thought of William Prinsep (who was no mean artist himself). But for your most informative response I would not have known that it was William who did the design for the tomb nor about his business partner in Calcutta. You seem to know a lot about the Prinseps and Roy and possibly about Benares. Are you an historian I wonder (because, whether or not you are one, I would like to invite you to contribute a blog post on the subject in this blog if you have the time and the inclination.

Thanks for the tip about the Kejriwal book, I did learn from the Pilgrim Book House when in Benars that it is due any time soon. You must writ me a blog post I think! V.Narayan Swami (Stll at work at 4 A.M in the morning and the Company audit not yet complete!)

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog post (Thanks to RBSI) which sort of renewed my desire to listen to more Dhrupad gayaki and also visit Benaras (and make a film set in Benaras).
There is so much to see, so much to read, so much to hear, so much to ponder. More is less.
Incidentally, James Prinsep may not be the youngest FRS. Perhaps he was the youngest FRS in the 19th century just as Ramanujan was the youngest in the 20th. Likely, There were younger members in the eighteenth century. The Royal Society has a list of all members with the date of their election as member and their birth date. I will try and put the data in an excel sheet and see if I come up with youngest member (and also the one who served the longest).

Sudarshan said...

Thank you, Shekhar Sathe, for your kind words (which are more than coronets!). I am delighted you are thinking of a film on Benares (you must be a Director or Producer) and wish you the Best of Luck in producing a film that takes an off-beat look at the city. V.Narayan Swami.

Anonymous said...

Amazing details. I can say because i have lived through all these things in Benaras and personally know Dhrupad artists.
Great work, keep expanding.