In transcribing the following paragraphs from the Internet Archive online version of The Imperial Gazetteer’s entry on Benares, I have expanded the abbreviations for easier reading and added paragraphing and links. The map and illustration are in the original. The title-page bears the date 1856, but internal evidence in various entrees makes clear that the text dates from 1851. This discussion of a major city in British India has particular importance because it immediately precedes the 1857 Mutiny.— George P. Landow]

BENARES [Sanscrit, Varanashi or Kasi the splendid], a large and populous city in Hindoostan, is the ecclesiastical metropolis of India. Benares, which is part of the presidency of Bengal, is capitol of the province and district of the same name, and is situated on the left bank of the Ganges, 400 miles northwest of at latitude 25˚ 18 33" North and longitude 82˚ 55 51" East (L.) The Ganges here makes a sweep of about 4 miles long, and on the convex side of the curve stands the most holy city of the Hindoos, the Lotus of the world: believed by the natives not to belong to earth at all, but to be perched upon the top of one of the prongs of the trident of the god Shiva.

The streets are so exceedingly narrow, that it is difficult to pass through them even on horseback, while some houses are connected, with those on the opposite side of the street, by balconies. The city, seen from the river, presents the form of an amphitheatre, extending for 3 miles along the banks of the river, which are elevated some 40 or 50 feet, above which are reared a series of temples and palaces but chiefly the latter with superb ghauts or flights of steps.

Besides the native population, there are settled in Benares a great number of Turks, Tartars, Persians, and Armenians. The Rajah’s palace stands at Bamnaghur, about 1 mile above the city, on the opposite side of the river, where is also a superb temple built by Cheyt Singh; and, on an elevated and conspicuous site, on the city side of the river, the Emperor Aurungzebe erected, in the 17th century, a magnificent mosque. There are numerous other mosques, many of them inconveniently situated; also a number of Hindoo temples, stuck, says Bishop Heber, like shrines, in the angles of the streets, and under the shadow of the lofty houses. Their forms, however, are not ungraceful, and many of them are 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. Fakirs houses, as they are called, adorned with idols, and sending out an unceasing tinkling of discordant instruments, occur at every turn; while religious mendicants, with distorted limbs, and in hideous attitudes of penance, literally line the chief streets on both sides.

Several of the natives here are men of affluence, who act as bankers, and are wont to facilitate the money operations of the East India Company. Some deal in diamonds, and other precious stones, brought hither from Bundelcund. Benares is, in fact, says Heber, a very industrious and wealthy, as well as a very holy city. It is the great mart where the shawls of the North, the diamonds of the South, and the muslins of Dacca and the East provinces centre; and it has considerable silk, cotton, and fine woollen manufactures of its own; while English hardware, swords, shields, and spears, from Lucknow and Monghyr, and various European luxuries, circulate through Bundelcund, Gorruckpoor, Nepaul, and other tracts which are removed from the main artery of the Ganges.

Benares has long been the most celebrated seat of Brahminical learning in Hindoostan; and is still so revered, that many foreign Hindoo Rajahs keep vakeels or deputies here to perform for them the requisite oblations and sacrifices. The Hindoo Sanscrit college of Benares, founded in 1791, is the chief seat of native learning in India; an English class was added to this college in 1827, when the number of students was 259; in 1830, the number of students was increased to 287. In 1811, it was found necessary to re-model the regulations of the Hindoo college, and to correct the prevailing abuses. A great many other schools have been established here by missionaries and others, of late years, which are well attended; in one of these, upwards of 200 scholars are taught English, Hindoostanee, Persian, and Arabic, as well as writing, arithmetic, geography, general history, and astronomy; there are also private teachers of both Mahometan and Hindoo law.

The vicinity of the city is fertile and well cultivated, but very bare of wood; fuel is, consequently, scarce and high-priced. In 1017, the city was taken by Sultan Mahmood, and, from 1190, followed the fortunes of the Delhi sovereigns until 1775, when it devolved to the British, under whom it has enjoyed perfect tranquillity, with the exception of one single instance of temporary disturbance. Population about 200,000. [I, 372-74]

Sources for this entry: [Bishop] Heber’s Narrative; Hamilton’s East India Gazette; Parliamentary Papers.)


Blackie, Walker Graham. The Imperial Gazetteer: A General Dictionary of Geography, Physical, Political, Statistical and Descriptive. 4 vols. London: Blackie & Son, 1856. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 24 November 2018.

Last modified 22 November 2018