Jean Baptiste Tavernier had come to Benares in 1665. His account of the city is special because he had been to Bindu Madhav Temple at Panchganga Ghat just a couple of years before Aurangzebe had ordered its destruction and the construction of a mosque that bears his name even today: the Alamgiri Mosque, or, as it’s known more popularly, Beni Madho’s Dharhara. The Dharhara commands a very dominant position in the ghatscape of Banaras and can be seen from a ghat as distant as Raja Ghat. It has attracted painters and photographers of Banaras. It has also been shown in most of the films that show the city.
(Aurangzeb’s Mosque in a ghatscape painting)
Tavernier calls the “pagoda of Benares” the most famous temple of the country, after the Jagannath Temple in Puri. He then writes of the recesses on the side of the steps leading to Gangaji and about the sanctity of Gangajal. Around four centuries ago, his mind did protest at the claim made about the purity of the river’s water by the Hindus. The reason he gives behind the pollution of water is the Hindu practice of throwing corpses (of certain categories of humans and of animals) into the river. His concern has been echoed through the years that followed his, by the people who came to the city after him.
(Aurangzeb’s Mosque in Prinsep’s Sketch)
Tavernier describes the altar in the garbh griha and the idol. He mentions that women were not allowed to enter the temple, so they used to have the darshan from the outside. On the right side of the altar he had seen the figure of Garud that was made of gold. His description of the temple services and of the devotees and their activities is detailed and covers the minutest of details. He also describes the school that Raja Jai Singh had established nearby. He went to the temple in the same building the next day and observed and recorded the early morning activities around him.
(Aurangzeb’s Mosque in a photograph)
(Source: Tavernier, Jean Baptiste. Travels in India. Tr. V. Ball. London: MacMillan, 1889.)
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