Varanasi: At the Crossroads – A Panoramic View of Early Modern Varanasi and the Story of Its Transition (Two Volumes)

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Item Code: NAC230
Author: Swami Medhasananda
Publisher: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 8187332182
Pages: 1077 (91 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 Inch X 7.5 Inch
Weight 2.16 kg
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Book Description
Back of the Book

“The present work is motivated by an enquiry into and an investigation of an age, the ‘father’ of our immediate past—the Banaras which gave birth to its post Mutiny culture and lifestyle... It assumes a newer dimension as the author has drawn copiously upon Indian sources of those times, usually neglected by other authors... .The author’s untiring efforts in going through Government records... give us a more detailed account of the foundation and early growth of such institutions in the City (Sanskrit College, etc.)... This mosaic of information creates a holistic picture of the City.

We are confident that this book will continue to serve as a beacon light to future researchers on Banaras as it is a source of great delight and inspiration to us Banarasis’ (Excerpts from the Foreword)

- Prof. Rai Anand Krishna, Formerly Head, Department of History of Art and % Joint Director, Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, Banaras Hindu University

“A monumental work by any yardstick. - . .The enormous amount of data collected from all sources is remarkable, Even more commendable is its methodology in coordinating these materials, the judicious use of primary and secondary sources and the author’s success in presenting a coherent, well-reasoned and lively account of the City during the period of his choice. The author’s highly ambitious and equally successful endeavour seems to be more closely tuned to the ideas of a model historian:’

- Prof. Nemai Sadhan Bose, Formerly Vice-Chancellor, Visva-Bharati University; a renowned Historian

“Soon after one starts reading this book, he will find the author is equipped with a deep knowledge of a vast range of subjects from things secular to sacred, and a very rare monk indeed, who can do justice to a study of Varanasi, which is not only an illustrious centre of philosophy and religion, but also that of education and industry.... The present book is, in fact, an encyclopedic work on the nineteenth century hiso7 of Varanasi.., a storehouse of valuable data concerning the City, which will be useful for further research.

- Dr. Sengaku Mayeda, Professor Emeritus, the University of Tokyo; Executive Director, The Eastern Institute; Formerly President, Musashino Women’s University

“It is a most impressive book both comprehensive and insightful. Over the years, anyone concerned with Indian studies is likely to find it valuable.”

- Prof. Bernard S. Cohn, Professor Emeritus, Department of’ Anthropology the University of Chicago

“This prodigious work ranks with the most important books that have been written on the holy cities of Jerusalem. Rome, Mecca, Medina the Imperial City of the Chine e Empire and Kyoto. Its exhaustive scholarship is matched only by the love that pulls the book together and shines through its every chapter”

- Prof. Huston Smith, Formerly Professor of Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Author of the World’s Religions


From the Jacket

Varanasi. widely acclaimed as the Eternal City’. is as old as history itself. Mention of ‘Kashi’ is found even in the Vedas, the oldest books of the world. Its holy shrines, the picturesque environs of the sacred river Ganga and with all, the City’s long, unbroken traditions and comprehensive coverage of all aspects of human life have imparted to it a character which is unique. These elements are missing in many other ancient cities of the world and what little of them that does survive are in ruins.

In the Modern Age most cities in Asia have undergone tremendous changes — physical and otherwise — as a consequence of contact with the West. Naturally, the question arises: How did Varanasi stand the onslaught of Western Culture through British rule under which it passed in the late eighteenth century? Did it retain its traditional character without succumbing to this Western challenge? And, if so to what extent? And with what consequences?

Varanasi is also regarded as the main seat of traditional Hindu culture and the religious headquarters of Hinduism. Are such claims justified?

An honest attempt to answer these queries and present a comprehensive account of the City within the timeframe of 1781 and 1857 has been made in these two volumes. Readers will also find interesting and important pieces of information, some of which were hitherto unknown, regarding the deities and temples, fairs and festivals. Mahallas, markets and ghats, learning and literary pursuits, residents and visitors, and miscellaneous ideas and practices of this ancient City as we see them today.

This work has been based on an in-depth study of a vast corpus of source-materials, both primary and secondary, epigraphic. Literary and archival, viz.. documents, correspondences, administrative reports, charts, maps and plans in addition to non-official records, diaries, memoirs, reminiscences, minutes of civil bodies, visual materials and even testimonials. A number of such materials have been explored and utilized for the first time. Photographs concerning this study, some of which are rare, are another important feature of this work.

Based on an objective evaluation of available materials, as far as possible, this work is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of regional history, especially that of cities, and provides the reader with an example of a devoted study derived more from a serious quest to identify the personality’ of a chosen area than from mere intellectual curiosity.

Kashi does not belong to any Indian province in particular, it belongs to all the provinces of India... .The special feature of that it is not only a place where streams of devotion have met, hut it is also a place where all the dif/’rent branches of Indian learning have united.


—Rabindranath Tagore

The author is a monk of the Ramakrishna Order with its Headquarters at Belur Math. West Bengal, India and was formerly the Principal of the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira (a residential three year degree college). He is currently President of the Vedanta Society of Japan.


Publisher’s Note
On the Second Edition

Bu the grace of Visvanatha Siva, the Lord of Varanasi, Varanasi at the Crossroads, first published in 2002, Swami Medhasananda’s magnum opus, was well received by the critics as well as the public. The warm reception from readers called forth a reprint of the book the very next year after its publication.

The author has not made major changes in this new edition. The changes included the update to the Bibliography. The present edition is being published in two volumes (the first volume consists of chapter I to XII and the second one chapters XIII to XXII) to make it more user friendly. The bibliography and the Index are given at the end of the second volume.

Varanasi is the City Eternal and, as the learned and perceptive author rightly concludes, Varanasi’s glorious life-spirit has remained fresh and invigorating even after centuries. The popularity of Varanasi at the Crossroads also bears this out.


Publisher’s Note
On the First Edition

Varanasi at the Crossroads, the outcome of more than two decades of hard labour by Swami Medhasananda, has filled in gaps left undone or half done by earlier research scholars. One such example is the so-called ‘Company Period’, the period between the arrival of Warren Hastings and the war of independence in 1857. The author has done painstaking research to unearth details about different facets of Varanasi’s history and culture, hitherto neglected, and his conclusion is that in spite of the various socio-political turmoils the city has passed through, Varanasi’ life-spirit has remained untouched. It is still fresh and invigorating today.

Swami Lokeswaranandaji Maharaj (1909-1998) had welcomed this project and agreed to publish this volume from the Institute. We are happy to fulfill Maharajji’s wish. We hope this volume will meet the needs of research scholars and also gratify general readers who would like to make a comprehensive study of Varanasi.


By the grace of God and with the co-operation of many, the present monograph on Varanasi finally sees the light of day. This work is intended to furnish an account of the different facets of the history of Varanasi, the world's oldest living city, during the momentous period of 1781 through 1857, when Varanasi witnessed a transition from the Medieval Age to the Modem Age.

In the course of my fieldwork in the City, undertaken intermittently from 1969 through 1983, I had a number of occasions to meet many distinguished citizens of Varanasi. It was on one such occasion that Mahamahopadhyay Gopinath Kaviraj, the great Indologist and savant of Varanasi, gave me the following advice:

'Do not neglect to study even the apparently insignificant things of Varanasi. Every titbit, every piece of information-especially information on the fast-fading traditions of this City-is important and valuable and worth preserving'.

While undertaking this work, I constantly bore in mind this advice from the revered Gopinathji. Accordingly, whatever data were made available relating to this topic, have been utilized for the most part in this study. Hopefully, the mass of data contained herein will pave the way for further research on Varanasi and this, in turn, may establish that the apparently insignificant data I have included in this work is, after all, of some real significance.

Although the collection of materials for this book was nearly complete by 1983, it took me a long time to prepare the manuscript. One of the reasons for such a delay was that the writing was interspersed by various other assignments.

I am deeply indebted and thankful to all who inspired this work and offered unstinting help in various ways to make the present publication possible. I would like to point out here that most of the scholars mentioned below for their assistance in my study were contacted by me roughly between 1969 and 1980 and the posts noted along with their names are those they held at that time.

First of all, I am extremely grateful to the late Professor Amales Tripathi, former Head of the Department of History, Calcutta University, a renowned historian and also my teacher, for initiating me into research on Varanasi.

I also respectfully remember the late Swami Tejasanandaji, the first Principal (also my Principal) of the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, a reputed residential degree college in West Bengal and the late Swami Bhaswaranandaji, former Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama, Varanasi, for their blessings and help in making accommodations for me at the Mission-Centre in Varanasi on a number of occasions to undertake fieldwork there. Later, the revered Swami Sattwanandaji, who succeeded Swami Bhaswaranandaji, and Swami Suddhavratanandaji, the present Secretary, also kindly accommodated me a number of times in the Sevashrama for the same purpose.

In Varanasi, among the innumerable people who were of great help to me, I especially recall with love, respect and gratefulness the late Rai Krishnadas, Founder and Director of the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras Hindu University, and his son, Professor Rai Anand Krishna, the former Head of the Department of History of Art at B.H.U., the late Ramesh Chandra Dey, Private Secretary to His Highness Maharaja Dr Vibhutinarain Singh of Varanasi and Sri Vishwanath Mukherjee, the famous Hindi writer.

All of these people always received me with great love, encouraged me in my studies, spared hours of their time over several days to discuss various issues I raised, furnished me with valuable pieces of information, and in fact, guided me at nearly every step of the initial stage of my field- work in Varanasi. Such guidance was especially important to me, as I had practically no idea of the City before my first research visit in 1969.

There is another reason for my being especially grateful to Prof. Anand Krishna. In addition to kindly going over my manuscript and offering valuable suggestions, he was also kind enough to write a detailed and thoughtful foreword for this book. With his academic and cultural attainment, and above all, his long association with Varanasi as a member of a highly cultured and traditional Varanasi family, he is surely one of the most appropriate persons to write a foreword for a book on Varanasi.

I also met and received guidance from the late Dr Moti' Chandra, a famous authority on the history of Varanasi, and the late Pandits Kuber Nath Sukul and Banarasilal Gupta, all of whom belonged to Varanasi and authored books on it.


Banaras has been a subject of study for the past two centuries in the form of sketches and paintings and/or writings. A corpus of published modern research work is available; still there is justification for the present work from several points of view. To begin with, the period under investigation, the focal area of Swami Medhasanandaji’s present work, is a twilight area in the history of Banaras. Swamiji has handled his subject with a unique sense of involvement. This study, carried on for two decades or more, has assumed newer and more far-reaching dimensions. Like several other scholars, Swami Medhasanandaji was attracted and enchanted by this ‘eternal city,’ and he was encouraged by none else than the savant Mahamahopadhyay Pandit Gopinathji Kaviraj , who urged him to explore Banaras in both its macro and micro forms; Kaviraj-ji concluded that the present work should leave out nothing. It should be written without neglecting even those titbits that may seem unimportant and useless. The same concept is couched in the common parlance of Banaras as in the phrase, ‘Kashi ke Kankar sab Shiva Shankar (Even the pebbles of Banaras can be equated with Shiva Himself).

The present work is motivated by an inquiry into and an investigation of an age, the ‘father’ of our immediate past—which gave birth to the post- Mutiny culture and life-style of the present Benares. This is a relatively neglected area of Banaras’s past. Moti Chandra offers a cursory study of this period through supplying certain useful documentary evidence. Diana Eck’s work shows a unique combination of the vertical and horizontal supra- conscious development of Kashi. Kuber Nath Sukul’s publication is more concerned with the history of religious institutions and landmarks of the City. Yet, for the most part, these two ends of the spectrum figuring in publications on Banaras stop with the advent of the ‘Company Rule` in Banaras, or limit themselves to a few major events, usually basing their surmises on European sources (visual or textual).

There was a need for a deeper study of the period spanning the arrival of Warren Hastings on the scene and the 1857 War of Independence, fallaciously dubbed the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. The ‘Company Period’ was neglected by scholars as a period of gradual decay of Banaras, yet through Swami Medhasanandaji’s present work, we are more than convinced that it was an extremely productive and important period in the City’s history wherein the traditional values of life were poised face to face with an alien system and its civic, judicial and general administration. In the Eastern Indian sector Bengal, or more specifically Calcutta, was the first recipient of Western exposure and therefore obviously changes were taking place much more rapidly on the metropolitan scene. Banaras, which looked forward to this awakening in Bengal to some extent, was inspired by the changes, yet did not lose its enviable position in North India as the religious leader of the Hindus.

It is interesting to discover, through the following pages, the dichotomy of the absorption or non—absorption of certain ideas or an innate defiance of the foreign administration, and similarly, the colonial power’s covert design to destroy time—honoured institutions like the role of choudharies in caste, vocation or guild and even the Mahalla systems by forcing upon Banaras their own ‘alien’ brand of judicial system, a system under which we are still victims through corruption and delays. With few exceptions, outbreaks by the citizens of Banaras were the result of genuine grievances; the interesting fact is that most of these were successfully led by relatively unknown faces, though instances of influential people’s backing can be read between the lines.

The present work assumes a newer dimension as the author has simultaneously drawn copiously upon Indian sources of those times, usually neglected by other authors. Fortunately, we have an impressive mass of material by writers like Jadunath Sarvadhikari’s Tirtha-Bhramana in Bengali and Raja Jayanarayan Ghoshal’s Kashi Parikrama, also in Bengali, in which the list of ghats has been compared with James Prinsep’s map of Banaras of 1822 or Box’s map of Banaras of l868. Similarly, there was a Bengali Journal, Kashivartaprakashika, the Kashi special number of the Hindi literary journal, Hamsa, and Shri Shrinath Shah’s-Shah Vamshavali in Hindi. In many ways these and similar sources supplement the evidence already known to us. They offer a fuller picture or even at times contradict certain projections found in British travellers’ accounts. These and government records (eg., the East India Company correspondences), Nineteenth Century Maps of Banaras, Banaras Division records, pre—Mutiny records, etc., were rummaged through by the author who found that evil practices like infanticide, rampant in Banaras, were stopped by law in the face of social resistance. Similarly, the author presents a richer account of the non—eradication of the practice of ending one’s life by drowning in the Ganga or throwing oneself onto a blade. We also find in those days the practice of people aspiring to Brahminhood in which the Pandits exercised their judiciousness in allowing or disallowing the application, or, in parallel instances, their verdicts on permission to perform sari.

Expansion of the City was due to various factors, including public easements, such as the opening of new thoroughfares or the introduction of new drainage systems; such developments were met with partial resistance or acceptance. While these contributed to the evolution of present-day Banaras demography, changes were in the air. Concerning many such developments, contemporary records are of great value to us. Information supplied by Raja Jayanarayan Ghoshal, Bholanauth Chunder, Jadunath or Niranjan Mukherjee, receiving scant attention of scholars thus far, is used copiously here. They offer first-hand records and present more accurate pictures where these situations were glossed over by writers like Emma Roberts or Rev. M. H. sherring.

An inquiry of the above nature, in which the changing personality of Banaras was getting the upper hand and the ‘eternity’ of the City was never lost sight of is not a minor issue or a simple challenge. It goes to the credit of Medhasanandaji that these ‘eternal’ values of Banaras during that period of social crisis and political upheaval are never lost. Sometimes we begin to feel, going through his text, that Banaras was a window (and to an extent it continues to be so) to look at the Hindu world, at least in its Upper Indian context.

Yet Swamiji has rightly credited Banaras with initiating public protest during early British rule of India; this might be due to a true Varanasi’s resilient character. This again might be a major factor behind Banaras’s ability to revive itself time and again while preserving its ‘eternity’.

Swamiji’s untiring efforts in going through government records, such as the Calendar of Persian Correspondences, Papers of the Foreign Department, Papers of the Revenue Department, Papers of the Judicial Department, Papers of the Political Department, Minutes of the Committee for Local Improvement, the Duncan Records, Residence Records, etc., etc., or such obscure publications as the History of Sanskrit College, give us a more detailed and accurate account of the foundation and early growth of such institutions in the City. Then there is a history of the ‘Blind Asylum’. The list can never be completed, yet this serves as a guideline for future researchers Further, this type of mosaiced information creates a holistic picture of the City. Similar instances can be found in the history of the ghats and the involvement of their donors. Many of these were princely patrons or men or women of high standing, nevertheless there are several other names, obscured by the passage of time, such as Bachchharaj Ghat (now Anandmoyee Ghat).

Reference to Bachchharaj—ji reminds us of the economic history towards the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century to which the trading house of Bachchharaj belonged and its rise and fall. Bachchharaj-ji’s dedication to Jainism, his faith, prompted him to donate a ghat at that holy spot. There are many other social factors behind these and similar developments. Concentration of the trading class near the Naya Ghat, where the Bachchharaj—ji’s banking house stood, was due to river- borne trade. This led to Gola Galli, another concentration of banker/ traders, and finally, to ‘Shao ka Mohalla’—the quarter of the Shah Family, at that time the biggest traders and bankers, who presided over the Bhairo Bazar, now Chowkhamba and Thatheri Galli. The Bhairo Bazar centre must have had a phatak named after Bhair-Bhairoji of which no mention is available. Due to the landing of ferry boats at the Naya Ghat, the Peshwa family felt it expedient to dedicate the Ganesha Mandir and the adjoining ghat.

Similar is the story of Gay Ghat. Gay Ghat was a necessary adjunct to a river or a water pond, a ramp for pack animal to carry cargo (compare Ghoda Ghat which was similarly a kachcha ghat till recently). In the case of the ‘Balaji’ Temple (i.e., Lakshman Bala Temple near Mangala Guari Ghat) rungs of the steps there with a very low rise still in site formed a similar ramp. Later on, an effigy of a cow was installed at Gay Ghat, which was a misnomer. These are understandable examples of ‘popular’ histories. The author has taken great pains to glean through these assorted bits of information and come to objective and convincing surmises.

The chapter on Art and Music is of great value to us since so little connected and documented history is available in these areas. Further, the author had to depend primarily on secondary sources, although he has tapped some old references from published material. The oral traditions known from the houses of musicians are extremely important, but the modern Banarasis seem to have partly forgotten the role of migrating court musicians from different parts of the country, especially in the retinues of princes who were interned in this City under the Company Rule. Most of rasis seem to have partly forgotten the role of migrating court musicians from different parts of the country, especially in the retinues of princes who were interned in this City under the Company Rule. Most of these details will never come to light due to the absence of recorded history, but he role of Senia maestros and the patronage of Banaras gentry under the leadership of the Maharajas of Banaras turned the city into one of the most important centres of classical Indian music. Descendants of Tansen, the ‘Senias’ were the leading figures. Maharashtrian Brahmin singers of the highest caliber made Banaras their home. Many amateurs, often reaching the level of these maestros, illuminated the City even till as late as the first half of the twentieth century. These along with the history of painting and stage-craft has made the present work highly valuable to us.

We are confident that this book will continue to serve as a beacon light to future researchers on Banaras, as it is a source of great delight and inspiration to us-the Banarasis. We cannot tank Swami Medhasanandaji enough for this highly scientific yet interesting research work. Surely it will always be a rewarding experience for the reader.




  Benediction ix
  Publisher’s Note xiii
  Foreword xv
  Preface xxi
  Illustrations xxxiii
I. Varanasi through the Ages 1
II. Topography and Growth of the City 25
III. Transport and Communication 96
IV. Population 103
V. Social Mellieu 128
VI. Religion 170
VII. Fairs and Festivals 297
VIII. The Ghats 329
IX. The Economy 361
X. Towards a Modern Municipality 422
XI. Public Heath 454
XII. The Pursuit of Learning and Literature 482
XIII. Modern Academies 568
XIV. Printing and the Press 643
XV. Banarasi Culture 660
XVI. The Bengalees and Varanasi 733
XVII. The Europeans 777
XVIII. Notable Personalities 802
XIX. Law and Order 855
XX. Civil Movements 936
XXI. Varanasi in the Eyes of Travellers 954
XXII. The City of Cities 990
  Glossary 998
  Bibliography 1010
  Index 1023

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