ON the early morning of Mahashivaratri Day, I was standing in the long queue to have the darshan of Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi. There were many queues through different small lanes surrounding the temple. The temple is reached through a narrow street surrounded by colourful market place.
I was told by elderly people that most of the leading Hindu saints, including Adi Shankaracharya, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Goswami Tulsidas, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Guru Nanakdev have visited the temple. They considered Kashi Viswanath temple as one of the most sacred temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is the holiest existing place of Hindus. Most of the people standing in the queue for darshan have already taken a bath in the river Ganga. Some of them were standing wearing wet clothes. They believe that the darshan of Kashi Vishwanath after taking the bath in the river Ganga is one of the many methods to attain moksha. The temple stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganga and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Thus people from all over the country, visit the temple at least once in their life time.
There is also a tradition that after visiting Kashi the pilgrimage would also include a visit to the temple at Rameshwaram in south India, where people take the water samples of the Ganges to perform prayer at the temple. Due to the immense popularity and holiness of this temple, hundreds of temples across the nation have been built with the similar sounding names. In Tamil Nadu there is Thenkashi (Southern Kashi), in Chennai there is Kashi mode, Uttar Kashi in northern India is also well known to all.
A foreigner was standing next to me. I just asked him, what made him to visit this temple town. He was a German. He was studying Sanskrit language and the Vedas. The Shanti Mantra- Om shanti, shanti shanti-inspired him. I asked him, do you know the meaning of the mantra. He told me, Om Shanti means calm and peaceful mind. We should not get trouble, from ourselves, from others and finally from external forces. By reciting the mantra, three times, we become quiet, clam, peaceful with ourselves, others and with nature. Our mind starts feeling oneness with the God. The vast sight of Ganga River gives me a broader outlook. So I am visiting this temple town often. I feel this is the oldest city of the world, with 3500 years of documented history.”
A guide was accompanying the foreigner. A student from Tamil Nadu was also standing in the queue. He requested the guide to tell the story of the temple. The guide became enthusiastic by seeing good number of people seeing him. He narrated the history in his own way.
“Varanasi becomes immensely sacred due to the existence of Mahadev Shiva. From times immemorial, Shiva gives a never ending joyous spirit to the people. This ancient Shiva temple has been mentioned in Puranas including Kashi Khanda of Skanda Purana. Varanasi has been a sacred place since ages. It is mentioned in the Vedas, Puranas, and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and many Jain and Buddhist texts. Kashi was a great centre of education. Students were taught the Vedas, the Upanishads and other schools of philosophy and religious thought in the ashrams or study centres that existed on the bank of river Ganga.
From the Himalayas down to the plains of the Gangetic Valley and beyond the Narmada down South up to Kanyakumari all along the banks of river Ganga, Narmada, Mahanadi, Cauvery, Vagai, Thamiravaruni, Shiva was worshipped in many forms. So deep was the connection of Shiva with the mountains and the river Ganga that Shiva became associated with such descriptions as the dweller of the mountains and the consort of Ganga and Gangadhara.
The Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited Varanasi, in the 7th century, saw hundreds of Hindu temples, thousands of priests and ascetics, with ashes smeared over their bodies, practiced penances to come out of the circle of births and deaths. Among other things, Hiuen Tsang also described a statue of Shiva that was 30 meters high.”
The devotees were moving towards the temple. Interestingly it was caught by the narration of the guide. Some people purchased tea in cups and gave him. The guide continued the description of historical events with more earnestness. “Varanasi suffered a lot during the Muslim invasion from 12th century. Kashi, being a religious city of great antiquity with idol worship as the regular tradition, Muslim rulers destroyed the whole thing as the torch-bearers of Islam.
Reconstruction of the temple started soon after. This was demolished by Qutubuddin-i-bak. After Aibak’s death, the temple was again rebuilt. In 1351 it was again destroyed by another Muslim ruler and was rebuilt again by Hindus. Aurangazeb ordered its demolition in 1669 and constructed Gyanvapi Mosque, which still exists alongside the temple. Traces of the old temple can be seen behind the Mosque. The current temple was built by Ahilya Bai Holkar from Indore in 1780. The temple tower was plated with 1000 kg of gold donated by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh of Punjab in 1836.
Thus Muslim rulers destroyed the Kashi Vishwanath temple several times. But they could not destroy the spirit and the religious fervour of the Hindu society. Varanasi continued to thrive as a city of Hindu learning and centre of Hindu pilgrimage even during the testing times. In the midst of all turmoil, many saints and sages reawakened the sprit and faith of the people. The religious emotions of Hindus were flowing like the perennial river Ganga. Nobody could stop the devotion and dedication of Hindus.”
By this time we have reached the temple. There was a huge crowd of devotees surging from all sides. Even to see the glimpse of the Shivalinga, every one was struggling. Maha Aarti was shown. People were praying with great devotion and heart warming passion. I was just standing near the sanctum sanctorum. More and more ardent devotees were pouring into the shrine. Temple registers a stunning visit record of 10000 visitors every day. Police guards were expecting at least 10 lakh people on the day of Mahashivaratri. The deity is most powerful. It is the god of all gods. Huge number of devotees are visiting with enormous faith on Vishwanathji. The main shrine is very small. People are spontaneously expressing a desire for more spacious shrine with adequate facility to worship.
After darshan, I boarded the Shiva Ganga Express train and returned to Delhi. I was touched by matchless devotion of people. My mind was filled with spiritual thoughts. The city of Varanasi continues to fascinate the world with its religiosity and rich cultural heritage even today. No city in India arouses the religious emotions of Hindus as much as Kashi does.