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Panchakroshi Yatra Route: The Territory and Temples

Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana

The Panchakroshi Yatra demarcates the territorial limit (First level) of the cosmic territory of Varanasi, referred as Kashi Mandala (Fig. 5.1). This is quite possible that the circular pilgrimage path as a boundary of cosmic circuit (archetypal conception) would have been only a mental construct and never been a reality. However, after passage of time this circuit has shrunk down to the present path of Panchakroshi Yatra (i.e. laghu, the shorter one; Second level) and covers a distance of 25 krosha (i.e. 55.2 miles/ 88.5 km). The third level of manifestation is marked by the Nagar Pradakshina (NP), marking the sacred territory of the holy city. The fourth level is symbolised as Avimukta, marking the inner city in which Lord Śiva, the patron deity of Kashi, moves; the name Avimukta means the “Never Forsaken” zone. The fifth level is marked by the Antargiha (“inner sanctum”) of Vishveshvara.

For the Panchakroshi Yatra, the most auspicious period for participating in this pilgrimage is the intercalary month of the leap year, referred to as the mala-masa; the “month of pollution”, or Purushottam Masa/ adhi-masa (the “extra month”). According to the Hindu lunar almanac, there will be 37 mala-masas between 1945 and 2047. However, pilgrims also perform this Yatra in the cold season (Magha-Phalguna, January-March) and the spring (Chaitra-Vaishakha, March-May), every year. Every year there is also an abbreviated pilgrimage for one day on the day of Maha Shivaratri, or “the great night of Shiva” (i.e., Shiva’s marriage day), which falls on the 13th dark-half/waning of the month of Phalguna (February-March). This pilgrimage (see Fig. 5.2) of a five-day period is held every third year, when around 70,000 pilgrims walk on the sacred circuit. By walking to the holy places, a pilgrim is able to be free of speed, anxiety, and desire. One of the pilgrims (Satish Kumar, 1991) expressed his feelings as: “I enjoyed every moment in complete peace and solitude. Walking became a meditation and every step was teaching me to be mindful. I relaxed to the soul of my own breath as it issued into the deep silence surrounding me.”

By walking one can experience the idea of unity between humanity (pilgrims) and divinity (spirit of the Earth), and by this “unification” one experiences the harmony and transcendence of the pilgrimage — which is ultimately a transcendence of the cosmos in which human beings are at the centre. In terms of creating a state of equilibrium (e.g. sacred) in the non-equilibrium (e.g. secular) the dynamics of communionship and inter-connectedness are promoted by pilgrimages.  A tour may be considered an outer journey in geographical space in an attempt to gain pleasure; pilgrimage is an inner journey in the outer space from where the immanent and transcendent together create a system complex.  Tour requires wish for pleasure and satisfaction; pilgrimage requires quest for revelation and peace.  Panchakroshi Yatra, provides a bridge linking sacred (pavitra) and profane (manaviya) realm, helping passing through Self-realization (anubhava) to Inner rev elation (anubhuti); thus, to have solace and peace and having experiences both sides of realities’, number of visitors and pilgrims are increasing every year.

The circuit of the Panchakroshi pilgrimage route delineates the sacred territory of Kashi. It covers a distance of 25 krosha (55.2 miles, or 88.5 km), which the pilgrims traditionally complete within a period of five days (Fig. 5.2). This journey is elaborated in a 16th century text, the Kashi Rahasya. The special season for this journey is the intercalary month (malamasa), which falls every third year of the lunar cycle. The most recent ongoing is during 16 May (Adhik Jyestha Shukla 1st) to 13 June (Adhik Jyestha Krishna 15th) 2018 [Samvata 2075, Yugabda 5120]. During the intercalary month around 70,000 pilgrims perform this journey. Two types of pilgrims can be observed: those who walk for five days, and those who as pilgrimage-tourists use vehicles and generally complete the rituals within a day. The walking pilgrims take shelter and pass the five nights at the halt stations consisting of pilgrims’ rest houses (dharmasala); in total there are 44 dharmasalas at Kandawa, Bhimachandi, Rameshvar, Shivpur and Kapiladhara. There are 108 shrines and temples along this path, among which 36 are associated with the bank of the Ganga river. The number 108 is the most auspicious cosmogonic number in Hindu mythology as it derives from the product of the 12 Hindu zodiac signs (months in the yearly cycle of time) and the 9 planets (division of cosmic space). After taking a preliminary vow in the Jnanavapi Mandapa, pilgrims start the journey, and finally complete it by performing a thanksgiving ceremony at the same site.

1st halt: Kandawa

From the B.H.U. gate, proceeding for about 4 km one will reach the village of Kandawa, the first night halt where there exists 5 holy spots and images. Before entering the narrow road, and following the right-hand brick road, one will reach the temple compound. First one will meet the shrine of Nilakantheshvara. This form of Shiva refers to the puranic story of the churning of the ocean by gods and demons. Along with other precious valuables, blue-poison came into being, which neither gods nor demons wanted to take. Shiva drank that poison which caused his throat to turn blue — thus his name, Nilakantha. About 20 m south one will meet the Virupaksha linga, referring to one of Shiva’s assistants (gana). On the western part of the platform there is a panel consisting of images of Fish, Tortoise, Boar, Man-Lion and Dwarf, Five avataras (incarnations) of Vishnu. Weathering and carelessness have damaged the images badly, but by careful observation one can make out the original themes. Nearby is the holy well, Kardama Kupa. Now take a round along the circulatory path on the raised platform on which stands the temple of Kardameshvara. In mid-18th century Rani Bhavani of Bengal constructed a massive pond at the old site, close to the temple.

The Kardameshvara temple presents an example of successive layers of growth, beginning from the 6th-7th century to the 13th century. In the southern part of the platform there are fragments of the ancient shrine which included images of divine dancers, musicians, snakes, and mythical beasts; these figures date back to the 6th-7th century. During the period of the Gahadavala dynasty (12th-13th century) most of the upper parts were built. It is the only surviving temple after the Mughal destruction of the 17th century. Its location in a then forest-clad area at a considerable distance from the city saved it from destruction. Since then additions and modifications have been made. In many niches along the wall are attractive images of divinities that complement the temple’s architectural beauty. In the southern wall the Uma Maheshvara pose of Shiva in the three niches shows the divine couple’s love, while the Yogeshvara form at the base of the triangle represents Shiva as the lord of Yoga.

In the western wall the trinity of the Hindu pantheon is shown by the images of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. Each is depicted with its vehicle, respectively the Bird-man (Garuda), Nandi (bull) and Hamsa (swan). Shiva is shown as divine dancer (Nateshvara) who wants to complete the cosmic cycle by making disorder; this dance is called tandava. At the beginning of the new cosmic cycle, or for the ordered running of rhythms and seasons, Shiva performs a blissful dance, called lasya. Here the rosary is imbalanced, showing disorder. There is another image of Vishnu as the “Vishva Purusha”, the supreme overseer of the cosmos represented by the images of divinities all around Him.

In the northern wall there is an image of Mahishasuramardini, the form of the goddess who killed the Buffalo-demon; this is one of the very popular depictions of the puranic story. Near it, Shiva is shown as killer of the demon Andhaka (blind), called Andhakasuramardan Shiva. This refers to the demon who was born as an unwanted child of Shiva himself, and who thereby was blessed with the power of Shiva. At one stage he wanted to kill Shiva, but Shiva finally killed him. A similar image of huge size is in the museum at Sarnath. The image represents Shiva spearing his adversary, Tripura or Andhaka on his trident that he holds with one left and one right hand. [For details see Sarnath museum, section 11 of the book, Singh and Rana 2002]. There are also images of Krishna’s brother Balarama and his wife Revati. Balaram carries a plough on his shoulder, and Revati carries a water pot; thus together they represent the farming culture. On the upper portion there are images of Jain Tirthankara, and also the king of the Snake-world (netherworlds), Vasuki, surrounded by his wives. On the upper layers of the spires there are Sun and Moon discs.

To perform puja (worship ritual) inside the sanctum, carrying flowers and other items one may proceed to the sanctum. At the entrance there are images of the two river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna. The Kardam­eshvara linga is unusual in that it is flat and the vulva is a separate part. Some suggests that this linga represents the highest state of communion of the male and female power. At the edge of the vulva, the copper cover shows flames or lotus petals, numbering 108. Pilgrims offer five grains (barley, paddy, wheat, lentil, and black lentil), white sesame, leaves of bilva (thorn apple) and holy basil (Tulasi). There are images of mother Parvati, Ganesha and Hanuman in the inner sanctum. Outside but still close to the temple is a wrestling site where every morning villagers practice the Indian style of wrestling. In an attached shrine there is an image of Hanuman, considered to be a form of Shiva’s power. Along the way exists the Ganesha shrine, and an old flat-shaped room enshrining the image of Somanath­eshvara. This Shiva represents his form at Somanath in Gujarat, western India. After a short walk, turning to the east following the southern part of the great tank and one will eventually come to the main road. On the left-hand side is a Dharmashala (pilgrims’ rest house) No. 10. All the dharmashalas have a similar architectural plan and style. There is a big open courtyard surrounded by a veranda. Sometimes there are rooms at the corners. In the open courtyard there are small platforms where pilgrims make their food. At the centre there is a square platform on which there is often a small shrine, or a cemented commode where holy basil is planted. Most of the dharmashalas are single storey with a terrace roof built around a courtyard. The street side of a dharmashala usually has only one entrance, sometimes decorated. From the roof one can see the neighbourhood and countryside landscape. In the right-hand side, there are many small shrines having different forms of Shiva lingas.

2nd halt: Bhimachandi

Travelling about 16 km from Kardameshvara, one will reach Bhimachandi, the 2nd night halt. The place is named after a form of the goddess. There are five divine images and a holy tank described in puranic mythology. First site in area is the Gandharva Sagar (“tank of divine musician”). A majority of pilgrims only touch the water to get themselves cleansed of ritual filth and pollution. The built structure of this tank is planned, having entrance steps from north and south, and at the centre there is a pole. At the southern side there is a temple of Gandheshvara Shiva. After about a 35 m walk along the road lies the main compound of Bhimachandi Devi. She is believed to be a virgin, therefore in worship no vermilion is offered on Her icon. She is eulogised as the strongest (“Bhima-”) goddess, showing this form before her marriage with Shiva. In the inner sanctum at the lower side is a 10-headed image of Kali, assumed to have affinity with 10-headed demon Ravana, who was killed by Rama. All around the inner sanctum there is a circumambulatory path. In the attached room there are three other images of Bhimachanda Vinayaka (Ganesha), Raviraktaksha Gandharva (divine musician) and Narakarnavatara Shiva. Ganesha is in dancing posture, balancing his bulky body on his vehicle, the mouse. The Divine Musician is playing sitar. The Narakarnavatara Shiva is one of the rare works of scuplture showing Shiva in a humanised-archetypal form. He has 5 heads (symbolising the five organic elements), 10 hands (controlling the 10 directions, i.e. eight and the zenith and nadir). His fluid energy, the river goddess Ganga, has a seat in His matted hair, while His consort Parvati is sitting in an angry mood because She is jealous of Ganga. In the compound there are two old holy fig trees (Ficus religiosa) associated with Shiva, and margosa, nima (Azadirachta indica), associated with the goddess. Both of these trees have medicinal healing qualities. The natural environment is dominated by mango groves and holy trees, thus providing a proper setting for divine experience.

While continuing the journey, from here the road turns towards the north. After 10 km is located site of Dinadaspur. There is a small shrine having a tiny statue of Hanuman, the Monkey-God, as the deity of wrestlers, named Langotia Hanuman; this site is known by this name. There exist two textually described shrines of Shiva’s form (Bhutanatheshvara and Somanatheshvara) and a water pool, called Sindhurodhasa. During the late 19th century a dharmasala was built here which till 1997 was ruined; however in 1998 it was renovated. Nearby is a temple complex consisting of folk deities (e.g. diha, village guardian and dikpala, directional deity), some forms of Shiva and his consort, and Rama and Sita. The calm environment, dominated by mango groves and holy trees like the banyan, fig and margosa provide a serene environment. After 9 km road journey is Dehli Vinayaka.

Dehli Vinayaka is known for its cosmic gate protected by a form of Ganesha (Vinayaka). This is the radial point on the cosmic circuit, the centre of which is at Madhyameshvara (Varanasi). This distance is 5 krosha (11 miles/17.6 km). Formerly there was a tradition that pilgrims must pass a night here. Taking as a base puranic mythology, this site goes back to the 6th-7th century. The present building was constructed in the late 18th century. The image of Dehli Vinayaka faces east. The original image of Dehli Vinayaka is preserved in the Bharat Kala Museum at B.H.U. (No. 158), dated from the 8th century, and shows an eight-armed Ganesha standing with his great weight shifted to his right leg, his left leg slung out. The gesture of the present four-armed image is like a Brahmin standing and overseeing rituals. Nearby there are many Shiva lingas installed as votive images by kings and their family members who paid visits in the past. There are two tiny images, the baby Ganesha and Nara-Simha (Man-Lion form of Vishnu). In the western wall, outside the temple there are images of Vinayaka in two rows, each consisting of 8 tiny images; thus, together the 16 Vinayakas are called Shodasa Vinayaka. This is a symbol of matching the celestial to the earthly; the 8 Vinayakas in the upper row represent the directional deity in the heaven, and the lower shows the earthly appearance. There are fragments of ancient images scattered under fig and banyan trees. There is also an 18th century well. The nearby huge tank is now abandoned. Feel free to walk around, and then continue the journey. After about 3.5 km ahead is Rameshvar village.

3rd halt: Rameshvara

The village is named after the temple of the presiding deity, Rameshvara — a form of Shiva linga established by Lord Rama to get relief from the sin he incurred by killing the Brahman-demon Ravana of Lanka. The other Shiva lingas existing in the compound of the Rameshvara temple include lingas associated with the Moon-god (Someshvara), Rama’s three brothers (Bharateshvara, Lakshamaneshvara and Shatrughaneshvara), and two other sages (Nahusheshvara and Dvavabhumishvara). There are also images of many other gods established over the course of time by devotees, including Rama and Sita, Hanuman, Kali and Tulja Bhavani (the mother goddess of the Gorkhas of Nepal). In the open compound a broken small pillar showing the head of an elephant represents an earlier form of village guardian, called diha. These images are offered bilva leaves, holy basil leaves, white sesame, sweets, flowers of marigold and water from the Varana river by the pilgrims. The Rameshvara temple is believed to be the replica of the original one that lies in Park Bay, Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, South India. Its setting and situation along the Varana river provide a situation close to the original one. On the Full-Moon day of Karttika (October-November) the pilgrims perceive the Varana river as a symbol of Park Bay, Indian Ocean. There are 6 dharmashalas (pilgrims’ rest houses) for pilgrims. To see the architecture and green scenery, one may pay visit to Dharmashala No. 1, about 200 m before the main temple compound; this is in a square shape and in every direction open pavilion are made. The mango groves, bilva trees, fig and holy basil and several flower plans make a beautiful setting for this dharmashala. Following the village road in the northwest of the Dharmashala No. 1, after 120 m ahead is the shrine of Rudrani Devi, a folk form of Shiva’s wife serving as village guardian. Across the Varana river, on the left bank, is the site of Asankhyatirthani (“innumerable holy places’ spirit”) which was symbolised by round-shaped stones kept in a shrine under a fig and banyan tree; presently there is a platform and a linga. Legends indicate that the “spirits of holy places” from all parts of India rest at this site during the pilgrimage season.

4th halt: Shivpur / Tarna

After about 16 km from Rameshvara lies Shivpur, a neighbourhood of the city of Varanasi. This area provides a scene of urban crowding and a less pleasant environment. Many pilgrims avoid staying here, and prefer to pass their night at Tarana, about 4 km before Shivpur. According to folk legends the area was formerly a dense forest and frequently pilgrims were robbed. Therefore, in the early 19th century, a Shankaracharya (chief of the monastery and a monk) introduced a halting station here. Later on, 4 dharmashalas were constructed nearby a large tank. Further along there is a shrine of Pancha Pandava, which consists of 5 Shiva lingas related to the Five Brothers of the Mahabharata, namely Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva. According to folk legends the Five Brothers, during the course of their exile, passed a night at this place. In commemoration of this event the shrine was erected. Across the nearby road is located the Draupadi Kupa (a well) and a small shrine of Draupadi Devi (the common wife of the Five Brothers). Following a road that also passes through the city neighbourhood about 11 km, one will reach the village of Kapiladhara.

5th halt: Kapildhara

According to an 8th century text, the Kuttanimatam, the prince Samarabhatta worshipped here. This indicates the historicity of the place. The temple of Vrishabhadhvajeshvara (also called Kapileshvara) Shiva and the attached water pool, Kapiladhara, are both eulogised in the Mahabharata epic. This site is known for ancestral worship in the form of systematic rituals under the direction of the local priest. The natural setting, the stairways to the water pool, the meeting of the raised platform with the fields, the associated shrines and images (like sage Kapila, folk singers Guru Bihari and Pattu, Sati, Daksha, Vyasa, Hanuman, Chandi, Shiva, etc.), all together make this area a sacredscape. The unique image of dancing Ganesha, symbolising his 56-forms in one, called Chhappan Vinayakas’ Vinayaka, is in a shrine that also contains the image of sage Kapila, the founder of the Samkhya philosophy of Indian thought. This Ganesha has eight hands representing the 8 directions, and seven bends to his body representing the 7 layers of the atmosphere. The product of 8 by 7 together makes 56. There are 10 dharmashalas. Walking 1.5 km ahead is Ananda Guha, a deserted and ruined compound which consists of relics, remains and metamorphosed lingas, panels and images of the 11th-12th century Gahadavala fort and the British military camp.

In a recent proposal (12 October 2020), Pañchakrośī Yātrā route is planned to develop as ‘Pāvan Path’ (sacred-spiritual trail), keeping in view to promote comprehensive-and-sustainable development plan of Varanasi for the global attraction as the major destination of spiritual-pilgrimage tourism. The five night-halts (paavas), consisting of a bunch of rest-houses (dharmashālas) will serve as the places of yoga, meditation, religious discourses, chanting and other associated religious festivities. Some old performing traditions, like Rāma Līlās (theatre form of the Rāmāyaa stories), will be continued to make the sacred life vibrant at these places. Several other programmes of eco-tourism and environmental sensitivity are recently initiated.

In the current year, the intercalary month fallen during 18th September to 16th October 2020 (Hindu month of Ashvina, Virama Samvata 2077), the period which suffered by the pandemic Corona-19, resulting to strict the mass pilgrimage. However, under the management and guidance of religious trusts and such organization groups of pilgrims, consisting of strictly only 20 persons performed this pilgrimage and following the security and safety measures.

Varanasi: Panchakroshi Yatra Circuit (108 Sacred Places)

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Basic Sources

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

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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.

Singh, Rana P.B. and Rana, Pravin S. 2018. Kashi and Cosmos, India: Pilgrimage Circuit of the Panchakroshi Yatra; in, Olsen, Daniel and Trono, Anna (eds.) Religious Pilgrimage Routes and Trails: Sustainable Development and Management.  CABI Publishers, Wallingford, Oxon U.K.: pp. 167 - 179.

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. 2002. Towards the Pilgrimage Archetype. The Panchakroshi Yatra of Banaras. Pilgrimage & Cosmology Series: 3. Indica Books, Varanasi. 2nd Ed. 2011.

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

© National Museum Institute, 
New Delhi, 2021
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