Prinsep sahib who dearly loved Benares.

Who is sahib??

Sahib is an Arabic word. This word is commonly used in India in a respectful context. Even today, the method of addressing government officials by calling them ‘sahib’ is prevalent.
In the British Raj, British officers were also called sahib.
One such British officer was James Prinsep. Even today an Indian takes this name with great reverence.

This photo is probably a little before Prinsep went back to England from India. The spots near his eyes reveal his deteriorating health.


JAMES PRINSEP WAS BORN ON 20TH AUGUST 1799 IN BRISTOL, ENGLAND. He was known in his school as a brilliant student. James wanted to be an architect and started training for it. But because of keeping eyes on the subtle maps for a long time, his eyes started getting bad. As a result, James had to give up his education as an architect. His family members were concerned about James. But one day a friend of his father, working in India House, informed him that the company needed an assistant connoisseur in Bengal and that James could be appointed to the post if he had acquired the requisite qualifications in this field. James found this proposal favorable and in 1817 began training in numismatics.

In the first half of 1818, James received a certificate of proficiency from the Royal Mint. James’s younger brother Thomas had also completed the probationary period of Bangla Engineers. So both brothers together on 26 May left England for India in 1819. After a journey of about four months, both the brothers reached Calcutta on 15 September where they were received by their elder brother Henry Thobe, who had already well established himself in Calcutta. At this time the government had decided to establish two more mints in addition to the Calcutta mint, one of which was in Banaras. In 1820, another famous scholar, Horace Heyman Wilson, came to Calcutta from Benares and reported that he had prepared the mint there. On Wilson’s return, James was sent to Benares as the head of the mint.

JAMES PRINSEP REACHED BENARES ON 26TH NOVEMBER 1820. No one would have imagined that this young British officer is going to do an incomparable amount of job in contributing to the history of India. History of India especially ancient India history can never forget the contribution of James. Soon Princip fell in love with this ancient city. His letters show that he was very keen on the scientific study of this city and soon he got involved in this work with full engrossment.

There is hardly a multi-faceted genius like James in human history proficient in many disciplines The same person was a journalist, engineer, scientist, chemist, actor, singer, inventor, painter, writer, epigraphist, archeologist, academician, population scholar, a town planning expert, everything.

Unfortunately, Prinsep was short-lived, he died at the age of forty. He spent almost ten years of his life in Banaras. After resigning from his job due to illness, he went back to England. But his health kept on deteriorating. The sad news of James’s death came to India on 22 April 1840. James Prinsep had done so much work in Banaras that if his work has to be accounted for, then a book will also fall short for it. It is not possible to throw light on the works of James in just a single post My purpose in this post is also not to give information about the great works of James. For a few days now, the sketches of James Prinsep have been attracting my attention those sketches are as relevant today as they were in James’s time. Undoubtedly, these sketches are unmatched in terms of art, but the beauty they depict in the daily life of Varanasi has no match.


Sketch of the ruins of the famous Vishwanath temple in Banaras by James Prinsep
Image – Ruins of the present Vishwanath temple

This sketch of the Vishwanath temple was published in the book Benares Illustrated written by James. This book was lithographed in England, published from Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1833.

The famous Vishwanath temple in Banaras was demolished in 1669 by the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. After the demolition of the temple, a mosque was built on the ruins of the temple. This disputed structure still exists today. The way James has depicted the ancient ruins and pillars of the temple in his sketches is commendable. James’s sketch of the disputed structure of Gyanvapi Mosque is probably the only sketch of it made at that time. James very eloquently depicts the artifacts and geometries on the main entrance and pillars of the temple. For more information about this subject please visit :-


The first and the second pair of photographs below are of the same place, first photograph of each pair being the sketch drawn by James. Try to find out yourself the similarities, THERE ARE A TONNE OF THEM!!!. After finding them out you will realize that there is hardly any change in the buildings since James time.


Sketch of the ornate windows of the Man Mandir temple by James


Many temples were built in Banaras during the reign of Akbar. Whatever temples were built during the reign of Akbar, the credit goes to Raja Todarmal, Govardhan, and Raja Man singh. After closely inspecting the major buildings of Banaras, James came to the conclusion that the building of Man Mandir Ghat was the oldest building present at that time in its complete form. Till then the Manmandir building was not damaged in any way. Ornate carved jharokhas (WINDOW) are made in this building. Man Singh had built this building so that the travelers could stay there. Sawai Jai Singh(II), a descendant of Man Singh, who was also a famous astrologer, had built an observatory inside this building. Bishop Haber had also visited this observatory, at that time this observatory was no longer in use.

Smaller mosque of Aurangzeb, with the north minaret covered with scaffolding, Painting by James Prinsep (1826)


The old name of Panch Ganga Ghat was Bindu Madhav Ghat.

There was an ancient temple of Lord Vishnu here. On the orders of Aurangzeb, this famous temple was demolished and a mosque was built there which is known as Alamgir Masjid. One of the major works done by James in Benares was to strengthen the foundation of the minarets of this mosque. The foundation of this mosque was very close to the river Ganges, due to constant exposure to water, it got submerged and there was a danger that it could fall any time soon. This place was always crowded with pilgrims, so there was always a danger of loss of life and property. James first made a platform of bamboo and wood to provide support around these towers, this type of platform is known as Scaffolding, then each brick was removed from the minarets, then the foundations of the tower were strengthened and the bricks were put back in their place. These meth Later these minarets were removed by the Archaeological Department.


Eve of an eclipse of the moon ~ 23rd November 1823


Many Hindu festivals in Banaras have a tradition of taking a holy dip in the River Ganges. James made this sketch on one such Hindu festival. James had also counted the total number of people taking bath during one such Ganga bathing festival. For more information about this subject please visit :-
For this James adopted a very simple method

Three days and three nights before the eclipse(Grahan) on 21 May 1826, peons and acolytes were stationed in pairs at the five main entrances to the city. These five gates were Nadesar, Beniram Udyan (now known as Beniabagh), Jagatganj, Ausanganj and Hanuman Gate. The method used by James was as follows, the security personnel stationed at the five gates of the city, gave pebbles to each devotee, which were taken back when they returned. Similarly, the same order was given to the boatmen operating on the ghats – Rajghat, Gaighat, Kalighat Manmandir, Shivala and Ramghat. The total sum of all these figures was close to some fifty-five thousand, but James said that the eclipse that occurred on this occasion was very small and so, it would not be wrong to conclude that on the occasion of longer lasting eclipses, the population gathered here could be more than a lakh.

In such a short time, James made so much effort to improve the life of the common people, James not only loved the people of the city but also the soul of the city. The people of Banaras believe that in the last thousand years, hardly anyone has contributed as much as James to improve this ancient city. Undoubtedly the people of Banaras will never forget the contribution of James Prinsep.

Author: nitinsingh

Postgraduate in International relations. Experience in writing in various journals, from BBC WORLD NEWS SERVICE to India's one of the oldest hindi daily. I like to write on international relations, religion, religious conflict. Social media has bridged the distance between writing and reading. Now writing is not just the expression of one's own thought, but also knowing the expression of people on various subject.

5 thoughts on “Prinsep sahib who dearly loved Benares.”

  1. The Sketches are almost in conformity with the originals. These pictures really speak themselves . It appears there need not be any description of them . Fortunately , there is no scope for distortion of the places and the history as done by many English Historians .

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