In nearly all ways the Banaras region has been a prototypical central-Gangetic-plain tract dominated by a large urban center. For centuries Banaras shared many of the characteristics of such relatively nearby locales as Patna, Ghazipur, Allahabad, Faizabad, Lucknow, Kanpur, Agra, and Mathura. In common with these towns, Banaras originated in ancient times, lay on a Gangetic river, exploited a fertile hinterland, developed into a commercial hub, grew to formidable size, and served as an administrative capital during Mughal and British times. And in withstanding the innumerable political changes that followed its establishment, Banaras shared with its neighboring communities a strong sense of survival. For all of northern India, as C. A. Bayly has observed, lay in a zone precariously exposed to variable and volatile climate (Bayly 1983:74).
To facilitate survival in the face of political and environmental uncertainty, Banaras relied on a strong sense of identity. Like Hindu Ayodhya (Faizabad), Prayaga (Allahabad), and Mathura, and Buddhist Pataliputra (Patna), Banaras remained a major center of religious pilgrimage. Accordingly, the city has been associated with Hindu religious sympathies throughout its existence (Calcutta Review 1864:256).
But at least two factors distinguished Banaras from its sister pilgrimage sites. First, Banaras was centrally situated astride the Ganges and at the hub of an ancient subcontinental road network, within reach of western, central, and eastern India. More important, Banaras was perceived as the center of the world, the place of creation, the holiest spot on earth, the ultimate destination for all Hindus (Eck 1982:5–6; Havell 1905). Endowed with such authoritative religious sanction, it easily surpassed other centers in importance. And benefiting from ecclesiastical supremacy, Banaras achieved secular prominence. From its alleged founding in the sixth century B.C ., the city grew to be one of northern India's largest by the early nineteenth century. The Banaras region, moreover, was one of the most densely populated on the subcontinent, more than twice as dense as any European country.
It is Banaras's religious uniqueness, its resultant preeminence, and its magnetic appeal which set it apart from otherwise similar regions. These features have shaped the development of the city and its envi-
rons. Dense population and continuous pilgrimage have spawned persistent environmental consequences.