The City’s Temple Heart
Thrice destroyed, today Kashi Vishwanath stands foremost again among Varanasi’s sacred places
VARANASI IS HOME TO AN ASTOUNDING 23,000 temples. Most famous is Kashi Vishwanath Siva Temple, which today has a security system such as I had never seen before. Not even a pen, much less a mobile phone or camera, was allowed into the temple. Hundreds of shops line the streets, with lockers where pilgrims can leave all their possessions before joining the long serpentine queue winding down the narrow (two-meter wide) street to the temple’s unassuming entrance. Once arriving before the Sivalingam, one has only a matter of seconds before having to give way to the pilgrims coming along behind.
Kashi Vishwanath is first temple mentioned in the ancient Skanda Purana, something of an early guidebook to India’s pilgrimage sites. A choice target for Muslim invaders, the prominent edifice was destroyed in 1194ce, then rebuilt 20 years later, only to be demolished again in the 15th century. Under the reign of the unusually tolerant Akbar in the 16th century, it was rebuilt once again; but Akbar’s grandson, Aurangzeb, destroyed it yet again in 1669, building Gyanvapi Mosque in its place. The present temple was erected a few feet from the mosque in 1780 by Maratha queen Ahilya Bai Holkar. The area remains today a potential flashpoint for Hindu-Muslim conflict—hence the security. The gold roof seen in the photo below was donated in 1839 by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab. Its 820 kilos would fetch some $33 million at today’s gold prices—perhaps another reason for so many guards.
Unlike Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, there has never been any question that Gyanvapi Mosque sits on the site of a destroyed temple, for it openly incorporates significant portions of the walls of the original temple. An archeological dig was required to prove a temple preceded Babri Masjid.
This is a powerful sanctuary. The Sivalingam here is set in a gold base in the floor some four feet square protected by a silver railing. Devotees are allowed to touch the Lingam, unlike in South Indian temples, while streaming through offering garlands and Ganga water. Attendant priests constantly remove offerings and move the pilgrims along. You can observe this kinetic scene live at: bit.ly/KashiLingam. Many among the pilgrims here come from South India.
Uneasy neighbors: Google Earth view of the mosque and temple
Formal pujas in different styles are also conducted through the day, from 2:30am to 11pm. Shri Kant Mishra, one of the temple’s main priests, told us the temple follows the Shukla Yajur Veda, with the priests performing five aratis a day. Twenty-one priests of various traditions handle the daily worship. The priests’ children are taught the mantras at a young age in the temple’s school.
He offered this advice to pilgrims: “Please understand that if you go to meet the president of India, you have to prepare by wearing graceful attire. If you go in torn clothes, the guards will not let you enter. Similarly, if you are going before God, you have to get prepared, not only being suitably dressed and clean on the outside, but ridding yourself of worldly desires, anger and attachment on the inside. When you go before God so prepared, you will see how blissful the experience can become.”
He also expressed a sentiment we heard repeatedly: the lack of desire to leave. “Once I went to Mumbai at the invitation of a Bollywood director and lived luxuriously in air-conditioned apartments and cars. After three days I missed Kashi and told him I had to go back or I would go mad.”
Probably the second most popular temple here is Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, built in the early 1900s by Pandit Madan Mohna Malviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University. The temple conducts daily and weekly worship as well as Ram Lila performances based on Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanasa. A classic music and dance festival is held each April. The chief priest, Dr. Vishwambar Nath Mishra, told us the surrounding area is known as Anand Kanan, Garden of Bliss. Today, with the forests gone, many monkeys roam freely.
The worship of Rama is strong here. Mishra explained, “Hanumanji is consider by us an avatar of Lord Siva; therefore, we do not see much difference between Him and Lord Siva. In South India there is a lot of dispute between Shaivas and Vaishnavas. However, if you believe in Ramacharitamanasa (authored by Tulsidas), Lord Rama clearly says that if you do not worship and revere Lord Siva, you will not get the fruits of His worship. Lord Siva on the other hand says that if you do not worship Lord Rama then you will not get the fruit of worshiping Him. So, both have to be respected and worshiped. Both are the ishta devas of each other. We should not create artificial boundaries, but instead understand how the Shaivas and Vaishnavas are inseparably connected to each other.”
Celestial city: Artist’s depiction of Kashi perched on the trident of Lord Siva, with Parvati and Nandi nearby
A third famous temple here is the ancient Annapurna Temple. Though fairly small, it bustles with worshipers. Its mahant, Rameshwar Puri Ji Maharaj, states, “Due to the blessings of Mother Annapurna, no one sleeps hungry in Kashi.” The temple runs two facilities from morning to evening, each capable of feeding two thousand people at a sitting. They also maintain a 250-student Vedic gurukulam that supplies priests to many local temples, and a home for those who have come to Kashi to die.
Other famous temples in Varanasi include that of Kalabhairav, a form of Siva as a fierce protector whose vahana or mount is the dog; the Kauri Mata Temple, popular with South Indians, where the preferred offering is cowrie shells; the Durga Mandir, built some 500 years ago; the 18th-century Durga Kund Temple; and the New Vishwanath Temple, built of white marble at Banaras Hindu University. At the latter, tourists and visitors from all religions are welcome.
The “Tilting Temple” at Scindia Ghat (next to Manikarnika) has its own tale. It is a Siva temple built 150 years ago by a man at the request of his mother. On its completion, the builder announced that he had thereby “repaid his debt to his mother for bringing him into the world and raising him.” The temple’s foundations over time gave way, and the structure tilted to one side—demonstrating, so the locals say, that the debt to one’s mother can never be repaid. Considered a monument to hubris, it remains flooded by the river most of the year.
Temples: Kashi Vishwanath, Durga Kund and Sanchat Mochan Hanuman
ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA
Kashi Vishwanath Temple was rebuilt in 1780 by Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore next to its original site as she declined to remove the mosque. The Gyanvapi Mosque, built in 1669 by Aurangzeb after he destroyed the original Kashi Viswanath temple, utilizing the Hindu temple’s original walls; the picturesque Durga Kund Temple; devotees throng to the popular Sanchat Mochan Hanuman Temple.