Banaras: The Picturesque and the Filthiest

Darbhanga Ghat

Mark Twain came to Varanasi and remarked:

             Benares was not a disappointment. It justified its reputation as a curiosity…. Tall, slim minarets and beflagged ptelem-spires rise out of it and give it picturesqueness…. It is unspeakably sacred in Hindoo eyes, and is as unsanitary as it is sacred, and smells like the rind of the dorian…

(Source: Twain, Mark. Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. New York: Hartford, 1897.)

In an uncharacteristic manner, I begin this post with a quote and follow it up with another – a section from Mahatma Gandhi’s speech that he had delivered at the foundation ceremony of Banaras Hindu University on 4 February 1916:

                   I want to think audibly this evening. I do not want to make a speech and if you find me this evening speaking without reserve, pray, consider that you are only sharing the thoughts of a man who allows himself to think audibly, and if you think that I seem to transgress the limits that courtesy imposes upon me, pardon me for the liberty I may be taking. I visited the Vishwanath temple last evening, and as I was walking through those lanes, these were the thoughts that touched me.

[Then he asks few questions:]

If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple, and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us?

Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character?

I speak feelingly, as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are?

If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be?

Shall our temples be abodes of holiness, cleanliness and peace as soon as the English have retired from India, either of their own pleasure or by compulsion, bag and baggage?


Both the quotations above highlight the squalor in the city. I have talked to many people about my city and have read about it. It has been established in the popular domain of knowledge with certainty, after repeated exposure to similar ideas, that Banaras is one of the filthiest cities of the world (some even call it the filthiest one). The proof is presented in a very shocking manner (shocking to me at least) – by that filth disseminated in JPEG format over the internet, posted on page after page about my city.


Now I quote from “Ganga and Gandagi: Interpretations of Pollution and Waste in Benaras” a paper by Kelly D. Alley:

Fitzjames, Superintending Engineer of Allahabad, outlined the first large-scale sewage and storm water drainage plan for the city. Fitzjames’s observations about conditions of city filth were interspersed throughout the document to give emphasis to his proposals. He wrote about the city’s drainage of waste:

When I state that it may be said to be without drainage of any kind, that its subsoil is saturated to a depth of several feet with the filth and abominations of centuries, that every well in the city is contaminated by percolation from the offensive soil, and that in spite of all these evils it is a healthy city, one wonders how this can be…. The Benaras stinks are already gaining a world-wide celebrity, and ere long those of Cologne will be forgotten. These stinks only too plainly and emphatically tell us how much drainage is wanted in Benaras and there cannot be much doubt that if this city is not very thoroughly drained and improved, as much as sanitary science will allow, an outbreak of some epidemic like the plague will devastate the city, and cause heavy loss to Government [Fitzjames 1880:9].

He continued by linking the problem of filth to an explicit paternalism and denunciation of the natives:

To realize the filthy state of Benaras is quite beyond the power of anyone who has not visited it. The subsoil, when opened out, gives out a most sickening offensive stench. [Fitzjames 1880:11].

Fitzjames designed a sewage program to combat this kind of filth.

(Source: Ethnology, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Spring, 1994), pp. 127-145. link: )

The Mahatma was speaking about Varanasi in the beginning of the twentieth century and Twain and Fitzjames were writing about it at the end of the nineteenth century. To these texts when the various documentaries etc. about the city are added the resultant is a huge corpus of texts on the city, which is a part of the whole discourse on Varanasi. Filth has coexisted with the picturesque for as far as the available texts describing the city holistically are concerned. Gangaji and the ghats for the core of what is called picturesque in the city. They also are the sites where the filth of the city has been directed to from the time habitation begun in the city [tall claim: with at least at present, nothing to substantiate it textually].

I have seen many films in Hindi, Bangla and Telugu (dubbed in Hindi) that have Banaras as the locale either for a part in the beginning or in parts spread throughout the length of the film. They choose to show only the picturesque and gloss over the filthy Banaras. By doing that those film put forth another Banaras. Thus they counter the “Banaras is filthy” stream of the discourse with “Banaras is beautiful” stream.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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