Ghats of Benares through the Eyes of some Western Visitors

Many posts of this blog are based on the accounts of various Western travellers to Varanasi. This post is a continuation in the same series. From Peter Mundy to Pierre Loti, the time span thus covered is from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. They came to the city, liked some things and disliked some. The visitors mentioned in this post had come to the city of Banaras (Benares) in the second half of the nineteenth century, or in the first few years of the twentieth. Sir Richard Temple was the first among these three to arrive in the city. He had been the Finance Minister of India; Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal and Governor of Bombay at various times. He had come to Benares between 1848 to 1853.

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His account of the city does not exceed two pages. Yet, he had a lot to say about the ghats on the banks of Gangaji, specially of subahe Banaras:

Sometimes, too, he would take me on board a boat soon after sunrise, so that we might drop gently down the sluggish current, and thus leisurely admire the unrivalled spectacle which the city displays at that hour of the day, when the slanting rays of the sun light up cone-shaped temples, glittering finials, stone carvings, grotesque frescoes, lattice windows, palaces and housetops rising one above the other, and successive flights of steps. The gayest part even of this bright scene, however, was the crowd thronging the river-bank, clad in white diversified with all sorts of colours from red to blue. (Temple 32)

He uses the word “spectacle” for what he saw in his boat rides. The play of the rays of the rising sun on the ghats, the temples and the palaces definitely captivated his senses. He was also impressed by the crowd on the ghats: a riot of vivaciousness and colours on display.

G. W. Forrest’s book covers the major cities of British India. Benares is one of them. Although the section on the city also covers Ramnagar and Sarnath, the chapter on Banaras does give considerable space to the ghats of the city. He could not remain untouched by the picturesqueness of the ghats:

We had often read and heard of the delights of seeing Benares from the river, but we had no conception of the beauty and infinite variety of the views which unfold themselves to the eye. …The sun lights up a long, red sandstone frontage with a massive gateway flanked by flowers. Near is a picturesque old temple with a tamarind tree hanging overhead, and a priest in yellow is seated near telling his beads. (Forrest 258)

Edwin Greaves had come to the city nearly at the turn of the previous century and has left a detailed account of the city that he had seen then. The majestic ghatscape had left its regular impact on him:

The view of Benares from the river has, probably, no equal throughout the continent. From Assi Ghat to Raj Ghat, a distance of three miles, there is a more or less continuous line of bathing-steps, surmounted by temples and other fine buildings. These things, however, do not complete the picture ; the scene lacks its true effect without the busy throngs of people which stream down to holy Ganga Mai (Mother Ganges) in the morning. To pass along the banks in the evening is like walking through the city of London on a Sunday; it is without the bustling life, which is one of the most striking features of the whole scene. This feature, of course, is not so important in a general view from a distance. In the morning the best (Greaves 31)

view is from the Dufferin Bridge, in the evening from the road near Ramnagar at the other end of the City. The graceful curve of the Ganges here, approaching a crescent, gives additional charm to the picture. The wide stretch of water, the long flights of steps, the various groups of buildings, with the spires of the temples interspersed with foliage, a few quaint boats, and the minarets soaring heavenward above it all ; these form a picture surpassingly striking. …It is not the artistic excellence of the details, but the grouping of the whole, the extent, the very heterogeneousness of the buildings, the quaint irregularities, the ruinous patches, the temples and the trees ; all these and many other features contribute to make the complete view one which stands quite alone, and possibly could not be surpassed in the whole world for genuine picturesqueness. (Greaves 32)

 

Forrest, G. W. Cities of India. Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1903.

Greaves, Edwin. Kashi the City Illustrious or Benares. Allahabad: The Indian Press, 1909.

Temple, Sir Richard. Men and Events of my Time in India. London: Johan Murray, 1882.

 

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

 

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