Kashi – a spiritual sojourn

We  landed at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport in the afternoon of 31st October, 2011. The gleaming new glass-and-chrome terminal is spacious and world-class. Sadly, the highway leading to Varanasi unfortunately isn’t. It is punctuated by numerous potholes and bottle-necks. The driving is chaotic, even by Indian standards. 22 kilometres, 90 minutes and innumerable near accidents later, our taxi stopped in front of Hotel Divya, which I had booked in advance through www.booking.com. The staff is friendly and helpful, but unfortunately, the ambience is distinctly down-market and a bit too pricey for its location.

Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport Terminal Building

The Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport Terminal, Babatpur, Varanasi


This most ancient of cities is steeped in history, mythology and religion. Continuously inhabited for over five millennia,it is sacred not just for the Hindus, but also for the Jains (3 of their 24 Thirthankaras were born here) and for the Buddhists (it is one of their 4 holiest sites). Varanasi got its name from the  Varuna and Asi rivers (tributaries of the Ganga) which once delineated its northern and southern limits. It is also known as Kashi, which literally means luminous in Sanskrit. During the Islamic period, Varanasi got corrupted to Benaras. Apart from these names, it has been referred to in our scriptures as Anandavan (forest of bliss), Rudravasa (the abode of Rudra), Avimukta (a place which is never abandoned by God) and Mahasmashana (the great crematory).

The awesome beauty of the mighty Ganga

Since time immemorial, the city has attracted eminent visitors like Fa Hien, Huein Tsang, Vallabhacharya, Guru Nanak, Sant Ravidas, Sant Kabirdas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayananda. Adi Shankara composed his Bhaja Govindam and Annapoornaashtakam here and Goswami Tulasidas wrote his Ramcharitamanas while sitting on the banks of the Ganga. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was born here, as was Ravi Shankar the sitar maestro. Even now, one sees people from all over the world coming here in search of spiritual solace. On the flip side, it has attracted unwanted attention from iconoclasts like the Ghoris, the Khiljis, the Tughlaks and the Mughals, but in spite of all their vandalism,  the sanctity of this holy site has remained intact.

Vehicles are not permitted beyond this point, unless you happen to be a VIP

Kashi has temples everywhere, a dozen of which are important; hundreds of smaller ones  crop up in unexpected places: along the river bank, in cul-de-sacs,  under trees and in various nooks and corners of its byzantine lanes. The origin of some is lost in antiquity, some of them are less than a century old but the holiest of them all, the Vishwanath Temple is the cynosure of Hindu pilgrims. It is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas (manifestations of the Lord as Light) of Saivism. Probably built first around 500 AD, it has been repeatedly looted and demolished during Islāmic rule but was rebuilt each time at the same spot. However, when the Moghul Aurangzeb ordered its destruction in 1669, he built a mosque in its place, known today as the Gyanvapi mosque.  In 1776, Rani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore got the temple built on an adjacent site, which was part of the original temple complex. In 1835, the temple spires acquired a golden veneer thanks to the munificence of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who donated nearly a ton of gold.

The temple is located near the Dashashwamedh Ghat on an eponymously named lane, which is about 6 feet wide and is flanked on both sides with shops selling bangles, sarees, lassi, assorted trinkets and, of course, the famous Banarasi pan. There is an ornamental gateway at the entrance of this lane, but one can easily miss it since unless one is careful. Security is tight and frisking is done several times. Cameras, pens and cellphones are proscribed and visitors are advised to deposit such articles in lockers available with vendors at the entrances to the shrine.

The gateway to the temple is obscured by adjacent constructions

Within the precincts of the temple, however, the ambience is supercharged with spiritual vibrations and one realises why Kashi is so deeply enshrined in the psyche of the Hindus. The fervour of the thronging crowds is unbelievable and the cramped environs reverberate with chants of Om Namah Shivaya and Hara Hara Mahadev. Arati is performed five times daily and the temple is open from 02:30 am to 11:oo pm. One can touch the Shivalinga and carry out abhishekam with milk or flowers, but one has to do it in quick time or risk getting shoved out unceremoniously by burly temple bouncers.  In an adjoining shrine, one can have darshan of the incredibly beautiful visage of the Goddess Annapurna which radiates immense benevolence and love.

Behind the temple is a sacred well, called the Gyanvapi well. Legend has it that when the temple was being attacked, a priest jumped with it into this well with the Shivalinga to prevent its destruction by the vandals.

The colorful gopuram of the Visalakshi temple

A stone’s throw away is the temple dedicated to the Goddesses Vishalakshi, who forms a triumvirate with  Meenakshi of Madurai and Kamakshi of Kanchi; the architecture is Dravidian and it is mainly frequented by South Indian pilgrims. This temple has a Shri Yantra installed and consecrated by Adi Shankaracharya himself. Other temples in the vicinity are the Kala Bhairav temple and the Dhundi Ganapati temple.

A new Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which purportedly is a replica of the temple razed by Aurangzeb, was built by the Birlas in the campus of the Benaras Hindu University. Other temples worth visiting are the Sankat Mochan temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the bright red Durga temple built by Rani Rashmoni, the Tulsi Manas Mandir which has the Ramcharitmanas inscribed on its walls and the unique Bharat Mata temple which has no idols but a  marble model of undivided India as its object of reverence

The bright red paint gives the Durga temple a distinctive look. Varanasi is not just about temples. ….it is also about the mighty Ganga, revered as a Mother Goddess. I shall write about this holy river in my next post.

13 Comments

  • Nandan says:

    Welcome aboard Mr. Narayan. Very detailed log of Varanasi. I am sure fellow Ghumakkars would love it.

    I went to Benares in 2008 and wrote a small post.
    http://www.ghumakkar.com/2008/08/04/bana-banaya-ras-banaras/

    I drove from Allahabad to this city and would want to go there again and spend much more time. Looking fwd to your story on Ma Ganga.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thank you Mr. Jha for your kind words of encouragement. Thank you also for giving us this fabulous website and the tutorials for people like me who are new to this kind of stuff. I would also like to utilise this opportunity to thank the editor, Ms. Vibha for her support and guidance.

  • Sahil Sethi says:

    Mr. Narayan , Welcome to Ghumakkar :-)

    Very good and detailed log on Varanasi. Looking forward to read more from you.

    Sahil

  • vijayasai mutyala says:

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  • ram dhall says:

    A very informative write up on Varanasi, written brilliantly. Honestly speaking, I didn’t know so much about Varanasi before reading your post. Thank you for sharing.

    Welcome aboard. Please do give us the pleasure of reading the second part of the story soonest.

  • ashok sharma says:

    The Ganga looks great in your photo.nice pic.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    I thank you all for reading this blog and your kind remarks. I feel privileged to be a party of the Ghumakkar family. Please free to call me DL. That is how my friends call me.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    ” privileged to be a party of” should read “privileged to be PART of”.

    Damn typos….I must have pressed the adjacent Y along with the T. Typos notwthstanding, the Ghumakkar experience is indeed like an unending party with so many like minded people interacting from across the globe.

  • Vibha says:

    Welcome to Ghumakkar, Mr. Narayan. Nice to know more about this religious city that I haven’t had a chance of visiting so far. Thank you for taking us there with these interesting details and candid pictures. Bharat Mata temple indeed sounds unique. There is a Bharat Mata temple in Haridwar but it seems that the concept of the temple in Haridwar is different from that in Varanasi.

    Looking forward to your post about Ganga Ma!

    -Vibha

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    I have been to Varanasi 100’s of times. Sitting alone beside Ganga at Dashashwamedh Ghat gives you so much of peace, when ever I get I prefer to go there in evening time. Unfortunately not getting time to visit the same for the last two years.

    Thanks for refreshing the beautiful memories.

    Looking forward to your next post.

  • Mayura Luktuke says:

    Mr Narayan,

    Right called as the Holy City of India, the article reminded me of so many things / stories told to me by my grandmother about Kashi….nice article !

  • kanchipuram Poral says:

    i have planned of goingto kanchipuram temple.. and i decided to go from chennai by Ac bus from t nagar to kanchipuram.. after reaching there does anyone know how to reach the temple???? if so please help me out… thanks…..

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Dear Poral,

      Kanchi is called the city of a thousand temples. Which temple do you wish to visit. The most famous are the Varadaraja Perumal, Kamakshi and the Kailasanatha temples. There are important Saivaite, Vaishnavaite and Shakti tentres here. The Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham is also located here.

      I drove there, but it was about 8 years back, so I do not recollect the details. You can find the locations of all these temples at the link below:

      http://www.shaktipeethas.org/travel-guide/topic207.html

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