Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Modern Review, 1907, Vol 1, pp. 260-267

Even in great places, we cannot always command the passive moments of rare insight. It was already my third visit to Benares, when I sat one day, at an hour after noon, in the Vishwanath Bazar. Everything about me was hushed and drowsy. The sadhu-like shopkeepers nodded and dozed over their small wares, here the weaving of griddle or scapulary with a mantram, there a collection of small stone Sivas. There was little enough of traffic along the narrow footway, but overhead went the swallows, by the invisible roadways of the blue, flying in and out amongst their nests in the eaves. And the air was filled with their twittering, and with the sighing resonance of the great bell in the temple of Vishweswar, as the constant stream of barefooted worshippers entered, and prayed, and before departing touched it. Swaying, sobbing, there it hung, and it seemed as if, in that hour of peace, it were some mystic dome, thrilled and responsive to every throb of the city’s life. One could believe that these ripples of sound that ran across it were born of no mechanical vibration, but echoed, here a moan, there a prayer and yet again a cry of gladness, in all the distant quarters of Benares: that the bell was even as great weaver, weaving into unity of music, and throwing back on earth, those broken and tangled threads of joy and pain that to us would have seemed so meaningless and so confused.

A step beyond were the shops of the flower sellers, who sell flowers for the worship of Siva across the threshold. Oh what a task, to spend the whole of life, day after day, in this service only, the giving of flowers for the image of the Lord! Has there been no soul that, occupied this, has dreamt and dreamt itself into mukti, through the daily offering?

And so came to me the thought of the old ministers of Europe, and of what it meant to live thus, like the swallows and the townsfolk and the flowers, ever in the shadow of a great cathedral. For that is what Benares us, -- a city built around the walls of a cathedral.

It is common to say of Benares that it is curiously modern, and there is, on the face of it, a certain truth in the statement. For the palaces and monasteries and temples that line the banks of the Ganges, between the mouths of Varuna and Asi, have been built for the most part within the last three hundred years. There is skill and taste enough in India yet, to rebuild them all again, if they fell tomorrow. Benares, as she stands, is in this sense the work of the Indian people as they are to-day.

But never did any city so sing the song of the past. One is always catching a hint of reminiscence in the Bazars, in the interior and in the domestic architecture. Here is the Jammu Chhattra , for instance, built in the Jaunpore Pathan style, common in northern India from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, not far off again, we have a glimpse of a roof- balustrade that retains many of the characteristics of an Asokan rail, so clearly is it a wooden fence rendered in stone. I have seen a pillared hall too, in a house looking out upon the Ganges that might almost have known the two thousand years that its owners claimed for it. And here, in the bazar of Vishwanath, we are treading still, it may be, that very pathway through the forest that was followed by Vedic forefathers, when first they saw the sun rise on the East of the great river and offered the Hom where the golden grate of Vishweswar stands to-day, chanting their Rijks in celebration of worship. [1]

Nothing holds its place longer than a road. The winding alleys between the backs of houses and gardens in European cities, may, at no distant date, have been paths through meadows and corn-fields. And similarly, in all countries, a footway is apt to be a silent record of unwritten history. But who shall recover the story of this little street, or write the long poem of the lives and deaths of those whose feet have passes to and forth along its flagstones, in four thousand years?

Truly the city, even as she stands, is more ancient than any superficial critic would suppose. It was here, at Sarnath, in the year 583 B.C., or thereabouts, that the great message pealed out, whose echoes have never died away in history, “Open ye your ears O Monks, the deliverance from death is found!” And the importance which the Deer-Park thus assumes in the life of Buddha, both before and after the attainment of Nirvana, sufficiently process its importance as the University of Philosophy of its own age.

Three hundred years later, Asoka, seeking to build memorials of all the most sacred events in the history of his great Master, was able, as recent excavations show us, to make a tiny stupa with its rail, in some cell, by that time already underground, whose site had been specially sanctified by the touch of Buddha’s feet. We thus learn, not only that the Deer-Park of Benares (so called, probably, because of pains were taken to keep it cleared of larger game) was important in the year 583 B.C., and again in 250 B.C., but also that it was sufficiently a centre of resort throughout the intervening period, to guarantee its maintenance of an unbroken tradition, with regard to points of extremely minute detail. But it was not Sarnath alone that saw the coming and going of Buddha in the birth of the great enlightenment. Nor was it the Abkariyeh Kund alone that has already formed an important religious centre, for ages before the early Mohammedan period. The very name of the Dasasvamedh Ghat and Bazaar commemorates a period long enough to have included ten imperial sacrifices, each one of which must have represented at least a reign. Probably, throughout Pataliputra age, that is to say, from 350 B.C to 400 A.D., Benares was the ecclesiastical and sacrificial seat of empire. It contains two Asokan pillars, one in the grounds of the Queen’s College, and the other, as we now know, at the entrance of the old time Monastery of Sarnath. As we know with certainty that in the youth of Buddha it was already a thriving industrial centre, for the robes that he threw aside, perhaps in the year 590 B.C., adopt the gerua of the sannyasin, are said in many books to have been made of Benares silk.

But this is, in truth, only what we might have expected. Fir the water-way is always the chief geographical feature of a country in early ages, and the position of Benares at the northward bend of the river determines the point of convergence for all the foot-roads of the South and East, and makes her necessarily the greatest distributing centre in India. Thus she constitutes a palimpsest, not a simple manuscript, of has here been built upon another. Period has here accumulated upon period. There are houses in the crowded quarters whose foundations are laid in mines of bricks, and whose owners live upon the sale of theseancestral wares. And whose floor is eight or ten feet below the level of the present street, and whose date is palpably of the second to the fourth century after Christ.

If, then, we may compare large things with small, Benares may be called the Canterbury of the Asokan and post- Asokan India. What Delhi became later, to the militarised India, of the Rajput and the Moslem that Benares had already been to an earlier India, whose eastern provinces had seen Buddha. At Sarnath, the memory of the great sannyasin was preserved by the devoted members of a religious order either Buddhist or Jain. At Benares, the Brahmins laboured, as citizens and householders, to enforce the lesson that none of his greatness was lacking in the Great God. That Siva, clad in the tiger-skin and seated in meditation like Buddha, who is carved in low relief at the entrance to Elephanta, in the harbour if Bombay, was the Hindu ideal of the later Buddhist period. And so the Vedic City, through whose streets had passed the Blessed one, became the sacred city of Siva, and to make and set up His emblem there, -- the form in stone of the formless God, -- was held, for long ages after, the same act of merit that the erecting of votive stupas had so long been in places of Buddhistic pilgrimage. Nay, even now, old stupas remain of the early Puranic period, and early Sivas, of a later phase of development, about the streets and ghats of Benares, to tell of the impress made by Buddha on an age that was then already passing away.

But Benares is not only an Indian Canterbury, it is also an Oxford. Under the shadow of temples and monasteries cluster the schools and dwellings of the pundits. Or learned Sanskritists, and from all parts of India the poor students flock there to study the classics and ancient rituals of Hinduism. The fame of Nuddea is in her Sanskrit logic, but that of Benares in her philosophy and Brahmin lore. Thus she remains ever the central authority on questions of worship and of the faith, and her influence is carried to all ends of India, by every wandering scholar returning to his own province. It is a medieval type of culture, of course, carried out in the medieval way. It takes a man twelve years here to exhaust a single book, while under the modern comparative method we are compelled to skim the surfaces of from twelve to a score of books in a single year. It follows that we have here a study of contents rather than the relations, of a given work. Significance, rather than co-ordination. But for this very reason, the Benares- trained scholar is of his own kind, secure in his type, as fearless in his utterance of that which he knows, as those other medievalists in a modern world, John Bunyan and William Blake.

But in Benares as a culture-centre even in the present generation, though it is fast vanishing, we have another extraordinary advantage to note. Being, as she is, the authoritative seat of Hinduism and Sanskrit learning, the city stands, nevertheless, side by side with Jaunpore, an equally authoritative centre of Mussulmân learning in India. She represents in fact the dividing line between the Sanskritic civilisation of the Hindu provinces, and the Persian and Arabic culture of the Mohammedan. And consequently she still has members of a class that once constituted one of the most perfect types of national education in the world, elderly Hindu gentlemen who were trained in their youth not only to read Sanskrit literature, but also to read and enjoy what was then the distinctive accomplishment of royal courts, namely Persian poetry. And the mind that is born of this particular synthesis-rendered possible in Benares by the presence on the one hand of the Hindu Pundit and the neighbourhood, on the other, of the Jaunpore moulvi-is not that of a great scholar certainly, it is that of a member, polished, courtly, and urbane, of the wide world. One of the most charming forms of high breeding that humanity has known will be lost, with the last well-born Hindu who has had the old time training in Persian. Nor, indeed, can anyone who has seen modern and medieval culture side by side, as we may still sometimes see them in Asia, doubt that the true sense of literature is the prerogative of the medievalist.

Benares, then, is an informal University. And like other universities of the middle ages, it has always supported its scholars and students by a vast network of institutions of mutual aid. It is no disgrace there for a boy to beg his bread, when love of learning has brought him a thousand miles on foot. Nor was it, in medieval Leipsig, or Heidelberg, or Oxford. These are the scholars for whom our schools and colleges were founded. The wives of the burghers expected to contribute to the maintenance of such. And it is, in Benares, only food that is wanted. In the dark hours of one winter morning, as I made my way through the Bengalitollah to the bathing ghats, I could hear in the distance the sound of Sanskrit chanting. And soon I came up to a student who had spent all night on the stone veranda of some well-to-do house, screened from the bitterest pinch of cold by carefully-drawn walls of common sacking, and now had risen before five, to read by the light of a hurricane lamp, and commit to memory his task for the day. Further on, studied another, with no such luxuries as canvas walls and paraffin lamp. He had slept all night under his single blanket, on the open stone, and the tiny Indian Bâti was the light by which he was reading now.

Here is love of learning, with labour and poverty. It is obviously impossible for these to earn their bread, in addition to performing the tasks imposed by their schools. The spontaneous benefactions of rich nobles and merchants were doubtless enough, in the Middle Ages-when religious enthusiasm was high, and the problem still limited-to maintain the pundits in whose houses the students lived. But in modern times the institution of the Chhattras has grown up, and it is said that in the city there are three hundred and sixty-five of these. A Chhattra is a house at which a given number of persons receive a meal daily. Some give double doles. Some give to others besides Brahmins. Many have been themselves the gifts of pious widows, and a few of kings. But that is the duty of the city to provide food for her scholars, all are agreed. Is not Benares to these children of Siva, Annapurna the Mother, She whose hand is ever “full of grain?”

How strange to think of an age in which men were grateful to those who undertook the task of scholarship, and felt that the nation must make itself responsible to them for the necessaries of life, instead of striving to strangle their love of learning at its birth, by penalising it with high fees, and writing “Failed” against as many names as possible in the entrance lists!

But Benares is more than the precincts of a group of temples. She is more even than a University,and more than the historic and industrial centre of three thousand years. The solemn Manikarnika stands rightly in the centre of her river-front. For she is a great national shmashan, a vast burning ghat. “He who dies in Benares attains Nirvana.” The words may be nothing but an expression of intense affection. Who would not love to die on those beautiful Ghats, with the breath of the night or the morning on his brow, the sound of temple-bells and chanting in his ears, and the promises of Siva and memories of the past in his heart? Such a death, embraced in an ecstasy, would it not in itself be Mukti, the goal? “Oh Thou great Jnanam, that art god, dwell Thou in me.” Such was the vision that broke upon one, who bent from the flower-seller’s balcony to see evensong chanted by the Brahmins, round the blossom-crowned Vishweswar. And never again can that mind think of God as seated on a throne, with his children kneeling round him, for to it the secret has been shown, that Siva is within the heart of man, and he is the absolute consciousness, the infinite knowledge and the unconditioned bliss. Which of us would not die, if we could, in the place that was capable of flashing such a message across the soul?

All India feels this. All India hears the call. And one by one, step by step, with bent head and bare feet, for the most part, come those, chiefly widows and Sadhus, whose lives are turned away from all desire, save that of a holy death. How many monuments of Sati are to be seen in Benares, one on the Manikarnika Ghat, and many dotted about the fields and roads outside! These are the memorials of triumphant wifehood in the hour of its bereavement. But there are other triumphs. Clothed and veiled in purest white, bathing, fasting, and praying continually, here in the hidden streets of Benares dwell thousands of those whose lives are one long effort to accumulate merit for the beloved second self.

And if the scholar be indeed the servant of the nation, is the saint less? The lamp of ideal womanhood, burning in the sheltered spot at the feet of the image, and “not flickering” is this, or is it not, as a light given to the world?

Benares, again, is an epitome of the whole Indian synthesis of nationality. As the new-comer is rowed down the river, past the long line of temples and bathing ghats, whole the history of each is told to him in turn, he feels catching his breath at each fresh revelation of bullied beauty that all roads in India always must have led to Benares. Here is the monastery of Kedarnath, the headquarters of the southern monks, which represents the to the province of Madras, all the merits of Himalayan pilgrimage. Here again, is the ghat of Ahalya Bai Rani, the wonderful widowed Mahratta Queen, whose temples and roads and tanks remain all over India, to witness to the greatness of the mother heart in rulers. Or behind this, we may see the Math of Sankaracharya’s order, the high caste Dandi’s, whose line is unbroken, and orthodoxy unimpeached, from the days of their founder, early in the ninth century, till the present hour. Again, we see the palace of the Nagpore Bhonslas (now in the hands of the Maharaja of Durbhanga), connecting Benares with the memory of the Mahratta power, and further on, the royal buildings of Gwalior and even of Nepal. Nor is everything here dedicated to Siva, Siva’s city though it be. For here again we come on the temple of Beni Madhab, one of the favourite names of Vishnu. Even Mohammedan sovereigns could not submit to be left out. Secular science is embodied in the beautiful old Mân Mandir of Akbar’s tome, with its instruments and lecture hall, and the Mussulmân faith in the towering minarets of Aurungzeb’s mosque.

But what is true of the Ganges front becomes still more clear when we pass behind, and consider the city as a whole. Runjit Singh made no separate building, but he linked Vishweswar irrevocably with Amritsar, when he covered its roof with gold. Zemindars of Bengal, Sirdars of the Punjab, and nobles of Rajputana, all have vied with one another, in leaving temples and shrines, charities and benefactions, dotted over the Panch Kos.

Or we may see the same thing industrially. We can but in Benares, besides her own delicate webs, the saris of Madras and the Deccan alike. Or we may go to the Vishwanath Bazaar of the carpentry of the Punjab. We may find in the same city the brass work of Nasik, of Trichinopoly, and of the Nepalese Frontier. It is there, better than anywhere else in India, that we may buy the stone vessels of Gaya, of Jubbulpore, and of Agra, or the Sivas of Nerbudda and the Salagrams of the Goomtee and Nepal. And the food of every province may be bought in these streets, the language of every race in India heard within these walls.

On questions of religion and of custom again, in all parts of India, as has been said, the supreme appeal is to Benares. The princes of Gwalior dine, only when the news has been telegraphed, that the day’s food has been offered here. Here too, the old works of art and religion, and the old craftsmen practicing quaint crafts, linger longest, and may still perchance be found, when they have become rare to the point of vanishing, everywhere else.

Here the Vyasas chant authoritative renderings of the epic stories on the ghats. And here, at great banquets, food is still considered only secondary to reciting of these scriptures. Surely it is clear enough that as in the Latin Empire of City and of Church the saying grew up, “All roads lead to Rome,” so also in India, so long as she remains India, all roads, all faiths, all periods, and all historical developments, will lead us sooner or later back to Benares.

A city in such a position, possessed of such manifold significance, the pilgrim-centre of a continent, must always have had an overwhelming need of strong civic organisation. And that such a need was recognised in the city during the ages of its growth, we may see it many ways. No medieval township in Europe gives stronger evidence of self-organisation than we find here.

“The medieval city”, says the great European sociologist, Kropotkin, “appears as a double federation: of all householders united into small territorial unions,--the street, the parish, the section, -- and of individuals united by oath into guilds, according to their professions; the former being a product of the village-community origin of the city, while the second is a subsequent growth, called into life by new conditions.”

This is master statement, which can at once be applied here, if only we dismiss the European idea of Labour as the main motif of this city’s growth, and substitute the Indian equivalent of religion and learning. Labour is present here of course, and has flourished, as we know, in this spot, during at least three thousand years, but has never reared. Its head, to become a predominantand independent factor in the growth of Benares. This central significance, this higher element in the federation, has been supplied here, by the presence of priests and pundits, monasteries and poets, bound to each other, not by professional oaths, but by the invisible and spiritual bonds of caste and tradition, and religious bonds-by Hinduism in short. Not the craftsman, but the Hindu, carrying the craftsman with him, has made Benares what she is, and here in this city we have the picture if one of the finest things that the Indian faith-uninterfered with by foreign influences, and commanding the enthusiastic co-operation of the whole nation-could produce. It is no mean achievement. On Benares as it has made it, the Hindu genius may well take its stand. By the city of Siva, it may well claim to be judged.

It is, however, when we turn to the first element in Kropotkin’s analysis of the city, that we find Benares to be most completely illuminated. In a pilgrim-city, we cannot but think that some mutual organisation of house-holders for self-defence must have been a prime necessity. The policing of such a city was more than usually important. What were the arrangements made for sanitation, for ambulance, or hospital-service, for the clearing out of vagrants? These things may not, in the Middle ages, have been called by these names, but assuredly their realities existed, and such necessities had to be met. Householders united into small territorial unions,-- the street, the para? And is not Benares filled with small courts and alleys, divided from the main streets by short flights of broad steps, each crowned by its own gate? Is it more than thirty or forty years since each of these had its own guard or concierge and was closed at night, to be opened again in the morning? In many cases, of course, the massive doors themselves are now removed, but the pillars and hooks and hinges still remain, to bear witness to their old function. In other instances they stand there still, pushed back against the wall, and one pauses a moment as one passes, to ask in a reverie, when was this last shut? These portals to each little group of important houses are a silent witness to the order and cleanliness of Benares as the Hindu made it. Just as in Edinburgh, as in Nurnberg, as in Paris, so here also, the consideration of wealthy houses thus barred in at a certain hour after dark, was responsible for the freedom of its own space from the uncleanliness and violence. It must undertake the connection between its own sanitation and the underground sewage system of the city, which was similar in character to that of ancient Pataliputra. It must be responsible for the proper alleviation of such suffering as fell within its limits, and its members must duly contribute their full share to the common burdens of the city as a whole. But when we come to the gates of the para or section, of which some still remain, guarded by their watchmen, outstanding in the bazaars, we understand the full importance to the medieval mind, of the question of civic order and of a strong but peaceful civic defence. For here, within these gateways, we find the shrines of Kal Bhairab, the Kotwal, who perambulates the City of Siva, night after night with staff and dog, who is worshipped by sentinels and gate-keepers, and who has the supreme discretion of accepting or rejecting at his will those who fain would enter within the sacred bounds. Of the divine Kotwal every city-watchman held himself as minister and earthly representative. And in this worship of Kal Bhairab, the Black Demon of Siva, we may read the whole history of the civic organisation of Benares in the middle ages.

The modern age was later perhaps in arriving, here than elsewhere, was to multiply problems, and to discredit the solutions that had been discovered by slow ages of growth. All that strong rope self- defence twisted of so many strands of local combination and territorial responsibility, with which Benares had been wont to meet her own needs, was now done away. The communal sense was stunned by the blow, for the fact was demonstrated to it ad nauseam that it was itself powerless against strong central combinations of force. This old self-jurisdiction and self-administration of the civic group was banished. And at the same time the railways connected Benares with every part of India, and made it possible to pour in upon her daily as large a number of diseased, infirm and starving persons, as may once have reached her on foot or in boats, in the course of a year.

Thus a forest of needs has grown up in modern Benares, of which the past generations, with their common sense, their spontaneous kindliness, and their thrifty Municipal management, knew nothing. The dying stull come here to die, but it is now so easy to reach the city that they are often also the utterly destitute, and lingering illness, hunger and suffering, on Ghats and roadsides, is scarcely compatible with the Hindu love of humanity and decency.

Poor working-folk come, when the last hope has failed them, trusting that the Great God will be their refuge in his Own City. In the old days when Benares was a wealthy capital, these would have made their way to some house of para inhabited by well-to-do townsfolk from their own district, and through their kind offices, work would sooner or later have been found. But now they find themselves amongst strangers. The music of temple-bells is the only sound familiar to them. Priests and fellow-worshippers are alike unknown. And it may be that in the sanctuary city they have but fled from one despair to another.

Or the poor student comes here to learn. In the old days he would have found houseroom, as well as food, in the home of his Guru, or of some wealthy patron, and if he fell ill, he would have been cared for there, as a member of the family. To-day the number of so-called students is great, and possibly amongst them the indolent are many. For certainly temptations must have multiplied, at the same time that the moral continuity of the old relation between distant homestead and metropolitan para has been lost. In any case, even amongst the more earnest, some of these poor students have, as we have seen, to live in the streets. And when illness overtakes such, there is none to aid, for there is none to even know.

The Chhattras are certainly a wonderful institution, showing the unexpected power of this ancient city to meet the needs of her own children. But the Chhattras cannot offer home and hospital. And these are also sometimes needed.

And finally there is the case of the widowed gentlewomen who come to Benares to pray for their dead. As with others, so here also there is in many cases but slender provision. And yet, now-a- days, they cannot come to friends, but must needs a hire a room and pay rent to landlord. Nor can we venture to passtoo harsh a verdict on the capitalist who evicts his tenant-though a woman and delicately nurtured, -- when the rent has fallen too long into arrears. For he probably has to deal with the fact on such a scale, that the course is forced upon him, if he will save himself from ruin. More striking even than this is that fear of the police, which we find everywhere among the helpless, and which drives the keeper of the apartment-house to dismiss its penniless inmates when near to death, lest he should afterwards be arranged in court for having stolen their provision.

Prostrate, then, under the disintegrating touch of the Modern Era, lies, at this moment, the most perfect medieval cities. Is she to become a memory to her children, after four thousand or more years of a constant growth? Or will there prove to be some magic in the new forces of enthusiasm that are running through the veins of the nation, that shall yet make itself potent to know her ancient life streams also? Sons and daughters of a National India, what have ye in your hearts to do, for the ancient cities, left ye by your fathers? [2]


[1] The allusion here is not only to the Sanskrit Rik, but also to the early Norse Rijks and Runes.

[2] This sketch is printed, in permanent form, in the report for 1906 (to be published shortly) of the Ramakrishna Home of Service, Benares, and may be obtained on application to the Secretary.
Published in Modern Review, 1907, Vol 1, pp. 260-267
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