This major contribution to the study of urban culture, first published in 1990 as the magnificent photographic book Benares Seen from Within, is now issued in a more accessible format, its text substantially revised.
This book is the most inclusive presentation of this extraordinary city ever attempted. It is the fruit of a lifelong interest in Benares from 1953 until the present day by an author well known for his unusual combination of reflective thought, scholarship and poetic sensibility.
Lannoy shows how the populace of Benares lives within a historical environment spanning at least three millennia of continuous habitation. Though now beset with all the characteristic urban ills of the age, it is arguably the oldest living city in the world to retain its original cosmic orientation. A centre of learning since antiquity, its way of life has not essentially changed until the last few years.
The variety and range of themes is remarkable. Lannoy explains the metaphysical substructure of the city orgazised as a microcosm of the universe. He shows how the extremely ancient cults of the pillar and the sun-wheel survive and continue to underpin the society’s ritual calendar in unbroken continuity for millennia, and gives a vivid account of how the Buddha’s life and teaching two thousand five hundred years ago had a profound influence on Benares. The city’s association with Yoga as well as with thriving commerce and weaving, the location of the uniquely central burning ghat — all under the aegis of Shiva and Kala Bhairava — the importance to the city’s economy of the pilgrim trade, are shown here to foster a distinctive blend of spirituality and worldliness.
Lannoy’s survey extends right up to the present, with a searching critique of the city’s troubled history of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, the politicization of the crisis between religion and secularism, and a lively account of leading personalities from Shankara to Kabir and Tulsidas, Gandhi and Anandamayi Ma. Lannoy has pondered deeply over a lifetime the significance of this venerable city, infusing these pages with the sagacity of lived experience.