This paper primarily draws upon the descriptive spatial texts and the qualitative interpretation of Varanasi city to explore the innate relationship of its temples and water pools. The descriptive texts of Purāṇas[i] Bhuvanakośa sections, Nibandhas[ii] and various other pilgrimage digests render the spatiotemporal information to reconstruct the geography of the city. The Paurāṇika[iii] texts contain the spatiotemporal information about the settings of sanctuaries, rivers, streams, temple tanks, ponds etc. Additionally, the pilgrimage digests composed in different periods not only mention the contemporary names and rituals to perform on the banks of sacred temple tanks but also provide the trajectory of transformation happening within and around these numerous sacred water tanks and ponds.
In the opening section, I discuss an important term; sacredness in the context of Varanasi and its waterscape and, then about the theory of tīrtha. Then, I explore the temple tanks and their overall structures by mentioning some of the prominent water sites. I discuss how the Kāśī Khaṇḍa, one of the voluminous ‘Sthāna Māhātmya’ literature is an important repository to identify the ancient water tanks, their locations and other topographical features. The qualitative description of the Varanasi in the chapters of Kāśī Khaṇḍa subtly interwove the celestial and earthly features of the city which is continuously shaped and transformed by its unique location on high grounds, encircling rivers and streams, and inland water pools. The spatial texts of Purāṇas describe the spatial features and location of temples corresponding to other important sacred sites and water pools in the proximity. The text carefully constructs a map for the reader to navigate and doing circumambulation around the specific temples.
Varanasi as a tīrtha
In this paper, the term ‘sacred’ is used explicitly in the context of a sanctified place, a pilgrimage place, or a place near to a sacred river or a water reservoir. Instead of words such as holy, divine, and religious the term sacred is used as an epithet to develop the unique relationship of certain places closely connected with the purifying element of flowing water and augmented with the prehistoric events, stories, that revere the celestial qualities of the place.
To understand what is sacred in the context of Varanasi, the term ‘tīrtha’[iv] is useful. The concept of tirtha is deeply anchored in the Hindu philosophy[v] and has spatiotemporal dimensions. Tīrtha has several meanings: a passage, road; a crossing in a river, ford; a place of pilgrimage near the bank of a sacred river, sacred, saviour, etc.[vi] The word tīrtha is essentially a comprehensive notion that comprises not only a sip of pure water but all rivers, hills, groves, lakes, and wells also. If the name of any certain tīrtha is unknown, then it is called as Viṣṇu tīrtha. [vii] This dynamic approach sustains and restores the tīrthas and allows to accommodate different forms. The sanctity of tīrtha remains eternal despite the external intrusions and destruction of the sacred physical forms. To substantiate this claim, Baidyanath Saraswati (1984:68) cites the demolition of temples in Varanasi by the invaders. Nevertheless, the series of destructions did not disrupt the sanctity of the sacred territory.
According to Kuber Nath Sukul (1977:32), the earliest reference of Varanasi as a tīrtha[viii] comes in the texts of Mahābhārata. Vana Parva (Āraṇya Parva) section of Mahābhārata has one chapter titled ‘tīrtha yātrā parva’[ix] devoted to the pilgrimage to sacred places. The long itinerary to sacred places includes Varanasi and mentions about worshipping the Śiva (Vṛṣabhadhvaja) and a ritual bath in a water pool named as ‘Kapila hrada’ (see fig. 1).
The Kāśī Khaṇḍa discusses the term tīrtha and presents multiple descriptions of tīrtha. One verse says that a Liṅga is a tīrtha and a water tank is also called as tīrtha because of its association with an idol (of deity) (KKh. 97.5). Water is an essential element[x] of tīrthas that sustains the sacredness, and it is manifested through most sacred pilgrimage places are on the banks of a river, near the lake, or adjacent to a shoreline. [xi]
Temple tanks of Varanasi
This paper uses the term ‘temple tanks’, and it denotes kuṇḍa, pōkharā, bāvalī, water tank, water pool, pond, etc. The temple tanks[xii] are in the proximity of a temple or an integral part of the temple complex. Like other places in India, almost all forms of water reservoirs in Varanasi are closely associated with the pantheon of Hindu deities. One of the most famous wells is Jñāna vāpī (well of wisdom), which is situated in the northern direction of the present Kashi Vishwanath temple complex. The Kashi Vishwanath temple is one of the most famous twelve jyotirliṅga-s spread across India[xiii]. This sacred site is the starting point for many pilgrimages that devotees make in and around the boundaries of Varanasi. [xiv] Various rituals, socio-cultural practices, fairs and festivals are connected not merely with the water reservoirs but also with their catchments areas suitably encapsulate the veneration of water as a cleansing agent. [xv]
The typical shape of the temple tank is either square or rectangular with natural inlets and outlets. All four sides have masonry steps of sandstone with some design elements or clay baked bricks leading to the water. These steps are chipped in with the ramps, and the sides of the water tanks are may or may not surrounded by walls. [xvi] Many temple tanks in Varanasi have a small well in the center, which has a symbiotic role of recharging the groundwater.
In Varanasi, one can see various architectural forms and patterns of temple tanks. Lolārka kuṇḍa near Asi ghāṭa has a deep tank surrounded by steep stairs leading to the water. The round sized well is surrounded by cylinder-shaped walls which are open at the top. There is one small platform added as a resting space in the series of steps. While descending the stairs, there are few small sculptures engraved on the stones of surrounded walls. Among these sacred tanks two tanks named; Cakrapuṣkariṇī kuṇḍa on Maṇikarṇikā ghāṭa and Gaurī kuṇḍa on Kedāra ghāṭa are adjacent to river Ganga. Many temple tanks also had akhāḍā-s nearby. However, today few temple tanks such as Īśvaragaṅgī kuṇḍa, Karṇaghaṇṭā, Rāma kuṇḍa (see fig. 2.1), etc. have active akhāḍās (see fig. 2.2).
The daily members of these akhāḍās and mainly older men narrate the stories of bathing into adjacent temple tanks and equate it with taking a plunge into river Ganga. They often say that it is the water of river Ganga that comes into these several temple tanks and ponds and thus taking a dip into these water tanks is also sacred.
Temple tanks, Purāṇa-s and Nibandha-s
There are a total of eighteen Purāṇas, and all Purāṇas explicitly describe Varanasi. Purāṇas discuss the etymology of the Varanasi based on the geographical features and narrates the stories of the city. Among these eighteen Purāṇas ‘Skanda Purāṇa’ and ‘Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa’ mainly contains extensive literature on Varanasi. Skanda Purāṇa is a repository of tīrthas covering all parts of India. [xvii] The scrupulous attention to the text of Paurāṇika literature can throw light on the history of medieval Varanasi. [xviii] Several chapters of Kāśī Khaṇḍa comes under the subject of Bhuvanakōśa[xix] and describes the regional geography of Varanasi.
The Kāśī Khaṇḍa extensively list out the names of temples, the rituals to be performed at the temple, sacred bathing at the temple tank, ponds, lakes, or streams that are an integral architectural structure of the temple complex. The entire two sections of Kāśī Khaṇḍa offers the description and locations of more than 281 water reservoirs. [xx] These types are categorised into - 1. tīrtha (water pool), 2. kuṇḍa (square or rectangular sized stepped water pool), 3. puṣkariṇī (pond with steps), 4. vāpī (well or an oblong reservoir of water), 5. hrada (deep-water place), 6. dīrghikā (long or oblong lake), 7. sarōvara (lake or large pond) and 8. nālā (rivulet). The qualitative description of 281 water sites broadly covers the following attributes.
- Structural features: deep pit, a vast lake, curative features of water
- Geographical locations and settings: direction and (qualitative) distance from the
other water reservoirs in proximity or a temple site
- Etymology: former title, origin
- Activities: rituals, bathing, ablution
The list of 281 water reservoirs includes the names representing the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses such as; Gaurī kuṇḍa (77.47), Indra kuṇḍa (97.116), Kali tīrtha (84.75), Kedāra kuṇḍa (77.54), Viṣṇu tīrtha (61.144), and names of other pilgrimage places such as; Gayā tīrtha (69.36), Prabhāsa tīrtha (83.95), Prayāga tīrtha (33.179), Puṣkara tīrtha (69.20). The water reservoirs such as; Cakrapuṣkariṇī tīrtha (also called as Maṇikarṇikā tirtha), Kapālmocana tīrtha and Matsyodarī tīrtha are frequently cited in the context of their supremacy, virtuous features, merits, and boons enclosed with the ablution ritual. All these three sacred water structures are still living and surviving water structures despite the continuous natural and human intervention. Tīrtha and kuṇḍa[xxi] are the most mentioned types in the entire text. As compared to kuṇḍa, the term tīrtha is a panoramic term, and with its philosophical context which has already discussed, it can be referred to any sacred water site.
Except for tīrtha, the remaining seven categories can be broadly sub-categorise into the natural and human-made types of water reservoirs. The kuṇḍa, puṣkariṇī and vāpī are the results of human intervention in the form of developing the supplementary structure for multiple purposes. Compared to these three forms of water reservoirs remaining hrada, dīrghikā, sarōvara and nālā forms are relatively immune to human intervention.
Nibandha of Lakṣmīdhara Bhaṭṭa
Amongst the surviving Nibandhas, Kṛtyakalpataru is considered as one of the authoritative and comprehensive Nibandha composed at the beginning of the twelfth century[xxii] by Lakṣmīdhara Bhaṭṭa. This work is a comprehensive discussion of sacred sites and sanctuaries. The comparison of Tīrtha Vivēcana Kāṇḍa Nibandha (eighth book of Kṛtyakalpataru Nibandha) with the Kāśī Khaṇḍa texts makes it the oldest text that offers the spatial description of temples and other sacred water structures. Lakṣmīdhara’s treatise was an authoritative source for the composers of Kāśī Khaṇḍa to rebuild the sacred landscape after the destruction. The Tīrthavivēcanakāṇḍa composed by Lakṣmīdhara Bhaṭṭa is one of the earlier treatises from the early 12th century followed by Kāśī Khaṇḍa (12th century~15th century), Tīrthacintāmaṇi by Vācaspati Miśra (15th century), Tristhalīsetu by Nārāyaṇa Bhaṭṭa (16th century) and Tīrthaprakāśa by Mitra Miśra (17th century). By revisiting these texts composed in a different period can offer how the natural and cultural landscape of the city transformed.
Lakṣmīdhara devoted a substantial portion for the “survey of the sanctuaries” of Varanasi[xxiii]. According to Aiyangar (1942), Lakṣmīdhara mainly relied on Liṅga Purāṇa to make a list of 340 temples[xxiv]. Lakṣmīdhara has made a significant contribution by mentioning various sacred sites, temples, rivers, and water pools (see the table no.1). Lakṣmīdhara excerpts various Purāṇa-s while composing the text of Varanasi-Māhātmya. He quotes Matsya Purāṇa and describes the Asi river as a dry river (śuṣka-nadī)[xxv].
Table no. 1. Sacred water bodies stated in the second chapter of ‘Varanasi Māhātmya’ of Tīrtha Vivēcana Kāṇḍa
Aṅgāraka kuṇḍa (KKh. 97.67)
Asi Nadī (KKh. 7.66)
Bhadrakālī hrada (KKh. 97.156)
Ganga Varana saṅgama (KKh. 33. 100)
Ghaṇṭākarṇa hrada (KKh. 53.37)
Kapālmocana tīrtha (KKh. 31.131)
Kapilā hrada (KKh. 62.47-53)
Koṭi tīrtha (KKh. 97.63)
Lakṣmī kuṇḍa (Śrī kuṇḍa) (KKh. 64.18)
Lolārka (KKh. 46.49-53-59)
Mandākinī (KKh. 64.10)
Mārkaṇḍeya hrada (KKh. 83.107)
Matsyodarī (KKh. 33.120)
Pañcacūḍa hrada (KKh. 97.146)
Vaitaraṇī (KKh. 64.13)
Varana nadī (KKh.)
Varanasi Jānhavī saṅgama (KKh. )
Vāsuki tīrtha (KKh. 64.20)
Vinayaka kuṇḍa (KKh.)
Vyāsa kuṇḍa (KKh. 97.144)
Note: The list of tīrthas and kuṇḍas from Tīrtha Vivēcana Kāṇḍa Kṛtyakalpataru of Bhaṭṭa Lakṣmīdhara[xxvi] is referred. The titles of rivers, streams, temple tanks and ponds are arranged alphabetically. The above titles mentioned by Lakṣmīdhara are verified with the list of Kāśī Khaṇḍa (KKh) (see table. no. 2).
This paper has explored two terms: sacred and tīrtha to locate the water and its profound connection with the landscape of Varanasi. The spatial texts of Purāṇas and Nibandhas recognise the centrality of free-flowing water in various forms and how it preserves the sanctity of the place. The descriptive spatial texts are revisited to comprehend the natural environs of the city. Varana and Asi two streams joining the celestial river Ganga and numerous inland watercourses and ponds continuously play with the environs and coalesce to form the sacred landscape. The repository of numerous fluid water bodies and their description establishes the constant flow of water and how the superfluous water was swimmingly incorporated in the physical settings. Kāśī Khaṇḍa has numerous expressions, forms and events and actions that continuously invoke the intrinsic relationship between water and temple. It also reiterates that ‘water sensitivity’ as the fountainhead of the entire script and the sacred landscape of Varanasi.
Aiyangar, Rangaswami K. V. (ed.). 1942. Kṛtyakalpataru of Bhatta Laksmīdhara. Baroda: Oriental Institute.
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[i] Purāṇa is often called as ‘old’ and associated with myth and legends. However, many scholars have argued that this is an oversimplification of the term. Purāṇa is regarded as one of the important branches of Hindu literature and one of the ways to describe this vast literature as an ‘encyclopaedia’ containing the stories from the ancient past. Shastri, J. L. (1985) defines Purāṇa-s, ‘as a body of literature that represents different phases and aspects of life lived by the people in diverse ages.’ He explains that it is a repository of ancient traditions and introduces various other subjects and notions which do not fit into the standard definitions.
[ii] Nibandha means- literary composition, treatise or a compendium. Apte. 1957-1959. The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary.
[iii] Belonging to the Purāṇa-s or derived from them. Apte. 1957-1959. The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary.
[iv] Kāśī Khaṇḍa (84. 53) states that Varanasi is full of all types of tīrtha-s.
[v] Ādi Śaṅkara describes Varanasi city (Kāśī) as a supreme tīrtha and identifies it with the physical body. In one of his compositions titled as ‘Kāśīpañcakam’, which is a compact style of five verses hymn (stōtra) Ādi Śaṅkara mentions the other sacred places such as Maṇikarṇikā and river Ganga.
[vi] Apte, Vaman Shivaram. (1957-1959). The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Kuber Nath Sukul (1977, p. 59) classifies tīrtha-s into sthāna tīrtha and jala tīrtha. Sthāna tīrtha-s are some of the famous sacred sites, whereas, rivers, lakes, water pools, and wells come under the category of jala tīrtha.
[vii] Kantawala, S. G. 1995. Puranas on Pilgrimage: Further Remarks. (p. 26)
[viii] Sukul, Kuber Nath. 1977. Varanasi Vaibhav.
[ix] Sukthankar, Vishnu S. 1942. The Mahābhārata (Vol. 3): The Āraṇyakaparvan (Part 1)
[x] Vāyu Purana significantly discusses the water, its nature and about the water cycle. The text explains that funeral rites or ceremonies (śrāddha) should be performed near- sacred lakes, rivers, pilgrimage places, mountains, etc. for receiving all the proper virtues at the right time. (VP. 15. 2-3; 42.1; 51. 16).
[xi] Sinha, Amita. 2011. Landscapes in India: Forms and Meanings.
[xii] Julia Hegewald (2002: 91) has referred the term ‘Tank Temples’ and described them as specially reserved for religious ceremonies and not for mundane usage. However, in Varanasi city, most of the tanks are now used for various purposes including for the temple rituals, immersions of images, ablutions, bathing and washing.
[xiii] The Kashi Vishwanath is worshipped in the ultimate form of ‘Śiva Liṅga’ which is also referred to as Viśvēśvara, meaning ‘Lord of the universe’.
[xiv] Eck, Diana L. 2015. Banaras: City of Light.
[xv] Aiyangar, Rangaswami K. V. (ed.). 1942. Kṛtyakalpataru of Bhatta Laksmīdhara.
[xvi] Hegewald, Julia A. B. 2002. Water Architecture in South Asia: A Study of Types, Developments and Meanings.
[xvii] Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo. 1996-1997. Kāśī Khaṇḍa.
[xviii] Smith, Travis L. 2014. Vārāṇasī Envisioned: Approaches to the Purāṇic Māhātmyas. (p. 23)
[xix] Maya Prasad Tripathi (1969: 178, 321) discusses the term ‘Bhuvanakōśa’ as corresponding with the modern geography.
[xx] This paper excludes the category of ‘vāpī’ in the list of water reservoirs of Varanasi.
[xxi] Hegewald (2002) in her research on the water architecture of South Asia has discussed tank and kuṇḍa as two main categories of water reservoirs found in India. She distinguished these two types based on their building techniques, surface area, the formation of steps and size. She defines a tank with relatively large surface area, short heightened steps with little depth and rectangular or square form. According to her, kuṇḍa are small size funnel form and has steep steps. She highlights the important observation that however the local types attached with these water reservoirs are not necessarily identical with their structural design.
[xxii] Sukul, Kuber Nath. 1977. Varanasi-Vaibhav.
[xxiii] Bisschop, Peter. 2013. The Abode of the Pañcamudrās: A Yoginī temple in Early Medieval Vārānasī. (p. 52)
[xxiv] Kuber Nath Sukul (1977) explains that the list of 340 temples only include the most prominent temples and other sacred places.
[xxv] Aiyangar, Rangaswami K. V. (ed.). 1942. Kṛtyakalpataru of Bhatta Laksmīdhara. (p. 39)
[xxvi] Aiyangar, Rangaswami K. V. (ed.). 1942. Kṛtyakalpataru of Bhatta Laksmīdhara. (p. 268, 269, 270, 271, 272, 281)