Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saints of Varanasi

Tulsi Manas Temple

 [ Tulsi Manas Temple ]

Built in 1964, dediated to Lord Rama, it is located a few meters ahead of the Durga temple. A magnificient structure of white marble surrounded by beautiful lush green gardens, it is believed to be built at the same place where saint-poet Tulsidas lived and wrote the famous Indian epic, Ram Charit Manas, the Hindi version of the Ramayana. I saw that the walls of the temple were carved with verses and scenes from the Ram Charit Manas, though I couldn’t understand much of it, still it was really very enchanting. On the first floor there was an interesting show depicting scenes from the lives of various Gods and Saints of India.

The Sankat Mochan temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman is also founded by seer Tulsidas.

Saint Kabir Das

[ Lake where child Kabir was found ]

The story goes that he was actually the son of a Brahmin widow who abandoned him and that he was found by a Muslim weaver named Niru and his wife Neema floating on a Lotus leaf in a lake known as LaherTalav. They gave him the name Kabir. Kabir literally means “the great one” and Das means “servant”. As he was found here, this place came to be known as Kabir Janmasthali (Kabir Prackatya Sthal) or the birthplace of Kabir. Situated in the heart of Varanasi, when I visited the place the temple was under construction and the lake was devoid of any water. Now, a large hall has been built by his followers, and the place is being used for various religious discourses. They are planning to build a big temple cum ashram honoring Him.

[ Sant Kabir Birthplace – Lahertara ]

I recollected this wonderful play on the life and teachings of Sant KabirDas by Shekhar Sen that I had seen along with my father some years back. True to his name, he was a great man and a servant to mankind. He was strictly against any form of idol worship, casteism, rituals followed blindly in the name of religion, discrimination on the grounds of wealth or religion. He believed in the principle of ‘God is present within every human soul’. He did not care about the consequences and said what he saw, what he felt was true due to which he had to face the wrath of both the Hindu and Muslim communities. Total self surrender to God and love to all irrespective of the caste, creed or race formed the basis of his philosophies and preaching’s made immortal in the very famous ‘Kabir Dohe’ (two line Hindi couplets).

Truly, his sayings continue to confound us and teach us to live our lives in the correct manner. If you ask me, who is the most famous personality of Benaras – living or dead… Then, my reply would be, it is undoubtedly this Great Man!!

Saint Ravidas

[ Sant Ravidas Park ]

He is also known as Sant Raidas. We visited the Ravidas park dedicated to him. There is a grand memorial devoted to him in the centre of the park. The park itself is huge with green lawns and many different types of colorful flowers adorning them. He taught that one is distinguished not by one's caste, creed or gender but by one's actions and that every person has the right to worship God and read holy texts. The queen of Chittorgarh, the famous Krishna Bhakt MeeraBai, is said to have been his disciple.  It is also believed that he was the disciple of Guru Ramananda, the one who also taught Kabir.

Mata Anandamayi

 [ A photo of Mata Anandmayi at her ashram ]

       We visited the Mata Anandmayi Ashram situated in Bhadeni, very near to the Assi ghat. A well known Bengali female saint and a great spiritual leader of the modern era, she devoted her entire life for the selfless service and encouraged others to do the same. She was believed to be the incarnation of Godess Kali. The ashram is very beautiful situated on the banks of the river Ganga.

[ Kaviraj Ji stayed in this room at the ashram ]

    A sanskrit scholar and philosopher, Pandit Gopinath Kaviraj Ji was the direct disciple of Vishuddhanand Paramhansa and an ardent devotee of Mata Anandmayi. He lived at the Mata Anandmayi Ashram from 1970-1976. He had the privilege of being in the presence of many renowned saints and holy men. He has compiled his experiences of the time spent with them in a series of books named Sadhu Darshan Satprasang.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Temples of Varanasi

“The Ganges itself and every individual drop of water in it are temples. Religion, then, is the business of Benares, just as gold-production is the business of Johannesburg. …Yes the city of Benares is in effect just a big church, a religious hive, whose every cell is a temple, a shrine or a mosque, and whose every conceivable earthly and heavenly good is procurable under one roof, so to speak - a sort of Army and Navy Stores, theologically stocked.” -Mark Twain

Kashi is rightly known as the ‘City of Temples’. Every temple has its own story, importance and legacy. (The most important being the Kashi Vishwanath Temple which I have already described in the previous post.) It is impossible to visit and describe each one of them. In addition to the Kashi Vishwanath JyotirLing, I visited the following temples and am describing them below.

Annapurna Temple

    After taking the blessings of Lord Shiva, we proceeded towards the Annapurna Temple, located just besides the main temple area of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Goddess Annapurna Bhavani- a generous form of Shakti, is looked upon as the provider of food and the sustainer of prosperity. The temple we visited, we were told, was a replica of the original temple - the gates of which open only during the Hindu festival of Diwali every year. The idol of Annapurna Bhavani was made in black stone with the face covered in silver (unlike the original idol which is made in solid gold), holding a cooking pot and was draped in a beautiful sari.

Dhundiraj Ganpati Temple

Located near one of the entrances to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, it is dedicated to Lord Ganesha-The son of Lord Shiva. It is a very small temple but is one of the most important ones in Kashi. Ask anyone in the gullies and you will definitely find it.

Kaal Bhairav Temple

Wading through small and serpentine lanes, one can reach here located in Vishweshwar Ganj near Malviya Market. Lord Kaal Bhairav, a fierce incarnation of Lord Shiva, is believed to be the ‘Kotwal (Police Chief) Of Varanasi’. Kaal means both Death and Fate, in addition to meaning Black. He is the one who has assumed the duties of the God of Death in Kashi. Even Death, it is said, is afraid of Kaal Bhairav.

[ Kaal Bhairav Temple ]

    I saw that the entrance was guarded by the vehicle of Kaal Bhairav, a Dog. Kaal Bhairav’s image is said to be pot-bellied, seated upon a dog, holding a trident but since it is hidden behind a cloth drapery, only the silver face, garlanded with flowers, was visible through the doorway of inner sanctum.
Durga Temple

Barely a five minute walk from either Assi Ghat or the ISKCON Temple is situated the Durga Kund (pond) besides which is the beautiful Durga temple also known as the ‘Monkey temple’ because of the presence of large number of monkeys although I didn’t spot any.

[ Durga Kund ]

 The presiding deity of the temple is Kushmanda Devi known as Durga, the consort of Lord Shiva. Built in the eighteenth century, it is said that the image of Goddess Durga was never established by human hands, but is self-manifested and appeared here on its own accord. Non-Hindus can enter the courtyard of the Durga temple but not the inner sanctum. During the Hindu festival Navratri, a large number of pilgrims throng the place.

[ Durga Temple stained in red colour ]

Bal Hanuman Temple

 [ Bal Hanuman Temple ]

Just opposite the Tulsi Manas Temple is this small yet ancient temple which we visited. It is dedicated to Lord Hanuman and Venkateshwar Tirupati Balaji.

Tridev Temple

Stones throw from Tulsi Manas Temple is this newly built temple dedicated to Salasar Hanuman, Rani Sati Dadi and Khatu Shyam – all these deities have their distinct temples at Salasar, Jhunjhunu and Khatu cities respectively in Rajasthan.

[ Tridev Temple Entrance ]

 Photography is allowed inside the temple. The temple comes alive in the evenings when the lighting takes its effect and is definitely worth a visit at that time.

[ Tridev Temple in The Evening Lights ]

Sankat Mochan Temple

Another 2-3 minutes walk from the Tridev temple is this sacred Sankat Mochan temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman and founded by seer Tulsidas. The word ‘Sankat Mochan’ means one who helps in removing sufferings and pain. It is said that people who pray here get their wishes fulfilled. We offered ‘laddoos’ to Lord Hanuman and recited the Hanuman Chalisa. On Thursdays and Saturdays there is a large queue for the darshan.  Mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside the temple and need to be deposited outside in the locker service provided by the temple.

New Vishwanath Temple

[ New Vishwanath Temple in the BHU ]
    Located in the sprawling campus of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), it is also called the Birla temple as the famous industrialist family of India, the Birlas, constructed it. The New Vishwanath Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is a replica of the original Kashi Vishwanath temple. The temple is built in white marble, and was planned by Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of the BHU. It is open to people from all castes and religions.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Kashi Vishwanath Temple - One of the 12 Jyotirlings

   It is not only the most important temple of Varanasi but is also one of the main temples for the Hindus in all of India. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas (self-manifested lingams) situated in India. Also famous by the name of Shri Vishweshwar, the Temple is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva. It is believed that the Lord resides here and is the giver of liberation and happiness. A single visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Jyotirling is said to worth more than the visits of other Jyotirlings, strewn across India.

The legendary Vishwanath Temple has been rebuilt several times. Like most other temples in and around Varanasi, this one too could not escape the evil hands of Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb, who built a mosque on the ruins. The brave Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore built the present temple in the 18th century and stands next to the mosque that Aurangzeb built. Next to the temple is the Gyan Vapi (Well of Knowledge) where, as one of the pandas (priests) told us, the original ShivaLing lies hidden. The gold used in the plating of the Temple dome was donated by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab in the 19th century, hence it is also known as the ‘Golden Temple’.

 There are several entrances to the temple, all of them heavily guarded by gun-totting commandos and policemen, turning the whole area into a fortress. Camera and mobile phones are not allowed in the temple premises. There are innumerable shops selling various items for offering to Lord Shiva like flowers, Bilva leaves, milk, Ganga Jal, etc. which you can buy and then deposit your mobiles/cams in the small lockers built in their shops. We kept ours in one of these lockers and proceeded further. After going through multiple checkpoints, we reached the main temple area.

[ One of the entrances to 
the Kashi Vishwanath Temple ]
There was a small queue for the darshan. The main ShivLing is present in a small rectangular space. Amidst chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’, ‘Bum Bum Bhole’ and ringing of the Temple bells, we offered milk, bilva leaves, flowers and the sacred waters of the Ganga to the ShivLing and took the blessings of Lord Shiva. The atmosphere was truly divine and spiritual. The main temple room is small but the charged up atmosphere more than makes up for it.

It was really one of a kind as there are innumerable other small lingams inside the temple premises and I admired the beauty of the temple. Though, at the same time, I wondered what the original temple would have looked like. There was also an army of monkeys, some snatching sweets from the devotees, some just curiously observing the pilgrims.

The visit to most revered temple of India was certainly worth a visit. Truly the temple area is the focal point of the people visiting Varanasi and this makes the whole atmosphere of the place so divine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Vedic Rites and Rituals to be performed in Varanasi

The ageless city Varanasi is one of the central Hindu religious centre’s - both as a place of pilgrimage and for the performance of various rites and rituals as prescribed in the ancient Hindu Holy Scriptures. Early morning, people start gathering at the various ghats to perform these rituals – some of them meant to appease the various deities while others to provide peace and happiness to the souls of their deceased ancestors. These interesting ritualistic activities revolve around the ghats of the holy river, The Ganga, and start soon after sunrise and continue throughout the day. I consider truly blessed to have got the opportunity to perform all the below listed rituals along with my family during my Kashi Yatra.

Holy Dip

Everyday, lakhs of pilgrims swarm the several ghats of the holiest river Ma Ganga, in Varanasi, for performing several rituals, the most fundamental among them being- The Holy Dip. Considered most auspicious during sunrise, it is believed to cleanse all the earthly sins and open the doors to salvation. The Ganga is a living Goddess - Just the sight of this sacred river or even the mere utterance of her name is said to bestow heavenly blessings. Reciting the mantras (chants) from sacred texts and offering prayers to the rising Sun God, while standing knee-deep in the holy waters, all form a part of this basic ritual.

[ People lining up for a Holy Dip ]

Deep Daan

        After the holy dip in the river Ganga, the devotees offer flowers to the purifying waters, light incense sticks and earthen oil lamps to seek Her blessings. This ritual of lighting oil lamps (Deep) and floating it on the gently flowing waters of Mother Ganga (Daan) is known as ‘Deep Daan’. Performance of this ritual especially in the Hindu month of Karthik is believed to bring health, wealth and prosperity to the entire family.

 [ Selling Oil Lamps at one of the Ghats ]

        There is also a tradition of collecting the Ganges water in bottles and taking it back home. A few drops of this holy water sprinkled around the house especially ahead of religious ceremonies is said to cleanse it of all the negativities and purifies it. This water is also used while preparing prasads or performing abhisheks of the various Hindu deities. Putting a few drops directly in the mouth of a dying person is said to grant him liberation. Therefore, do not forget to bring yourself a bottle filled with this holy water and distribute some of it among your friends and relatives too!

[ Bottles for collecting the waters of River Ganga ]

Dashashwamedh ghat, being the holiest of all the ghats in Varanasi, people prefer to collect the water from here. However, I believe, the Ganga is the same everywhere, hence, I would advice my readers to take it during the boat ride from somewhere around the center of the river as the water here will be relatively cleaner.


        Enlisted as one of the Niyamas (behavioral codes of conduct) in the various Holy Hindu Scriptures, Daan simply means charity or donation done without any motive of self interest. Charity - Monetary or otherwise, done here besides the River Ganga, to the needy and poor without any expectation of a return favor, is said to bring lots of good luck and prosperity.

[ Giving Charity to the poor 
- Assi Ghat Varanasi ]

Anna Daan (donation of food) in Kashi has a special significance as it said to please the Goddess Annapurna- the Goddess of Food.

Speaking of daan, I forgot to make a mention of a very interesting ritual, Veni Daan, in my earlier post of Magh Mela in Allahabad. Note that this ritual is performed at the Triveni Sangam in Allahabad and not in Varanasi. In this ritual, Veni (a tuft of hair) is offered by married women to the holy waters of the Triveni Sangam which is said to prolong the life of their husbands.


        This ritual, performed only by the head male member of the family, involves offering of water to our deceased ancestors (Pitars) which is said to provide peace and satisfaction to their souls. They, in turn, shower their blessings and grant happiness and well being. Unlike the relatively simple rituals listed above, Tarpan cannot be performed without the presence of a Brahmin priest known as Panda. You can find them sitting under large umbrellas made of palm leaves at Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Dakshina given to these pandas assisting you in the performance of this ritual is also a form of Daan (already described above). In addition to money, any item can be given as Dakshina – clothes, food grains (rice, wheat, jowar, etc.), umbrellas, heaters, coolers to the more expensive ones like land, cow, or gold – according to ones capacity.

Before I conclude this post, I have to add this-
Have Faith and Belief while performing any of the above activities. Because without this power of your focused conviction and pure intentions, no matter whatever you will do, everything will just be counted as a mere formality.