Most visitors to Varanasi, whether they are religious pilgrims or mourners cremating their dead, will make a visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple – the focal point of Shiva worship in the city and one of the most important Shiva temples in all of India.
Vishwanath is one of twelve so-called Jyotirlinga sites. The Jyotirlinga, according to Hindu legend, is a fiery column of light representing the infinite nature of Lord Shiva, and the form by which he appeared at various locations on earth. A stone Shiva lingam, representing the Jyotirlinga, is the centre of devotional worship at each site.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is situated in a maze of narrow back streets west of Manikarnika Ghat and surrounded by walls that make it difficult to see the temple from the street. There is a significant security presence in the laneways surrounding the temple and at each of its entrances, only one of which is accessible to foreigners. On our approach to the area, we saw a long queue of Hindus waiting patiently at an entrance, each carrying some kind of offering: typically a plate of flowers, coconut or various fruits. Some of them were chanting or saying prayers and all of them seemed glad and honoured to be there.
In a small room next to the entrance gate for foreigners we had to remove our shoes and socks and continue towards the temple barefoot. We also had to leave our bags in a locker before being patted-down by guards dressed in military uniforms. The security was very insistent that mobile phones or cameras were not taken inside the temple complex. At the next check point, we were requested to show our passports, the details of which were written down by hand in at least six separate columns of a large register. Neither of us could remember how many times we’d had to endure such time-wasting bureaucracy, but it seemed to be a fairly recent government initiative at hotels, guest houses and certain tourist sites throughout the country. After one final and completely unnecessary security pat-down, we were allowed in.
As it turned out, the spectacle inside the temple complex was well worth the hassle involved to gain entry. What struck me initially was how ancient the site was. The floor, walls, support-columns and ceilings were all constructed of old weather-worn stone and decorated with intricate carvings. Small shrines, shiva lingams and sculptures seemed to occupy every nook and cranny of the complex and each was decorated with flowers and vermillion powder. Various other symbols associated with Shiva such as the long steel trident he is typically depicted carrying and stone carvings of his mount, Nandi the bull, occupied important locations in the vicinity of the shrines. Large sections of the floor and the shiva lingams around the site glistened with wetness. The floors were regularly washed to keep them clean but the lingams frequently had water or milk poured over them by pilgrims as part of the Hindu ritual.
The sound of praying, chanting and the ringing of bells filled the space with constant sound. The air was thick with the smell of incense and the perfumes of the offerings. The main temple contained a small room, the inner sanctum, that had two openings, one to enter and one to leave. Inside was the shiva lingam, the one representing the column of fiery light, the Jyotirlinga. It was housed on top of a small silver altar and because it was the focal point for pilgrimage, a considerable queue was eagerly waiting to get close to it, to touch it and adorn it with offerings.
Being foreigners, we were able to sidestep the queue and get a close-up view of the commotion surrounding the lingam. Each Hindu would enter with a great degree of reverence and try to place two hands on top of the lingam, followed by their offerings. Several guards inside the room were there to monitor the amount of time spent in the presence of the lingam by each pilgrim. If they lingered too long they were quickly and physically hustled away. It was an atmosphere of considerable intensity and obviously one of immense spiritual importance for those present. For Hindus, making a pilgrimage to such a site, at least once in a lifetime, is considered a spiritual necessity.
We viewed the entire spectacle about the lingam with complete fascination, yet even more astonishing was what was going on just outside the inner sanctum under two covered pavilions, where a small crowd of Hindus had gathered. At first we thought they were watching the football, which in itself would have been strange. Instead they were watching a live video feed from cameras mounted on the ceiling of the inner sanctum, providing a bird’s-eye view of the Jyotirlinga and the continually changing crowd of devotees that gathered around it.
Note: None of the photos displayed in the gallery below are from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple as photography was forbidden within the temple grounds. Instead I have included photos of various Hindu shrines and rituals that we encountered throughout Varanasi.