BENARES, the Holy City of the Hindus, which gives its name to a district and division in the United Provinces of India. It is one of the most ancient cities in the world. The derivation of its ancient name Varanasi is not known, nor is that of its alternative name Kasi, which is still in common use among Hindus, and is popularly explained to mean "bright." The original site of the city is supposed to have been at Sarnath, 3 m. north of the present city, where ruins of brick and stone buildings, with three lofty stupas still standing, cover an area about half a mile long by a quarter broad. Sakya Muni, the Buddha, came here from Gaya in the 6th century B.C. (from which time some of the remains may date), in order to establish his religion, which shows that the place was even then a great centre. Hsüan Tsang, the celebrated Chinese pilgrim, visited Benares in the 7th century A.D. and described it as containing 30 Buddhist monasteries, with about 3000 monks, and about 100 temples of Hindu gods. Hinduism has now supplanted Buddhism, and the Brahman fills the place of the monk. The modern temples number upwards of 1500. Even after the lapse of so great a time the city is still in its glory, and as seen from the river it presents a scene of great picturesqueness and grandeur. The Ganges here forms a fine sweep of about 4 m. in length, the city being situated on the outside of the curve, on the northern bank of the river, which is higher than the other. Being thus elevated, and extending along the river for some 4 m., the city forms a magnificent panorama of buildings in many varieties of oriental architecture. The minarets of the mosque of Aurangzeb rise above all. The bank of the river is entirely lined with stone, and there are many very fine ghats or landing-places built by pious devotees, and highly ornamented. These are generally crowded with bathers and worshippers, who come to wash away their sins in the sacred river Ganges. Near the Manikarnika ghat is the well held to have been dug by Vishnu and filled with his sweat; great numbers of pilgrims bathe in its venerated water. Shrines and temples line the bank of the river. But in spite of its fine appearance from the river, the architecture of Benares is not distinguished, nor are its buildings of high antiquity. Among the most conspicuous of these are the mosque of Aurangzeb, built as an intentional insult in the middle of the Hindu quarter; the Bisheshwar or Golden Temple, important less through architectural beauty than through its rank as the holiest spot in the holy city; and the Durga temple, which, like most of the other principal temples, is a Mahratta building of the 17th century. The temples are mostly small and are placed in the angles of the streets, under the shadow of the lofty houses. Their forms are not ungraceful, and many of them are covered over with beautiful and elaborate carvings of flowers, animals and palm branches. The observatory of Raja Jai Singh is a notable building of the year 1693. The internal streets of the town are so winding and narrow that there is not room for a carriage to pass, and it is difficult to penetrate them even on horseback. The level of the roadway is considerably lower than the ground-floors of the houses, which have generally arched rooms in front, with little shops behind them; and above these they are richly embellished with verandahs, galleries, projecting oriel windows, and very broad overhanging eaves supported by carved brackets. The houses are built of chanar stone, and are lofty, none being less than two storeys high, most of them three, and several of five or six storeys. The Hindus are fond of painting the outside of their houses a deep red colour, and of covering the most conspicuous parts with pictures of flowers, men, women, bulls, elephants and gods and goddesses in all the many forms known in Hindu mythology.
Benares is bounded by a road which, though 50 m. in circuit, is never distant from the city more than five kos (7 m.); hence its name, Panch-kos road. All who die within this boundary, be they Brahman or low caste, Moslem or Christian, are sure of admittance into Siva's heaven. To tread the Panch-kos road is one of the great ambitions of a Hindu's life. Even if he be an inhabitant of the sacred city he must traverse it once in the year to free himself from the impurities and sins contracted within the holy precincts. Thousands from all parts of India make the pilgrimage every year. Benares, having from time immemorial been a holy city, contains a vast number of Brahmans, who either subsist by charitable contributions, or are supported by endowments in the numerous religious institutions of the city. Hindu religious mendicants, with every conceivable bodily deformity, line the principal streets on both sides. Some have their legs or arms distorted by long continuance in one position; others have kept their hands clenched until the finger nails have pierced entirely through their hands. But besides an immense resort to Benares of poor pilgrims from every part of India, as well as from Tibet and Burma, numbers of rich Hindus in the decline of life go there for religious salvation. These devotees lavish large sums in indiscriminate charity, and it is the hope of sharing in such pious distributions that brings together the concourse of religious mendicants from all quarters of the country.
The city of Benares had a population in 1901 of 209,331. The European quarter lies to the west of the native town, on both sides of the river Barna. Here is the cantonment of Sikraul, no longer of much military importance, and the suburb of Sigra, the seat of the chief missionary institutions. The principal modern buildings are the Mint, the Prince of Wales' hospital (commemorating the visit of King Edward VII. to the city in 1876) and the town hall. The Benares college, including a first-grade and a Sanskrit college, was opened in 1791, but its fine buildings date from 1852. The Central Hindu College was opened in 1898. Benares conducts a flourishing trade by rail and river with the surrounding country. It is the junction between the Oudh & Rohilkhand and East Indian railways, the Ganges being crossed by a steel girder bridge of seven spans, each 350 ft. long. The chief manufactures are silk brocades, gold and silver thread, gold filigree work, German-silver work, embossed brass vessels and lacquered toys; but the brasswork for which Benares used to be famous has greatly degenerated.
The Hindu kingdom of Benares is said to have been founded by one Kas Raja about 1200 B.C. Subsequently it became part of the kingdom of Kanauj, which in A.D. 1193 was conquered by Mahommed of Ghor. On the downfall of the Pathan dynasty of Delhi, about A.D. 1599, it was incorporated with the Mogul empire. On the dismemberment of the Delhi empire, it was seized by Safdar Jang, the nawab wazir of Oudh, by whose grandson it was ceded to the East India Company by the treaty of 1775. The subsequent history of Benares contains two important events, the rebellion of Chait Singh in 1781, occasioned by the demands of Warren Hastings for money and troops to carry on the Mahratta War, and the Mutiny of 1857, when the energy and coolness of the European officials, chiefly of General Neill, carried the district successfully through the storm.
The District of Benares extends over both sides of the Ganges and has an area of 1008 sq. m. The surface of the country is remarkably level, with numerous deep ravines in the calcareous conglomerate. The soil is a clayey or a sandy loam, and very fertile except in the Usar tracts, where there is a saline efflorescence. The principal rivers are the Ganges, Karamnasa, Gumti and Barna. The principal crops are barley, rice, wheat, other food-grains, pulse, sugar-cane and opium. The main line of the East Indian railway runs through the southern portion of the district, with a branch to Benares city; the Oudh & Rohilkhand railway through the northern portion, starting from the city; and a branch of the Bengal & North-Western railway also terminates at Benares. The climate of Benares is cool in winter but very warm in the hot season. The population in 1901 was 882,084, showing a decrease of 4% in the decade due to the effects of famine.
The Division of Benares has an area of 10,431 sq. m., and comprises the districts of Benares, Mirzapur, Jaunpur, Ghazipur and Ballia. In 1901 the population was 5,069,020, showing a decrease of 6% in the decade.
See E.B. Havell, Benares (1906); M.A. Sherring, The Sacred City of the Hindus (1868).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)