The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

The Sky Falls on Benares

2013 February 18

"Surya, in every former Yug [i.e. era], revealed to the Munis the invariable science of astronomy. The planetary motions may alter ; but the principles of that science are always the same."
From the Surya Siddhanta, translated by Samuel Davis.

This story takes place in India in the winter of 1798-99, and it involves, in part, a phenomenon which officially did not exist: the meteorite. The notion of rocks falling from the sky, deeply entrenched though it was in European folklore, struck Enlightenment philosophers as preposterous. Eighteenth-Century scientists -- among them such towering figures as Antoine Lavoisier -- investigated meteor reports in the same debunking spirit as their mid-Twentieth Century intellectual descendants would investigate UFO reports. Peasant superstition, and perhaps some unusual form of lightning, sufficed to explain them all. Only the outsider Ernst Chladni took "aërolites" seriously, and the ridicule he endured as a result must have deterred potential followers.

It is perhaps significant that the people who would begin to change this situation, at least in the English-speaking world, lived far from Europe. Specifically, they lived in Benares (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh), and, although they were Europeans, they were unusually open to other cultures and new experiences.

Shivala Ghat, Benares by Thomas Daniell (1790)

Samuel Davis was one of the first to realise that, as Hutton's Philosophical Dictionary would later put it, "at a period several thousand years (at least three or four) before the Christian era, the Indians must have possessed very correct astronomical observations and rules of calculation; rules that require a considerable knowledge of geometry and trigonometry, both plane and spherical; and even accompanied with regular tables of sines and versed sines: at a time when all Europe was in a state of gross barbarity, if it was at all inhabited." His paper On the Astronomical Computations of the Hindus [Asiatick Researches 2, 225 (1789)] represented the beginning of English attempts to understand in technical detail the scientific accomplishments of ancient India, although he expressed his aim more modestly:

"The following communication ... with all its imperfections ... may have the useful effect of awakening the attention of others in this country who are better qualified for such investigations, and of inciting them to pursue the same object more successfully, by showing that numerous treatises in Sanscrit on astronomy are procurable, and that the Brahmens are extremely willing to explain them." The last point was especially important; unlike some of his fellow Orientalists, Davis had come to respect the learning of living Indians as well as ancient ones:

"I had before this been inclined to think, with many others, that the Brahmens possess no more knowledge in astronomy than they have derived from their ancestors in tables ready calculated to their hands, and that few traces of the principles of the science could be found among them, but ... I was induced to alter my opinion."

Wangdue Zam, Bhutan, 1783 by Samuel Davis

Davis had come to India in 1780 and served as an artist and surveyor on Samuel Turner's 1783 expedition to Tibet, although he was denied permission to travel past Bhutan by the Panchen Lama. His illustrations for Turner's Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet; containing a Narrative of a Journey through Bootan, and Part of Tibet [London: Bulmer, 1800] are noted for their ethnographic accuracy. Throughout his career in the East India Company, he was consistently sympathetic to the local culture (or at least to most aspects of it: he was highly critical of the treatment of women and tenant farmers). This did not, of course, prevent him from supporting the colonial regime, although he often criticised it.

Davis was elected to the Royal Society in 1792. Three years later, he was made a local magistrate in Benares, where he met a fellow FRS with a somewhat-lower historical profile: John Lloyd Williams. Like Davis, Williams was a scientist, a mathematician, and a student of Indian culture. He had published a description of the already-ruined (but less than a century old) observatory built by Maharajah Jai Singh, the most obvious though not the most technically-impressive monument of traditional Subcontinental astronomy:

"An account of the use of the different instruments, though very imperfect, was given me on the spot by several learned Brahmins who attended me; one of whom is professor of astronomy in the new founded college at Benares. They all agreed that this observatory was never used, for any nice observations; and believe it was built more for ostentation, than the promotion of useful knowledge. In my inquiry into the particulars of the building, I have been assisted by my friend the Nabob Ali Ibrahim Kaun, and I believe this account may be relied on."

Benares was in the state of Oudh (Awadh), said to have been the kingdom of Rama himself in remote antiquity, but now for centuries under Islamic rule. By the 1700s the power of the Moghul emperors had waned, and the governors ( "nawaub viziers") of Oudh ruled their province as an effectively independent country. The main threat to this autonomy came not from the Emperor but from "John Company". By 1773 the British East India Company was firmly established in Oudh, and began to intervene in local politics at will.

The most dramatic such intervention came in 1798 January 21, when the Company, backed by ten battalions of soldiers, bloodlessly deposed the eighteen-year old nawaub, Vizier Ali Khan, after only four months in power, and installed his relative Saadut Ali Khan II on the throne. Although Vizier Ali was given a palace and a pension, he was understandably dissatisfied. Samuel Davis sensed trouble ahead. He was especially uneasy that the Muslim ex-nawaub had been settled in the Hindu holy city of Benares, although it is unclear whether he expected this to cause communal strife or its opposite, a joint Muslim-Hindu front against the British.

The months passed. Then, something unexpected happened.

A romanticised and somewhat condescending depiction of the Great Benares Meteor,
presumably from a late Nineteenth-Century work of popular science. [Encyclopedia of Meteorites]

John Lloyd Williams described it this way [ Account of the Explosion of a Meteor, near Benares, in the East Indies ; and of the falling of some Stones at the same Time, about 14 Miles from that City, Phil. Trans. R. S. L. 92, 175 (1802)]:

"A circumstance of so extraordinary a nature as the fall of stones from the heavens, could not fail to excite the wonder, and attract the attention, of every inquisitive mind.

"Among a superstitious people, any preternatural appearance is viewed with silent awe and reverence; attributing the causes to the will of the Supreme Being, they do not presume to judge the means by which they were produced, nor the purposes for which they were ordered; and we are naturally led to suspect the influence of prejudice and superstition, in their descriptions of such phenomena; my inquiries were therefore chiefly directed to the Europeans, who were but thinly dispersed about that part of the country.

"The information I obtained was, that on the 19th of December, 1798, about eight o'clock in the evening, a very luminous meteor was observed in the heavens, by the inhabitants of Benares and the parts adjacent, in the form of a large ball of fire; that it was accompanied by a loud noise, resembling thunder; and that a number of stones were said to have fallen from it, near Krakhut [Kerakat], a village on the north side of the river Goomty [Gomati], about 14 miles from the city of Benares.

"The meteor appeared in the western part of the hemisphere, and was but a short time visible: it was observed by several Europeans, as well as natives, in different parts of the country.

"In the neighbourhood of Juanpoor [Jaunpur], about 12 miles from the spot where the stones are said to have fallen, it was very distinctly observed by several European gentlemen and ladies; who described it as a large ball of fire, accompanied with a loud rumbling noise, not unlike an ill discharged platoon of musquetry. It was also seen, and the noise heard, by various persons at Benares. Mr. Davis observed the light come into the room where he was, through a glass window, so strongly as to project shadows, from the bars between the panes, on a dark coloured carpet, very distinctly; and it appeared to him as luminous as the brightest moonlight.

"When an account of the fall of the stones reached Benares, Mr. Davis, the judge and magistrate of the district, sent an intelligent person to make inquiry on the spot. When the person arrived at the village near which the stones were said to have fallen, the natives, in answer to his inquiries, told him, that they had either broken in pieces, or given away to the Tesseldar (native [tax] collector) and others, all that they had picked up; but that he might easily find some in the adjacent fields, where they would be readily discovered, (the crops being then not above two or three inches above the ground,) by observing where the earth appeared recently turned up. Following these directions, he found four, which he brought to Mr. Davis: most of these the force of the fall had buried, according to a measure he produced, about six inches deep, in fields which seemed to have been recently watered; and it appeared, from the man's description, that they must have lain at the distance of about a hundred yards from each other.

"What he further learnt from the inhabitants of the village, concerning the phenomenon, was, that about eight o'clock in the evening, when retired to their habitations, they observed a very bright light, proceeding as from the sky, accompanied with a loud clap of thunder, which was immediately followed by the noise of heavy bodies falling in the vicinity. Uncertain whether some of their deities might not have been concerned in this occurence, they did not venture out to inquire into it until the next morning; when the first circumstance which attracted their attention was, the appearance of the earth being turned up in different parts of their fields ...

"Mr Maclane, a gentleman who resided very near the village of Krakhut, gave me part of a stone that had been brought to him the morning after the appearance of the phenomenon, by the watchman who was on duty at his house; this, he said, had fallen through the top of his hut, which was close by, and buried itself several inches in the floor, which was of consolidated earth. The stone must, by his account, previous to its having been broken, have weighed upwards of two pounds.

"At the time the meteor appeared, the sky was perfectly serene; not the smallest vestige of a cloud had been seen since the 11th of the month, nor were any observed for many days after." (Williams included this meteorological detail because one popular debunking-explanation of meteorites was that they were ordinary rocks blasted by lightning.)

"Of these stones, I have seen eight, nearly perfect, besides parts of several others, which had been broken up by their possessors, to distribute among their friends. The form of the more perfect ones, appeared to be that of an irregular cube, rounded off at the edges; but the angles were to be observed on most of them. They were of various sizes, from about three to upwards of four inches in their largest diameter; one of them, measuring four inches and a quarter, weighed two pounds twelve ounces. In appearance, they were exactly similar: externally, they were covered with a hard black coat or incrustation, which in some parts had the appearance of varnish or bitumen; and, on most of them were fractures, which, from their being covered with a matter similar to that of the coat, seemed to have been made in the fall, by the stones striking against each other, and to have passed through some medium, probably an intense heat, previous to their reaching the earth.

"Internally, they consisted of a number of small spherical bodies, of a slate colour, embedded in a whitish gritty substance, interspersed with bright shining spiculæ, of a metallic or pyritical nature. The spherical bodies were much harder than the rest of the stone: the white gritty part readily crumbled, on being rubbed with a hard body; and on being broken, a quantity of it attached itself to the magnet, but more particularly the outside coat or crust, which appeared almost wholly attracted by it.

"... I shall not attempt any further description of their constituent parts; nor shall I offer any conjecture respecting the formation of such singular productions, or even record those which I have heard of others, but leave the world to draw their own inferences from the facts above related. I shall only observe, that it is well known there are no volcanos on the continent of India; and, as far as I can learn, no stones have been met with in the earth, in that part of the world, which bear the smallest resemblance to those above described."

No volcanos in the continent of India ... but the whole continent was a volcano ready to erupt, and the ink was scarcely dry on Williams's report when it began to rumble. The deposed teenage nawaub Vizier Ali Khan was tired of living on the sidelines at the behest of foreigners. On January 14, less than a month after the fall of the meteorite, he paid a visit to Mr. Cherry, the most important British official in Benares. Samuel Davis's son John (writing decades later and with obvious personal bias) tells the story vividly in his Vizier Ali Khan; or, the Massacre of Benares [London: Spottiswoode, 1871]:

"On Vizier Ali's arrival, his host, according to custom, met and handed him in, accompanied by his friends, Waris Ali, Izzut Ali, and another, father-in-law to the last. Mr Evans, a young private secretary, was also present. The party were attended into the breakfast room by four followers, armed with swords, shields, and pistols ... Mr. Cherry, calling for tea, handed it to Vizier Ali, who did not touch it; but ... began to complain of the treatment he had received from Sir John Shore, the late governor-general ... 'On his departure,' continued Vizier Ali, 'Sir John Shore told me that you would take care of my interests, and attend to my representations; but this you have never done. On the contrary, at the suggestion of Saadut Ali Khan, you now wish me to go to Calcutta; but Lord Mornington is absent -- what should I do there? Saadut Ali Khan wishes for my death, and the English are in league with him ...'

"While he was speaking, Waris Ali came round from his seat, and placed himself near Mr. Cherry. This seemed to be a concerted signal, for Vizier Ali, rising from his chair, seized Mr. Cherry by the collar, while the other held him from behind, and ... struck at him with his drawn sword. The conspirators now followed the example set them, and as the unfortunate resident endeavoured to escape through the garden into the verandah, they followed him in a body, and cut him down ...

"In the meanwhile, Izzut Ali had seized Mr. Evans, and grasped at his dagger to stab him; but that gentleman, holding the assassin's hands, prevented his design. An attendant of the resident's now came up, and made a cut at Izzut Ali, which he received on his arm, and let go his hold of Mr. Evans, who fled into an adjoining field. There, however, he was seen by some horsemen, who, firing two or three shots, brought him to the ground, upon which some others of the conspirators ran up and dispatched him ..."

Samuel Davis was not far off: "Mr. Davis ... returning from his morning ride on an elephant, had passed Vizier Ali and his whole train, as they were proceeding towards Mr. Cherry's house; but their business was not with him yet -- he providentially escaped, to be the instrument of saving many others ...

"[P]resently he observed Vizier Ali and his train returning with much more haste than usual; and that some of the horse ... began firing ...

"... There was now no time to lose. Mrs. Davis was told to repair with her two children (of whom the writer of this was one) and their attendants, to the terrace on the top of the house, while he ran for his firearms, which were below; but observing, on his way down, that an armed horseman was already in the doorway, he bethought himself of a pike or spear, which he had upstairs ... It was of iron, plated with silver, in rings, to give a firmer grasp, rather more than six feet in length, and had a long triangular blade of more than twenty inches, with sharp edges.

"... Mrs. Davis was directed, with her two female servants and the children, to sit down near the centre of the terrace, while Mr. Davis took his station on one knee at the trap-door of the stair, waiting for the expected attack. The perpendicular height of the stair was considerable, winding round a central stem. It was of a peculiar construction, supported by four wooden posts, open on all sides, and so narrow as to allow only a single armed man to ascend at a time ..."

And so it came to pass that the scholarly judge held the stairs in single combat, armed only with a mediæval weapon. The younger Davis's account of his father in battle reminded classically-educated readers of Leonidas at Thermopylæ and Horatio at the bridge; the helpless family on the roof above him gave the story added piquancy for sentimental Victorians. The image of the lone champion slaying foeman after foeman on a narrow staircase became a trope of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century heroic adventure fiction, appearing with variations in works from Alan Quatermain to The Lord of the Rings. The actual event which helped inspire these fantasies was perhaps somewhat less dramatic: Davis was not standing in the open, but was shielded by the trap door. It was certainly less lethal: Davis and two or three of his opponents were wounded, but none fatally, and Vizier Ali soon ordered his men to abandon the direct assault and employ siege tactics instead.

There was a long lull. One of the nursery maids stood up to investigate; she was killed by a sniper. Most of the victims of the Benares Massacre were native Indians associated with the British.

"In about half an hour from this time, [Davis] again heard the noise of many persons ascending the stair in haste, and when by the sound they seemed near the top, he suddenly threw aside the cover, and was on the point of driving his spear into the head of the foremost, when most fortunately he recognised the white beard and withered face of an old native servant. The poor fellow ... roared out who he was, and that he had saved the piece of plate which he held up towards Mr. Davis, adding that Vizier Ali's force had all retired. Others behind him in like manner held up different articles they had brought with them, to confirm his assertion; but Mr. Davis still hesitated ... not knowing but that they might have been tempted to save their own lives by consenting to be the means of putting him off his guard.

"Presently, however, seeing the native officer of his police and some sepoys, with their muskets, enter the room ... Mr. Davis gladly admitted this reinforcement to his post; and at length finding, on a muster, that he had fifteen men with their firelocks, bayonets, and fifteen rounds each, besides the cutwal with some of his police, he considered the danger as over."

Vizier Ali had left Benares, hoping to rally support elsewhere. The attack on Cherry and Davis was meant to be the start of a broader uprising against foreign influence, but it went nowhere; the British and their local allies managed to regain control of the country almost immediately. Vizier Ali was captured in March. He was not executed, but spent the remainder of his life in British custody, initially at Fort William, the military headquarters of British India. His "apartment" there was located in one of the fort's many "bomb-proofs", Eighteenth-Century high-tech bunkers with metal reinforcing-bars. Some Indian nationalists remember him as an heroic fighter against imperialism; others do not.

Davis himself, as the local magistrate, presided over the trials of the rebels. William Ferguson Laurie's highly romanticised Sketches of Some Distinguished Anglo-Indians tells the following anecdote:

"[Davis had become] acquainted with the Brahmins of the highest caste ; and particularly with one who gave him much valuable information respecting both the ancient religion and astronomy of the Hindus. This Brahmin was afterwards proved by undoubted testimony to have been actively engaged in Vizier Ali's rebellion, and was brought for judgement before Mr. Davis. The judge, seeing his old friend, could not contain his emotion, and the tears fell from his eyes as he heard the proud Brahmin express his readiness to die, but entreat that he might not be degraded, or anything done to him unworthy of his high caste and station."

In the investigation, another name from Williams's meteorite paper surfaces: "The extent and organization of the conspiracy were evinced by the statements of an European inhabitant, by name McLean, residing at some distance from Benares, in the country. Soon after hearing of the massacre, about noon on the day of its occurence, he had walked with two friends to the top of a large turret near his house, and was presently followed by certain zemindars, or native land-holders, unknown to him. In talking over the melancholy event, the Englishman reminded these zemindars of the peace and security which they enjoyed under the British Government, unexampled under their own despotic rajahs. Two other natives soon afterwards ascended the place with their swords and shields, joining in the conversation, and telling them that letters had been sent off to many persons of consequence, who might be expected that night with strong forces to join Vizier Ali. One of them added that he himself had received an invitation to support the cause. All these men talked in a high and insolent tone, blaming the British Government, and particularly the courts of justice, which, they observed, placed the great and low upon an equality ..."

Davis went on to become the Accountant-General of India, a leading advocate of administrative and land reform, and co-author in 1813 of the famous "Fifth Report" which, both for better and for worse, saved the East India Company from dissolution; he died in middle age as a director of the Company in England. His house in Benares, later called the Nadesar Palace, still exists. It became the residence of Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh in 1889, and is now a luxury hotel, where the historic spiral-staircase is pointed out to guests.

[Photo:Encyclopedia of Meteorites]

But what of the meteorite paper, written on the eve of the revolt and finally read to the Royal Society in 1802? It was incorporated into a longer work, Experiments and Observations on Certain Stony and Metalline Substances, Which at Different Times are Said to Have Fallen on the Earth; Also on Various Kinds of Native Iron by Edward Charles Howard [Phil. Trans. R. S. L. 92, 168 (1802)]. Howard is a rather obscure figure, a chemist whose interest was normally in applied problems, the inventor of a vacuum pan and a method of refining sugar. (He also discovered the explosive fulminate of mercury, although the full military importance of this was only recognised after his death.) His interest in meteorites appears to have been oddly superficial; he may have only studied them at the insistence of the Royal Society's president Joseph Banks, and he never returned to the subject after his single contribution to the field.

That, however, was enough. Howard began with a collection of puzzling, but often poorly documented, reports of stones from the sky, reports of the sort which Eighteenth-Century scientists were accustomed to ignoring. He then introduces his trump card: "At length, in 1799, an account of stones fallen in the East Indies was sent to the President [of the Royal Society], by John Lloyd Williams, Esq. which, by its unquestionable authenticity, and by the striking resemblance it bears to other accounts of fallen stones, must remove all prejudice." After reproducing Williams's report in its entirety, he turns to a description of the Benares stones and some others from Yorkshire and Italy: descriptions not by himself, but by the Comte de Bournon, a French Royalist refugee in England who had become one of his adopted country's foremost mineralogists. The Count's observations show that this reputation was quite justified:

"These [Benares] stones ... are covered over the whole extent of their surface, with a thin crust, of a deep black colour: they have not the smallest gloss; and their surface is sprinkled over with small asperities, which cause it to feel, in some measure, like shagreen, or fish skin.

Photo: Peter Marmet, 2008.

"When these stones are broken, so as to shew their internal appearance, they are found to be of a grayish ash colour; and of a granulated texture, very similar to that of a coarse grit-stone: they appear evidently to be composed of four substances, which may be easily distinguished, by making use of a lens.

"One of these substances, which is in great abundance, appears in the form of small bodies, some of which are perfectly globular, others rather more elongated or elliptical. They are of various sizes, from that of a small pin's head to that of a pea, or nearly so: some of them, however, but very few, are of a larger size. The colour of these small globules is gray, sometimes inclining very much to brown: and they are completely opaque. They may, with great ease, be broken in all directions: their fracture is conchoid, and shews a fine, smooth, compact grain, having a small degree of lustre, resembling in some measure that of enamel. Thier hardness is such, that, being rubbed upon glass, they act upon it in a slight degree; this action is sufficient to take off its polish, but not to cut it: they give faint sparks, when struck with steel..."

Photo: Shawn Alan

Next, Howard proceeds to make his own contribution: the chemical analysis of the Benares stones. Examining first the crust and removing the iron oxide component: "I observed the saline liquor to have a greenish colour. I evaporated it to dryness; and redissolved the dry salt in distilled water ... It appeared to me like a triple salt, described by Mr Hermstadt in Annales de Chimie, Tom. XXII, p. 108, as an ammoniacal nitrate of nickel. By examination with prussiate of ammonia, it yielded a whitish precipitate, inclining to a violet colour; and, by various properties, I was soon confirmed in the opinion, that nickel was present ... " The significance of nickel is its extreme geological rarity: these were no ordinary rocks.

After analysing each of the four mineralogical components identified by Bournon, and noting the similarity in composition of the Benares stones to the Italian and Yorkshire specimens, Howard finally addresses the question of the origin of meteorites: "I doubt not but the similarity of component parts ... will establish very strong evidence in favour of the assertion, that they have fallen on our globe. They have been found at places very remote from each other, and at periods also sufficiently distant ... [T]hey have no resemblance to [known] mineral substances ... I would further urge the authenticity of accounts of fallen stones, and the similarity of circumstances attendant on such phenomena; but to the impartial it would be superfluous, and, to those who disbelieve whatever they cannot explain, it would be fruitless."

Indeed. In the Twenty-first Century, noöne doubts the existence and extraterrestrial origin of meteorites. Benares (a) is classified as a type LL (i.e. very low in metallic iron, but iron-oxide rich) ordinary chondrite. Such objects are thought to have originated in the inner region of the main asteroid belt, and been directed toward Earth preferentially by an orbital resonance with Jupiter (hence their relatively high abundance). The "spherical bodies" in the Benares stones are chondrules, considered to be material left over from the formation of the Solar System and among the oldest objects accessible to geologists; Williams and Bournon were apparently the first people to notice them, and Howard was certainly the first to determine their chemical composition. Chondrules are typically more than 4600 million years old, according to the standard chronology. The ancient astronomers of India would not have been surprised. In the words of Samuel Davis:

"Construction of the Calpa. Cali, 432000 Years. Dwapar, 864000 Years. Treta, 1296000 Years. Satya, 1728000 Years. Aggregate or Maha Yug, 4320000 Years. Manwantera, 306720000 Years. With a Sandhi equal to the Satya Yug, 308448000 Years. Calpa, 4318272000 Years. With a Sandhi equal to the Satya Yug, Whole duration of the Calpa,

"4320000000 Years."

Varanasi (Collage by Mirrormundo, 2009)