Culture & Society

Anatomy of Baranassrey, As Told by Major James Rennell

Abul Fazal, the grand vizier of the Mughal emperor Akbar, termed Banaras as Baranassrey. Major James Rennell (1742-1830), a pioneer of oceanography, was the first Surveyor-General of Bengal, who carried out the first comprehensive geographical survey of much of India. Rennell published The Bengal Atlas and Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan; or the Mogul Empire.  

Anatomy of Baranassrey

Reinventing myths and mythologies of the city of Banaras, the poem "Anatomy of Baranassey" is a historical and fictional journey from Banaras riots of 1809 to schismatic electoral insurgencies of contemporary India. Written in a whimsical and reverential poetic language, it is also a musical montage of memories- individual and collective. And it reminds us that Banaras has never been a hegemonic Hindu city -- Muslims, Buddhists and several heterodox sects and communities also consider it a holy place. Though the skyline of the city has become shinier, and opulent, the essential ethos of the Indian Civilisation – plurality, diversity, and syncretic traditions- continue to flourish in the eternal abode of Lord Shiva, symbolizing the extent and depth of the spirit of humanity and harmony in Banaras since time immemorial!

Bathed in sun and salt,
draped in a white loincloth,
she enters the perineum
of the sanctum sanctorum of
the buffalo-horned masked ascetic
god. Lions, sitting cross-legged in the
lotus posture, growl in anticipation of
the procession of voluptuous
cheerleaders with high nose bridges,
slim waists, large hips.
It was the third day of rainbow-
lust in the original Vedas.
Saturn was in the sixth house. Wives
of sages with erring hearts cooked
mutton in clay pitchers, washed
secretly their lovers’ limbs with
the fragrance of their flame-grilled
bodies, and made merry in N and S
positions on the deck of the peacock boat
in the twin rivers of Vara and Nashi
From the medieval mosque to apsidal chaityas,
aghoris in twenty-one-yard funeral robes,
flogged by lepers, pimps and bootleggers,
throng the gates of the Department of Religious
Tolerance and Piety for free passes
to the shrines of nomadic gods. Parrot-astrologers
and runaway Khalistani terrorists rest on
the staircases of old prostitutes’ homes
in the Assi lane to discuss fluctuating fortunes
of human sacrifice and mustard crop.
Prompted by ancient boons,
she leans geometrically and rubs
vermillion paste on the head of the black
lingam, cradling it gently with her lizard-lips
fledged with spices imported from
Mecca, bursting like a victorious native army.
The lovesick ageing god, lying on a bed of
arrows, wakes up from opiate-slumber
in the camphor clouds of sacred ambitions –
trident, drum, conch, and lotus in his hands.
The Auspicious One
frees himself at the first stroke of revelation,
measures rhymes of salvation in metric poems,
recalls how on a wet December morning He
beheaded Brahma on the river front
for smuggling Mongol warriors into the city.
He feels relieved from the
daily chores of eating everybody’s
sins and curses the seven sages for
extolling the virtues of celibacy.


On the fourteenth night of the
waning moon, she rises
after days of uninterrupted
first-night wedding joys with the stone gods
(that neither we know, nor hear, nor exist any
more), crosses the ghats filled with scattered
feathers of peacocks, sacrifices elongated
riceball-bodies of three-eyed Brahman
ghosts, and strips her bliss naked with the
sacred evening prayer in the river.
We were warned by the famous local
bard, “One half of the city lives in water;
the other half is a dead body
(shava).” We must confess, we
were alarmed by this unusual sight.
There was neither government
nor religion, nor any ideology.
Nothing was proscribed,
nothing considered taboo, and civilization
existed in simple geographical coordinates.
It was not until late evening
that we realised the celestial gossip-
monger’s warning was right
A new republic had dawned on the holy
town. With black ink on the index finger,
unbaptized Hindus, prime-time anarchists,
part-time secularists and the famous Internet
Baba had assembled
on the banks of the polluted Himalayan river,
and promised to clean the accumulated ancient filth.
The great leader, in a golden Afghan jacket,
limited-edition watch and Deccan rubber shoes,
tweeted not Solomon’s songs, but spewed lies,
more lies, until they became cobalt truth. His
barbarian followers came with
3D banners, on the back of
captured seahorses from California
valley, levelled the black pillar and
chanted raunchy Bhojpuri songs:
Har Har Mahadev, Ghar Ghar Mahadev!


In a fantasy façade of ritual picnicking,
left-wing Nagas and right-wing Gosains
who often gambled, played, and relieved
themselves in the overflowing dumpyard in the
narrow lanes of the city,
attacked the momins from the Memory Bazaar.
We were told they were jobless migrants.
They were carders, spinners, yarn makers,
dyers. They were armed with looms, spindles,
and seventy-two extra threads.
Rumour said: James Prinsep, Tavernier,
and Sri Sri 1008 Dandapani were in the
crowd when a mother cow was slaughtered
and the Emperor’s mosque destroyed.
As soon as radio jockeys Tiwariji and Daddan
Mia announced “Mandir-masjid waheen banegi,”
all flamingos and dark-skinned slaves
fled the city. Puzzled, we saw Brahamins,
Sheikhs, Jain priests looting pink feathers
from designer shops.
Blood dripping from blood, mostly red,
without any past austerities, spilled in opaque
dysentery designs all over the mathematical
tiles on the promenade of funeral ghats. With
canvas wings, severed bodies
floated in the air of hatred, and
blossomed like untimely old Scottish
roses. Seeing this, Kabir began to weep,
Sadho re, yeh murdon ka gaon
yeh murdon ka gaon...
Peer mare, paigambar mari hain
mar gaye zinda jogi
Raja mari hain, parja mari hain
mar gaye baid aur rogi
(Keep in mind, this is a village of the dead.
The saints have died, dead are the living mendicants.
The ruler is dead, dead are the ruled,
dead are the physicians and the patients.)
Everyone, including junkies, smashed their looms in Shiva’s
city and hid themselves in the ninety-nine epithets of Allah.
Following orders of District Magistrate Mr Bird, 
Our convoy fired on male buffoons and dancing boys to
disperse the marauding mobs and rampaging bulls.
After three days of carnage, we had lost one officer and three soldiers. 
We buried them in their scarlet


uniforms with imperial ambitions.
Some of our soldiers wept in silence, some sobbed
aloud, others tried to flee when they saw young
priests, naked to the waist, tear and burn their last
chest-hair, in the sacred fire at Manikarnika, and
recover hidden earrings from the
burnt carcass of the abducted Persian goddess...
Dismayed, we marched to the Court of King
Harshichandra, tethered in perdition to the Dom
Raja. We presented him a copy of
The Bengal Atlas and demanded
reprinting of Al Baruni’s Tarikh Al-Hind for
the benefit of our officers and soldiers.
We also told him there was no
direct road to Calcutta as there
was scarcity of labour in India
and pickaxes, shovels, spades,
saws, gunpowder were being used for
repairing the Grand Trunk Road to Xanadu.
With a suppressed laugh and undisguised
anger, the oblong, fat king screamed, “No
home! No home for anyone,”
He ordered the abolishing of house taxes
for shrines, synagogues, fire-temples, mosques.
He freed all prisoners sentenced to death
for adultery or idolatry.
Happy, we bought a portable linga from the PDR
mall, returned to our garrisons in Chinese tents near
the Arc of the Meridian,
to plan a trigonometrical survey
of the exploits of life and death
in the city of Baranassey,
and slept listening to Dean Martin:
Ma come beli bella bimba, bella bimba, bella bimba
Ma come beli bella bimba, bella bimba, bella bimba
Ma come beli bella bimba, bella bimba, bella bimba
Ma come beli bella bimba, bella bimba, bella bimba
(Don’t ever cry, I’ll tell you why. You can’t see the sky with a tear in your eye. Be like the sun, smile just for fun and sing this happy song ...)

(‘Anatomy of Baranassrey' As Told By Major James Rennell’ is the lead poem in ‘Banaras and the Other’ by Ashwani Kumar (Poetrywala, 2017). Ashwani Kumar is a poet, political scientist and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences-Mumbai.)

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