Banaras: The Imagined Topography and the Idea of Kashi

Banaras is a city whose name is recognized all over India, and some other parts of the world. People have their pre-formed ideas about the city before they have even reached it or seen it, and their prejudiced view of it before they have understood its patterns. It’s a text and a text is not just on page or screen; it’s also in minds – as the orally transmitted content.

That’s how, we are told, the vedas or shrutis were handed over from one generation to the next. With the rise in the popularity and due to its affordability, the transfer of knowledge through shruti did not remain viable. The printed text replaced the oral one in a big way: but not entirely. The oral text remained active and popular and it wasn’t given the name of shruti anymore. It became a collective version of the psyche of individuals: of all its parts.


Edward Said popularized the concept of “imaginative geography and history” and Benedict Anderson that of the “imagined communities”. Here, in this blog, the idea of an “imagined topography” of Banaras was put forward. The history of the term “imagined topography” being usede in this sense is not older than a couple of days but the history of the idea that the term denotes is much older than that of the concepts put forward by Said and Anderson.

In relation to the imagined topography of Banaras, there’s also the idea of Banaras. Long before the idea of the modern nations had come into existence and much long before the Orient came into its textual existence, there was the idea of Kashi and Kashi as an idea.

The Kashi Rahasya records the following conversation between Lord Vishnu and the immortal sages:

छत्राकारंतु किम ज्योतिर्जलार्द्व प्रकाशते
निमग्नायाम् धरण्यान्तु न निमज्जति तत्कथं
सदाशिवा महादेवो लिंगरूपधरः प्रभुः
मयस्मृतौ लोकगुप्तये प्रादेश परिमानतः
लिंगरूपधरः शम्भुहृदयाद बहिरागतः
वृद्धिमासाद्य महतीं पञ्चक्रोशात्मकोाभवत्
(काशी रहस्य)  (Source: Saraswati, Dandiswami Shivanand. Kashi Gaurav. Varanasi: Kheladilal, 4th edition.)

My Translation of the Hindi form: The umbrella shaped light that spreads over the water, that doesn’t get submerged with the earth after deluge, what’s that? Vishnu said: O Sages! In the beginning, when I had contemplated upon Mahadev in his lingam form for the welfare of the universe, then he came out of my heart in his lingam form. He then expanded and became the panchkroshi Kashi.

The Kashi Khanda of Skanda Puran mentions the following about the city:

अविमुक्तं महत्क्षेत्रम पञ्चक्रोश परिस्थितम्
ज्योतिर्लिंग तदेकं हि ज्ञेयं विश्वेश्वराभिधम
(काशी खंड अ २६)  (Source: Saraswati, Dandiswami Shivanand. Kashi Gaurav. Varanasi: Kheladilal, 4th edition.)

My Translation of the Hindi form: The grand avimukta Kashi for the expanse of five kroshas must be known as the Jyotirlinga form of Vishweshwar.

Light, say the sages in Kashi Rahasya, spreads over the water and then they speak of its submergence with the earth like a tangible thing. Vishnu speaks of his contemplating the lingam, i.e. an idea, and that idea comes out of his heart to expand into something concrete and material: Kashi. The boundaries between abstract and concrete don’t exist when the idea of the city comes to the fore. Rather, it is the ideal form of the city that takes precedence over the material one, both literally and temporally. The seed that grew into the city that its lord loves so much is its lord Mahadev himself. In Kashi Khanda the city is being seen as one with the lingam, or vice versa. Kashi of the shlokas above emerges more as an idea than a corporeal city, and it has continued doing so, in the minds of the millions of Hindus who come to this place of pilgrimage.

The various accounts of the city, both by the Indian and the foreigners, emphasize various facets of the city and its life. The foreigners who came to India and Banaras were Muslims in the beginning. Those from the West came later. The western eyes have observed the city and recorded their observations for nearly half a millenium now. Ralph Fitch and Peter Mundy had come to the city in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively. They had very little to write of it.

Bernier, who had come there in the second half of the sixteenth century, writes mostly of the religion and the ideas of the philosophers that he had met in Benares. Most of his time in the city, it seems, was spent in meeting the philosophers and theologists of the city because he wanted to understand the way the people of India, and of its religious capital thought, so that he could pronounce the Western systems of ideas superior with certainty. Bernier’s contemporary Tavernier gave a very detailed account of a temple and its services, along with an account of a school. None of these early travellers gives space to the city and life in the city.

They had their own concerns and they focussed solely on them. What’s more, they don’t seem to had been very much interested in exploring the picturesque of the city, very much unlike their modern counterparts – those who come to the city at present. Therefore, they focussed upon and wrote about the city as an idea and not about the city as a site for the picturesque. So, they had no need to create an imagined topography of the city. For them the city was a subject for their keen and analytical mind as they could take its dominant religion and philosophy and show its stated and implied inferiority to their systems. Their work was simple, and the functioning of their ideas on the page transparent

 (Hindi typing with help from:

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


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