Benares, a city of British India, celebrated as the ecclesiastical capital of the Hindoos, situated on the left bank of the Ganges, 390 m. N. W. of Calcutta, and 75 m. E. of Allahabad, in lat. 25° 19' N., lon. 82° 55' E.; pop. about 200,000. It is the metropolis of a district of the same name which forms a part of the Northwest Provinces. Although so far inland, the altitude of Benares above the sea level is only about 300 ft. The city extends over three miles along the Ganges, and one mile from it. A bridge of boats crosses the river to the railway station on the opposite bank. The width of the Ganges here varies with the season, sometimes exceeding half a mile. The ascent from the river margin to the city is very steep, and is for the most part occupied by long and handsome flights of broad stone steps, called ghauts. These terraces are the favorite resort of the Hindoos in all their outdoor pursuits. Above them rise the palaces, mosques, towers, and temples of the city, which as seen from the Ganges, in their massive and gorgeous architecture, present a striking and impressive picture of oriental grandeur. The interior of Benares, however, is by no means so attractive, the houses being high and closely built, with no streets wide enough to permit the passage of carriages.
The loftier and better class of dwellings are built of brick, and have an interior courtyard; but many of the houses are simply cabins of dried mud roofed with tiles. Benares has been appropriately termed the Mecca of the Hindoos. A true Brahman regards it as the holiest spot on earth, and believes that future blessedness is secure to the worst of men who is fortunate enough to die within its precincts. Hundreds of invalids are brought here to be sanctified by so enviable a death. Even the water of the sacred Ganges is holier here than elsewhere, and quantities of it are taken from the ghauts and conveyed by pious pilgrims to every part of India. Along the terraced riverside tires are continually burning, on which smoulder the bodies of the recent dead. The sacred Brahman bulls roam in large numbers through the narrow streets at will, frequently disputing the right of way with foot passengers. There are not fewer than 1,000 Hindoo temples in the city. The golden temple of Shiva, the reigning deity of Benares, is one of the most celebrated, but is neither very beautiful nor attractive.
The Doorgha Kond, the famous temple of the sacred monkeys, although ostensibly devoted to the worship of the goddess Doorgha, is in reality the dwelling of swarms of large yellow monkeys, who overrun a quarter of the city. They are maintained and carefully tended by the Brahmans, who imagine them to possess certain holy attributes. The temple overlooks one of the finest tanks in India. The Hindoos are the dominant race in Benares, constituting nine tenths of the entire population. On important religious occasions throngs of pilgrims, sometimes to the number of 100,000, come from all parts of Hindostan to visit the holy city. The Mohammedan mosques in Benares number more than 300, that built by Aurungzebe in the 17th century being the most prominent. It occupies the site of an ancient Hindoo temple in the centre of the city. Its 28 minarets rise each 232 ft. above the surface of the Ganges, the foundations extending to the water's edge. The architecture of the building is variously described as beautiful and unattractive. The observatory of Jai Singh, established during the Mogul supremacy, is a massive structure, furnished with curious astronomical instruments and ancient oriental drawings of the celestial heavens.
A Hindoo Sanskrit college was founded in 1792, to which an English department was added in 1832, providing instruction in mathematics, history, belles-lettres, and political economy. There are other Hindoo and Mohammedan schools, and several foreign Christian missions. A court of civil and criminal justice is maintained by the British government. Secrole, the English settlement containing the official residences and cantonments, lies between 2 and 3 m. W. of the native town. It is an unhealthy station and much dreaded by European troops. The manufactures of Benares comprise cottons, woollens, silks, and magnificent gold brocades. The city is the centre of a large provincial trade in fine shawls, muslins, and diamonds, which articles, in addition to its own manufactures, form the principal exports. It is also a great mart of distribution for European goods. - The modern city of Benares dates from the period of Mohammedan ascendancy in the latter part of the 17th century, but the ruins found in the vicinity indicate a much earlier origin. The Hindoos believe Benares to have been founded at the creation of the world.
It is noteworthy that three great religions have flourished there: Buddhism, the founders of which there began to propagate their faith; Mohammedanism, which was temporarily dominant; and Brahmanism, which has regained its supremacy. - The district of Benares has an area of about 1,000 sq. m. and a population of about 800,000. It is abundantly watered by the Ganges, Goomtee, and many smaller streams. The climate is characterized by violent extremes of temperature, with a mean of 77° F., and an annual rainfall of more than 30 inches. The country is fertile and well cultivated, producing abundant crops of sugar, opium, and indigo. It was ceded to the East India company in 1775 by the king or nawaub of Oude, who acquired it after the destruction of the Mogul empire. On an agreement providing for the payment of certain tribute, the East India company in 1776 granted the district to Rajah Cheyt Singh. This agreement was broken by Warren Hastings as governor general, and its violation was the subject of one of the charges on which he was subsequently impeached.