Pilgrimage to Kashi — I

City of Light — City of Life — City of Death

Varanasi — Kashi — once again I enter your sacred portals, once again I tread your holy soil. How many dramas have you seen, how many triumphs and tragedies! How many lifetimes have I come here and wandered along thy holy banks, my feet sucking up nourishment from the sands of the Ganga, the holy waters washing over them. Over the years the desire to come and stay here for a couple of weeks had gathered momentum and at last the time came and everything was arranged. The moment I stepped out of the train on to the sacred soil I was hit by a surge of energy which left me breathless.

The whole itinerary had already been arranged by the Lord of the City- Viswanath Himself. The first darshan was naturally of Him. We had not slept the whole night and had a bath at midnight and went to the temple to stand in the queue for the early morning darshan at 3 am. The age old Vedic mantrasswept over me and I just closed my eyes and listened to the words of the Rudri as the abhishekam (ritual bathing) went on with milk, sesame oil, honey, Ganga water, rose water, sandalwood paste and so on. Then the elaborate adorning of the tiny lingam went on for half an hour. It was so beautiful. The bells started their rhythmic ringing and the arati started with the waving of many different types of lights ending with a blaze of camphor as the bells went into a crescendo of ecstasy.

Within a few minutes the whole place became quiet and all the fantastic adornment was taken off in a trice and the tiny lingam was revealed. Everybody was now allowed to enter into the sanctum sanctorum and do the abhishekam with the Ganga waters. This is one of the endearing things about Shiva temples in the North. This donning and taking off the elaborated adornment is really the very essence of life. For a few years we strut about clothed in glory, only to be denuded of everything and return to the earth from which we have been made….Again and again Kashi brings us face to face with this truth which is something we try our best to forget during the course of our normal lives.

There are many yatras one can do in Kashi. The two main ones are known as the Panch Ganga Yatra and the Pancha Krosha Yatra.

Pancha Krosha Yatra

The Pancha Krosha Yatra is surely the most important of all the yatras in Kashi. Most pilgrims do this on Shivaratri day. Apparently the whole road is filled with pilgrims on that day. I had been anxious to do it on foot and boat but of course it is not that easy as I found out. It would take at least three days if not more. So we decided to take a car for the trip.

Manikarnika Ghat

When you do it on foot and by boat you have to begin at the Manikarnika Ghat which is the most famous of the burning ghats. There is a small tank here called the Manikarnika Kund which is most ancient and is associated with Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. The pilgrim has to take a dip in the Kund, take some water in her hand and make a samkalpa which is a kind of a vow that she will do the yatra. In Hinduism before starting any sort of endeavour it is good to make a samkalpa which is a sort of mental commitment for the successful completion of the work on hand. This is very important since the mental determination to complete any work that we have started is an important part of doing a good job and thus affects the result.

Unfortunately this kund has been silted up with sand from the Ganga and has no water. Apparently the silt is being cleared and soon water will start gushing in.

After the samkalpa, we are supposed to take a boat and head to Assi ghat — the southernmost ghat on the Ganga. This was actually the beginning point of our yatra. Since we were doing the yatra by car we took the car at Assi Ghat. There is an ancient kund near Assi Ghat known as the Lolarka Kund, which is one of the many temples dedicated to the Sun God Surya in Kashi. It is actually a sort of step well with huge granite steps leading to the well at the bottom which never gets dry even at the height of summer. The water is crystal clear. We made our samkalpa with this water and then embarked on our adventure.

The route covers about 80 kilometers and there are five “padavs” or stops on the way which are most important. Of course there are over a hundred temples which you can visit if you have the time. You have to keep a sharp eye open if you want to see the boards pointing the way but of course our driver knew the route so there was no trouble.

The Pancha Krosha road is an ancient pilgrim route. A “kosh” is a very old measurement of distance and equals 3.2 kilometers. At each of these five padavs there is a famous temple. They also have “Dharmashalas” or resting houses for the pilgrims. In the peak season these Dharmashalas are capable of accommodating anything up to twenty thousand people at a time. But of course most of these have fallen into disuse now. Moreover people prefer to stay in hotels which have all modern facilities. At the Dharmashalas the pilgrims had to arrange for their own food. Each of these temples also has a tank in which pilgrims could bathe. However there are no toilets within this yatra path since this area is holy land. Those who live there of course would be having their own toilets.

The circumambulation is to be done clockwise and thus all the temples are on your right. I was expecting the left side to be filled with bushes and jungle but unfortunately the city has expanded westwards so there is nothing much of Nature and we had to pass through crowded streets and villages.

All the temples are numbered and have their names written outside. Many of them are very small and thus we passed them unnoticed. One of the priests told us that the Kashi Khand — the area enclosed by the yatra path is supposed to have 3,65,000 idols of various Hindu deities. Some of these are visible while others are not.

We were advised to carry five packets of beetle leaves and nuts as well as “akshadan” or whole rice to be offered at each of the five temples. Of course one could offer other things as well but this was a must.

1. Kardameshwara

Mataji and Julie in a conversation outside the temple

The car sped on its way and soon after passing the famous Banaras Hindu University it stopped under a huge peepul tree and the driver pointed to the sign which gave the name of the temple and the figure 33! I gasped in surprise for this meant that we had missed 32 temples along the route!! I felt a bit sad but the priest assured me that no one could ever go to all of them. This was the first of the five padavs and the lingam is supposed to have been installed by the great sage known as Kardama rishi who is actually one of the patriarchs of ancient India. His son is Kapila Muni who is the founder of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy. One of our last stops was at a temple dedicated to Kapila.

The temple is ancient and dates to 10–11th CE. It is one of the few temples that have survived from that time and escaped the notice of Aurangzeb’s hoards. Most of the temples in Kashi are modern versions of their originals that have been restored by various philanthropic and religious kings. The temple had a tall steeple or shikara and was probably made of granite since it has withstood the ravages of time. Before entering the narrow doorway to the sanctum sanctorum I noticed the number of beautiful bronze bells hanging outside that had been offered by various devotees.

After praying at the temple we did the normal parikrama (circumambulation) outside. There was a huge tank on the left called Bindu Sarovar. Bindumeans a drop and “sarovar” means lake. The lake was supposed to have been made by a tear drop that had fallen from Shiva’s eyes when he was in a state of ecstasy. There were beautiful carvings all round the temple and many women sitting around giving prasad and asking for money.

The Rudrashtakam and Shiva Tandava Stotram were encrypted on a white marble plaque on one of the walls. Of course this was a recent addition.

2. Bhimchandi

The next stop is called Bhimchandi Padav. The lingam here is known as Chandikeshwar Mahadev. The temple is quite similar to Kardameshwara. It is a narrow tall temple with a stone carved Shikhara. The temple is really small and has nothing else around it BUT there is a huge tank next to it. The tank is called Gandharva Sagar Kund which has been shortened to Gandheshwara.

Obviously this tank must have been a place for harvesting rain water since you could see the water channels on the walls. However since all temple tanks are the property of the village everyone comes here to bathe and wash clothes so the water was looking rather green.

I was rather surprised at the small size of the temple but after seeing the tank, we were taken to another big Devi temple called Bhim Chandi from which the Shiva temple got its name. This temple is a big complex with many small temples. It is number 60 on the Panch Kroshi Yatra path. The idol of Bhim Chandi was really wonderful. She was obviously Kali. There were many women around selling turmeric and kum kum to be presented to the goddess.

3. Rameshwara

In Treta Yuga Sri Rama is said to have done this yatra to expatiate for the sin of killing Ravana. The Rameshwara temple is located on the banks of river Varna — one of the two rivers that give the city of Varanasi its name, the other being Assi. The temple is so called because the Shivalinga here was established by Lord Rama himself when he came for the Pancha Krosha Yatra.

Next to the Rameshwara temple, there are lingas for all the brothers called Lakshameshwar, Bharateshwar, and Shatrughaneshwar. One rarely sees temples associated with the younger brothers of Rama.

There is another very important temple here dedicated to Tulja Bhavani — a form of Devi that is worshiped in western India. She is the Kula Devi (family deity) of Shivaji Maharaj and her temple can be seen in many places associated with him. The idols of Tulja Bhavani are huge and very striking with the typical silver eyes found on many Devi idols in North India. It is said that the Rameshwara temple could never be approached by the army of Aurangzeb because Tulja Bhavani protected it. According to the priest, whenever the army tried to head towards the temple — scorpions, snakes and honeybees would attack and stop them.

We sat in front of the Rameshwara lingam and chanted all the Shiva chants. It was really very moving. All Rama’s temples carry a part of his sweetness and all of us felt this charm when we sat there.

The river Varna which flows in front of the temple is actually a sad replica of the original. It joins the Ganga near the temple of Adi Keshava.

4. Shivapuri Padav

In the Dwapara Yuga, the Pandavas did this yatra along with their wife Draupadi. The Shivalingas established by them can be seen at the temple in Shivpuri. The Pandavas did this yatra during their fourteen years of exile when they were travelling in the forests.

The temple is actually quite simple. There are five Shivalingas in five sizes in descending order ascribed to each of the Pandavas. The ancient well near the temple is called Draupadi Kund.

I was most fascinated by five lingas representing the five brothers and even more fascinated by the six sculptures representing the five brothers and Draupadi. All the idols portrayed the special characteristics of each of the brothers which I found most adorable. Draupadi had a bit of red cloth draped round her which I thought actually took away from the beauty of the sculpture.

The Pandavas and Draupadi

This temple pretty much comes within the city limits and you can see the encroaches of the city around it.

5. Kapil Dhara

This temple is located towards the northern edge of Varanasi. The great sage Kapila, the founder of the philosophy of Samkhya was actually the son of the sage Kardama whose temple we had gone to first. There was an enormous tank at the bottom of the huge stairs leading to the temple. There is a small temple to Kapila next to the main temple which had a large idol of the sage. After paying our respects to him we went into the main sanctorum in which he had established the lingam. The priest here was very sweet and helpful and we sat for some time and meditated. We were simply besieged by school children as we came out. We had brought lots of fruits which we tried to distribute but strangely enough none of them would touch the papaya and took only the grapes!

Jau Ganesha

The last stop of the yatra is the Jaun Ganesh temple. The road leading to it was just a track made of rubble. The small Ganesha temple overlooking the Ganga was very beautiful. This is the confluence of what’s left of the Varna when she reaches the Ganga. I thanked Ganesha for having allowed us to complete this marvelous trip without any hindrance. It was indeed his grace. We took some wheat seeds from the temple and walked down to the Ganga and planted the seeds on the banks as is the custom. Apparently if you came the next day the seeds would have sprouted. This action sort of signifies the end of a truly difficult task and only Ganesha’s grace had made this possible. When we face the Ganga to our left is a huge bridge connecting both banks. This was the first bridge made by the British spanning the Ganga. To the right of us is the Adi Keshava Ghat which is the northernmost ghat of Varanasi. Looming above is the beautiful Adi Keshava temple which is one of the few temples to Vishnu and is the only one that had been unnoticed by Aurangazeb’s hordes. I will write more about this in the next yatra.

Those who have done a samkalpa at the Manikarnika Kund are supposed to go back there by boat from Jaun Ganesha to the Manikarnika ghat and complete their journey. However since we had done our samkalpa at the Lolarka Kund and since we had come by car, we retraced our steps back by car and returned to our guest house by evening. The road was jammed with cars on the way back and though we had taken only three hours to get to the Ganesha temple, we took five hours to return.

Perhaps I should add one more incident here by which I had the great good fortune to complete a huge parikrama of both the city of Kashi and of Ganga. Starting from Assi ghat I was taken on a scooter all the way through the city and over to the other side of the Ganga and returning to where we had started. Assi ghat is the southernmost ghat of the city where the river Assi meets the Ganga. We went over the bridge spanning the Ganga next to the Adi Keshava ghat to the opposite bank of the Ganga. There we went to a wonderful Durga temple and the palace of the king of Kashi and eventually wound our way back by crossing the bridge at Assi Ghat. When I returned to my guest house I realized that I had just completed one parikrama(circumambulation) of the whole city including the Ganga which I think is extremely rare.

Jai Ganga Mayya