Apr 2, 2015

Kashi Yatra- Tales of the ancient temples!

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Durga Temple and Durga Kund of Varanasi

Tales of ancient temples in Kashi! That means- this post is a long read! Hope it keeps you interested!

Visit to Kashi is much more than collecting pictures of skinny bearded old men bathing in river Ganga, or ash clad Naga sadhus or the prevailing dirt. It is much more, at least for Hindus. And that is the reason I always mention I was visiting Kashi- to behold the image of divine, not Varanasi for sightseeing. People talk about disordered, crowded, unhygienic jungle of temples called Varanasi. But, for Hindus who's vision is beyond the lanes and ghats of the city, Kashi is an ordered and structured universe with Vishwanatha temple as the center. Every temple here occupies the right place in that sacred geography. Well, that structure is a bit twisted by the destruction during muslim rule but sanctity prevails.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Dashashwamedha Ghat

Kashi is the city that could not be destroyed or disappeared in time though it was definitely defaced in muslim era. The city survived when its magnificent temples were reduced to rubble. Its glory wasn't forgotten because that glory was in the minds of people not in the rise and fall of temples.  Well, the temples of Kashi are not in tens or twenties in number. Hinduism is just not about the plump elephant headed god Ganesha, or the blue infant Krishna, or the pretty goddess siting on a pink lotus Lakshmi, or the monkey god Hanuman or a Shiva linga. Kashi is the abode of mukkoti (33 crores or 330 million) gods and goddesses! They all live here with Lord Shiva in a circle. They have their own place and significance.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Why did all these Gods and Goddesses came to this place? There is an interesting story. Once there was a draught on earth (In Hindu mythology the world means ancient India). There was no law and order, food and life was threatened. Even the existence of Mother Earth was threatened. Worried Brahma, the creator of the world looked for an able ruler so that world could flourish and be brought under law and order. He found a retired king named Ripunjaya who lived in Kashi. Ripunjaya having already retired reluctantly accepted Brahma's request on one condition- that all gods and goddesses would leave Kashi so that his rule would be free of their interference. Agreed all the gods and goddesses leave Kashi and return to heaven. Lord Shiva then decided to live on Mt Mandara. Ripunjaya then took the name of Divodasa (Servant of heavens) and started ruling the world making Kashi as his capital city. Being the epitome of dharma he ruled ably and the Earth flourished under his rule. With law and order in place all four castes lived in harmony and happy.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Shiva being away from Kashi, his beloved city, was oppressed and desperately wanted to be back. But, King Divodasa's rule was so flawless that his subjects didn't miss gods! Gods and goddesses were ceasing power because people had stopped worshiping them and offerings to them which gave gods power. So somehow there had to be a flaw in King Divodasa's rule to oust him from ruling. First, all the gods representing natural elements took their services back thinking that lack of water, air and fire would lead to chaos. But, no! King Divodasa produced fire, air and rain by his own powers of goodwill. With that failure Shiva sent 64-yoginis in disguise to get Divodasa corrupt. They failed to do so and decided to live in Kashi which was a beautiful place. Shiva sent Sun to find a fault in King's rule. He too failed to do so and he remained in Kashi dividing himself into twelve parts called Adityas. Shiva sent all Ganas and they too settled in Kashi never to return back. So, most of the gods and goddesses were in Kashi disguised as anything that suited their nature by now.

Frustrated Shiva now requested Brahma to defeat Divodasa's dharma. Brahma entered the city disguised as Brahmin and requested the King to help him perform a ten ashwamedhas (horse scarifice) thinking that the complex and demanding ritual might get the King do a slight mistake. But, no! King did it flawlessly.  Mesmerized by the city, Brahma decided to stay in Kashi. Shiva then sent his very intellectual son Ganesha to the King who succeeded to put a doubt in King's mind. Then he divided himself into 56 parts and started living in Kashi without even sending a reply to his father being sure of that Lord Vishnu would do the rest.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Cozy with the God!

Finally, Lord Vishnu arrived with his consort Lakshmi disguised as Buddhist monk (The ninth incarnation of Lord Vishnu). As a Buddhist monk he preached the world that all are equal, there is no caste system etc. And people affected by these preachings started finding flaws in Divodasa's rule which included caste system. This dejected already reluctant Divodasa and he waited for Vishnu's arrival to his place. Vishnu then told Divodasa what a great king he is. And his kingdom and excellence even surpassed the heavens. And he was made to leave Kashi only because Shiva could return to his favorite city. Ironically, Divodasa never wanted gods to interfere his rule and ended up ruling 330 million infiltrated gods and goddesses, including Brahma! Vishnu then sent his mount Garuda to tell the news to Shiva and he himself stayed back in the city. Thus, the great ruler Divodasa reached the great heavens and Shiva returned to Kashi! There were all these temples representing the gods and goddesses in a circle with a radius of panch kroshas. That is what is the Panchakroshi parikrama. On this parikrama there are 108 shrines. And that is how Kashi has so many temples ... Some are existing even today.

Ancient temples of Varanasi

Every morning way before sunrise I went to the Dashashwamedha ghat found a seat from where I could see the whole scene. The water, those wooden boats and boatmen, floating flowers and bathing pilgrims. For most of the Hindus pilgrimage is the only reason to travel, or at least to visit Kashi. When I saw those people who were here to cleanse their sins by taking a dip in the chilling waters of Ganga- I wondered if they really know about Kashi at all! If they did then how much? In those 2-3 days of their visit running behind the guides, pandas what more they learn other than cleansing the sins and performing rituals for the dead.

Ancient temples of Varanasi

And coming to the temples ...

Kashi Vishwanath Temple- center point of faith for millions of Hindus.  Being one of the twelve jyotirlingas belief is that the glimpse of the shivalinga itself cleanses the soul. And for that reason there is a lot of crowd amidst a very tight security. Why security? There is a mosque adjacent to the temple complex which is built over the original temple site after destroying the magnificent temple. When Hindus regained power a new temple was built adjacent to the mosque. There are several gates to enter the shrine. I stood in the long line hiding the lotus and a cup of milk under my scarf. Not that I believe in offering milk but I had to buy the stuff from the shopkeeper where I left my footwear. He gave me his card for later use.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Devi Ganga on Dashashwamedha Ghat
There are many shops where people call you to leave your baggage and footwear in exchange for buying some stuff from their shops. In one of the shops he asked me to buy Rs 200 prasad for leaving an old pair of flip flops. I told him my flips flops didn't cost me that much even when they were brand new! He even blackmailed me that it would be a sin to say 'no' for prasad in such a holy place as Kashi. I asked him back wouldn't it be a sin to extort helpless pilgrims in the holy place. Now, he said it would be good for me to be silent in Uttar Pradesh!! Wondered why his soul isn't cleansed enough even though he lives in Kashi!! Well, later I bought a lotus and milk from another shop for Rs 20. Then there are Monkeys!! There is a whole army of monkeys trying to steal. They love lotus!

After going through several security checks I reached the sanctum. Offered the lotus and milk to God in fast forward motion and had a good look of the Shivalinga hoping to cleanse my soul. I sat outside the sanctum and prayed for my Dad. I saw the temple standing amidst many other ugly structures, its gold covered spires raising high to heavens with a top saffron flag fluttering in the winter breeze proclaiming the stubborn persistence of the glory of Lord Kashi Vishwanatha. I sat there for a long time. I saw elderly faces beaming, overjoyed. For, their lifetime wish has been fulfilled! They wouldn't mind if any panda asked for the last paise they had, for now they have seen the divinity of Kashi Vishwanatha. There is a sub-shrine dedicated to Avimukteshwara in the same complex. In ancient history it was an important temple which was destroyed and the shivalinga preserved was established here in the form of sub-shrine.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Padmanabha depicted in stone carving on one ancient temple
Vishalakshi temple is small shrine near Mir Ghat but is one of the important Devi shrines. It is one of the 51 Shaktipeethas where Devi Sati's throat is fallen (some say eye and some say earring). And the protecting this peetha is Kal Bhairav. It is one of the triad of Goddesses. Other two being Kamakshi of Kanchipuram and Meenakshi from Madurai both in Tamil Nadu. Hence Vishalakshi temple is very important for South Indians. Names are similar ... Vishalakshi (wide eyed), Kamakshi (lovely eyed) and Meenakshi (fish shaped eyed). Since the goddess is embodied here Kashi is a favorite place for Shiva.

Devi Annapoorna temple is another most visited temple in Kashi. Devi Annapoorna is the 'Queen of Kashi'. She is the governing Goddess of the city. Annapoorna means "Giver of food". Unlike other forms of Parvati she doesn't possess any weapons. But, carries a cooking pot, and a serving spoon. She nourishes life. Even Shiva depends on her for food and he is also portrayed sometimes as asking for alms standing before her.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Brahmeshwara Temple on Dashashwamedha Ghat
Lord Vishnu washed his feet when he first arrived at Kashi as an emissary in the above story, at the confluence of Varana and Ganga rivers. This place became sacred and still there is a temple called Adi Keshava dedicated to Lord Vishnu. (Two out of 56-Ganesha shrines are near this temple). After advising Divodasa to leave Kashi, in the above story, Lord Vishnu established himself at the confluence of five rivers ie. Panchaganga Ghat. Here, there was a magnificent temple called Bindu Madhava dedicated to Lord Vishnu which was destroyed during muslim rule and Alamgir mosque was erected which still stands today in dilapidated state.

The place where the ritual of Dashashwamedha was performed, in the above story, became a thirtha (sacred place) known as Dashaswamedha Ghat and exists even today. Brahma established Brahmeshwara shivalinga (with four faces) before he started living in Kashi. The temple with a huge shivalinga exists even today. There are twelve Sun temples in Kashi even now. Lolark near Asi ghat being the major one. The Surya Kund here has blue clear water and the belief is that a dip in these waters cures all possible skin diseases. The other eleven Surya temples are located as sub-shrines in other temple complexes. On the way to today's Vishwanatha temple in a narrow lane you will see a shrine of huge Ganesha painted in vermilion. This is the center of seven concentric circles around which 56 Ganesha shrines are located. On every circle there are eight shrines in eight directions. Ganesha protected the Kashi Vishwanatha temple from his mandala (circuit). 

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Empty Manikarnika Kund
Manikarnika Kund on Manikarnika ghat! Well, Manikarnika ghat is so important and so much happening place that the tank (kund) because of which the ghat got the name and importance gets unnoticed. There are several stories. One is, Lord Vishnu was digging this pond which eventually got filled with his sweat and he lost his jewel in these waters. And hence it became a tirtha. Now, it is a dry pond with no water in it. Second story is, the temple of Devi Vishalakshi was established nearby and she also is called by another name Manikarni. Hence the name to the ghat. There are few other temples here, but it is too overwhelming to visit any of them after passing the cremation ghat. Tarakeshwara temple stands high and is where Rudra himself whispers taraka mantra into the ears of dead.

Durga Temple in the center of the city near to Asi Ghat. Beautiful temple painted in red with a beautiful adjacent pond called Durga Kund. The actual shaktipeetha of the Devi is Vindhyachal where she presides as Vindhyachalvasini Devi. It seems Devi took rest at this place near the lake (kund) after slaying a demon named Durga. She dropped her giant sword on the ground which sliced the Earth and thus emerged the River Asi. Asi means 'the sword'.

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Wood carving of Nepali temple on Lalitha Ghat
The 64-yoginis who came and settled here (in the above story) had their own places in caves, groves, tree trunks etc. These yoginis are actually women power of mythology. They were fierce when there is a wrongdoing and they blessed good people. Most of them were controller of diseases. One such yogini is Varahi whose temple is still intact in Kashi. It is an interesting underground shrine. Only the priest enters the shrine and devotees can see the Goddess through two holes on the floor. From one cavity the face can be seen from another the feet of the Goddess! The outer door of this temple opens at 5:00AM. The priest performs morning pooja with the sanctum door closed. At 5:30AM the arti is complete and the priest opens a small opening at the bottom of sanctum door so one can take arti. At 6:00AM when all the rituals are complete priest opens the sanctum door for visitors. It was a great experience to find the temple on the Tripura Bhairavi Ghat. And next morning attending the arti and then darshan was another experience. There is one more I believe of Yogini Mayuri near Lakshmi Kund which I couldn't find. Most other yogini temples are non existing now. And hence there is one single temple called Chausatti Devi for all 64 yoginis is built on Chausat Yogini Ghat. It is a small shrine with dark sanctum always filled with dhup (incense).

Ancient temples of Varanasi
Hanuman Temple on Man Mandir Ghat
Shitala Devi temple on Dashashwmedha ghat is much happening place. Early morning at sunrise one can hear the bells of aarti. Shitala Devi is one of the forms of Parvati. Shitala means cool. In fact, she is a pox-goddess which means controller of chicken pox, small pox etc. She is depicted with four hands holding a broom, a fan, a bowl and a pitcher with holy water. Which indicates she means 'cleanliness' otherwise spreading disease causing microbes. She is worshiped to keep the epidemics away from villages.

Sankata Devi temple also an important temple of a matrika (mother, a yogini). Her importance in Kashi gives a hint that she is one of the six foster mothers of Kartikeya, Shiva's elder son. Some say she is another form of Parvati. People worship her to get rid of all sankatas (dangers and difficulties) in their lives.

Panchkroshi Temple is one interesting temple. If you cannot go for the Panchakroshi parikrama there is an alternative! This Panchakroshi temple has all 108 shrines within itself. Circumbulate this one and you are as good as doing the parikrama!  In Hindu religion anything which is as large as the universe can be compressed into a grain, or anything that is as small as a grain can be expanded into something infinite!

Ancient temples of Varanasi

There are many more temples but I will stop my list here. One can take a guide to go for all these temples. There are guided tours for Panchkroshi Parikrama, 56-Ganesha, etc. But, they make you go for fast forward darshan and exorbitant rituals etc. You may not even get to know what you are really doing. There are guides who take individuals, mostly westerners, who are most interested in spending all the time near Manikarnika Ghat explaining cremation process and erotic sculptures at Nepali Temple on Lalita Ghat. I was unable to find someone to give me a customized trip to the temples I wanted to visit.

Kashi is the place where Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma. Kashi is Mahasmashana (great cremation ground) but still it is called Anandavana (garden of happiness). Kashi is a place for seekers of moksha (liberation) and it is also called as Avimukta (never free). Even after returning from Kashi the energies of these temples linger around for life!

Had you been to Kashi temple hunting? If you know of any other important temple please do let me know!

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Related articles-
Varanasi- As I Saw, A Photo tour
Seven days of my Kashi Yatra
Backpacking India III- Classic Pilgrimage!
Backpacking India Part II- A Parallel Journey
Stories from Backpacking India

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  1. Replies
    1. Yes! It is! IF you are interesting in Hindu mythology this place will suck you in its circle!

  2. That is a comprehensive post on the temples of Kashi and its history. Rekindled memories of my visit to those temples. Wonderful post, Kusum!

    1. Thanks Niranjan! There is so much about Kashi, this is only the tip of an iceberg!

  3. I'm sure people visit places like Kashi with different purposes; for some it might be spiritual, for some it might be curiosity or learning and some, both or just for the feel of the energy of a place like this. It great that Kashi welcomes all. :) I'm sure this post will be a very informative one for people wanting to visit the place. Like Niranjan says, it is very comprehensive.

    Enlightening piece, Kusum. It was so nice to know the background of the Kashi we've all heard about. King Divodasa's story reminds me of Mahabhali's and his very-perfect rule that made the gods themselves, jealous.

    Thank you for this this story and the clear writing. :)

    1. You are so welcome! And thanks so much for reading the whole post :)

      Yes! Mahabali was one great King even though was an Asur. Lord Vishnu had to cheat him huh?

  4. Thank you for reminising my Kashi Visit, though I did not do Panchakrosha, I visited the panchakrosha temple which is a marvel. I found many temples and Lingas hidden in many houses surrounding the Viswanath temple, now converted into living quaters. It must have been marvelous in olden times when the Rudra namakam/chamakam would be heard from different temples/houses all at the same time in unison. Such chantings would certainly take a pilgrim into ecstasy. Such designs were seen in South Indian Shiva temples where the main temple in the centre is surrounded by many shiva lingas around and if Abhisheka is performed to all these at the sametime, the temple would have reverberated with the chants.

    May be someday, we have to arrange for one such puja.
    Thanks and Regards
    Dr. Srinivas Vishnubhatla
    Hyderabad, AP.

  5. There are many ancient temples in Varanasi E.g. Sri Manikarnikeshwar temple which is 2 stairs I deep inside near the Manikarnika Ghat. This temple is most holy and rarely visited by anyone. Other holy Shiva lings include Ridreshwar, Atmaveereshwar, Dharmeshwar, Ratneshwar,Dhukhareshwar, Shashreshwar, Madhyameshwar, Someshwar, Rameshwar, Bhimeshwar, Dandapani Bhairav, Parasurameshwar, Sateeshwar, runmochaneshwar, Papmoksheshwar, Daksheshwar, Neelkanteshwar, Kaleshwar, Nageshwar, Shooltankeshwar, Pancha gangeshwar, Vislaksheshwar, Tripura bhairaveshwar, Yantreshwar, Shukreshwar, Kubereshwar, Narmadeshwar, Mahamrityunjayeshwar, Kalaratri mata, Varahi mata, Sankata Devi, Shukreshwar, mahabaleshwar, Avimukteshwar, Kukkuteshwar, Jwarahareshwar, BalaTripura Sundairi mata, Chnitamani Ganapati,and many more. I have visited all these above temples which are not usually visited by many.

    1. Nice to know that you have visited all the temples above. One quick question. Did you have a guide to locate these temples? How many days did it take for you to visit all the above temples. Is there a route map to follow?


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