“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
– Mark Twain
An oft-quoted sentiment, this idea of Benares (alternatively known as Kashi or Varanasi) as unchanging and unaffected by the passage of time that it predates, is reflective in spirit of the way in which people have long viewed this city, venerated in Hinduism.
It is certainly acknowledged as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in this part of the world – with historians dating some of the earliest remnants of civilisation here to 1200–1100 BC, falling under what is termed the Iron Age of India. But it is not its history that propels Benares into the limelight, it is the position it occupies as the ‘spiritual capital’ of India. Considered the holiest of the seven holy cities or Sapta Puri in Hinduism and Jainism, Benares is also significant to Buddhism – and therefore a site of much pilgrimage and reverence. Situated on the banks of the river Ganges, dipping in which is said to absolve the devout of their sins, it has also developed into a prime tourist spot today.
The city shares a complex relationship with the river Ganga, from which a large part of its cultural and religious significance is drawn. But, it is also particularly exalted as the holiest of cities because it is believed that living in Benares, and more significantly, dying in Benares ensures salvation and moksha, or liberation from the cycle of life.
Life in Benares is in many ways therefore, anchored by its numerous ghats that provide access to the life-giving Ganga and where cremations rites are observed. They also form a central feature of many photographs of Benares, a city that has also played subject to a profusion of lenses since the advent of photography in the nineteenth century.
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
– Italo Calvino
One of the central ways in which cities have long been mapped, understood and envisioned has been through travellers’ accounts, and one of the most expansive movements of people across the globe was the colonial project. The last great period of European exploration, the imperial machine in the nineteenth century was enabled by a unique confluence of a variety of technological, commercial and cultural forces and resulted in the investigation of remote areas in Asia and Africa and their documentation.
In an empiricist moment, these opinions on the places and cultures to be found in varied parts of the world found their way back to Europeans at ‘home’ as realities rather than perspectives, shaping a particular understanding of these lands and their peoples. Photography, also a nineteenth century child, was particularly instrumental in this landscape, equipped as it was with an intrinsic evidentiary claim at the time.
Rapidly becoming one of the most potent tools in documentation, photography in colonial India was used for diverse purposes ranging from propaganda to surveillance and forensics; and in a wide variety of fields including geography, cartography and scientific studies which facilitated British plans for economic developments, political strategy and management, as also access to the country’s natural resources.
Today, we have reached the understanding that a photograph is not merely viewed, but read. It is impossible therefore, to entirely disengage with the colonial discourse that shapes not only the moment of production in photographs from this time, but also the perspectives that are captured in film. Looking back at these photographs, compiled both by government parties and private individuals, a highly complex mosaic of India evolves, creating in many ways, what James Ryan describes as the “imaginative geography of Empire”.
Most European, and early Indian, photographers in the nineteenth century focused on certain aspects – historical monuments, ethnographic portraits, landscapes – all underscored with the inherent object truth claim of photography as a medium. A pitch to photographers, both in the country and elsewhere issued in 1854 by the Photographic Society of Bombay interestingly signifying photography as Art, states:
“India, I need hardly point out to you, offers a vast field to the Photographer: Its magnificent Scenery – its Temples – Palaces – Shrines – and Ruins, dating back, as many of them do, to the remotest antiquity—the varied costumes, characters, and physiognomies of its millions of inhabitants; its religious and other processions and all the other endless objects of attraction or of curiosity which present themselves to us—each and all should incite us to the practice of an Art, of which the beauty and utility are only surpassed by its truthfulness; and where, I would ask, can that art be more advantageously studied than under the sunny skies of India?”
Benares as a site of temples and shrines, resplendent and imbued with religious character and a sense of timelessness, was a favourite amidst early photographers, a trend that continues to date. These vintage cityscapes however, not only takes us back in time to an older Benares starkly untouched by tourism, but also point to a certain colonial gaze – partly voyeuristic, partly distant and partly infused with a sense of shrouded mystery – that through photography attempts to comprehend and interpret a world that it both desires and disdains to be part of.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
*Title from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.