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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.