James Prinsep’s “Benares Illustrated”

On November 26, 1820, James Prinsep came to India. At 28, he was the youngest Fellow of the British Asiatic Society. He was also a physicist, chemist, epigraphist, a cartographer, a geologist, meteorologist, a numismatist and a miniature painter. Benaras captured his attention and he spent 10 years there. But in all these years he contributed, as author O.P. Kejariwal puts it, “more to this holy city than any individual in Indian history”. Just sample the firsts to his credit: He was the first to determine the latitude and longitude of the city, he prepared the first authentic census of the people of Benaras. He was first to make a bridge over the Karamnasa river — considered a feat as the task had defied engineers and architects for nearly a century. He made the first weather register “which is still accurate,” says Kejariwal. He laid the first underground drainage system, which stills serves the city, repaired minarets of the Aurangezeb mosque and, importantly, took out time to sketch its monumental grandeur and the ghats.

“Benares Illustrated” by O.P Kejariwal, brought out by Pilgrim Publishing House and launched by former President of India A.P.J Abdul Kalam at Teen Murti House this week, documents Prinsep’s contribution to Varanasi.

Said Kalam, “Prinsep showed that if a person is inspired, no one can stop him to perform. When I was going through the book, I was thinking what inspired Prinsep, and was equally disgusted to think where is ‘our’ James Prinsep? Throughout his writings, he doesn’t get time to complain about the Ganges but keeps on calling it the ‘Holy Ganga”.

Kejariwal says on the genesis of this book, “Before Prinsep died of a disease called ‘softening of the brain’ at the age of 40, he went back to Britain, his homeland, and made a huge collection on Indian, and especially Benaras-related writings and articles. He willed it to his family. Several years ago, one Fred Pin called me up in Varanasi, where I stay, and handed me this unique historical collection weighing 3000 kilograms. I have donated it all to the Banaras Hindu University. Now, I am writing Prinsep’s biography by meeting his family members, still living in India.”

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