Culture Capsule History & Culture

The call of Kashi

The Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi   | Photo Credit: AKHILESH KUMAR

It was a warm November afternoon. I stepped out of the hotel to go to the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. The chaotic traffic was unnerving and I got into an auto. How much time will it take, I asked the driver. He laughed and replied, aise sawaal Kashi mein nahi karte (you don’t ask such a question in Kashi). As he haphazardly drove through the congested roads, I clutched my heart and the bar on the side of the auto and realised what he meant.

Suddenly, a woman standing on the roadside waved for the auto to stop. She wanted to be dropped a little beyond the temple, and the driver obliged. After a few minutes, she introduced herself. “Hamara naam Jamnadevi hai (my name is Jamnadevi). “Mandir ja rahe ho (are you going to the temple), she asked me. “Baba Vishwanath ke darshan bade mushkil se milta hai (it’s difficult to get Baba Vishwanath’s darshan),” she said. I smugly replied that a friend of mine had put in a word to a temple official. Pulling her sari pallu over the head, she looked at me eagerly and asked, “Hum bhi chalen aapke saath? Bade din ho gaye Baba ko dekhe (Should I also come with you? Long time since I saw Baba)?” I nodded. Jamnadevi then instructed the auto driver to follow her directions. We finally arrived at the gate that had a reasonably smaller queue. She was a god-send.

Once inside the gate, the way to the temple was packed with devotees, who had a steel tumbler filled with milk in one hand and bilva leaves on the other. Jamnadevi held my hand and walked me expertly through the crowd. But, as luck would have it, darshan was stopped for an hour as the mid-day bhog aarti was on. As I sat outside the garba griha looking at the ancient structure that was renovated for the consecration held last year after two centuries, many saffron-clad sadhus with matted dreadlocks rushed in to receive the annadaan.

Everything about Varanasi is intriguing. The most fascinating aspect, of course, is the city’s uncanny ability to straddle the old and the new. Equally amazing is the way pilgrims, tourists, rickshaw wallahs, shopkeepers and, often, cows make their way through the maze of alleys. The chances of losing way are high, especially if you are a first-time visitor. Nevertheless, all roads lead either to the Ganga or the Vishwanath Mandir. Both not just give the city its distinct identity, but make up its social, spiritual and economic fabric.

While the 84 Ganga ghats mirror life in all its diversity, the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, among the 12 jyotirlingas (where Shiva’s shaft of light appeared), lends credence to Varanasi’s tag of being one of the oldest inhabited city in the world. The temple finds mention in ancient texts such as the Skanda Purana, Upanishads and Vedas. The fourth khanda in the Skanda Purana is the Kashi Khanda, which has 11,000 verses in praise of Kashi, the nagari of Shiva.

Professor Jonathan Parry presents a fascinating account of the city in his book Death in Banaras. An excerpt from the book says, “Shiva instructs Vishnu that Kashi perpetually remains in SatyaYuga. All time is auspicious there and not even the worst planetary conjunction can prevent the pilgrims from setting out for the sacred city. It is said that there are three powers that can never enter its precincts — Yamraj, Yamdut and Kali Age. Shiva’s city thus takes on Shiva’s own characteristics as ‘conqueror of death’ (Mahamritunjay) and as only one of the gods who is truly indestructible (Avinashi) and who survives the dissolution of the cosmos.”

The temple was destroyed by invaders and rebuilt quite a few times. The present structure was an initiative of the queen of Indore, Rani Ahilyabai Holkar. In 1780, she rebuilt the temple after it was demolished by Aurangazeb. Two domes of the temple were covered in gold donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab.

Many great Hindu saints such as Goswami Tulsidas, Adi Shankaracharya, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda have visited Varanasi, bathed in the Ganga and offered prayers to the Jyotirling. It was on the steps of the Panchganga Ghat that Swami Ramanand accepted as his disciple a Muslim weaver’s son, who later went to become the great mystic-poet Kabirdas.

The way to the quadrangular Vishwanath temple is through the Vishwanath gali, which is lined with small shops selling puja articles, Gangajal, bangles, Benarasi saris and of course, the world-famous Benarasi paan, lassi and kachoris.

Back at the temple, as the aarti ended, we rushed towards the sanctum sanctorum that has four dwars (doors), each representing peace, art, prosperity and withdrawal. It was an emotionally-charged moment for the devotees; tears rolled down the face of the woman standing next to us. You are allowed to stand for just a few seconds before Lord Vishwanath; the ruler of the Universe, who is seated as a tiny linga.

As we stepped out, loud chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ rent the air. “Kashi ke har kankar mein Shankar (Shiva is present in every pebble of Kashi),” said Jamnadevi, raising both her hands. “That’s how you surrender yourself to Him. That is Mukti,” she added. And we parted on that thought-provoking note.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 10:54:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-call-of-kashi/article26396768.ece

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