Banares aka Kasi and Varanasi is the holiest city for the Hindus. In the words of M.A. Sherring who wrote about the city in 1868,
"It is acknowledged throughout the world as a core of the Hindu tradition and a seat of ancient learning. It is a city where where infinity, continuity, the past and present live together. There are few cities in the world of greater antiquity, and none that have so uninterruptedly maintained their ancient celebrity and distinction."
"Blessed is Kashi, the city of liberation, adorned by Ganga and the soothing soul-saving maiden of a river, the Manikarnika."
- Adi Sankaracharya.
The present city is not very old. It lies along the bank of the river Ganga. There is a long line of ghats (a series of steps leading down to the river). You could read up something about the city here.
Now for the visitor old Banares is a maze of small lanes dotted with temples. The first time you land in Banares, the only word which comes to your mind is "chaos". If this is the feeling of an Indian, you can imagine the feeling of the visitor who has come to India for the first time. To add to to the confusion there are security personnel all over the place.
The most important temples are
The most famous temple in Kasi is the Viswanath temple.
But traditionally a pilgrim is expected to visit the Kala Bhairava temple first. It is because Kala Bhairava is the Lord of Kasi. He is the Kotwal or the magistrate. Adi Sankara in his Kala Bhairavashtakam calls him
"Kasikarapuratinatha KalaBhairavam Bhaje".
We take Kala Bhairava's permission and then proceed to other temples.
So I will start with the KalaBhairava temple. All our Siva temples have a Bhairava Sannidhi. Kala Bhairava is the Lord of Kala ( time) or Death. This is a temple which is believed to be not destroyed by the invaders. It is a beautiful but small temple.
Two things you will immediately notice in the temple. One is the presence of a number of dogs. Dog is the vahana of Bhairava and there is a statue of a dog also. Another thing is the number of people sitting around selling Black threads. If you go to them they will tap your head with peacock fathers and tie the black thread in your hand. This thread has a number of knots in it. It is a Rakshai and is supposed to ward off evils.
Long back this temple used to be frequented by Tantriks/Yogis who used to remove evil by uttering mantras and touching you with the peacock feathers. But now the Tantriks/Yogis have disappeared and these are traders. Talking about peacock feathers the Muslim holymen also use peacock feathers to ward off evil. But the learned Muslim holymen have also disappeared.
You might have heard of the term "Kasikkayiru". In the old days pilgrims to Kasi would come back with a number of Kasikayiru and tie them in the hands of all people especially children. I remember the time when my grandmother went to Kasi and got the thread for me.
You should recite KalaBhairava Ashtakam here. You can get books in Devanagari script in the temple in case you do not have a sloka book. But any pilgrim to Kasi should carry a book of slokas.
The last lines of the ashtakam are beautiful.
"kalbahiravashtakam patanthi e manoharam. Jnana mukti sadhanam vichtra punya vardhanam. Soka, Moha, Dhainya, Loba, Kopa, Tapa nasanam, te prayanti Kalabairavangri sannidim druvam."
There is another temple nearby called the Dhanda temple. Kala Bhairava's weapon is a dhandam or stick. You would have heard about Yama dhandam, the stick carried by Yama. This temple has a stone stick. You may not be able to see it as it is always covered by a silk cloth. Please do not be taken in by the priest telling you that it is Dhandapani or Lord Muruga. This is done to attract Tamil pilgrims. Muruga also carries a Dhanda. That is why he is called Dhandapani. But this temple is for Kala Bhairava's Dhandam. There were other dhanda temples in Kasi. None of them have survived.
You have to enquire about this temple which is not in the usual pilgrim's tour.
This is the famous temple visited by millions of Hindus. The old temple was destroyed by Aurangazeb who built a Mosque in its place. The new temple is adjacent to the Mosque. This was built by Rani Ahilya Bayi Holkar. The Holkars were Mahratta chieftains who ruled over parts of Madhya Pradesh with Indore as their capital. Kasi was in the possession of the Mahrattas.
The domes of the temple were covered with gold plates by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. Yes, the same king who made Hari Mandir of Amritsar the Golden temple.
The temple is not very big. Except during the Aarti times, you are allowed to do the Abhishek of the Sivalinga. You can buy the Ganga water, Bhilva leaves, Dhatura, and other Puja materials favoured by Lord Siva near the temple. Because of the presence of the Mosque this is a high security area and there is vigorous checking. Better to leave your cell phone and camera at home. There are a number of shops which provide locker facilities. They are O.K. You may carry a lock with which you can lock the locker. But please note down the location of the shop carefully. Since the temple is in a maze of lanes, you may find it difficult to locate the shop later. I have seen people running around searching for a particular shop.
There are three Artis in the temple. Early morning 3.30 A.M, Afternoon and Evening. They sell special tickets for the early morning and evening Aarti. You can buy the tickets in the temple. They do not have any seating arrangements. People sit outside the Garba Graha and view the Aarti through the doors. Reach the temple at least an hour before time so that you can get a good seat. Do not miss the Aarti. It is a thrilling experience. I remember the good old days when we used to walk in and see the Aarti every day.
Lingashtakam by Adi Sankara is to be recited at this temple. You can add Chandrasekharshtakam also.
Near the temple is a well known as Jnana Vapi. The temple of knowledge. You should see this. When I was in Kasi last month, I saw a lot of new construction going on. They are adding to the temple. The construction is near the Jnana Vapi. Since Jnana Vapi is next to the Mosque, security is severe. This well is one of the series of holy wells in Banares.
One of the first things the British did when they captured Banares, was to clean up all the wells which were the major source of diseases and stench not having been cleaned for ages. More about wells later.
Hyuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller visited Varanasi in the 7th century. His travel accounts speak of the grandeur of the city and of its temples. This writer describes a hundred feet high statue of Shiva made of brass ( must be Shiva Linga) that adorned the city.
The Abishekams done in the morning and evening are a sight to behold. The prasadams after the Arti are taken off by the Pundits. You have to catch hold of one of them and give him Dhakshina (you know) to get the prasadams. Among other things like Milk, Curd, Ghee etc. one of the unusual Abhisekam is with Bang (cannabis). The Bang prasadam is very much in demand.
You can read about the bang tradition here.
The other hallucinating drug associated closely with Shiva worship is Datura.
The full abishek and Aarti lasts for more than 11/2 hours.
The You tube video does not give the real chanting at the time of Aarti. First I had assumed that it is Vedic chanting. later on I realized it is not a Vedic chant but a chant created by the pundits. Though impressive it is a choreographed item. Having watched the Aarti in 1983 when Bhakti was flowing, I find the present Aarti contrived to impress the tourists and pilgrims.
This temple is in the same lane as Viswanath temple. You have to pass by this temple to reach Viswanath temple. Annapurna is the bestower of food and prosperity. Annapurana is supposed to haven given Bikshai to Shiva in the form of Bikashadanar. Adi Sankara had composed the famous Annapurnashtakam about this Deity. A beautiful sloka. You should recite it here.
The present temple was constructed by Balaji Baji Rao one of the Mahratta Peshwas. Peshwas were Brahmins. At present this temple is owned by the Annapurna Mutt with a Mahant in charge. The idol is a small one made of black stone. Normally you do not see the idol because it is covered by the Silver Kavacham and flowers. You see only the face of the silver kavacham.
But if you are particular to see the image, you can buy an Abhishekam ticket. The Abhishekam takes place in the morning and you are allowed to do the Abishekam. But the ticket may not available for all the days. Enquire in the office.
On Diwali day they take out the Golden Annapurna and she comes around in a Laddu chariot. Worth seeing. We go round on Diwali day enquiring "Ganga snanam accha?". Imagine having a bath in the real Ganga on Diwali day and having dharshan of Maa Annapurna in her golden splendour riding in a Laddu chariot.
When you reach the temple, you will notice
1. The crowd is very thin when compared to Viswanth temple. There is practically no queue.
2. Once you enter you are greeted by notice boards in Telugu and Tamil. The crowd is mostly from Andhra Pradesh.You do not find many local people.
3. The temple serves free food in the afternoon. You get your token in the office. There is a huge rush and a melee. Then when the food comes you find it is South Indian (Andhra) food.
This seems to have become a Telugu temple. You will find that most of the Donors and the Management committee are from Andhra Pradesh.
You can donate for Anna Dhana here. One day's Anna Dhana costs Rs. 1500.
As a student of religious history, I have also been interested in tracing the evolution of temples. Annapurna temple is an example of how a temple evolves and changes over a period of time. Annapurna temple was a favourite temple of the Bengalis. The Bengalis are very much attached to Kasi. Annapurna is mentioned as a form of Maha Kali in the Adhya Kali stotram. This stotram envisages Maha Kali as the Supreme Deity. That is why the name Adhya. Rani Rashmoni had planned to come to Kali for dharshan of Annapurna. But MAA appeared in her dream and asked her to construct a temple for her in Kolkata. That is the genesis of the famous Dhakshineswar temple.
The temple which was built the Mahratha Peshwa is a temple for Maa Annapurna who gives alms to Shiva in the form of Bikshadanar.
The Bengalis who came later worshiped her as a form of Kali.
The Telugu people who came much later in the 1950s have established a Meru and made her Rajarajeswari.
They have a Maha Meru (Sri Chakra) in the mandap of the temple. (Removed now) Pilgrims conduct regular Lalita Sahasranama archanai there. You have to bring your own Sasthirigal. Local Telugu/Tamil pundits do it. If you pay well you can do the archanai to the main deity also.
This Vigraha and the Sri Chakra in this temple were consecrated by Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Swamigal, the 35th Pontiff of Sringeri Sarada Peetham on Diwali day in 1977.
To be continued