How Benaras flourished during the British Raj

Author Rev. M.A.Sherring Last Updated: Saturday, 8 October 2016 (19:25 IST)
The form of religion prevailing among the Hindus in Benares and throughout a large portion of India, is Puranic, which, in all probability originated in the country generally at the time when the Buddhist religion began to lose its hold upon the people, or about the fifth or sixth century A.D. Vedantism more or less tinctures the philosophical creed of many; but the staple religion of the masses is idolatry- the worship of idols of the linga and other figures, and of a multitude of objects, some of them representing imaginary creatures made up in a variety of ways. There is no city in which the reverence paid to images is more absolute and complete than in Benares.

Since the country has come into our hands, a great impetus has been given to the erection of temples, and to the manufacture of idols, in Northern India. In Benares, temples have multiplied at a prodigious rate and this rate, at the present moment, is I believe, rather increasing than diminishing. Judged merely by its external appearances, Hinduism was never so flourishing as it is now. With general prosperity and universal peace, and with a government based on neutral principles, and largely tolerant of the national religious systems, Hinduism, under the leadership of men of the old school—princes, Pandits, banyas (tradespeople) and priests is making extraordinary efforts to maintain its position against the new doctrines of European civilization and religion, which they now begin to recognize as formidable opponents. The remark of the Rev. Mullens, on the extension of Hinduism, materially and outwardly, in “Christian work” for July, 1864 strongly bear out the preceding observation:

“There can be little doubt,” he says, “that a hundred years ago, the temples, mosques and shrines of India, belonging to all the native religions were by no means in a flourishing condition. Large numbers, indeed, must have been in a state of decay. The anarchy that prevailed throughout the Mogul empire after the death of Aurangzeb, the constant wars, the terrible visits of foreign armies, the civil contests, the struggles of petty landholders, all tended to produce a state of insecurity which paralyzed trade, which even hindered agriculture, and involved all classes in a poverty which the empire had not suffered for many years. Never were invasions more fierce; never were famines more cruel. Though freed from the persecutions of the bigoted emperor, the temples suffered grievously from the general want; and it was probably only in the Mahratta provinces that Hinduism flourished; in them realizing its prosperity from the plunder of successful Mahratta armies, whose piety rewarded the shrines of their protecting divinities with a shower of endowments and offerings which remain in measure to the present day. Hinduism now is, externally, in a much more flourishing condition than it was then. All over North India, especially, the native merchants and bankers who have prospered by English protection, by contracts with English armies, by the security given by English law to their extensive trade, have filled Benares and other cities with new and costly shrines; and many a Raja and many a banker, when visiting in state the holy city, has poured into the lap of the attendant priests unheard-of sums. Thus strangely has the revival of prosperity under English rule added something of external strength to the ancient idolatry, the resources of which had, in so many places, begun to fail.”

Undoubtedly, it is quite true that the religious sentiments of a Hindu would prompt him to devote a considerable portion of his wealth acquired in times of tranquility and national prosperity, to sacred purposes. At the same time, he is quickened and stimulated in this desire, at the present day, by a strong and the painful conviction that his religion is in danger, that his children are growing up unsound in the Hindu faith and that a new creed, to which the foreign rulers and governors of this country are attached is moving the hearts of multitudes of his own race and tongue, which he must resist with all his might and must do so now or never. It is felt throughout all divisions of native society. It is filling with anxiety the higher castes, and is calling forth all the subtlety of the Brahmans, all their intellect and all their mysterious authority. We must expect the opposition to Christianity to be in many places, organized and systematic, determined and dogged.

Upwards of thirty years ago, Mr. James Prinsep, then stationed at Benares, took a census of the city, and also made a computation of the number of temples and mosques existing in it. From his calculation, which was made with considerable care, there were at that time, in the city, proper, exclusive of the suburbs, one thousand Hindu temples and three hundred and thirty-three Mohammedan mosques. But this number of temples, which has since been much increased did not include, I imagine, the small shrines, the niches in the walls, the cavities inside and outside many of the houses and the spaces on the ghats in which images in immense multitude were and are still deposited. These secondary shrines, if they be worthy of this designation, each occupied by one or more idols, are in some parts of the city, exceedingly numerous. Figures of all forms, from a plain stone to the most fantastic shape, whole and mutilated, painted and unpainted, some without adornment, others decorated with garlands, or wet with sacred water, meet the eye in every direction. These remarks, especially refer to the neighborhood of the bathing ghats and of the principal temples.

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