The Banaras region lies within the Middle Ganges Plain; more specifically, at the southwestern corner of the lower Ganges-Ghaghara doab (interfluve). The terrain throughout this portion of the Ganges drainage basin is flat and slightly elevated (eighty meters). Banaras city is situated fifteen meters above the Ganges, on its northern bank. The river constitutes the southern border of the district, until just before the city. At that point the Ganges turns northward, bisecting the district before reaching Ghazipur. Within this portion of its course the Ganges has flowed stably for centuries, but seasonal flooding leaves small lakes (jhil s[*] ), used for irrigating crops. At the eastern extreme of the district the Ganges is joined by the Gomati and then the Karamnasa River.
Thus drained by these three rivers and a number of smaller streams, the district has possessed abundant surface-water resources. One consequence is the region's rich alluvial soils, deposited by the Ganges and its Himalayan tributaries. Textures vary from sandy to loamy to clayey, but virtually all the soils of the region have been fertile and nonsaline. Additionally, alluvial soils tend to be porous and are able to store groundwater. Aquifers exist, and the water table is generally high, permitting exploitation for drinking and irrigation. Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century groundwater surveys did not exist for the region, and tube-well irrigation was infrequent.
In addition to possessing fertile soils, the area lies within a zone of adequate average rainfall. Nevill, writing in the 1909 district gazetteer, listed the mean annual precipitation for 1864 to 1906 as 1,000 millime-
ters. But as Bayly has noted, variation was extreme, ranging from a minimum of 540 milimeters to a maximum of 1,620 (Nevill 1909a:22; Bayly 1983:74). There is little evidence to suggest that the region's climate has changed significantly over the past several centuries. Impressed by the soils and water resources of the area, early Europeans traveling through the district and nineteenth-century administrators were uniformly sanguine about the region's agricultural potential.
It is likely that this agricultural potential was in fact intensely exploited. Already by 1820, according to the region's first gazetteer, nearly all arable land was being cropped. Tens of centuries of human occupation and agriculture had stripped most of the original vegetative cover (Hamilton 1820:306–8; R. L. Singh 1971:204–5). According to Nevill, by the turn of the century no forest remained, only jungles. In the remaining jungles, wildlife population and diversity has been reduced appreciably. Banaras, Nevill wrote, had become one of the province's poorest districts in regard to fauna. Once abounding in predators, deer, and antelope, the area retained only a rich bird population (Nevill 1909a:14, 17–18).
As for nonrenewable natural resources, the Banaras region has been poorly endowed. The alluvial plain is devoid of all rock but limestone (kankar ) and contains no minerals. Kankar , gravel, sand, and clay were the only useful products. These were employed in road building, construction, brick making, and the manufacture of lime. The nearest commercial stone quarries were in nearby Ghazipur, Chunar, and Mirzapur (Hamilton 1820:303; Purser 1859:563; Nevill 1909a:15–16).