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Benares. Its cusped arches and graceful stone tracery betray the Saracenic influence, which is very prominent in modern Hindu art in northern India.
The most interesting detail in the decoration is the row of winged figures under the main cornice, carved with all the naïveté and feeling of early Italian sculpture, though there is no reason to suppose that the Benares sculptors borrowed anything from European models. They represent the Gandharvas, the heavenly musicians, and the Apsarasas, the dancing girls of Indra's heavensirens who fascinated gods and lured holy men from their devotions.
The temple of Annapurna, the goddess of plenty, near the Golden Temple, is one of the most popular places of worship in Benares, and one of the few which Europeans are now allowed to enter. A number of beggars sit outside with bowls in front of them to collect rice and other donations from the passers-by. One of them, who is maintained by the Brahmin proprietors of the temple as a kind of living advertisement, is a most uncanny object. Enormously fat, stark naked except for a small loin-cloth, his head shaved, and his whole brown body smeared with a thick layer of Ganges mud, he looks, as he squats on the ground and gazes up with curious hazel eyes under his puffed-up eyelids, more like some huge batrachian than anything human. He is given enough food to gorge himself daily, and passes his life in this state of semi-torpor at the temple entrance. Through hot weather and cold weather he has sat at the same spot, day after day, as long as the oldest inhabitant can remember, fed by Annapurna, so they say, for the last hundred years.
The main entrance has two fine brass repoussé doors. Within the temple the stone steps and the floor of the courtyard are reeking with Ganges water, mixed with mud from the feet of the worshippers. The plan is very like that of the so-called Monkey Temple, but Annapurna is older and in better style, having been built about two hundred years ago. Cows, goats, and a constant throng of people fill the precincts. At one little corner near the side entrance Europeans are admitted, and here one can study the popular side of Hinduism at leisure. The usual ceremony observed by all who enter is, after presenting an offering of food or money to the Brahmin in attendance, to circumambulate the shrine a number of times, keeping the right hand towards it, and pausing in front of it to salute the image of the goddess. Some touch the sill of the temple porch with their foreheads; others rub their fingers in the mud, and touch their foreheads and their eyes with it.
“To the pure all things are pure”-and Annapurna is so pure, they believe, that even the dirt in her temple is purity. A Brahmin sits at one corner to place a red mark on the centre of each worshipper's forehead. Before leaving, many will go up into the porch and strike a bell which hangs in the centre.
Some of the women, especially Brahmin widows, who can be distinguished by the sacred texts printed all over their saris, sprinkle Ganges water in spoonfuls from their lotas, and scatter rice and flowers on the idols placed in the verandahs round the quadrangle -Hanuman, Ganesha, and Surya.
A gaunt and wild-looking old man, nearly naked and tottering with fatigue, crawls into the temple
quadrangle and round it many times, stretching himself full-length on the sloppy floor at every step, and only pausing to salute the goddess as he passes in front of the shrine. He has just come from making the pilgrimage of the Panch-kôsi road-fifty weary miles in the same way-in fulfilment of a vow.
Many are the objects for which Hindus will perform such penances, sometimes to acquire worldly advantages in the present life—for they believe that the merit they acquire will sooner or later be rewarded in some tangible form—sometimes to excite pity and to collect alms, perhaps for religious purposes, or perhaps for a dowry for a daughter-sometimes in hopes of vengeance on an enemy, to be gratified in a future incarnation.
Another man spends half an hour with intense seriousness before the monkey god, Hanuman, rubbing the limbs of the image with the most tender solicitude, as if the massage would be pleasing to the deity, and muttering prayers and formulas continually. On the floor of the porch, in front of the shrine, quantities of sweetmeats, rice, and other grain are collectedcharitable offerings for Annapurna to distribute; for, in a land where famine afflicts the people so sorely, Annapurna's aid is often wanted. Many poor mothers bring their children to be fed in the upper gallery which runs round the quadrangle. Birds and animals
share in Annapurna's bounty, and, as everywhere in Benares, help to make delightful pictures. Pigeons fly down and peck up the grains of rice from Ganesha's grotesque body, goats and cattle munch the wreaths of marigolds which, on festival days, are piled in golden heaps about the quadrangle. Two Bengali youths stop to kiss and caress a cow, as it basks contentedly in a sunny corner, after its meal of marigolds. It responds to their endearments with signs of intense enjoyment more usual in a dog than in the stolid bovine nature.
A few links of an iron chain, smooth and polished by frequent handling, hang on a door-post at the side entrance. Many of the worshippers as they pass out take hold of them, and touch first the left eye, then the right, and then the two sides of the chest, for iron is believed to be a charm against the evil influence of Saturn, the most unlucky of all the planets. Poor souls! perhaps the evil-eyed one has grievously afflicted them. The shrine of Sanîchar, as he is called, is not far from Annapurna. Seven and a half years is said to be the time during which he troubles the unhappy ones who come under his influence.
From the Hindu stand-point, the most holy and interesting of all the Benares temples is that which is dedicated to Vishweshwar, or Shiva as the patron deity of Benares.
It is situated in the same narrow street as Annapurna, and is even more crowded with worshippers than the temple of the goddess of plenty. Europeans are not allowed to enter, but they can look down upon it from a balcony just opposite—the Naubat Khana or “music house ”, where the big temple drums are kept. It is called the Golden Temple, from the
fact of its dome and spires being covered with gilt repoussé copper work, a gift of Ranjit Singh of Lahore. There is nothing particularly noticeable in this modern Sikh decoration, nor is there anything else in the temple artistically or architecturally attractive.
The same may be said of nearly all the rest of the hundreds of small modern temples with which the city is crowded. Many of them are described by Sherring, in his Sacred City of the Hindus, with great minuteness, but without much sense of artistic proportion. In design and sculptured decoration the temple of Durgâ, at Ramnagar, on the side of the river opposite to Benares, is a very good example of modern Indian