“As I weave this song, do not let the thread break. Do not let my work end before its fulfillment.” — Rig Veda 2:28
The Hindu places of pilgrimage are divided into two broad categories. First, the places of pilgrimage, where pilgrimages are held for worship of various Hindu deities on specific occasions and secondly, pilgrimages which are dedicated to the rites and rituals performed for the salvation of the ancestors of pilgrims including performance of Shradha, and the immersion of ashes of the dead. In the Hindu religious culture of India, there is a greater emphasis on the rites and rituals performed for the salvation of their dead ancestors, at different Tirhas.
Tirtha is a holy place of pilgrimage, especially on or near the bank of a sacred river, or a spring, or a lake, or near the sea. Usually, holy shrines of Hindus are situated, on spots full of natural beauty – on the top of mountains, in forests, near the sources of rivers, and at secluded places. “Just as certain limbs of the body are purer than others, so are certain places on earth more sacred – some on account of their situation, others because of their sparkling waters, and others because of the association or habitation of saintly people.” Chapter 108, Verse 16, Mahabharata.
Garuda Purana defines Tirtha as; “That holy spot is known as a Tirtha, which is associated with or habited by saints deserving reverence, who are without passion or delusion and who have washed away their sins by the performance of penance.”
Snana, Japa, Homa, Shradha and Dana at the Tirthas are said to liberate pilgrims. When one takes a bath at a Tirtha, whomsoever he or she remembers at that time is said, also to acquire merit of that Sanana. Sage Paithinasi states that one should prepare a small image of the Darbha grass of the person whom one intends to benefit and dip that Darbha image into Tirtha waters. It is said that this would give desired merit to the absent relation or friend.
“Water, carry away all my sins and my failures, all that has been bad in my life. Cleanse me of deceit and malice and broken promises. I seek you today; I shall plunge into your wetness. Drown me in splendour.” Rig Veda 10: 9
Usually, Shradha is performed at one’s own residence, but it is preferred to perform at various Tirthas. Vishnu Dharma Sutra gives a long list of places where Shradhas should be performed. By taking a bath in the holy waters at a Tirtha, and performing Tarpana of the Pitris or ancestors, one destroys sins and acquires merit leading to happiness. The Shradha to be performed at Tirtha is known as Ghrita Shradha, because use of ghee or clarified butter is more prominent in them, but Arghya is neither offered nor any Avahana is made.
Kashi, known as Varanasi as well as Benaras, is regarded as a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in India. It is located on the banks of holy River Ganga, in Uttar Pradesh. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. It is said that Kashi was an established city 1200 years before the Christian era. Throughout its long history, the city has been known by a number of names- Anandavana, the “Forest of Bliss,” the "City of Light," Avimuktaka, because it is free from sin (avi) and is never left by the Lord. Varanasi, a name derived from the rivers of the Varauana and Asi that flow into the Ganga there, Banaras and Benares are Muslim and British appellations. Recently, Varanasi has become an important political hub of the country.
Deeply and intimately implanted in the Hindu mind, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple has been a living embodiment of our timeless cultural traditions and highest spiritual values. The temple has been visited by all great saints – Adi Shankaracharya, Goswami Tulsidas, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekanand, Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati, Gurunanak Devji and several other spiritual personalities
In the Rig Veda, the city is referred to as Kasi or Kashi, "the luminous one". The name Kashi alludes to the city's historical status as a centre of learning, literature, art and culture. Many Hindu scriptures, including the Rig Veda, Skanda Purana, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, mention the city. Kasi Khanda describes the glory of the city in Skanda Purana. Lord Vishwanath is the presiding deity of Kashi. It is here that Ganga runs slightly North and that makes the place sacred. The Puranas say that a pilgrimage here undoubtedly gives liberation.
KASHI’S RICH HISTORY
Kashi was originally an independent Bhumihar Brahmin State and became an independent “Kingdom of Kashi”, a British territory in 1775. During 1911 it was declared as an independent State. It is the site of the Ramnagar Fort and its museum, which is a repository of history, of the kings of Kashi. Since the 18th century, it has been the home of the Kashi Naresh (King of Kashi). Even today Kashi Naresh is deeply revered by the people of Varanasi.
HINDUS YEARN FOR PILGRIMAGE
Be it the Kashi Vishwanath temple, the legendary Ghats of Kashi, or the thousands of years of history and culture of this city, Kashi is referred to as "the holy city of India", "the religious capital of India", "the city of temples", "the city of lights", "the city of learning", and "the oldest living city on planet earth." Hindus yearn to do “Kashi Yatra” (pilgrimage to Kashi Tirtha) at least once in their lifetime. They also prefer that the mortal remains (ashes from cremation of the deceased) be scattered in the River Ganges at Kashi.
“Lord Shiva says that the three worlds form one city of mine and Kasi is my Royal Palace therein.”
According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago. It is believed to be resting on Shiva’s “Trishul" (Trident). The holy shrine of Kashi Vishwanath (a manifestation of Lord Shiva) is standing for thousands of years on the Western banks of River Ganga. It is one of the twelve holy Jyotirlingas (pillars of light of Shiva) in India.
Varanasi is considered to be of seven Punya Kshetras (sacred grounds or fields of active power), where Moksha can be obtained. The other Kshetras are Ayodhya, Maya, Mathura, Kanchi, Avantika and Dwaraka. A visit to the temple and a bath in the river Ganges is believed to lead one towards a path to Moksha. There is also a tradition that one should give up at least one’s desire after a pilgrimage to the temple, and the pilgrimage would also include a visit to the temple at Rameswaram in South India, where people take water samples of the Ganges to perform prayer at the temple and bring back the sand from near that temple. Hindus believe that river Ganga is Goddess Shakti. Kashi is also regarded as one of the Shakti Peethas, and the Vishalakshi Temple stands on the spot where Goddess Sati's earrings fell.
A Shiva temple has been mentioned in the Puranas including the Kashi Khanda (section) of Skanda Purana. It is in the heart of Varanasi that there stands in its fullest majesty the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in which is enshrined the Jyotirlinga of Shiva, Vishweshwara or Vishwanatha. A simple glimpse of the Jyotirlinga is a soul-cleansing experience that transforms life and puts it on the path of knowledge and bhakti. Vishweshwara Jyotirlinga has a very special and unique significance in the spiritual history of India. Tradition has it that the merits earned by the Darshan of other jyotirlinga scattered in various parts of India accrue to devotees by a single visit to Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Deeply and intimately implanted in the Hindu mind, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple has been a living embodiment of our timeless cultural traditions and highest spiritual values. The temple has been visited by all great saints – Adi Shankaracharya, Goswami Tulsidas, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekanand, Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati, Gurunanak Devji and several other spiritual personalities. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple attracts visitors not only from India but abroad as well and thereby symbolises man's desire to live in peace and harmony with one another.
JYOTIRLINGA AT KASHI VISHWANATH TEMPLE
The first Kashi Temple was demolished by invading armies of Qutubuddin Aibak in 1194. In that raid almost 1,000 temples of Varanasi were destroyed and the city fell into a ruin. After that temples were demolished on at least five more occasions. Sikandar Lodhi completely destroyed the Vishwanath Temple during 1494 AD. In 1569 AD, the temple was rebuilt.
AURANGZEB’S DIABOLICAL PLAN
The last demolitions of temples in Varanasi were in the reign of Aurangzeb and included the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Aurangzeb ordered its demolition in 1669 AD and constructed Gyanvapi Mosque there, which still exists alongside the temple. Traces of the old temple can be seen behind the mosque. It is said that the chief priest of the temple jumped into the well with the Shivalinga to escape its desecration. The temple in the present shape was built way back in 1777 AD by the late Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated gold for the temple. Later, during 1833-1840 AD, the Rajmata constructed the boundary of Jnana Vapi Well, and other structures including ghats and temples were also reconstructed.
On January 28, 1983 the temple was taken over by the Govt. of Uttar Pradesh and its management ever since stands entrusted to a Trust with former Kashi Naresh as President, and an Executive Committee with Divisional Commissioner as Chairman.
Kashi, a wonderful city, which is the ancient seat of learning, is the meeting place of all orders. People from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Bengal to Kutch are represented here with all barriers of race, caste, province and language dissolved. It has been the centre of Sanskrit studies, and the Pandits from here are unquestionably acknowledged for their erudition and scholarship. It is also the abode of the one among the twelve Jyotir Lingas found scattered in different parts of India. Indians flock from every part to this holy city. Wealthy or poor they come here to receive blessings. The ailing come to eke out their last days, for death here (they believe) will take them straight to the abode of God.
THE BATHING GHATS OF KASHI
Kashi has nearly 100 ghats, steps leading to the banks of River Ganga. Many of the ghats were built by Marathas. Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwas stand out as patrons of present-day Varanasi. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. Kashi has a number of bathing ghats of which five are considered most important;
(i) Varuna Sangam Ghat (ii) Pancha Ganga Ghat (iii) Mani-Karnika Ghat (iv) Dasa-Aswamedha Ghat (v) Asi Sangam Ghat. Pilgrims usually choose the Mani-Karnika or Dasa-Asvarnedha Ghat for their bath, as it is situated near the Viswanath Temple and Anna Poorna shrine.
It is the place where Goswami Tulasidas had spent his last days and ultimately shuffled off this mortal coil in 1680 AD. Here is an image of Anjaneya installed by him.
The famous Viswanath temple, which was the scene of repeated desecration by fanatical invaders, is one of the Jyotir Lingas. The domes made of thick sheets of gold that glisten in the sunlight are said to have been endowed by Maharana Ranjit Singh, the famous King of Punjab. In the vestibule of the temple, on one side is the image of Gouri and Vinayaka on the other. Smaller shrines are dedicated to the Lord who has taken multitudes of forms to delight his devotees. In and around this temple there are about 150 Lingas. There are also a number of images of Vinayaka in his different aspects as Moda Vinayaka, Pramoda, Sumukh and Gananath Vinayaka.
Jnana Vapi or the Well of Knowledge is where the image of Viswanath was concealed when the invaders attacked it. Later, it was taken out of the well and installed. It is here that a huge Nandi faces the old temple. In the place where the old shrine once stood there today stands a mosque. Emerging from the Viswanath temple past the Dundiraj Ganesh, there is an image of Saneswar.
His face is made of silver and the image is only a bust. In one corner is Akshayavat, which is a peepal tree. The Anna Poorna temple is another place, where pilgrims congregate for worship.
Here the Eternal Mother is called Anna Poorna. Her image is cast in brass, and she is seated on a silver throne. Within the shrine itself there are a number of other images. Important among the images is the Yantreswar Linga installed by Shri Bhaskar Rai, incorporating the Sri Yantra which is inscribed on it.
Near the place where Aurangazeb has built a mosque is a blind well. In this well is a Linga that was hidden by the priests when the temple was desecrated. The steps leading to the well remain barred at all times. It is open only on special occasions. Flowers and other things are offered from the top.
The Kalabhairav Temple
The image made of silver is mounted on a throne. There are two other images, one a large form of Maha Vir and the other of Yogeswari Devi. Then of course there is the Pisacher Mochan Kund. This is a place where offerings are made in the name of ancestors. Here on the ghat there are a number of images.
Varanasi has its own culture of fine art and literature. Great Indian writers like Kabir, Ravidas, Tulsidas and many modern day writers like Munshi Premchand, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Devaki Nandan Khatri, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi have made this city their base. Many noted musicians like Pt Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan, Omkarnath Thakur and many others have kept the city alive to the spiritual aspect of fine arts. Numerous festivals are celebrated that preserve traditional styles of classical and folk culture. Banaras Hindu University (commonly referred to as BHU) is a public university located in Varanasi and is the largest residential university in Asia.
(With inputs from VIDYA GAURI GADOO RESEARCH CENTRE )