Ancient Places: Benares

Extract from “The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India” by Nundo Lal Dey, Luzac & Co., London, 1927.

Bārāṇasī: Benares situated at the junction of the rivers Barṇâ and Asi, from which the name of the town has been derived (Vâmana P., ch. III). It was formerly situated at the confluence of the Ganges and the Gumti (Mbh., Anuśâsana ch. 30). It was the capital of Kâśi (Râmâyaṇa Uttara, ch. 48). At the time of Buddha, the kingdom of Kâśi formed a part of the kingdom of Kośala.

According to James Prinsep, Benares or Kâśi was founded by Kâśa or Kâśirâja, a descendant of the Pururavas, king of Pratishṭhâna. Kâśirâja’s grandson was Dhanvantari; Dhanvantari’s grandson was Divodâsa, in whose reign Buddhism superseded Śiva-worship at Benares, though it appears that the Buddhist religion was again superseded by Saivism after a short period. In 1027, Benares became part of Gauḍa, then governed by Mahîpâla, and Buddhism was again introduced in his reign or in the reign of his successors Sthirapâla and Vasantapâla. Benares was wrested from the Pâla kings by Chandra Deva (1072—1096) and annexed to the kingdom of Kanauj. Towards the close of the twelfth century, Benares was conquered by Muhammad Ghuri who defeated Jaya Chand of Kanauj (James Prinsep’s Benares Illustrated, Introduction, p. 8; Vâyu P., Uttara, ch. 80).

In the seventh century it was visited by the celebrated Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsiang. He has thus described the city and its presiding god Viśveśvara, one of the twelve Great Liṅgas of Mahâdeva:

“In the capital there are twenty Deva temples, the towers and halls of which are of sculptured stone and carved wood. The foliage of trees combines to shade (the sites), whilst pure streams of water encircle them. The statue of Deva Maheśvara, made of teou-shih (brass), is somewhat less than 100 feet high. Its appearance is grave and majestic, and appears as though really living.”

The Padma P. (Uttara, ch. 67) mentions the names of Viśveśvara, Bindumâdhava, Maṇikarṇikâ, and Jñânavâpî in Kâśi (Benares). The present Viśveśvara, which is a mere Liṅga, dates its existence since the original image of the god, described by Hiuen Tsiang, was destroyed by the iconoclast Aurangzebe and thrown into the Jñânavâpî, a well situated behind the present temple. There can be no doubt that Benares was again converted into a Buddhist city by the Pâla Râjâs of Bengal, and Śiva-worship was not restored till its annexation in the eleventh century by the kings of Kanauj, who were staunch believers in the Pauranic creed. The shrines of Âdi-Viśveśvara, Veṇimâdhava, and the Bakarya-kuṇda were built on the sites of Buddhist temples with materials taken from those temples.

The temple of Âdi-Keśava is one of the oldest temples in Benares: it is mentioned in the Prabodha-Chandrodaya Nâṭaka (Act IV) written by Krishṇa Miśhra in the eleventh century A.D. The names of Mahâdeva Tilabhâṇḍeśvara and Daśâśvamedheśvara are also mentioned in the Śiva Puraṇa (Pt. 1, ch. 39). The Maṇikarṇikâ is the most sacred of all cremation ghats in India, and it is associated with the closing scenes of the life of Raja Hariśchandra of Ayodhyâ, who became slave to a Chaṇḍâla for paying off his promised debt (Kshemeśvara’s Chaṇḍ-kauśika; Mârkaṇḍeya P. ch VIII).

The old fort of Benares which was used by the Pâla Râjâs of Bengal and the Rathore kings of Kanauj, was situated above the Râj-ghâṭ at the confluence of the Barṇâ and the Ganges (Bholanath Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo, vol. I). Benares is one of the Pîṭhas where Satî’s left hand is said to have fallen, and is now represented by the goddess Annapûrṇâ, but the Tantrachūḍāmaṇi mentions the name of the goddess as Viśâlâkshî.

There were two Brahmanical Universities in ancient India, one at Benares and the other at Takshaśilâ (Taxila) in the Punjab. For the observatory at Benares and the names of the instruments with sketches, see Hooker’s Himalayan Journals, Vol. 1, p. 67).

By James Prinsep (British Library [1]) [Public domain], <a href=

Benares is said to be the birth-place of Kaśyapa Buddha, but Fa Hian says that he was born at Too-wei, which has been identified by General Cunningham with Tadwa of Tandwa (Legge’s Fa Hian, ch xxi; Arch. S. Rep., XI), nine miles to the west of Śrâvasti. Kaśyapa died at Gurupâda hill. But according to Aṭṭhakathâ of Buddhaghosha, Kaśyapa (Kassapa) was born in Benares and died at Mrigadâva or modern Sarnâth (JASB., 1838, p. 796.) In the Yuvañjaya-Jâtaka (Jâtakas IV, 75), the ancient names of Benares are said to have been Surandhana, Sudarśana, Brahmavarddhana, Pushpavatî, and Ramya.


Featured image, courtesy Harini Calamur. Reproduced with Permission.


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