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Kashi, the three Khandas— Vishveshvara, Kedara, and Omkareshvara: Symbolism, Territory & the Circuits.

Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana

Shiva and Varanasi

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: Omkareshvara in the north, Vishveshvara in the centre, and Kedareshvara in the south, (Fig. 4.1). It is this perception that Kashi is believed to be settled on the trishula

According to popular religious traditions there appear 56 pilgrimage routes (sacred journeys) and all having a fixed symbolic number of deities, symbolising cosmogonic perspective. Among these pilgrimages the eight are the most common and still in practice at different degrees; they are Panchakroshi Yatra (PY), Nagar Pradakshina (NP), Avimukta Yatra (AV), Vishveshvara Antargriha (VA), Kedareshvara Antargriha (KA), Omkareshvara Antargriha (OA), Uttaramanas Yatra (UM), and Dakshinamanas Yatra (DM). Altogether in these eight yatras total 774 divine images are ritually worshipped. The most common form of divinity is Shiva (444), his consort goddess (80), son Ganesha (58), his assistants (22), and his black-form (21); thus, his and his associates number records around 81 per cent of share in the total number of divinities (cf. Table 1). Almost all these images and the routes are described in a late 15th century text, Gurucharitra, which clearly justify the historicity of these pilgrimage routes and the affiliated deities.

Table  1. Kashi (Varanasi): Divine Forms/ Deities in the main Tirthayatras.

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[1 PY Panchakroshi Yatra, 2 NP Nagar Pradakshina, 3 AY Avimukta Yatra, 4 KA Kedareshvara Antargriha, 5 VA Vishveshvara Antargriha, 6 OA Omkareshvara Antargriha, 7 UM Uttaramanas Yatra, 8 DM Dakshinamanas Yatra; 9 A-K Total Kashi].

Vishveshvara (Khanda) Antargriha (inner sanctum) Yatra

The Vishveshvara Antargriha journey is prescribed as an essential introductory or closing rite before or after performing the Panchakroshi Yatra. This symbolises the unity of the beginning and the end, thus finally converging into a mandala. This journey was so important that James Prinsep in his 1822 map of the City has fully outlined it. Presently around half of the pilgrims performing Panchakroshi Yatra perform Antargiha Yatra at the different stages. The total shrines and temples attached to this route numbered to 72 (Fig. 4.2).

This Yatra is eulogised in detail in ca 13th century text, the Kashi Khanda (KKh 100.76a-95), the fourth part of the Skanda Purana, and also in an early ca 16th century Marathi text, the Guru Charitra, GC (41.161-187). The Marathi text described the shrines with some variation in the sequence and sometimes even new shrines added. This situation is possible because the author of the GC was not an inhabitant of Varanasi and probably not knowing full the pronunciation. There is also possibility that in that period some local deities added to this journey with variant names. By our field experiences, it is obvious that the presently existing pilgrimage routes and associated deities and shrines are according to the narration given in the KKh.

The pilgrimage journey route around the Vishveshvara delimits the sacred territory of his inner sanctum (antargriha). According to puranic description its four directional boundaries can be fixed as: the Ganga river in the east, Gokarneshvara in the west, Bharabhuteshvara in the north and Brahmeshvara in the south (Kashi Khanda, KKh 74.45). Besides the Vishveshvara Antargiha, there also exists two more antargihas, viz. Omkareshvara and Kedareshvara (Fig. 4.1). Of course, the Vishveshvara Antargiha Yatra is more widely eulogised in the puranas and treatises, and very popular among the pilgrims. The literary sources prescribe to perform this sacred journey daily, if not possible then once in a fortnight or a month, but certainly once in a year. The most common period to perform this sacred journey is the 14th day of light-half of every month but more suitably in the months of Phalguna (February-March), Karttika (October-November), and Margashirsha (November-December). However, the Maha Shivaratri (Shiva’s day of marriage, i.e. the 13th day of dark-half fortnight in Phalguna) is the most suitable for bestowing religious merits. Those performing annual Panchakroshi Yatra, complete the journey on the day of Maha Shivaratri.

Following the Kashi Khanda (KKh 100.76a-95), the pilgrims perform introductory rites after purificatory bath in the Ganga at Manikarnika Ghat, followed by glancing and worship to Vishveshvara, Annapurna and the Five Vinayakas (Ganeshas: Moda, Promoda, Surmukha, Durmukha and Gananntha). Then they take vow for completion of the journey (sankalpa) in the Muktimandapa at Jñānavāpi. Again, the pilgrims go to the shrine of Manikarnika Devi (site no. 1) from where the actual journey gets start. Before closing the journey Five Vinayakas again to be worshipped, followed by Vishveshvara and Annapurna. The Five Vinayakas are counted together as one unit. That is how the total number of shrines/sites along this sacred route reaches to 72 (Fig. 4.2).

The 72 sacred sites/shrines exist along the pilgrimage route which forms a seven round spiral (cf. Fig. 4.3). These may be categorised into seven groups, among which Shiva and His forms record the highest share, i.e. 56 (cf. Table 2). Among the Shiva shrines, his images as specific dominate. The appearance of Shiva at 56 sites refers to guardian symbolism. According to Tantric mandala there appear seven chakras (spinal energy area) in the body representing seven plexuses; their cosmic integrity can be established in eight directions; thus, 7 spiral circuits X 8 directions comes to 56. That is how Shiva protects his territory in all the ways, as Kashi is His own body.

Table 2. Vishveshvara (Khanda) Antargiha Yatra, Varanasi: Typology of Shrines

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The number 72 represents the product of 12 zodiacs, or 12 months and 2 hemispheric (ayana) routes of the sun (the northerly and the southerly) and 3 mythical realms, i.e. the heaven, the earth, and the atmosphere in between (12 x 2 x 3). The centre, axis mundi ― the Vishveshvara, interlinks the three realms and attributes to the manifestation of the cosmic mandala. This is the symbol of coincidentia oppositorum, expressed by the zero ― a ‘dot’ and also denotes an unlimited entity, the productive point of potentiality. Moreover, philosophically “this central point shows mediation on the paradox of the maximum potential contained within an irreducible minimum...” (Lannoy 1971: 344). Other inferences refer this cosmic mandala as the product of (i) the 12 zodiacs and 6 seasons, (ii) the 24 homologies and 3 mythical realms, and (iii) the 9 planets and 8 directions, etc. 

The number of shrines related to Devi, and Vinnyaka both comes to 6, symbolising again the protection and control of the four directions in addition to above (heaven) and below (earth). The rest four shrines are related to Bhairava (a terrifying form of Shiva who controls this City by his stick), Vishnu (in the form of Keshava, having close affinity with the Ganga river), Aditya (the Older Sun god proving light since time immemorial), and Vapi (a sacred well giving bliss of wisdom).

The Antargiha Yatra route moves into seven layers in the form of spiral cycles starting from Manikarnika Devi and closing to Vishveshvara (cf. Fig. 4.3). The seven groups of divinities have correspondence with seven spiral cycles. Margold (1991: 7) feels that ― ‘perhaps the physical Earth has been set up in order for each of us to take a spiralling ride through the convoluted chronicles of humanity in as many ways as we possibly can’. The number seven is one of the ways of alchemy, transforming idea into actuality, thus the seven spiral cycles of antargiha show the seven spinal chakras (cf. Table 3) symbolising sequentially from our survival (1) to the realm of spirituality (7). These seven chakras “make us a vital part of the energy vortex behind all life here, and they are the conduits to make this world whatever we need it to be for ourselves” (ibid.: 47). There also exists ‘a cyclical rhythm to sevens that moves a unity of beginning to a unity of end with a revelation of its various parts through the middle’ (ibid.: 67). This cyclic rhythm forms a mandala running from unity (oneness), duality (twoness), trinity (threeness), and afterwards multiplicity (manyness) forming an apex or bridge from where the cycle takes turn towards trinity, duality and unity once again. This is parallel to the planes of human consciousness and humanity like mental, astral, etheric, and physical as bridge, followed by the descending order and finally reaching to mental. Furthermore, the ascending mental plan refers to ‘oneness of innocence› while the descending mental plane forms: oneness of experience’.

Table 3. Vishveshvara (Khanda) Antargiha Yatra, Varanasi: Seven Spiral cycles and homology.

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The number seven can further be compared to other symbolic forms like 7-days weekly cycle, 7 basic planets, and 7 directions and centres (east, west, north, south, and central point, i.e. Vishveshvara, interlinking the heaven and the earth). Each of the seven spinal chakras is under the control of four lunar mansions, thus seven-round cycle covers the whole cycle of the cosmos. This way by doing seven spiral cyclic journeys (mesocosm), the seven spinal chakras (microcosmos) get integrated with the cosmic cycles (macrocosmos). The importance of seven for human being has a strong connection with the myth of seven incarnations of Vishnu in the form of man to get relief from the curse of sage Bhigu (Matysa Purana, 47.36); this way seven round spiral cycle receives a divine connotation. Moreover, the spiral cycles also symbolises a climbing of steps relating to the top most celestial sphere where the pilgrims go from terrace by terrace up to the “pure lands” at the highest level. This way, ultimately it converges into a mandala.

The number seven is a product of two triangles: top-apex type showing male energy, and bottom-apex type denotes female energy. According to the Tantric system the integration of the male and female energies together makes the yantra in which the central point symbolises the creation; this way there exists seven points in the yantra (cf. Singh, Rana, 2009b: 32-36). This is fully eulogising in the Devi Bhagavata (9.9) that as to how from water the earth originates and get sub-divided into seven oceans and seven great islands. This creation symbol is comparable to the Bible (Genesis 1-2) which refers that the God has created the earth in seven stages.

There are also seven serial groups of alphabets in Sanskrit (also adopted in Hindi), i.e. A, Ka, Cha, T, Ta, Pa and Ya, and each of the series represents cosmogonic elements symbolised together with anthropogenic elements.

After completing the pilgrimage journey, the pilgrims perform completion ritual in the Jñānavapi Mandapa while reciting the names of all the 72 divinities and shrines again while pouring raw-rice (akshata) and ask excuse from the divinities for the mistakes committed, unknowingly, during the pilgrimage. This ritual of completion is similar to that of any pilgrimage circuits, including the Panchakroshi Yatra and other khanda Yatras like Omkareshvara (northern circuit) and Kedareshvara (southern circuit).

Kedareshvara (Khanda) Antargriha (inner sanctum) Yatra

The boundary of this segment moves around the segmentary patron deity, Kedaeshvara. On this route of 7.5 km there lies 126 shrines/temples and sacred site in total, among which 72 are associated to Shiva and His forms, 19 goddesses, 7 Vinayakas, and the rest to the others (Table 4; Fig. 4.4). According to the KKm (29.28) the Kedara is the territory where crops of liberation grow; therefore, Kedara has been replicated in all the impor­tant holy places of India (Singh 1987: 496). Says Eck (1982: 144) that "Just as Kashi is a microcosm of the whole India's sacred geography, so is Kedara a microcosm of Kasi". The merit of Kedareshvara is fully eulogized in the KKh (77.1-14, i.e. full chapter). Its area described in the KKm (3.61-63) is as follows : in the east up to mid-stream of the Ganga, in the southeast about half-krosha (1.76 km), in the south up to Lolarka Kunda, in the southwest up to Sankhudhara Tirtha, in the west Vaidyanatha, in the northwest Lakshmi Kunda, in the north Shulatankeshvara, and in the northeast about half-krosha (1.76 km) in mid-stream of the Ganga.

Formerly the pilgrimage journey was started from the Harishchandra Ghat, but after passage of time the initiation rite started taking place at the Adi Manikarnika (no.1), Kedara Ghat. The pilgrims take bath in the Ganga at Kedara Ghat, followed by worship to Adi Manikarnika (replicated one) and Kedareshvara. Afterwards they follow the route as described in the Kashi Kedara Mahatmya, KKm. The journey finally ends at Kedareshvara. This jour­ney is performed within a day. After performing comple­tion rites in the Kedareshvara temple, most of the pilgrims visit Vishveshvara (Vishvanatha) and then return to their home.

Table 4. Kedareshvara (Khanda) Antargriha Yatra, Varanasi

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(Source: Kashi Kedara Mahatmya, pp. 60-61. cf. Fig. 4.4).

Omkareshvara (Khanda) Antargriha (inner sanctum) Yatra

The boundary of the northern sacred segment moves around the segmentary patron deity, Omkareshvara. Covering a distance of about 14 km route, there lies 108 sacred sites and shrines, among which 67 are as­sociated to Shiva, 12 sacred ponds, 6 Vishnu’s forms, 4 god­desses and rest the others (Table 5; Fig. 4.5). According to the KP (I. 30.4-5) Omkareshvara is the supreme wis­dom, worshipped five-fold, bestower of liberation, and to be honoured daily by the wise in Varanasi. No textual reference of this yatra in detail has yet been found. How­ever, the KKh (100.44) refers only its name, and further eulogized the glory and merits of the Omkareshvara lingam (cf. KKh 73. 76-84; 74.1-20; 74.119-121). Probably during the Moghul rule (c. 17th century) it had lost be­cause the area was the most serious victim of the Muslims’ destruction, conversion and encroachment.

The route of the sacred journey is mostly based on the ancient folk tradition, and even that is now rarely performed. The journey follows a haphazard-route, lack­ing a systematic pattern like in other six pilgrimage journeys. Of course, many of the original temples and images had lost their original sites, later they have been re-estab­lished and re-manifested at the close by sites. This is one of the reasons responsible for the haphazard-route at present. Also, to be noted that the area is overall dominated by Muslim popula­tion. Following the tradition, the journey has to be com­pleted within a day, but commonly it is completed within two-days while passing a night-halt at Madhia Ghat (where exists the images of Shaileshvara and Shailaputri, no. 78, 79). After worshipping Chaturmukhe­shvara (no.96) at Adi Keshava, pilgrims have to go back in the northwest to Shantikari Gauri (no. 97) at the Kakaraha Ghat along the Varana river, and then turn to Adi Keshva temple compound. Similarly, at several places such adjustments are made.

Table 5. Omkareshvara Khanda Yatra, Varanasi (see Fig. 4.4

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(Source: Kurma Purana, I. 30.4-5, and ancient pilgrimage tradition; cf. Fig. 4.5).

At present the pilgrimage journey to this Khanda is rarely performed, mostly due to desertion of many an­cient sites, encroachment of the paths and lanes, expan­sion of Muslims’ neighbourhood, and also gradually decrease of old religious sense among the inhabitants. Somehow, we have traced the route and the related sacred spots; and with the support of local devout Hindi its pilgrimage is survived.

The pilgrimage journeys of the above three seg­ments (Vishveshvara, Kedareshvara and Omkareshvara) start and end at their respective temples of patron deities of the same name. But after completion of the journey pilgrims cer­tainly pay visit to Vishveshvara as mark of the last ritual which developed in the long run of tradition.

Avimukta (‘Never forsaken') Kshetra

All the above described three segment territories (Khandas) are enveloped by a covering circular pilgrimage route called Avimukta Kshetra (Fig. 4.6). The myth says that the Lord Shiva does not leave this territory even in times of dissolution and that is why it is called avimukta (‘never forsaken’). The mythology mentions that this sacred area preserves the infinite mystical power of the Lord Shiva, initiated with his three forms of qualities, i.e. the truth (sat), the pleasant (chit) and the blissful (ananda). 72 sacred shrines and sites are also spread along this route. The route moves four times in a spiral form (see Fig. 4.6). Of course, in puranic tales this journey was described as one of the most important one, but in passage of time it lost its popularity. Thanks to initiatives of Svami Shivananda Sarasvati (1929-2014) that it revived during late 1990s and regularly performed under the direction of a religious trust, Kashi Pradakshina Darshan Yatra Samiti [‘Kashi’s Circumambulatory Journeys and Pilgrimage Committee’] founded in 2001.

Basic Sources

Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras, City of Light. Alfred Knopf Publ., New York.

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

Margold, Harlan 1991. The Alchemist’s Almanac. Bear & Co., Santa Fe, NM.

Singh, Pratibha 2004. Śiva-Kāśi: Paurāṇic Paripekṣya aur Vartmān Saṅdarbh (Śiva-Kashi: Paurāṇic 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.  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 & Cultural Understanding, Series Pub. 3). Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon 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.

© National Museum Institute, 
New Delhi, 2021
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