Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
The Vishwanath Temple is considered to be among the holiest, if not the holiest, religious shrine in the Hindu tradition. It is one of the twelve most sacred Joytirlinga sites associated with the deity Shiva, and the only one of these located in Varanasi, Hinduism’s most important city. This combination makes it one of the most revered temples in India, visited by millions of Hindu pilgrims every year. In religious importance this ranks Varanasi along with Jerusalem and Mecca as one of the most sacred pilgrimage destinations on earth.
The city of Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in India and one of the oldest continually inhabited places on Earth. Records of Varanasi go back nearly four millennia, and as far as is known the Hindu faith and its predecessor religions have been active here throughout all of that time. Its religious importance is based on a number of traditions, not least of which is its location roughly at the midpoint of the Ganges River, one of the most important geographic features in India and the most sacred river in the world to Hindus.
There are many legends of the Hindu deities in Varanasi, the most important one relating to Shiva. According to tradition, Shiva once adjudicated a dispute between his fellow deitied Brahma and Vishnu. This involved Shiva testing the others, which involved his manifesting as twelve pillars of light, or Jyotirlingas, throughout India. One of these pillars appeared at Varanasi in primordial times, and the site has been sacred ever since.
Exactly when Varanasi was deemed sacred is now lost in the forgotten mists of prehistory. However, temples commemorating Shiva’s appearance can be traced back well over a thousand years, and conceivably earlier ones might have been much older. The temple was destroyed on at least three occasions, each time by Muslim conquerors. The temple was rebuilt twice. The third time it was replaced by the Gyanvapi Mosque which still stands today.
In the 18th century, the mosque was nearly demolished in order to rebuild the temple. Instead, a new site was chosen just next door, and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple was rebuilt. This is the temple that is still standing to the present day. Not surprisingly, the presence of a mosque on the actual holy site has caused animosity of Hindus towards Muslims in Varanasi (an incredibly similar situation to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). Nevertheless the sanctity of the current temple is unquestioned and still the objective of millions of Hindu pilgrims every year.
At first site the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is simultaneously jaw-dropping and somewhat underwhelming. The latter is due in large part to the fact that the temple is closely hemmed in on all sides (to the north by the mosque, and by thick clusters of buildings in every other direction). This makes it difficult to really take in the shrine in all of its magnificence. On the plus side, the temple’s main features are spectacular and are much more easily seen: a pair of huge spires and a giant dome, all covered in gold (not gold leaf), and which are breathtakingly beautiful.
The temple itself is actually a cluster of temples and shrines, the main one in the center being devoted to Shiva. The inner sanctum of the temple is accessible only to the current high priest. In addition to the main temple are smaller temples to eight other deities including Vishnu. Also on the grounds is the Gyana Vapi, or Well of Wisdom.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is located on the northern side of Varanasi close to the bend in the Ganges River where many of the city’s most important temples and ghats are clustered, approximately 400 miles southeast of New Delhi. The temple is open year round, but there may be visitor restrictions at various times. There is no cost of admission. Web: http://shrikashivishwanath.org (official website).
By some counts there are over twenty thousand temples, shrines and ghats in Varanasi. The other major ones are the Sankat Mochan Temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman; the Durga Mandir and Durga Kund, dedicated to the goddess Durga; and the Tilbhandeshwar Temple, one of the city’s oldest temples. Other important temples include the New Vishwanath Temple, the Annapurna Temple, the Bharat Mata Temple, the Kala Bhaironath Temple and the Tulsi Manas Mandir Temple.