By Swami Harshananda
Kāśi literally means ‘that which shines because of spiritual power’.
A pilgrimage to Kāśī, a ceremonial bath in the river Gañgā and a visit to the temple of Lord Viśvanātha is the ambition of an average person right from the ancient times. Kāśī has been synonymous to the religion, culture, learning, arts and crafts, in fact with every aspect of the civilization to a pilgrim.
It is the only city in the whole world that has kept up its halo of holiness for over three thousand years. It is one of the three most holy cities, the other two being Prayāga and Gayā. The purāṇas, the dharmaśāstras and the digests have devoted thousands of verses to expatiate upon the greatness of this holy city. The antiquity of the city is established by the fact that it has been mentioned in the Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads in several places.
It appears that Kāśī was a country and its capital was Vārāṇasī. In course of time, the capital also got the same name. Other names of Kāśī are:
‘Banāras’ is the anglicized form of Vārāṇasī. It got the name Vārāṇasī since it was situated between the two rivers Varaṇā and Asī. This is now the official name of the city.
Kāśī was established by Divodāsa. He was the human incarnation of the god Dhanvantari. It is reputed to have 1500 temples during ancient times. Most of the temples now are in a dilapidated condition.
Holy Temples in Kāśī
The most important temples and holy spots which a modern pilgrim normally visits are the following:
- Viśvanātha temple
- Annapurṇā temple
- Bindu-Mādhava temple
- Durgiana temple
- Surya (Sun-god) at Lolārka
- Daśāśvamedha ghāṭ
Viśvanātha Temple : Lord Viśvanātha is the tutelary deity of Kāśī. His temple is the center of attraction. Every person of Kāśi is expected to bathe in the river Gangā and visit the temple of Viśvanātha every day.
The Viśvanātha temple has had a chequered history over the centuries. According to Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE) there was a copper idol of Deva Maheśvara almost 30 meters (100 ft.) in height at Kāśī. Between CE 1194 and 1585, it was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Due to a saintly brāhmaṇa, Nārāyaṇa Bhatṭa, it was rebuilt with the help of Rājā Todarmal in CE 1585.
However it was destroyed by Aurangzeb in CE 1669 and a mosque was built on its ruin which is still present. Ahalyābāī Holkar built the present temple during the last quarter of the 18th century. This temple is situated in a lane next to the river Gangā. It has a tower covered with gold-plated copper sheets and was contributed by Mahārājā Raṇajit Siṅgh (CE 1780-1839). It is 4.5 meters (50 ft.) high. Only Hindus, without caste-distinctions, are permitted inside. Behind the temple there is an ancient well called ‘Jñānavāpi which was repaired in CE 1830.
The Viśvanātha temple is surrounded by several other temples that includes:
Daśāśvamedha-Ghāṭ : The Daśāśvamedha-ghāṭ is famous for centuries. Brahmā, the creator, is said to have performed ten Aśvamedha sacrifices here.
Maṇikarṇikā-ghāṭ : The Maṇikarṇikā-ghāṭ is practically, a cremation ground. Dead bodies are cremated here in the belief that Śiva liberates their souls. The pool of water is very small. There is Tārakeśvara-Śiva temple near this ghāṭ. The temple of Lolārka is situated at the confluence of the river Asi with Gaṅgā.
People have a belief that death at Kāśī automatically gives them liberation and hence, the number of old persons, living here, awaiting death is quite large. Those who take a vow to live in Kāśī till death are expected to observe the rules of dharma very strictly and avoid all the types of sins.
Pañcagaṅgā-Ghāṭ : The Bindu-Mādhava temple is situated on the Pañcagaṅgā-ghāṭ. Here five rivers meet and merge. These rivers are:
However only the Gangā is seen. Other four are believed to join it from below the earth.
Aspect of Kāśī Pilgrimage
A very important aspect of pilgrimage to Kāśī is the pañcakrośī-parikrama on foot. Starting from the Maṇikarṇikā-ghāṭ, the pilgrim has to walk about 80 km. (50 miles) in a semicircle. He comes back to the same point at the end. The journey is to be covered in six days. A devotee offers one’s worship at the temples on the way. He also offers piṇḍas at the village Kapiladhārā.
Universities at Kāśī
Kāśī is famous for the various branches of learning. The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and the Kāśī Vidyāpīṭha are the two most well-known institutions of this type.
- Kāśī is also known as Vārāṇasī or Banaras, in the State of Uttar Pradesh.
- Jñānavāpi means well of knowledge.
- Lolārka means Sun god.
- Piṇḍas means obsequial offerings to the manes.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore