Pierre Loti and Mark Twain on Benares

Mark Twain came to Varanasi in the second half of the nineteenth century. He looked at the city 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… (Twain 479)

Twain’s account is full of irony and his oft quoted admiration is just a two sentences long prelude to his pages long criticism of the city.

He writes about the city: “It is the headquarters of the Brahmin faith, and one-eighth of the population are priests of that church. But it is not an overstock, for they have all India as a prey. All India flocks thither on pilgrimage, and pours its savings into the pockets of the priests in a generous stream, which never fails” (Twain, 480).

 

Loti, who had come to Benares in the first quarter of the twentieth century writes mystically and approvingly of the city: “Here religious feeling reigns supreme, and no sensual thought ever seems to assail these beauteous mingled forms. They come into unconscious contact with each other, but only heed the river, the sun, and the splendour of the morning in a dream of ecstasy” (Loti 259).

On page 257 in his book, Loti writes:

The sun has just risen from the plain through which old Ganges wanders, a plain of mud and vegetation still overshadowed by the mists of night; and waiting there for the first red rays of dawn lie the granite temples of Benares, the rosy pyramids, the golden shafts, and all the sacred city, extended in terraces, as if to catch the first light and deck itself in the glory of the morning.

This is the hour which, since the Brahmin faith began, has been sacred to prayer and to religious

ecstasy, and it is now that Benares pours forth all its people, all its flowers, all its garlands, all its birds, and all its living things on to the banks of the Ganges. Awakened by the kiss of the sun, all that have received souls from Brahma rush joyously down the granite steps. (257)

 

References:

Loti, Pierre (1913). India. London: T. Werner Laurie.

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

 

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