Between the late sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, Banaras, the iconic Hindu centre in northern India that is often described as the oldest living city in the world, was reconstructed materially and imaginatively, and embellished with temples, monasteries, mansions, and ghats.
Aristocrats, priests, and pilgrims from across South Asia invested in Banaras and created a city that could realize and enhance textual prescriptions. They consolidated sacred sites and realigned pilgrimage routes, which were framed through innovative architecture and urban spaces. They transformed the city according to an imagination of the past, while also connecting it to their immediate cultural and political realities. As a result Banaras was re-conceptualized in terms of its built forms and ritual practices. At the same time, its past was re-imagined in a broader context of Indo-Islamic and colonial regimes. The city’s altered sacred landscape became the subject of pilgrimage maps and its spectacular riverfront was depicted in panoramas and described in travelogues.
In Banaras Reconstructed, Madhuri Desai examines the convergences as well as the tensions that have shaped this complex and remarkable city and explores larger questions about religious urban environments in South Asia. In so doing, she raises issues central to both historical and contemporary Indian identity.
This book will be essential reading across several disciplines, including history, art and architectural history, urban history, South Asian studies, and religious studies.
Introduction: The Paradox of Banaras
1. Authenticity and Pilgrimage
2. Palimpsests and Authority
3. Expansion and Invention
4. Spectacle and Ritual
5. Order and Antiquity
6. Visions and Embellishments
Conclusion: Banaras Revisited
Madhuri Desai is Associate Professor of Art History and Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University.