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of merit that the erecting of votive stupas had so
long been in places of Buddhistic pilgrimage.
Nay, even now old stupas remain of the early
Puranic period, and early Shivas of a later phase
of development, about the streets and ghats of
Benares, to tell of the impress made by Buddha
on an age that was then already passing away.

But Benares is not only an Indian Canterbury,


it is also an Oxford. Under the shadow of temples
and monasteries cluster the schools and dwellings
of the pundits or learned Sanskritists, and from all
parts of India the poor students flock there to
study the classics and ancient rituals of Hinduism.
The fame of Nuddea is in her Sanskrit logic, but
that of Benares in her philosophy and Brahman
lore. Thus she remains ever the central authority
on questions of worship and of the faith, and her
influence is carried to all ends of India by every
wandering scholar returning to his own province.
It is a mediaeval type of culture, of course, carried
out in the mediaeval way. It takes a man twelve
years here to exhaust a single book, while under
the modern comparative method we are compelled
to skim the surfaces of a score or more in a single
year. It follows that we have here a study of the
contents rather than the relations of a given work ;
significance rather than co-ordination. But for
this very reason the Benares-trained scholar is of
his own kind, secure in his type, as fearless in his
utterance of that which he knows as those other
mediaevalists in a modern world, John Bunyan and
William Blake.

But in Benares as a culture-centre even in the
present generation, though it is fast vanishing, we
have another extraordinary advantage to note.
Being as she is the authoritative seat of Hinduism
and Sanskrit learning, the city stands nevertheless,
side by side with Jaunpur, the equally authorita-
tive centre of Mussulman learning in India. She


represents in fact the dividing line between the
Sanskritic civilisation of the Hindu provinces and
the Persian and Arabic culture of the Mohammedan.
And consequently she "still has members of a class
that once constituted one of the most perfect types
of national education in the world, elderly Hindu
gentlemen who were trained in their youth not
only to read Sanskrit literature, but also to read
and enjoy what was then the distinctive accomplish-
ment of royal courts, namely Persian poetry. And
the mind that is born of this particular synthesis
rendered possible in Benares by the presence on
the one hand of the Hindu pundit and the neigh-
bourhood on the other of the Jaunpur maulvi is
not that of a great scholar certainly, but it is that
of a member of the wide world, polished, courtly,
and urbane. One of the most charming forms
of high breeding that humanity has known will be
lost with the last well-born Hindu who has had
the old time training in Persian. Nor indeed can
anyone who has seen modern and mediaeval culture
side by side, as we may still sometimes see them in
Asia, doubt that the true sense of literature is the
prerogative of the mediaevalist.

Benares, then, is an informal university. And
like other universities of the Middle Ages, it has
always supported its scholars and students by a
vast network of institutions of mutual aid. It is
no disgrace there for a boy to beg his bread, when
love of learning has brought him a thousand miles
on foot. Nor was it in mediaeval Leipzig, or


Heidelberg, or Oxford. These are the scholars for
whom our schools and colleges were founded. The
wives of the burghers expected to contribute to the
maintenance of such. And it is in Benares only
food that is wanted. In the dark hours of one
winter morning, as I made my way through the
Bengalitollah to the bathing-g^fcr, I could hear in
the distance the sound of Sanskrit chanting. And
soon I came up to a student who had slept all night
on the stone verandah of some well-to-do house,
screened from the bitterest pinch of cold by care-
fully-drawn walls of common sacking, and now
had risen before five to read by the light of a
hurricane lamp and commit to memory his task for
the day. Further on another studied, with no such
luxuries as canvas walls and paraffin lamp. He
had slept all night under his single blanket on the
open stone, and the tiny Indian batti was the light
by which he was reading now.

Here is love of learning with labour and poverty.
It is obviously impossible for these to earn their
bread in addition to performing the tasks imposed
by their schools. The spontaneous benefactions
of rich nobles and merchants were doubtless
enough in the Middle Ages when religious enthu-
siasm was high, and the problem still limited to
maintain the pundits in whose houses the students
lived. But in modern times the institution of the
chhattras has grown up, and it is said that in the
city there are three hundred and sixty-five of these.

A chhattra is a house at which a given number of

R 2


persons receive a meal daily. Some give double
doles. Some give to others besides Brahmans.
Many have been themselves the gifts of pious
widows, and a few of kings. But that it is the
duty of the city to provide food for her scholars
all are agreed. Is not Benares to these children
of Shiva Annapurna the Mother, She whose hand
is ever " full of grain " ?

But Benares is more than the precincts of a group
of temples. She is more even than a university,
and more than the historic and industrial centre of
three thousand years. The solemn Manikarnika
stands rightly in the centre of her river-front. For
she is a great national shmashan, a vast burning-
ghdt. ll He who dies in Benares attains Nirvana."
The words may be nothing but an expression of
intense affection. Who would not love to die on
those beautiful ghdts, with the breath of the night
or the morning on his brow, the sound of temple-
bells and chanting in his ears, and the promises
of Shiva and memories of the past in his heart ?
Such a death, embraced in an ecstasy, would it
not in itself be Mukti, the goal ? " Oh Thou great
fnanam, that art God, dwell thou in me ! " Such
was the vision that broke upon one who bent from
the flower-seller's balcony to see evensong chanted
by the Brahmans round the blossom-crowned Vish-
weswar. And never again can that mind think
of God as seated on a throne, with His children
kneeling round Him, for to it the secret has been
shown that Shiva is within the heart of man,


and He is the Absolute Consciousness, the Infinite
Knowledge, and the Unconditioned Bliss. Which
of us would not die, if we could, in the place that
was capable of flashing such a message across the

All India feels this. All India hears the call.
And one by one, step by step, with bent head and
bare feet for the most part, come those, chiefly
widows and sadhus, whose lives are turned away
from all desire save that of a holy death. How
many monuments of sati are to be seen in Benares,
one on the Manikarnika Ghat, and many dotted
about the fields and roads outside ! These are the
memorials of triumphant wifehood in the hour of
its bereavement. But there are other triumphs.
Clothed and veiled in purest white, bathing, fasting,
and praying continually, here in the hidden streets
of Benares dwell thousands of those whose lives
are one long effort to accumulate merit for the
beloved second self. And if the scholar be indeed
the servant of the nation, is the saint less ? The
lamp of ideal womanhood, burning in the sheltered
spot at the feet of the image, and "not flicker-
ing," is this, or is it not, as a light given to the
world ?

Benares, again, is an epitome of the whole
Indian synthesis of nationality. As the new-comer
is rowed down the river past the long lines of
temples and bathing-gvbfcf, while the history of
each is told to him in turn, he feels, catching his
breath at each fresh revelation of builded beauty,


that all roads in India always must have led to
Benares. Here is the monastery of Kedarnath, the
headquarters of the southern monks, which re-
presents to the province .of Madras all the merits of
Himalayan pilgrimage. Here again is the ghat of
Ahalya Bai Rani, the wonderful widowed Mahratta
Queen, whose temples and roads and tanks re-
main all over India to witness to the greatness of
the mother heart in rulers. Or behind this we
may see the Math of Sankaracharya's order, the
high caste Dandis, whose line is unbroken and
orthodoxy unimpeached from the days of their
founder, early in the ninth century, till the present
hour. Again, we see the palace of the Nagpore
Bhonslas (now in the hands of the Maharaja of
Darbhanga), connecting Benares with the memory
of the Mahratta power, and further on the royal
buildings of Gwalior and even of Nepal. Nor is
everything here dedicated to Shiva, Shiva's city
though it be. For here again we come on the
temple of Beni Madhab, one of the favourite names
of Vishnu. Even Mohammedan sovereigns could
not submit to be left out. Secular science is em-
bodied in the beautiful old Man Mandir of Akbar's
time, with its instruments and lecture-hall, and
the Mussulman faith in the towering minarets of
Aurungzeb's mosque.

But what is true of the Ganges front becomes
still more clear when we pass behind and consider
the city as a whole. Ranjit Singh made no sepa-
rate building, but he linked Vishweswar irrevocably

Photo: Johnston and Hoffmann



with Amritsar, when he covered its roof with gold.
Zemindars of Bengal, Sirdars of the Punjab, and
nobles of Rajputana, all have vied with one another
in leaving temples and shrines, charities and bene-
factions, dotted over the Panch Kos.

Or we may see the same thing industrially. We
can buy in Benares, besides her own delicate webs,
the saris of Madras and the Dekkan alike. Or we
may go to the Vishwanath Bazar for the carpentry
of the Punjab. We may find in the same city the
brass work of Nasik, of Trichinopoli, and of the
Nepalese frontier. It is there, better than anywhere
else in India, that we may buy the stone vessels
of Gaya, of Jubbulpur, and of Agra, or the Shivas
of the Nerbudda and the salagrams of the Gumti
and Nepal. And the food of every province may
be bought in these streets, the language of every
race in India heard within these walls.

On questions of religion and of custom, again,
in all parts of India, as has been said, the supreme
appeal is to Benares. The princes of Gwalior dine
only when the news has been telegraphed that the
day's food has been offered here. Here too the
old works of art and religion, and the old craftsmen
practising quaint crafts, linger longest, and may
still perchance be found when they have become
rare to the point of vanishing everywhere else.
Here the Vyasas chant authoritative renderings of
the epic stories on the ghats. And here at great
banquets food is still considered only secondary
to the reciting of the scriptures. Surely it is clear


enough that as in the Latin Empire of City and
of Church the saying grew up, " All roads lead to
Rome," so also in India, so long as she remains
India, all roads, all faiths, all periods, and all
historical developments will lead us sooner or later
back to Benares.

A city in such a position, possessed of such
manifold significance, the pilgrim-centre of a conti-
nent, must always have had an overwhelming need
of strong civic organisation. And that such a need
was recognised in the city during the ages of its
growth, we may see in many ways. No medigeval
township in Europe gives stronger evidence of
self-organisation than we find here.

"The mediaeval city," says the great European
sociologist Kropotkin, " appears as a double federa-
tion : of all householders united into small territorial
unions the street, the parish, the section and of
individuals united by oath into guilds, according to
their professions ; the former being a product of
the village-community origin of the city, while the
second is a subsequent growth, called into life by
new conditions."

This is a master statement which can at once be
applied here, if only we dismiss the European idea
of labour as the main motif of this city's growth,
and substitute the Indian equivalent of religion and
learning. Labour is present here of course, and
has flourished, as we know, in this spot, during at
least three thousand years, but it has never reared its
head to become a predominant and independent


factor in the growth of Benares. This central
significance, this* higher element in the federation,
has been supplied here, by the presence of priests
and pundits, monasteries and poets, bound to each
other, not by professional oaths, but by the invisible
and spiritual bonds of caste and tradition, and
religious bonds by Hinduism, in short. Not the
craftsman, but the Hindu carrying the craftsman
with him, has made Benares what she is, and here
in this city we have the picture of one of the finest
things that the Indian faith uninterfered with by
foreign influences, and commanding the enthusi-
astic co-operation of the whole nation could pro-
duce. It is no mean achievement. On Benares
as it has made it the Hindu genius may well take
its stand. By the city of Shiva it may well claim to
be judged.

It is, however, when we turn to the first element
in Kropotkin's analysis of the city that we find
Benares to be most completely illuminated. In a
pilgrim-city, we cannot but think that some mutual
organisation of householders for self-defence must
have been a prime necessity. The policing of such
a city was more than usually important. What
were the arrangements made for sanitation, for
ambulance, for hospital-service, for the clearing-out
of vagrants ? These things may not in the Middle
Ages have been called by these names, but as-
suredly their realities existed, and such necessities
had to be met. Householders united into small
territorial unions the street, the para. And is not


Benares filled with small courts and alleys, divided
from the main streets by short flights of broad
steps, each crowned by its own gate ? Is it more
than thirty or forty years since each of these had
its own guard or concierge and was closed at night
to be opened again in the morning ? In many
cases of course the massive doors themselves are
now removed, but the pillars and hooks and hinges
still remain to bear witness to their old function.
In other instances they stand there still pushed
back against the wall, and one pauses a moment as
one passes to ask, When was this last shut ? These
portals to each little group of important houses
are a silent witness to the order and cleanliness of
Benares as the Hindu made it. Just as in Edin-
burgh, as in Niirnberg, as in Paris, so here also, the
group of wealthy houses thus barred in at a certain
hour after dark was responsible for the freedom of
its own space from uncleanliness and violence. It
must undertake the connection between its own
sanitation and the underground sewage system of
the city, which was similar in character to that of
ancient Pataliputra. It must be responsible for the
proper alleviation of such suffering as fell within
its limits, and its members must duly contribute
their full share to the common burdens of the city
as a whole. But when we come to the gates of the
para or section, of which some still remain guarded
by their watchmen outstanding in the bazaars, we
understand the full importance to the mediaeval
mind of the question of civic order and of a strong


but peaceful civic defence. For here within these
gateways, we find the shrines of Kal Bhairab, the
divine Kotwal y who perambulates the city of Shiva
night after night, with staff and dog, who is wor-
shipped by sentinels and gate-keepers, and who
has the supreme discretion of accepting or reject-
ing at his will those who fain would enter within
the sacred bounds. Of the divine Kotwal every
city-watchman held himself as minister and earthly
representative. And in this worship of KalBhairab,
the Black Demon of Shiva, we may read the whole
history of the civic organisation of Benares in the
Middle Ages.

The modern age was later perhaps in arriving,
here than elsewhere. But arrive it did, and its
work when it came, here as elsewhere, was to
multiply problems and to discredit the solutions
that had been discovered by slow ages of growth.
All that strong rope of self-defence, twisted of so
many strands of local combination and territorial
responsibility, with which Benares had been wont
to meet her own needs, was now done away. The
communal sense was stunned by the blow, for the
fact was demonstrated to it ad nauseam that it was
itself powerless against strong central combinations
of force. Thus the old self-jurisdiction and self-
administration of the civic group was banished.
And at the same time the railways connected
Benares with every part of India, and made it
possible to pour in upon her daily as large a
number of diseased, infirm, and starving persons,


as may once have reached her on foot or in boats
in the course of a year. Thus a forest of needs
has grown up in modern Benares, of which the
past generations with their common-sense, their
spontaneous kindliness, and their thrifty municipal
management, knew nothing.

Poor working-folk come, when the last hope has
failed them, trusting that the Great God will be their
refuge in his own city. In the old days, when
Benares was a wealthy capital, these would have
made their way to some house or para inhabited
by well-to-do townsfolk from their own district,
and through their kind offices work would sooner
or later have been found. But now they find
themselves amongst strangers. The music of
temple-bells is the only sound familiar to them.
Priests and fellow-worshippers are alike unknown.
And it may be that in the sanctuary-city they have
but fled from one despair to another.

Or the poor student comes here to learn. In
the old days he would have found house-room as
well as food in the home of his guru, or of some
wealthy patron, and if he fell ill, he would have
been cared for there, as a member of the family.
To-day the number of so-called students is great,
and possibly amongst them the indolent are many.
For certainly temptations must have multiplied, at
the same time that the moral continuity of the old
relation between distant homestead and metropoli-
tan para has been lost. In any case, even amongst
the most earnest, some of these poor students have,


From Water-colour by Nantla L<il Hose.


as we have seen, to live in the streets. And when
illness overtakes such there is none to aid, for there
is none even to know. The chhattras are certainly
a wonderful institution, showing the unexpected
power of this ancient city to meet the needs of
her own children. But the chhattras cannot offer
home and hospital. And these also are sometimes

And finally there is the case of the widowed
gentlewomen who come to Benares to pray for
their dead. As with others, so here also there is
in many cases but slender provision. And yet
nowadays they cannot come to friends, but must
needs hire a room and pay rent to a landlord.
Nor can we venture to pass too harsh a verdict
on the capitalist who evicts his tenant though a
woman and delicately nurtured when the rent has
fallen too long into arrears. For he probably has
to deal with the fact on such a scale that the
course is forced upon him, if he will save him-
self from ruin. More striking even than this is
that fear of the police, which we find everywhere
amongst the helpless, and which drives the keeper
of the apartment-house to dismiss its penniless
inmates when near to death, lest he should after-
wards be arraigned in court for having stolen their
provision !

Prostrate, then, under the disintegrating touch
of the Modern Era, lies at this moment the most
perfect of mediaeval cities. Is she to become a
memory to her children after four thousand or


more years of a constant growth ? Or will there
prove to be some magic in the new forces of en-
thusiasm that are running through the veins of
the nation, that shall yet make itself potent to
renew her ancient life-streams also ?


Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON <5^ Co.
at Paul's Work, Edinburgh




APR a 1934

DEC 20 1934

OCT IS 1944

APK 23





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Online LibrarySister NiveditaFootfalls of Indian history [microform] → online text (page 17 of 17)