I had an opportunity of seeing something of Benares, which is a very remarkable city, more entirely and characteristically eastern than any which I have yet seen, and at the same time altogether different from any thing in Bengal. No Europeans live in the town, nor are the streets wide enough for a wheel-carriage. Mr. Frazer's gig was stopped short almost in its entrance, and the rest of the way was passed in tonjons, through alleys so crowded, so narrow, and so winding, that even a tonjon sometimes passed with difficulty.
The houses are mostly lofty, none I think less than two stories, most of three, and several of five or six, a sight which I now for the first time saw in India. The streets, like those of Chester, are considerably lower than the ground-floors of the houses, which have mostly arched rows in front, with little shops behind them. Above these, the houses are richly embellished with verandahs, galleries, projecting oriel windows, and very broad and overhanging eaves, supported by carved brackets. The number of temples is very great, mostly small and stuck like shrines in the angles of the streets, and under the shadow of the lofty houses. Their forms, however, are not ungraceful, and they are many of them entirely covered over with beautiful and elaborate carvings of flowers, animals, and palm branches, equalling in minuteness and richness the best specimens that I have seen of Gothic or Grecian architecture.
The material of the buildings is a very good stone from Chunar, but the Hindoos here seem fond of painting them a deep red colour, and, indeed, of covering the more conspicuous parts of their houses with paintings in gaudy colours of flower-pots, men, women, bulls, elephants, gods, and goddesses, in all their many-formed, many-headed, many-handed, and many-weaponed varieties. The sacred bulls devoted to Siva, of every age, tame and familiar as mastiffs, walk lazily up and down these narrow streets, or are seen lying across them, and hardly to be kicked up (any blows, indeed, given them must be of the gentlest kind, or wo[e] be to the profane wretch who braves the prejudices of this fanatic population) in order to make way for the tonjon. Monkeys sacred to Hunimaun, the divine ape who conquered Ceylon for Rama, are in some parts of the town equally numerous, clinging to all the roofs and little projections of the temples, putting their impertinent heads and hands into every fruiterer's or confectioner's shop, and snatching the food from the children at their meals.
Faqueer's houses, as they are called, occur at every turn, adorned with idols, and sending out an unceasing tinkling and strumming of vinas, biyals, and other discordant instruments, while religious mendicants of every Hindoo sect, offering every conceivable deformity, which chalk, cow-dung, disease, matted locks, distorted limbs, and disgusting and hideous attitudes of penance can show, literally line the principal streets on both sides. The number of blind persons is very great, (I was going to say of lepers also, but I am not sure whether the appearance on the skin may not have been filth and chalk,) and here I saw repeated instances of that penance of which I had heard much in Europe, of men with their legs or arms voluntarily distorted by keeping them in one position, and their hands clenched till the nails grew out at the backs. Their pitiful exclamations as we passed, “Agha Sahib,” “Topee Sahib,” (the usual names in Hindostan for a European) “khana ke waste kooch cheez do,” “give me something to eat,” soon drew from me what few pice [sic] I had, but it was a drop of water in the ocean, and the importunities of the rest, as we advanced into the city, were almost drowned in the hubbub which surrounded us.
Such are the sights and sounds which greet a stranger on entering this “the most Holy City” of Hindostan, “the Lotus of the world, not founded on common earth, but on the point of Siva's trident,” a place so blessed that whoever dies here, of whatever sect, even though he should be an eater of beef, so he will but be charitable to the poor brahmins, is sure of salvation. It is, in fact, this very holiness which makes it the common resort of beggars, since, besides the number of pilgrims, which is enormous, from every part of India, as well as from Thibet and the Birman empire, a great multitude of rich inaividuals in the decline of life, and almost all the great men who are from time to time disgraced or banished from home by the revolutions which are continually occurring in the Hindoo states, come hither to wash away their sins, or to fill up their vacant hours with the gaudy ceremonies of their religion, and really give away great sums in profuse and indiscriminate charity.
Armhut Row, for a short period of his life Peishwa of the Maharattas, and since enjoying a large pension from our Government in addition to a vast private fortune, was one of the chief of these almsgivers. On his name-day, that is, in Hindestan, the day on which his patron god is worshipped, he annually gave a seer of rice and a rupee to every brahmin, and every blind or lame person who applied between sun-rise and sun-set. He had a large garden a short distance from the city with four gates, three of which were set open for the reception of the three difterent classes of applicants, and the fourth for the Peishwa and his servants to go backwards and forwards. On each person receiving his dole, he was shown into the garden, where he was compelled to stay during the day lest he should apply twice, but he had shade, water, company, and idols enough to make a Hindoo (who seldom eats till sun-set) pass his time very pleasantly. The sums distributed on these occasions are said to have in some instances amounted to above 50,000 rupees. His annual charities altogether averaged, I was informed, probably three times that amount. He died the second night of my residence at Secrole; Mr. Brooke said he was really a good and kind man, religious to the best of his knowledge, and munificent, not from ostentation but principle. There are yet, I understand, some living instances of splendid bounty among the Hindoos of Benares indeed Calisunker is no bad specimen, and on the whole my opinion of the people improves, though it was never so unfavourable as that of many good men in Calcutta. “God,” I yet hope and believe, in the midst of the awful and besotted darkness which surrounds me, and of which, as well as of its miserable consequences, I am now more sensible than ever, “God may have much people in this city!” [251-53]
- Bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826), a Brief Biography
- Bishop Heber’s First Experience of Calcutta
- Crowds and Cultural Misunderstandings in Calcutta
- The importance of Heber's Journal through the Upper Provinces of India to British understanding of colonial India
- Heber's Most Famous Hymn: “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”
Heber, Reginald. Narrative of a journey through the upper provinces of India, from Calcutta to Bombay, 1824-1825. Philadelphia: Cary, Lea, and Cary & Son, 1829. Vol. 1. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of Princeton Theological Seminary Library. Web. 25 November 2018.
Last modified 29 November 2018