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Kashi and Shiva: Interrelatedness and Making of Cosmos

Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana

Introduction: Shiva and Varanasi

Similar to syllable Oṁ, Shiva is considered as a god without any form or attributes, and further stands for all knowledge. His name Shambhu derived from Svayambhuva reflects the meaning of self-born. It has been realized in ancient past that he was at the bottom of everything that is moving, he was called Ishvara, or “i-chara” (I = this, and chara = to move) (Pillai, 1959: 11). It is therefore various forms of Shiva are transposed in the city of Varanasi/Kashi in the form of Ishvara (as suffix to the various forms of Siva), and a lingam has been installed there to honour that form. 

It is a popular saying that every piece of stone has divinity of Shiva in Kashi. This proverb clearly indicates a large number of Shiva lingams, and also peoples’ strong belief to worship Siva as the patron deity of the city. In the processes of humanization and sanctification, ail human performances are added to Lord Shiva, therefore worship of various lingams is associated to different motives. 

There are many legends and Puranic descriptions about the origin of worship of Shiva in an anthropomorphic and ithyphallic form, usually as the stylized lingam. Most of the Western scholars believe in the latter concept. But according to another interpretation the Shiva lingam consists of three parts: a square at the bottom, an octagon in the centre and a cylinder with spherical end at the top. Symbolically the square represents Brahma, the creator; the octagon represents Vishnu, the preserver; and the round portion which vanishes at the top even without a point represents Shiva, the destroyer. Thus, the lingam integrates evolution, existence and involution, i.e. shristhi, sthiti, and samhara (Pillai 1959: 19-20). This number three also to be compared with Shiva’s trishula― three-pronged spear, Trident. These are symbolized in the landscape of Varanasi with the three sacred segments, each having antargriha (inner circuit) route along with their associated patron deity: Vishveshvara in the centre, Omkareshvara in the north, and Kedareshvara in the south. It is this perception that Kashi is believed to be settled on the trishula.

Shiva, the supreme: Shiva Linga, the Mandala

The frame of the cosmic reality, according to ancient Hindu thought, consists of the three fundamental states called evolution (shrishthi), existence (sthiti), and involution (samhara) that act in an infinite cyclic process. Each one of these phases is controlled by a god, named Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the one who completes the cosmic cycle and re-start it); these three gods form a kind of Trinity (trimurti).  Shiva, being the last to complete the cycle from which a new cycle starts, is known as Mahadeva, the Supreme Divinity. The iconographic form of Shiva, the Linga, represents the unity of the three states of the cosmos (Fig. 2.1).

The Agni Purana (53.3-5), an early 6th century text, mentions that “the linga should extend progressively in the Brahma and Vishnu portions. That for Brahma should be four sided, that for Vishnu eight, sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four sided, and that for Shiva should be round”. The linga consists of the three parts. The first is a square base of three-layers at the bottom showing the three mythical realms (lokas), symbolising evolution – the place of Brahma (cf. Singh 2009: 125). The second is an octagonal round form in the middle showing the eight directions, symbolising existence or perseverance – the place of Vishnu; and the third is a cylinder at the top with a spherical end, symbolising involution or completion of the cosmic cycle – the place of Shiva. The Agni Purana (53.5) has further elaborated on the vertical position of the linga; it says: “… from the foot up to the knees should be Brahma’s portion, from the knees up to the navel it should be Vishnu’s portion, and from the navel up to the top of the head should be Shiva’s portion. The portion assigned to Brahma is buried in the ground, that for Vishnu is within the pithika, and that for Shiva is above the pithika.”

Fig. 2.1. Shiva Linga as Mandala (after and @ the authors).

Fig. 2.1. Shiva Linga as Mandala 

Typology of Siva Lingams

According to the Skanda Purana- Kashi Khanda, KKh (97.261, 269, 280) there exist 511 Shiva lingams in the Varanasi region (Sukul 1977: 122). Referring to typology, in Kashi a five-tier hierarchy of lingams, famous for their various niches of spiritual magnetism, can be identified: 

(i). Self-born lingams (Svayambhu)

These lingams are self-originated, having came into existence autochthonously in the primordial past. It is believed that the inner portion is interlinked with the bottom of the river Ganga. On pan-India level sixty-eight sites of Svayambhu lingams are identified, of them twelve are the most important and located in various parts of India. It refers to twelve months in a year, thus the performances of sacrifices and worships to these sites refer to the totality of the year, the twelve dominion, and the twelve parts of human body. In Varanasi some of these lingams clearly represent the older course of the Ganga, and even the nature of land depression as even today they are lying in a relatively low area where a ditch-shaped construction has been made. The twelve svyambhu lingams are given in the Table 1. 

(ii). Lingams installed by the Hindu Planets and Gods.

Among such lingams, the seven installed by the planet gods (graha devatas) are notable, which are especially worshipped for getting relief from curses of the particular planet; the details are given in Table 2. Thus, the worship of these seven lingams complete the cycle of weekly pilgrimage. According to the KKh (31) there also exist forty-six other lingams established by the gods in and around the vicinity of Varanasi.

Table 2. Varanasi: Vara and Nava Graha (9 planets) Yatra, KKh 46. 14 – 17

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(iii). Lingas installed by the Great Saints

According to the KKh (73), there exist 47 lingas established by the great saints like Agastya, Atri, Kanadi, Gautam, Jabali, Jaimini, Durvasa, Narada, Pulatsya; Parashara, Bhardvaja, Bhrigu, Yajnavalakya, Vyasa, Vashishtha, Valmiki, Shaunaka, etc. Some of them have now lost their identity. The KKh (18. 16 – 21) prescribe special pilgrimage to the seven lingas manifested by the great Vedic sages, especially on the 5th day of the light-half of every month (cf. Table 3); however, one received special merit on Bhadrapada (Aug-Sept) light-half 5th day, called Rishi Panchami. This is a common tradition that while performing sacred journeys the devotees should also perform rituals and make oblation before the other divine images associated to the shrines or directly falling on the route of movement.

Table 3. Sapta Rishi Yatra, Seven Shiva Images

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(iv) Lingas installed by Shiva Ganas

According to the KKh (73) there exist forty lingas in the vicinity of Varanasi established by the Ganas of Shiva. Additionally, there are also five more lingas established by them. However, in common pilgrimage tradition only eight lingas established by Shiva’s ganas are visited, among which Dandapani is assumed to be the leader of the rest seven (see Table 4).

Table 4. Varanasi: Shiva’s Ganas and their installed lingas.

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(v). Spatially Transposed Lingams

Among such lingams, there are two categories:

(a)  Light-reflecting lingams (Jyotir-lingams), numbering twelve, of which one already in Varanasi in the form of patron deity, Vishveshvara. The rest spatially transposed in Varanasi are given in Table 5 (also see Fig. 2.2). 

(b) Replicated lingams (Pratirupa-lingams). According to the KKh sixty-five lingams were transposed in Varanasi symbolizing different lingams at various holy sites in India; of them only forty-five are still existing in Varanasi while the rest have vanished or lost their identity (see Sukul 1977: 164-167).

The universal personality of Shiva is represented with number five which shows wholeness. The five faces of Shiva originated out of ‘the formless Absolute (shunya), and they are source of the five shaktis and five kalas (energies and their subtle, material manifestations) from which the world is created. Each face is connected with certain qualities of power, specific mantra, direction, colour and the five basic elements of the organism (see Table 6, for details). It is, therefore, Shiva is regarded as Panchamukha (five-headed) with different symbolic colours for different forms, and each form is installed in Varanasi separately. The merit and glories of these five forms are given in the Linga Purana (1.23.18-22). Similar to Kashi, in Tamil Nadu five basic elements are represented in the sacred territory symbolized with a particular lingam: Ekambareshvara (earth), Kalahasti (water), Jambukeshvara (air), Chidambaram (ether), and Arunachala at Tiruvanamalai (fire). Even the mantra to please Shiva, panchakshari (namah shivaye, is related to the five forms, thus its muttering represents the absolute entity of the whole universe. 

Table 5. Varanasi: Jyotirlingas, Light-Manifested Forms of Shiva (see Fig. 2.2)

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Table 6. Shiva’s five forms in Varanasi and associated sacred qualities. 

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Reflection on Cosmogony

The Puranic literature describe Varanasi as the first city after the great cosmic dissolution (mahapralaya) which later developed as resort of Lord Shiva. This was first perceived long ago and promoted the installation of enormous forms of Shiva as Ishvara (the Universal Lord) in the sacred topography of Varanasi. The concept of spatial transposition and the cosmogony of the yatras (routes of pilgrimages) can be represented with a model of a series of concentric circles with sanctity increasing as one move towards the centre. In total there are seven layers of main circles of which each is intersected at eight places by radials.

The number eight signifies the eight directions, and seven, the seven layers in the atmosphere. Seven layers and eight directions intersect each other at fifty-six points where shrines of Ganesha in the form of Vinayaka are established (Fig. 2.3; for details see Singh 2009). This elephant-headed deity is the son of Shiva and considered as Lord of Obstacles and the Guardian of Thresholds who popularly exists on doorways and temple gateways. According to another interpretation Ganesha is considered ‘leader of the army’. Moreover, he is also known as Vighneshvara, “the god who removes not only the jungle in front of the marching soldiers, but all that obstructs hid devotees” (Pillai 1959: 14). With this perception the peopling and territorialisation of Kashi can be highlighted. The existence of first layer of eight Vinayakass on the Panchakroshi route, i.e. 1- Arka (Lolarka), 2- Durg (Durgakund), 3- Bhima Chanda (Bhimachandi), 4- Delhi (Bhatauli), 5- Uddanda (Bhuili), 6- Pashpani (Sadar Bazar), 7- Kharva (Adi Keshava Ghat), and 8- Siddhi (Manikarnika Gali) Vinayakas (see Fig. 2.4) may be interprete4d as the outermost limit of the territory established through forest clearing, therefore the first ring of the eight Vinayakas are lying there. 

The numbers three, four and five are again represented with various layers of yatras: three with Avimukta, Nagara Pradakshina and Panchakroshi; four additionally including Antargriha (i.e. Vishveshvara Antargriha); five including, in addition to the above four, Brihada Panchakroshi (Chaurashikroshi) route. These numbers may be symbolized with trident (three prongs); four arms, and five-headed image of Shiva. This again shows that Shiva is a universal god having control over three realms, four directions and five elements. It is this form of sacred topography in Varanasi which promotes its character towards “wholeness”. 

Similarly, Shiva’s other associates may also be analysed in terms of sacred sites and routes of pilgrimages, e.g. seven Gauris (numbering 12), Bhairavas (17), Durgas (9), etc.  As representative of transgressive identity of the royal Shiva, Bhairava is of central significance to the city. He, as the divine magistrate (kotwāl), inflicts his liberating metaphysical punishment (bhairavī yātanā) at the sacrificial pillar, to those who violate the sacred laws of the Hindu tradition.

According to another description, the two water channels, which delimit the territorial extent of the city in the north and south, can be compared to arteries of Shiva’s mythical body. In the language of yoga, the streams Asi and Varana, respectively, symbolise ida and pingala, and the third artery Matsyodari, or the Brahmanala interlinking the Ganga is referred to as sushumna (cf. Kashi Khanda 5.25‑26; 33.167). The various holy sites are said to correspond to the parts of the body of Shiva, as he himself said, ‘Kashi is my body’ (ibid.: 55.44).

According to the Kashi Khanda (33.167‑172), the city of Varanasi is Shiva’s body, whose different parts are represented by the selective 18 lingas. The number 18 symbolises the 18 branches of knowledge, including four Vedas, six parts of the Vedic divisions (Vedangas), and the rest of the branches. In this way, the city itself is the symbol of total knowledge. The visitation and performance of rituals at these sites provide the total knowledge. However, even by visiting a single linga of Puraneshvara (Krittivasheshvara), one can receive the similar merit (cf. Kashi Khanda 33.132), as this linga symbolises all the 18 lingas at another level, and thus this linga represents total knowledge (see Fig. 2.5).

According to an older version of the Linga Purana (as in KKT, p. 123), a sacred sub-territory (upakshetra) in Varanasi delineated with a triangle is called Trikantaka, delineated with the three forms of Shiva, i.e. Madhyameshvara,  Svarlineshvara and Avimukteshvara ―  identifying the three edges.  The territory of trikantaka [‘the three thorns of Kali (era of falseness), Kāla (death, time rhythm) and Karma (human deeds)’] is like a ‘cosmic whole’ in which the above three are ineffective (cf. Kkh 41.188). Like in the sheath system (hridaya chakra), Madhyameshvara, a self-born linga sprouted from the earth to please Shiva’s devotees and unique in appearance, is the axis mundi of the earth, which provides peace and prosperity to the devotees. This triangle is superimposed by the three forms of Devi (Shiva’s consort), i.e.  Mahamunda, Mahalakshmi and Brahmacharini (cf. Fig. 2.6). Their superimposition in the landscape make an archetypal representation of hexagram that integrates the energy of primordial feminine spirit (prakriti) and the power of cosmic masculinity (purusha); its centre is represented by the supreme power of nature goddess, Bhadrakali who takes hold and controls the rest six points (cf. Singh 2004: 59-60).


Through plotting Shiva’s lingams over the maps, along with his associates (consort Devi, son Ganesha, vehicle Nandi, terrifying form Bhairava, and his Ganas) and their linkages with various types of routes of pilgrimages, India’s synthetic view of “expanding universe” and “universe within universe” can be projected clearly. The nature of expansion is marked from the centre of the patron deity, Vishveshvara to the layers of yatras surrounding him. Further in reference to shrinking process, one can metaphorically analyse “universe within universe”. This interactional system of expanding-shrinking reflects the polythetic character of Indian religion, what Max Müller termed as kathenotheism (Eck 1982: 40). This notion is practised by the Varanasi dwellers through worshipping one supreme (Shiva) but along with all other gods together, as they are called as bahudevapujakas (worshippers of so many gods together). There still lies a vast and virgin potential field to research on Shiva’s Universe in Varanasi; this paper is just an indicative towards that great march. 

Basic Sources

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Kramrisch, Stella 1981. The Presence of Shiva. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Michell, George and Singh, Rana P.B. (eds.) 2005. Banaras, the City Revealed. Marg Publications, Mumbai.

Pillai, G.K. 1959. Hindu Gods and Hidden Mysteries. Kitab Mahal, Allahabad.

Singh, Pratibha 2004. Śiva-Kāśi: Paurāṇic Paripekṣya aur Vartmān Saṅdarbh (Śiva-Kashi: Paurāṇic Background and Present Context). Vishvavidyalaya Prakashan, Varanasi. [in Hindi].

Rana, Pravin S. 2014. Pilgrimage Tourism: A Study of Varanasi. SRME Publishers, Sagar, India.

Singh, Rana P.B. (ed.) 1993. BANARAS (Varanasi): Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions. Tara Book Agency, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B.  2004. Cultural Landscapes and the Lifeworld. The Literary Images of Banaras. Pilgrimage and Cosmology Series: 7. Indica Books, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B.  2009. Banaras, Making of India’s Heritage City. Planet Earth and Cultural Understanding, Series: 3. Cambridge Scholars Publishing Newcastle u. Tyne U.K. 

Singh, Rana P.B. 2009. Banaras, India’s Heritage City: Geography, History, & Bibliography.     [including Bibliography of 1276 sources, Hindu Festivals, 2006-15]. Pilgrimage and Cosmology Series: 8. Indica Books, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B. and Rana, Pravin S.  2021.  Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide. Pilgrimage & Cosmology Series: 1. Indica Books, Varanasi. 2nd Edition.

Sukul, Kuber Nath 1977. The Glory of Varanasi, Varanasi Vaibhava. Bihar Rastrabhasha Parisad, Patna. [in Hindi].

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