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Benaras : Where the idols outnumber the inhabitants

Author Rev. M.A.Sherring
The are inclined to accumulate in certain spots. Not content with depositing an image in a temple, they ornament its portico and walls with deities, or arrange them in rows in the temple enclosure. You may sometimes see twenty, fifty and even a hundred of these idols in one place, many of which will perhaps receive as much homage as the god who is exalted to the chief seat within the temple itself. If it would be difficult to count the small shrines and sacred niches abounding in the city, it would be incomparably more so to enumerate the idols actually worshipped by the people.

These inferior shrines were, on one occasion, by a curious contrivance, immensely increased; and yet the increase could hardly have been generally perceived. Raja Man Sinh, of Jeypore, wishing to present one hundred thousand to the city, made this stipulation, that they were all to be commenced and finished in one day. The plan hit upon was, to cut out on blocks of stone a great many tiny carvings, each one representing a temple. The separate blocks, therefore, on the work being completed, exhibited, from top to bottom and on all sides, a mass of minutes temples. These blocks are still to be seen in various parts of Benares, the largest being situated above the Dasasamedh Ghat, near the Man Mandil Observatory. In regard to the number of idols of every description actually worshipped by the people, it certainly exceeds the number of people themselves, though multiplied twice over; it cannot be less than half a million, and may be many more. Indeed, the love for idolatry, is so deep seated and intense in the breast of Hindu, that it is a common thing for both men and women to worship little gods from mud or clay and after paying divine honors to them, and that too with the same profound reverence which they display in their devotions before the well known deities of the temples, to throw them away.

I recall to mind a remarkable instance of this. One day on entering the courtyard of the temple of Annpurna, the goddess of plenty, my attention was arrested by an aged woman seated on the ground in front of a small clay figure, which I ascertained, she had, with her own hands, manufactured that morning and to which she was solemnly paying homage. Close by was a brazen vessel containing water, into which every now and then she dipped a small spoon, and then gently poured a few drops upon the head of the image. She then reverently folded her hands and muttered words of prayer, occasionally moving one hand to her face, and with finger and thumb compressing her two nostrils, in order that, holding her breath as far as possible, she might increase the merit of her worship and the efficacy of her prayer. I did not stay to the end; yet I well knew the result, as the same thing is constantly done in Benares. Having completed her devotions, she rose, took the image which she had worshipped in her hands, and threw it away, as of no further use.

Benares, like Athens in the time of St. Paul, is a city “wholly given to idolatry”. The Hindu, it should always be remembered, is in his own fashion, a religious man of very great earnestness, but his religion takes the form of idolatry. enters into all the associations and concerns of his life. He can take no step without it. He carries his offerings publicly in the streets, on his way to the temple in the morning, and receives upon his forehead from the officiating priest, the peculiar mark of his god, as the symbol of the worship he has paid him, which he wears all the day long. As he walks about, you may hear him muttering the names and sounding the praises of his gods. In greeting a friend, he accosts him in the name of a deity. In a letter on business, or on any other matter, the first word he invariably writes is the name of a god. Should he propose, an engagement of importance, he first inquires the pleasure of the idol, and a lucky day for observing it. At his birth, his horoscope is cast, when he is ill, the gods must be propitiated; when he Is bereaved, the idol must be remembered at his death, his funeral rites are performed in the name of one or more deities.

Most of the temples are of modern date; but many of them occupy, in popular belief, the sites of immemorial shrines long since displaced  by their successors. It  is, therefore a common reply which one receives, on inquiring the date of any given shrine, that it is without date, and has always existed. These original sites are numerous; and each has a history of its own. For instance, the pandits say that Ganesha is worshipped in fifty-six places, the goddess Yogani in sixty four, Durga in nine, Bhairoin eight, Shiva in eleven, Vishnu in one, and the Sun in twelve, all which date from the mythical period, when Divodasa, the famous Raja of Benares, whose name is a household word among the people, was prevailed on the permit the gods to return to their ancient and sacred home. But these places do not, by any means, represent the present number of shrines at which these deities are venerated. Ganesha especially, the god of wisdom, son of Shiva and Parvati, is very extensively worshipped in Benares, and there is scarcely a temple in some niche or corner of which his figure may not be found.

(Excerpts from renowned Indologist Rev. M.A.Sherring’s (1826-1880)
book “: The Sacred city of the Hindus” published in 1868)
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