A window on Benares

Varanasi or Kashi — the heart of Indian religious ethos for centuries — has always mesmerised visitors with its unique and colourful persona. Benares Illustrated takes one on a trip to the city of the early 19th century, seen through the eyes of Englishman James Prinsep, whose love for the holy city earned him the name of “Benares Prinsep”. Excerpts:

THE celebrated French traveller, Victor Jacquemont, happened to visit Benares in early 1830, and wrote in his diary:

A view of the Ganges, from the gate at the top of Punchgunga Ghat
A view of the Ganges, from the gate at the top of Punchgunga Ghat (Drawn on stone by 
William Walton from a sketch by James Prinsep)
In the corner of a cul-de-sac to the north-west of
the minarets is a small phatak or gate, opening upon
a steep flight of steps, at the foot of which extends the ghat of Punchganga (the five rivers), where a considerable fair is held during the month of Kartik (October and November), and where it is prescribed
to bathe every morning before sun-rise,
throughout the month.

Old projecting balcony at the Man Mundil or observatory
Old projecting balcony at the Man Mundil or observatory (Drawn on stone by C. Hullmandel from a sketch by James Prinsep) 
This specimen of architectural effect can with difficulty be ascribed to so recent a period as the age of Raja Man Singh, from whom this observatory takes its name and existence; for the stone is quite worn away in many places by the weather. It may have belonged to a more ancient building before being set up in its present position by that chief; it bears away the palm of antiquity in the town, and is a chef d’oeuvre of its kind. It will be remarked how gradually and skillfully the projection is augmented upwards, so as not to convey the slightest idea of instability.

"Attended two dinner parties where even the champagne that was drunk in abundance could not melt the ice of etiquette which prevails at those reunions; everyone the next day complained of the dullness of the proceding evening. There is one man, however , who compensates for the antisocial disposition of his fellow countrymen — James Prinsep. He devotes his mornings to architectural plants and drawings, his days to assaying at the mint, and his evenings to musical concerts."

James Prinsep had arrived in Benares ten years earlier — on November 26, 1820 — on being posted as Assay Master of the newly established mint there. He left the same year Jacquemont came and met him. During the 10 years that he was in Benares, he so identified himself with the city that in his circle he was known as ‘Benares Prinsep’, and indeed, on the basis of the work that he did there, it can be said that perhaps no individual has contributed to this ancient and holy city as much as James Prinsep.

‘Benares Prinsep’ was born on August 20, 1799, at Chelsea in England. His father, John Prinsep, was the first of a family which was to become the most distinguished British family to have served in India during the Raj period. More than 15 members of this family served here spread over four generations with most of them occupying high positions and making important contributions in diverse fields such as art, administration and the judicial service.

John Prinsep, the first of the family to land in India, did so in 1771. He was the first indigo planter in India — at a time when it has not gained the notoriety that it did in later years — and was the first to mint copper coins for the East India Company. He also seems to be the father of the idea of what we know as government bonds today. He went back to England in 1781 to become a Member of Parliament and took up Indian issues with an insight and sympathy which astonishy us today. Yet not much is known about him for the simple reason that very little has been written about him. The case with the other members of the Prinsep family including James is similar.

He reached Benares on November 26,1820. In a letter of May 1, 1821 he wrote to his father: "...I feel in my dwelling at Benares, that you have amply provided for my happiness, even if I am destined to remain here until Iam able to return to an English home. I am quite content with the regular life I lead and prefer it for some reasons even to Calcutta."


If ever there has been an unsung genius, it is James Prinsep. He had a short life of only 40 years. And yet considering his wide variety of interests and his seminal contributions in many of these areas, it can be stated that he was one of the greatest geniuses born in human history. Thus, he was at the same time a physicist, a chemist, an anthropologist, a geologist, a meteorologist, a numismatist, an epigraphist, a town planner, a cartographer and an architect — and one may not have exhausted the list.

Actually, his one achievement, that of deciphering the Brahmi script, through which India and the world came to know of that unique figure in world history — Emperor Asoka — would have entitled him to a place alongside those of Champollion and Rawlinson, among the greats of intellectual history. And when one considers that James deciphered not one but two ancient scripts — Brahmi and Kharoshthi — through which was revealed the existence of a whole line of Indo-Scythian kings, one stands in awe of the man.

But among all these varied interests it was Benares, which was his passion. He spent only 10 years there, but in this short span, considering his contributions, one can say that no one has contributed to this city as much as Prinsep. He was the first to draw a map of the city, the first to determine its latitude and longitude, the first to carry out an authentic census, and the first to construct a bridge over the river Karamanasa, a feat, which had defied engineers and architects for nearly a century. He was also the person to lay the underground drainage system — one that still serves the city.

— Excerpted with permission from Benares Illustrated James Prinsep with James Princep and Benares by O.P. Kejariwal. Pilgrims

Ganga & the ghats

Bruhma Ghat (Drawn on stone by George Barnard from a sketch by James Prinsep); and (right) T, Hut, Heree Bazar
— The widest street in Benares
(From drawings by James Prinsep)

Ganges, the splendid stream, forms a bay, indenting the front of the town, so as to display its picturesque beauties to great advantage. Indeed there are few objects more lively and exhilarating than the scene from the edge of the opposite sands, on a fine afternoon, under the clear sky of January. The music and bells of a 100 temples strike the ear with magic melody from the distance, amidst the buzz of human voices, and every now and then the flapping of the pigeons’ wings is heard as they rise from their crates on the house tops, or whirl in close phalanx round the minarets, or alight with prisoners from a neighbour’s flock. At the same time the eye rests on the vivid colours of the different groups of male and female bathers, with their sparkling brass water-vessels, or follows the bulls as they wander in the crowds in proud exercise of the rights of citizenship, munching the chaplets of flowers liberally presented to them. Then, as night steals on, the scene changes, and the twinkling of lamps along the water’s edge, and the funeral fires, and white curling smoke, and the stone buildings lit up by the moon, present features of variety and blended images of animation, which it is out of the artist’s power to embody. He may give in detail the field upon which these scenes of life are enacted, but the spectator’s imagination must supply the rest. Let it be borne in mind, that upon the ghats are passed the busiest and happiest hours of every Hindu’s day — bathing, dressing, praying, preaching, lounging, gossiping, or sleeping, there will he be found. It is a luxury for him to sit upon the open steps and taste the fresh air of the river; so that on the ghats are concentrated the pastimes of the idler, the duties of the devout, and much of the necessary intercourse of business. In no city of the world is the population invited to a single street or place of recreation by so many attractions, and the inhabitants of Benares are justly proud of the beauty and spaciousness of the accommodation provided for them at the river’s side. A native proverb sums up the attractions of the Kashi in the three words: "Ranr, sanr, our seerhee," which may be aptly translated, "Balles, bulls, and broad stairs." — James