It all began with a mail about Taj Mahal and P. N. Oak, the man who wrote Taj Mahal: The True Story in which he says “the Taj Mahal is not Queen Mumtaz’s tomb but an ancient Hindu temple palace of Lord Shiva (then known as Tejo Mahalaya )”. The mail had mentioned Peter Mundy, a traveller, who had come to India back then. I was naturally interested in knowing whether he had visited my city or not, and if he had, what did he have to say about it. I got the book [Mundy, Peter. The Travels of Peter Mundy. London: Hakluyt Society, 1914]. What’s more, I also got Ralph Fitch’s and Mark Twain’s accounts of my city:
[Twain, Mark. Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. New York: Hartford, 1897.
Early Travels in India: 1583-1619. Ed. William Foster. London: OUP, 1921.].
Ralph Fitch is drawn towards the various idols and takes time to present them to his reader (c. 1585):
Here alongst the waters side bee very many faire houses, and in all of them, or for the most part, they have their images standing, which be evill favoured, made of stone and wood, some like lions, leopards, and monkeis ; some like men and women, and pecocks ; and some like the devil with foure armes and 4 hands (20).
He then proceeds to describe the rituals etc. that he had observed people practising. His observation was definitely acute and he, with his modern man’s eyes, saw the filth that reigned at many places of importance in the city and marked it too. He also saw social practices like sati and commented on the shaven heads of the widows who lived. He, a Westerner, describes the process of godan so very accurately and in detail, that too back in sixteenth century, it’s simply amazing that he could observe and understand so much in the short span of time he stayed in the city.
Despite all his qualities and powers, he could not keep the tone of disapproval our of his narration when it came to describing the various idols that he saw in the temples:
Their chiefe idoles bee blacke and evill favoured, their mouthcs monstrous, their eares gilded, and full of jewels,their teeth and eyes of gold, silver, and glasse, some having one thing in their handes and some another. (p.23)
Mundy came nearly half a century later. He begins the description of the city thus:
[Third September 1632] Of all the Citties and Townes that I have seene in India, none resembles so much those of Europe as this Banaroz …[Benares] doth a distance off, by reason of the many great and high Spires that are in it, which belonge to Pagodes or Hindoo Churches. Also when wee came into it, wee found it wondrous populous, good buildings, paved streets, but narrow and Crooked… As also to divers Pagodes, Dewraes [temple] or Churches. The cheifest is called Cassibessuua… (122).
He then goes on to describe in details the various idols he had seen in the city. He does not give Banaras a lot of space in his account and is just mildly amused, neither shocked nor astonished, by whatever he sees.
These are the two earlier Western travelers to the city whose travel accounts have some description of the same. More famous than them are the names of Bernier and Tavernier who came to Varanasi in the 1660’s, the very decade by the end of which Aurangzebe’s orders of destroying the most important temples of the city hit it like a selective seismic wave.
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