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Kashi: Shiva’s family – Bhairavas, Devis, and Ganesha

Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana

There are many both benevolent and fearsome stories of Shiva. In benevolent form, he is depicted as an omniscient Yogi who lives an ascetic life on the Mount Kailash as well as a householder with wife Parvati and his two children, Ganesha and Kartikeya (Skanda). Also, Shiva has his fierce form, Bhairava. As mentioned according to puranic narration, there are 324 forms of Shiva, so to his consort Parvati also 324 forms (i.e. 12-time cycle like months X 9-space edges, i.e. 4 main and 4 cardinal directions and the 1 centre X 3-mythical realm = 324). Except Kartikeya, the rest associates have distinct places in Varanasi, and also all are linked to pilgrimage routes.

1. Bhairava: Ordered Location and Territorial Control

Says Kramrisch (1992: 278), “The mythical figure of Mahākāla is Bhairava. The hierarchy of Time within Lord Shiva is acted out in the myth of Bhairava.The myth shows the overcoming of temporality that has its image in Kāla, the god who is Time and Death”.  Visuvalingam and Visuvalingam (2006: 95) have explicitly described the personality and role of Bhairava: “As secret transgressive identity of the royal Shiva in the form of Kashi Vishvanatha, Bhairava is of central significance to the holy city of Banaras. The divine magistrate (kotwāl), who inflicts his liberating metaphysical punishment (bhairavī yātanā) at the sacrificial pillar, is also the brahmanicide who has violated the most sacred laws of the Hindu tradition”. The Kashi Khanda (KKh, 72-93) and the TS (195) describe location of eight Bhairava images, located at different places in an order that each one controlling the cardinal points (cf. Table 9.1), but after passage of time many of the original sites have been shifted and get transformed. Sukul (1977: 21) has discovered a manuscript describing the details of the Bhairava yatra that described the pilgrimage to these sites. The Kāla Bhairava is considered to be the overall overseer of the ‘life-death-time’ in Varanasi (KKh 31); popularly He is perceived as Kotwāl of the city, therefore in the above list He is not mentioned. In addition to the nine Bhairavas, eight more are also referred in mythologies and their temples established in the past in the city: Ananda-I, Batuka, Avashana, Dvara, Kankala. Ashu or Mohana, Ananda-II, and Dandapani (cf. Fig. 9.1). Thus, altogether there exist 17 Bhairava shrines. The yatra is performed on the 8th and the 14th day of each lunar month, and also on each Sunday and Tuesday. Presently, pilgrimage to Kāla Bhairava is most common; and annual celebration happens on the 8th day of dark-half (waning) in Margashirsha (November-December) of Hindu calendar. The Bhairava yatra records its historical root in the puranic literature: MP (181.28-30) mentions a great seat of Bhairava, and the KKh (31.40-47, 59-60, 114-115, 121-122, 138-140, 148-152; 72.93) gives the glorious description of Bhairavas in Kashi.

Fig. 9.1. Varanasi: location of the Bhairavas (after and @ the authors).

Fig. 9.1. Varanasi: location of the Bhairavas (after and @ the authors).

Table 9.1. Bhairava Yatra, KKh, 72.93 (see Fig. 9.1).

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2. Devi, Shiva’s consort

Kashi is compared to a woman (Kashi Khanda 7.66) ‘whose two beautiful eyes are Lolarka (in the south) and Adi Keshava (in the north), whose two arms are the Varana (in the north) and the Asi river (in the south). That is how the territory between the two rivers and two divine spots merges into a divine energy represented in the form of a woman. At the next level, there are two shrines of the ‘City as Goddess.’ The small shrine of Kashi Devi at Lalita Ghat is eulogised as the giver of relief from all the sins and the cycle of transmigration (cf. Kashi Rahasya 17.29). Similar description is also narrated for Varanasi Devi, whose shrine lies in the Trilochan temple (cf. Kashi Khanda 33.127). However, sometimes the city itself is referred to as the mother goddess (cf. Kashi Khanda 30.71).

The images, forms, motives involved, varieties of rituals performed, role of sacred place and sacred time, etc. are vividly described in the Puranic mythologies that helped to maintain and continue the tradition of goddess worship, reaching at its zenith by the turn of 12th century CE (for details see Singh and Singh 2006).  According to the Kashi Khanda, dated ca. 13th century, there developed multiplicity of layers, orderings, locations and hierophanies of goddesses, thus reference of 324 forms are enumerated, among which today only 96 are existent, and the rest merged into theses form still invoked in rituals with a different name. The notable categories include Yoginis, Durgas, Gauris, Matrikas, Chandis, Kali, Kshetra Devis, Mahavidyas, and folk goddesses. All these forms converge into spatial patterning and cosmic ordering, resulting to form a complex system where goddesses exist as omnipresent and omniscient in the sacredscape of Varanasi.  

The KKh (70.10-97) describes the list of Kshetra Devis, representing combination of all the important forms of goddesses, which includes all Durgas, Gauris (of course, sometimes variant names), and many other goddesses of Kashi in addition to Chandis who in different contexts and from different directions and different places protect the territory of Kashi; their number reaches to 41 (Fig. 9.2). By this combination the numerical symbolism of the inner portion of the Sri Yantra is represented; of course, the total number of triangles in the inner part of the Sri Yantra comes to 45, based on the crossing and superimposition of nine triangles. Performance of pilgrimage to their shrines is prescribed on each of the ninth or eighth day of the waxing or waning of the lunar month. However, this pilgrimage is not undertaken these days, and most of the goddesses of this group are worshipped together with other goddesses.

The KKh (70) describes the spatial and divine characteristics of the Kshetra Devis. Vishalakshi is described as adjacent to Vishala Kund (‘water pool’), which was once connected to the Ganga River. However, at present this water pool does no longer exist. This sacred place is eulogised as Mahapitha (“the great seat”), which possesses the strong power to liberate the soul from transmigration (KKh 70.16). The myth that her worship helps to get conception attracts a large mass of newly married ladies (KKh 70.15). The other prominent Kshetra Devi has been Maha Lakshmi, located in the neighbourhood named after her, i.e. Lakshmi Kund. In the month of Ashvina (September-October), the bright fortnight is especially auspicious for goddess worship. These distribution patterns of 96 goddesses are in close correspondence with the self-organising system, representing the idea of opposite poles and corresponding opposite forces.

Fig. 9.2. Varanasi: The Kshetra Devis (after and @ the authors)

Fig. 9.2. Varanasi: The Kshetra Devis (after and @ the authors)

Though there are many versions of Durga’s origin myth, She is commonly accepted as a most powerful warrior goddess who appeared on earth under many names for the destruction of demons. She obtained the name Durga because she slew a demon named Durga (cf. KKh, 71; 72.81). According to the DM (11.38-51; 12.32) Durga is narrated as cosmic force incarnate in many forms to kill the demons and maintain the cosmic order. Her origin in the backdrop of cosmic crisis highlights her as cosmic mother who intervenes on behalf of her devotees. 

By contextual inference Durga means ‘who destroys misfortune’; this supreme power is the spirit of the trinity of forces of creation, preservation, and destruction. Durga is described in nine forms, parallel to the eight directions and the centre as She protects the cosmic territory (cf. Fig. 9.3). The number 9 may also be compared with the number of planets in Hindu mythology, which directly influence the earthly happenings and human realm. The spatio-geometrical arrangement of the 9 Durgas is like the three layers of spire crossing at the cardinal points, each of which is taken care of by one of the forms of Durga. Pilgrims and devotees especially visit these nine forms of Durga during the nine nights (navaratri) of spring and autumn, sequentially one of the Durgas on each of the nine days.  Pilgrims and devotees especially visit these nine forms of Durga during the nine nights (navaratri) of spring and autumn, sequentially one of the Durgas on each of the nine days. The nine Durga forms are: Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayini, Kalaratri, Mahagauri (Annapurna), and Siddhidatri (Fig. 9.3). With the increasing sense of making social identity high, now the people of higher castes and wealthier classes are adding more decorations at grand and bigger scale to their Durga-pavilions, installed in this period.

Fig. 9.3. The Durgas.

Fig. 9.3. The Durgas

3. Shiva’s son Ganesha: Images and Cosmic Order

Since the Vedic period (ca. 2000 BCE), it has been a tradition to worship many gods once at a time— what Max Müller called kathenotheism. This nature of pluralism and polytheism is commonly practised in the form of pañcadevas (five gods union) which consists of Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti (goddess), Surya (sun) and Ganesha. The Rāmapūrvatapanīya Upanishad (Shastri 1970: 7) mentions that these five gods respectively refer to the five gross-elements of cosmic life, i.e. sky/ether, earth, fire, air and water. Ganesha as symbol of water lies at the base. Ganesha is the most popular deity of the Hindu pantheon and worshipped before every material undertaking to remove obstacles and provide wisdom. Therefore, in every temple of Shiva in Varanasi, and in other parts of India too, there stands some form of Ganesha.

The first reference of Ganesha is given in the Rig Veda (2.31.1): “We call upon you, upon the hosts, the leader of hosts.” However, the worship of Ganesha became popular during the second to fifth centuries CE, the mythologies mention Ganesha who requires ritual propitiation (Courtright 1985: 9).  The Mahābhārata (13.151) eulogises Ganesha as the incarnation of the Primordial Man (Brahman) who maintains the balance and order in the universe. 

Ganesha is mostly described as elephant-headed god associated to the mythology of beheading. Commonly, it is believed that Ganesha’s stories belong to the pre-Aryan and oral traditions which in span of time were frequently interpolated in later mythologies — varying from the early Purānas like Brahmānda (2) and Matsya (154), dated c. C.E. 300-500, to the late Purānas like Ganesha and Mudgala, dated c. CE 1300-1600. More detailed accounts of Ganesha’s beheading are found in the middle Purānas (c. CE 500-1300) like Devi (111-116), Linga (105), Shiva (2), Skanda (1.3.7) and Varāha (1.9). In the context of O’Flaherty’s five levels of meaning behind a myth (O’Flaherty 1973: 2), the story of Ganesha’s beheading may be explained as (i) an “explanation” of his elephant’s head (etiological), (ii) an account of the birth of a god (narrative), (iii) a variation on the theme of sacrifice and expiation (metaphorical), (iv) an expression of the mediation between the forces of worldly attachment and the release of moksha (cosmological /metaphysical), and (v) an exploration of the ambivalence inevitable in the relations among fathers, mothers, and  sons (socio-psychological) (Courtright 1985: 19).

Fig. 9.4. Kāshī Mandala: 56 Vināyakas & 3 Khandas (after and @ the authors).

Fig. 9.4. Kāshī Mandala: 56 Vināyakas & 3 Khandas (after and @ the authors).

In his role as Vināyaka, the over-comer of obstacles, Ganesha, appropriates much of the guardian symbolism related to cosmological level. The Puranic cosmologies mention that the elephants, having been brought forth out of the cosmic egg by Brahma at the beginning of creation, stand as guardians of the four directions and the four intermediate directions in all the seven layers of realm between the earth and the heaven (symbolically representing seven layers of the atmosphere). Thus, his number reaches to 56, i.e. 8 directions x 7 layers (Fig. 9.3). In this form elephant-headed Ganesha expresses his highest form of guardian capacity (Singh, Rana 1993: 156). The cosmic circuit of Kashi is determined by the linga of Madhyameshvara, the centre, and Dehlī Vināyaka, the radial point, covering a distance of five kroshas (17.6 km). Ganesha in the form of Dehlī Vināyaka as the guardian of the threshold of the western entrance into Kashi and Varanasi, is serving as the protector of the sacred territory (Gutschow 1994: 197).

Ganesha as ‘leader of the army’, called Vighneshvara, refers to “the god who removes not only the jungle in front of the marching soldiers but all that obstructs his devotees” (Pillai 1959: 14). This again indicates the role of Ganesha as controller of the territory. The Linga Purāna (115.15-27) describes the mythology of accepting Vināyaka as lord of obstacles, how by worshipping him one gets relief from the obstacles, which resulted to introduce his worship at the beginning of any ritual. 

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. 9.4). 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 (see Getty 1936; Courtright 1985). 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. Arka (Lolarka), Durg (Durgakund), Bhima Chanda (Bhimachandi), Delhi (Bhatauli), Uddanda (Bhuili), Pashpani (Sadar Bazar), Kharva (Adi Keshava Ghat), and Siddhi (Manikarnika Gali) Vinayakas (see Fig. 9.5) may be interpreted as the outermost limit of the territory established through forest clearing, therefore the first ring of the eight Vinayakas are lying there.  

The Kashīkhanda of the Skanda Purāna (KKh 57.59-116) describes the spatial and religious connotation of all the 56 Vināyakas. The details, of these Vināyakas are given in Table 9.2; and their spatio-cosmologial model shows the eight directions, seven layers, three segments and four sacred journeys (Figs. 9.4).

Table 9.2.  Varanasi: The 56 Vinayakas (spiral line & direction, cf. Fig. 9.4). 

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(The latitudes and longitudes are based on GPS values, using GPS Garmin 12X, © Rana P.B. Singh)
In each of the Layer the 8 Vinayakas refer the location from the SE to E direction, clockwise.
I-layer (avarana): Ref. Kkh, 57. 59 – 67.
II-layer , Ref. Kkh, 57.68 – 78
III-layer , Ref. Kkh, 57.79 – 88
IV-layer , Ref. Kkh, 57. 69 – 97
V-layer , Ref. Kkh, 57. 98 – 107.
VI-layer , Ref. Kkh, 57. 108 – 112
VII-layer , Ref. Kkh, 57. 113 – 114
Fig. 9.5. Varanasi: The Four Pilgrimage Circuits (after and @ the authors).

Fig. 9.5. Varanasi: The Four Pilgrimage Circuits (after and @ the authors).

The outermost layer of the eight Vināyakas corresponds with the Pañcakroshī route, starting from the southeast, followed successively by the seven Vināyakas, and finally reaching to the east. This sequence is followed in a systematic order. Similarly, the second layer corresponds with the nagara pradakshinā route, and the third with the Avimukta route (Fig. 9.5). The fourth, fifth and sixth layers follow their own routes, while again the seventh layer follows the Vishveshvara (“inner sanctum”) route (cf. Singh, Rana 1987).  According to the textual reference (KKh 57.115) and tradition the pilgrim must pass through one chain these threshold guardians after another as they approach the centre of the city, i.e. the courtyard of Vishveshvara – the patron deity of the city, where the pilgrim recites the names of all the Vināyakas.

The spatial pattern of 56 Vināyakas shows the cosmic model Varanasi symbolized in terms of the directions and realms between the earth and the heaven or sky. The seven layers form a spiral shape. The seven-round spiral symbolizes the understanding of reality, both physically and transcendentally, and reminds the pilgrims that the resort of Vināyaka is everywhere but the circumference nowhere. This is similar to the case of Shiva in the antargriha (“inner sanctum”) journey (Singh, Rana 1994: 196).  In terms of hermeneutic philosophy, this may be seen as the essence of the archetype — “the circle never closes.” This cosmicized pattern also shows reflection of macrocosmos on the mesocosmos and further at the lower level the microcosmos (the image itself).

The Kashikhanda (57.116) describes that after completion of the sacred journey of these seven layers, at the end pilgrim has to worship Dhundhirāja Ganesha remembering there all the fifty-six Vināyakas.  Dhundhirāja is out of the above list and considered to be the king of all the Vināyakas (KKh 56.43).  In abstract form, those unable to perform the sacred journey of all the Vināyakas are advised to worship a special image of Vināyaka who represents all the 56 forms — called Chappana Vināyaka, lying in the temple compound of Vrishabhadhvajeshvara at Kapiladhara (the fifth night-halting spot on the Pañchakroshi route) This tradition is not referred to in the Puranic mythology and is assumed to have been developed in the late eighteenth century.

In another context the Puranic mythologies also mention twenty-one additional Vināyakas, grouped under numerical-symbolic units like chatvāra (4), pañcha (5), ekādasha (11) Vināyakas, and an extra (ekala) form of Sakshī Vināyakas (Table 5.10). At some places one form supersedes the other, while at some places the images have disappeared but later on have been re-established. However, these 21 additive Vināyakas are occasionally visited by pilgrims. The Marathi text Gurucharitra (ca. CE 1480), which has substantial part on Varanasi, mentions only five Vināyakas and some of the others as ancillary images in various journeys (cf. Tables 9.3, 4, 5, and 6).

 Table 9.3. Varanasi.  Pancha Vinayaka Yatras, PVY.   Kkh, 57. 123 – 125.

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Table 9.4. Varanasi.  Panchamrita Vinayaka Yatras,  PmVY.   Kkh.

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Table 9.5. Varanasi.  Asthapradhana Vinayaka Yatras,  ApVY.  Kkh.

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Table 9.6. Varanasi: Other (extra) Vinayaka Yatras.

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(Sources: Pauranic texts, and field surveys by the authors)

Traditionally, every fourth day of dark fortnight of the lunar month is auspicious for the worship to Vināyaka; however, if Tuesday falls on that day it increases the merit. The fourth day of dark fortnight of Bhādrapada (August-September) and Māgha (January-February) are prescribed as special days to Vināyaka worship. The first date is considered to be the birth day of Ganesha (Ganeshacaturthī). Most of the mothers perform this festival while fasting for the full day, and after having a glimpse of the moon in the late evening take food. This festival is performed for the removal of difficulties and well-being of the son. The festival is celebrated at mass scale in Western India (Maharashtra), but it is a domestic festival in North India. Many devotees perform two-day sacred journey of 56 Vināyaka around the fourteenth day of light fortnight in the month of Māgha. On this occasion a grand celebration of religious performances is held at the temple of Bade Ganesha; of course, this image is out of the list of fifty-six images of Vināyaka in Varanasi. Most commonly on every fourth day of dark fortnight devotees pay visit to one or many Vināyakas together with other divinities. In the process of folk tradition to perform Panckakroshī Yātrā, two more Vināyakas have been introduced and worshipped with special offering of barley in saptāvarana.

The Vināyaka images are the representations of the polythetic-prototype feature of Hinduism; in a broad outlook all the forms are similar, however in special character and merit bestowing capacity the prototype changes to polythetic. On the other scale forms of Vināyaka refer to sacred geometry and network forming a cosmogram. In spite of several superseding layers and transformation in history the basic nature-of structure and forms are still alive passing through a channel of “existence-maintenance-continuance.” Even in spite of lesser intensity of involvement in religious activities in the present secular society, the overall attitude of the Hindus is the same as it was in the past. This is the essence of maintaining continuity of symbolism, cosmicised structure and belief system. Above all, the Vināyaka forms-their variety and distinction, their textual and oral traditions, their protoness and polytheism, their Vedic context and Purānic inference-contribute to understanding the deeper meanings and messages preserved therein.

Basic Sources

Lannoy, Richard 2002. Benares: A World within a World. The Microcosm of Kashi Yesterday and Tomorrow. Indica Books, Varanasi. 

Singh, Pratibha 2004. Shiva-Kashi: Pauraṇic Paripekṣya aur Vartman Saṅdarbh (Shiva-Kashi: Pauraṇic Background and Present Context). Vishvavidyalaya Prakashan, Varanasi. [in Hindi].

Singh, Rana P.B. (eds.) 1993. Banaras (Varanasi). Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions. Tara Book Agency, Varanasi. [an anthology of 20 essays].

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

Singh, Rana P.B. 2009b. 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. 2002. Banaras Region. A Spiritual and Cultural Guide. Pilgrimage & Cosmology Series: 1. Indica Books, Varanasi. 2nd ed. 2006; pp. 161-174.  

Singh, Rana P.B. and Rana, Pravin S. 2021. Cultural Diplomacy in India: Dispersal, Heritage Representation, Contestation and Development. In: Olimpia Niglio and Eric Yong Joong Lee (eds.) Transcultural Heritage and International Law: Ethic, laws, and dialogue among cultures. Cultural Diplomacy & Heritage series. Springer Nature Pte Ltd. Singapore, Singapore: ca pp. 267-294 <Chapter 16>

Sukul, Kuberanath 1977 (Samvata 2034). Varanasī Vaibhava. (The Glory of Varanasi). Rastrabhasha Parishad, Patna. [in Hindi].

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