A peek into history helps one understand the present condition of the Kashi Vishwanath temple and what Hindus have had to endure.
I cried. Don’t remember much of my first Kashi Vishwanath temple trip although my mother swears it had happened when I was a child. The second trip was much more recent, April 2014. I was excited to visit one of the most important pilgrimages known to Hindus.
We landed in Kashi at the peak of a typical hot UP summer, but the site of our beautiful heritage hotel that gave an old “haveli” vibe with a gorgeous mural of Shiva, cheered our spirits. After quickly freshening up, we called a taxi and headed straight to the temple. The cab dropped us outside an alley surrounded by two-wheelers and cars. Two policemen stood on both sides of the alleyway with a board on top that read, “Kashi Vishwanath Temple Gate” in Devanagari. He must’ve brought us to the parking side entrance, I thought. We hopped out and asked the driver how we could get the prasad for the offering. “You’ll find it inside”, he said, pointing to the alley.
As we began to walk through the long, meandering, semi-shaded paved pathways in the dry heat of a blazing summer evening, with temperatures nearing 40 degree Celsius, my excitement started giving way to a strange foreboding. I was visiting with an equally chatty cousin, and somehow, we fell into stunned silence, brought on by the confusing sights that awaited us. Water was slowly trickling through the pathway, but it did not cool the pavement… it simply made the pathway slimy as it mixed with dirt. The entrance of shops on both sides, some of which were literally just hole-in-the-walls, opened in this pathway, with people arriving, leaving and standing in front of the shops, making the already narrow alleyway narrower. This must be just the passage through the back-market of the temple, surely, I tried to reason with myself. However, the sight of shiva-lingams befuddled us almost immediately. If this was a scripted show, the audience would remember this moment for its timing. Life is stranger than fiction…etc…etc.
Shivalingams were literally, everywhere! It would usually be a welcome sight but this wasn’t so. Lingams of all sizes, ranging from tiny 3-inch ones to a foot tall, made of all types of stones, were lining the sides of this heavily used, slimy pathway, on which people were walking by as I looked at them with confusion. The holiest city of Hindus had Shivalingams strewn across the street that could not be considered “shaucha” (~clean/pure) by any stretch of the imagination. I looked at the lingams ahead and I looked at my feet and immediately stopped short, almost instinctively. I was still wearing slippers and the lingams were in close vicinity. Befuddled, I looked around. One shopkeeper must’ve noticed me as he pointed to a corner in his shop where a bunch of slippers and shoes were lying around. We walked there and he said, “You can get them on your way back.” I asked, “Token?”. “This is free”, he continued, “Nobody takes them but people often forget where they took their slippers off, so I offer this space. Now you just have to remember the name of my shop and you can find your slippers when you come back.” We nodded, still rather confused as to why one of the greatest of temples didn’t have a basic footwear storage section that even the smallest gali-nukkad temples across the country would have. At the next shop, we saw an old woman selling packets of dhatura, ber, bilva patra, white flowers and other assorted items that are often offered to Shiva. We bought some. Something still felt wrong, however, so we asked for directions to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, thinking maybe we were in the wrong place. She gave us a strange glare at first, but she must’ve sensed something as she saw our faces, as she simply replied, “This is it only… just walk on this path, it’ll take you to Baba.”
We looked at each other and resumed our walk. My cousin broke the silence, “How can it be… this? Isn’t it supposed to be ….” “Grand?”, I completed her sentence. She nodded. I shrugged. “Perhaps, this is the back entrance”, I stated assuringly, although my words assured neither her nor me. We kept walking. The pathway became covered, or maybe the clouds had covered the sun as we took a turn to enter a cool, dark and somewhat damp section of the alleyway. Suddenly the somewhat rustic shops with loud signboards had given way to older, darker rooms that seemed to be made of old stone of the kind that is only found in really old temples. But there wasn’t any symmetry to the placement of these rooms. We passed by a couple, not sure what those were, and saw another woman selling flowers sitting on the edge of a platform that resembled the adhisthana, but there was no temple around it. At this point, we were truly lost, so we asked again, “Amma, where is Kashi Vishwanath?”, she pointed further ahead. My cousin wanted to see what was inside the room, but I stopped her, “on our way back”, I said curtly. A few steps ahead, on the left, we came across an opening with a mandapam style structure. Some relief came upon us. The beautiful carvings on the sides of this structure on this ancient stone gave a reassuring feeling. We raised our gaze to a stunning shikhara with intricate carvings. We turned to enter and saw a majestic Ganpati staring back at us. We bowed and climbed the two steps. A saffron-clad priest appeared. We offered prayers as he gave us some prasad. “Pandit ji, Kashi Vishwanath?” I asked. He pointed to the wall behind us, “Its that way. Go from any side”, he said as he vanished back into the cool room where Ganesha sat. I took another glimpse of the sight as if committing it to memory and we proceeded to take the alley on the other side. I think we got a little lost when we decided to change alleys, but we soon passed another one or two of those strange dark rooms that my cousin was anxious to investigate. I insisted on continuing. We then came across something we really weren’t expecting.
We stared in disbelief at a gigantic Nandi, the largest ever I had seen until then (it remains one of the largest I have seen, surpassed only by the one at Nandi Hills in Karnataka). Instinctively, we looked in the direction which he was facing, expecting an equally giant and majestic structure which would be the house of Shiva. A wall. At this point, I was truly lost and in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I had no idea about the history of this temple. This realisation was dawning on me very quickly, even then. “This is all very strange and unexpected. We must read up on the history of this temple. Why isn’t the Nandi facing Shiva? It is a rule that is never violated, why here then? Must be some special reason. This is, after all, the most famous Shiva temple ever, maybe they have different rules here.” I thought to myself as we touched the feet of the Nandi and proceeded down the alleyway which had started to widen by now. Nandi is said to hear our wishes and convey them to Shiva. All he must’ve heard from me was my confused mutterings…. A huge crowd had started to appear which seemed like the tail-end of a queue. We took our place in the queue. Since the sun seemed like it was about to set and it was getting cooler, the crowds would only increase, I thought, as we patiently braced ourselves to enter the upcoming sea of people.
I have no recollection of how I found myself to be in the middle of a large blob of people each of whom seemed certain of where they were going. After some pushing and shoving, I found myself facing a small structure, at least smaller than what I had imagined. It looked more like a gazebo than a mandapam, until you looked up to its gold-plated shikhara. If it weren’t for the gold plating and the gigantic crowds, I would have easily passed by it because it was much smaller than I expected. In hindsight, I think the reason I was expecting a much larger structure was because of the size of the Nandi. A 7-foot Nandi, ought to be accompanied by an equally large structure. Four policemen stood in the center of all four open sides of the mandapam, blocking the sea of people with both hands, deftly controlling who entered, as people tried to push from under their arms into the mandapam. This must be it. None of the other structures was as crowded, I wondered. So I pushed through.
The sight of Baba Vishwanath was re-assuring. A silver lingam, much smaller than the Nandi, and definitely much smaller than my imagination was housed in the centre, surrounded by a 4-foot railing with every devotee trying to pour their offerings on it, only to be shoved forward by the policemen. A priest sat near the lingam, periodically interjecting, cleaning, all the while chanting mantras. It must have been a few seconds before I was already facing the lingam, frown lines on my face when my cousin nudged me to put the offerings. I took them out of the bag and as I put them inside through the railings, I noticed that the guards were already getting frustrated by my slowness. So I hurried up and before I could bow my head in prayer, I found myself being pushed out. I threw another glimpse at Baba, to memorise the sight and before we knew it, we were out from the other end of the mandapam.
The crowd thinned out from here on and we started walking back to the alley. We hadn’t said anything to each other since that one sentence at the beginning of the trip. We were now walking back through the pathway as we crossed the Nandi once again. We came back to those strange dark rooms and this time, my cousin had decided to investigate. So she entered one of them, as soon as our eyes settled into the darkness, we noticed a murti behind a door. We squinted and it seemed like a devi, or was it some devata? There was no one around to ask until a priest dressed in a black garment emerged and said, “Bhairon devata”. We nodded in recognition. We bowed, put some dakshina in the donation box which was now much more visible and headed back on our way. We passed by a few other temples, which we somehow didn’t notice on our way in. Some familiar gods, some not so much, but we simply bowed from outside and moved on. Our collective mood had somehow become too solemn to go inside.
We were walking quietly now, lost in our thoughts, and we almost passed by the shop where we had left our slippers. “Did you get a good darshana?”, the shopkeeper asked in the quintessential Indian nod. We nodded in a yes. “Was very crowded”, my cousin replied. The shopkeeper nodded knowingly, “That is aaaaalways the case.” I wasn’t sure why I was feeling angry and dejected at this point. I felt a surge of anger towards this shopkeeper now. Why was he encroaching on temple lands? Why was he contributing to the shoddy condition of this temple? Why is everything so unkempt? My cousin tried to give him something for his troubles but he said, “its free, beti”. His familial affection toned down my anger slightly. We went back out the door towards Dashashwamedh Ghats where the Ganga Aarti had started. I was still quiet, lost in my thoughts. We found a good seat and we quietly sat and enjoyed the aarti, the beauty of the experience acting as a soothing balm on my tempestuous mood.
It wasn’t until a year later when I landed upon the English translation of S. L. Bhyarappa’s famous Kannada book, “Aavarana”, by Sandeep Balakrishnan. I am not a big fan of English translations because they somehow fail to capture the depth and emotion of Indic works, but this book was different. Words cannot describe what I felt going through its pages. It is not a particularly long book but it took me so long to finish it, especially because its narration of Kashi Vishwanath’s history fell on me like a tonne of bricks. Each sentence hammered a new blow to my heart, so much so that I would weep at every page, sometimes almost bawling. Memories of my recent Kashi Vishwanath visit and of my emotions, while I was walking around those corridors, became like arrows that kept piercing my heart.
How ignorant have I been? How stupid? How foolish? My thoughts kept returning to the Nandi. How he wasn’t facing Shiva and I had foolishly concluded that it must’ve been an exception for this temple. How I had been judging the shopkeepers and perhaps even the priests for my disappointment when all this time, a veil had been thrown in front of my eyes. How had I managed to remain ignorant about the violent history of my land as I spent my entire life living merely 300 km away from this place? Why was I reading about this through an English translation of a Kannada book? Why had no one told me? Why didn’t they tell me this at school? Why were successive governments so apathetic even after 70 years of independence? Anger, frustration, sadness, helplessness took turns as tears refused to stop as I went through those pages. I cried. At every memory, every image, every mention of Kashi Vishwanath. What had my ancestors suffered through? How much pain and anguish and tyranny would they have endured just to ensure that I had THIS life and was born in THIS faith? Do I fully appreciate that our ancestors lived through hell when they could have easily sacrificed their beliefs for an easier, comfortable, safer life? Have I done justice to their sacrifices by honouring my traditions and faith? I get lumps in my throat every time I am reminded of Baba even if through a tweet or an image on the internet. Someone recently shared pictures of temple structures that emerged from demolished houses being cleared for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor. I cried then too. How do Kashi residents manage their emotions as they are continuously reminded that even today, 70 years since independence, their Lord is still sitting in a place which is not fitting even for an elected official?
What made me cry audibly, once again, though, was this animated video.
A simple presentation style 3D video of the proposed structure for Baba tweeted from the Prime Minister’s account. Words fail me at the relief mixed with joy, anticipation and anxiety I feel as the video goes through the Ganga Ghats towards Baba. As if a civilizational debt is about to be paid… I am sure our ancestors join me in blessing those who are involved in the sacred work of paying back our civilisational debt. Baba will finally have a home that befits his stature. Almost.
Har Har Mahadev.