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Tracing the Past of Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Mahesh Gogate
James Prinsep. Elevation of the Temple of Vishveshwur at Benares. 1834. (Plate 9 - Benares Illustrated). The British Library Board. Item number: 75139

Fig. 2. James Prinsep. Elevation of the Temple of Vishveshwur at Benares. 1834. (Plate 9 - Benares Illustrated). The British Library Board. Item number: 75139

Sketch by Peter Mundy. 1632

Fig. 1. Sketch by Peter Mundy. 1632.

“Avimukta extending to five Krosa-s is a great holy place. That alone named
Vishveshwara (Vishwanath) should be known as a Jyotirlinga.”
(Skanda Purana. Kashi Khanda. 26:131[i])

  1. Introduction

This paper revisits some of the critically acclaimed texts and accounts to study the ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ temple; one of the most prominent temples of India. In the first section, we briefly explore the Kashi Khanda, Tristhalisetu of Narayan Bhatta and few other literary texts which were composed in different periods to understand the historical background and transformation of the temple. Then we briefly revisit the period of destruction, relocation and restoration of the temple at present site. We then refer to the colonial accounts to understand how the European travellers, officers and particularly the missionaries described one of the most prominent and sacred temples.

  1. Literary texts on Kashi Viswanath temple

Varanasi is one of the seven sacred cities (Saptapuri) spread across India. Chapter 26 of ‘Kashi Khanda’ of Skanda Purana[ii] uses various names for Varanasi, such as Kashi[iii] (the city of light), Rudravasa (abode of Rudra), Avimukta (never forsaken by Shiva), Anandakanana (forest of bliss), Mahasmashana (great cremation ground) etc. Adi Shankara describes Varanasi as a supreme ‘tirtha’[iv] and identifies it with the physical body. In one of his compositions titled as ‘Kashipanchakam’, which is a compact style of five verses hymn (stotra) he mentions Shiva as presiding deity of Kashi (Varanasi). The presiding deity of Varanasi is revered as Vishveshwara and Vishwanath.

Kashi Khanda mentions that Kashi is held aloft on the trident by Shiva. The three spears of the trident symbolise three mounds and considered as three regions (khanda) of the sacred landscape. The northern Rajghat highland comes under Omkara-khanda; Vishveshwara-khanda in the middle and Kedara-khanda is in the south. On the highest central plateau stands one of the most revered temples of ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ which was rebuilt under the initiative and patronage by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar in the late eighteenth century.

According to Kashi Khanda, there are 1099 temples in Varanasi, out of which, 513 are dedicated to Shiva. Inside there were five mandapas (halls or pavilions of the temple). The main mandapa was the garbhagriha, where the Shiva Linga of Vishwanath is revered. There were four mandapas on four sides of the temple: Jnana mandapa in the east; Shringar (Ranga) in the west; Aishwarya mandapa in the north; and Mukti mandapa in the south (also the site of the idol of Vishnu swami, the main deity). As per Altekar (1947) the four mandapas measured 16”x 16”[v]. Altekar speculates that the height of the spire was around 128 feet. The main gate of the temple was on the west side near the Dvara Vinayaka. Kalabhairava was revered on the northwest side. At present, the garbhagriha, Mukti mandapa and Aishwarya mandapa are part of the main building of the mosque. The other structures have been either converted or demolished.

Narayan Bhatta composed his book ‘Tristhalisetu’ in the middle of the 16th century. In the chapter dedicated to Varanasi, Bhatta discusses the continuous demolition of Vishwanath temple. According to Bhatta, if the revered Linga has been removed, the new Liṅga should be properly consecrated and revered. He also mentions circumambulation around the Liṅga. He mentions that if invaders have razed the temple, then the vacant place should be properly worshipped. This text confirms that the destruction of the temple probably took place before the composition of this book. Bhatta highlights that demolition of the temple shall not distract and reduce the relevance and sanctity of the place. Devotees continued worshipping at the sacred place in the absence of Liṅga for few decades.

Enugula Veeraswamy[vi] spent more than one year travelling to different cities on his way to Varanasi. Based on his journey from May 1830 to September 1831, Veeraswamy wrote a travelogue in the Telugu language titled ‘Kashi Yatra Charitra’[vii]. While exploring the Vishwanath temple, he witnessed new construction and reported hundreds of temples of Shiva in the city.

  1. Period of Invasions, destructions, relocations and restoration

The first known attack on Varanasi was in 1034 by Ahmad Niyaltigin (or Nialtagin), a general in the Mahmud Ghazni’s army. Then, in 1194, more than 1000 temples were demolished by the Qutb al-Din Aibak (Kutb Al-Din Aybak)[viii]. Their sites remained untouched for almost 50 years. Eventually, Razia Sultana (1236-1240) constructed a mosque on the forsaken place of the Vishwanath temple. Vishwanath temple was reconstructed in the area of Avimukteshvara[ix] which again faced the partial destruction during the rule of Mahmud Shah Sharqi. In 1494, Sikandar Lodi invaded Varanasi and demolished many temples (including the Vishwanath temple). Almost 90 years later, in 1585, Vishwanath temple was rebuilt by famous scholar Narayan Bhatta with the support of Raja Todar Mal and Maharaja of Amber. During the regime of Shah Jahan (1627-1658) about 76 partly (re) constructed temples were demolished. In 1669 Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath temple. A mosque called ‘Jnana Vapi Masjid’ (Gyan Vapi mosque) was then built on the site. Thus, a result of the destruction was Mukti maṇḍapa becoming a part of the mosque. Eventually, the remnants of this Vishnu Peetha were completely wiped out.

Kane (1953) mentions that the destruction of the temples happened from the 12th century to the 17th century[x]. According to Sukul (1977), during this period all prominent temples of Varanasi were destroyed five times; many times, the temples were restored in different locations[xi]. He notes that the areas of Vishwanath temple, Annapurna temple and Sakshi-Vinayak kshetra have been significantly reconstructed, mainly because the temple of Kashi Vishwanath was consistently under attack (and often destroyed) by Muslim invaders.

After the fall of Mughal rule, in 1750 Raja Balwant Singh superseded the Mughal rule and thus it opened the ways to rebuild the demolished temples. The queen of Indore state, Rani Ahilyabai Holkar took the initiative and reconstruction of the present Vishwanath temple started in 1775. The temple was consecrated on 25th August 1777. She also reconstructed the small temple of Avimukteshvara in the southeast corner. The limited control on Varanasi and political instability likely blocked the grand reconstruction of the temple. The present Vishwanath temple and the maṇḍapa area is small. Altekar (1947) describes that instead of a ‘spire’ the maṇḍapa has a dome which is possibly shows the Muslim influence on the Hindu architecture.

  1. Colonial accounts on Kashi Vishwanath temple

The first available foreign accounts of Vishwanath temple is by renowned scholar Hiuen Tsiang (beginning of the 7th century). Hiuen Tsiang referred to Varanasi as ‘Polonisse’ and mentioned 100 temples with the principal deity called ‘Maheshvara’ (Ta-tseu-tsai).

In the mid of seventeen century, Niccolao Manucci, François Bernier and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier were some of the travellers who travelled to Varanasi and mentioned about the principal temple (pagoda) in their respective travel accounts. Most western travellers and colonial officers referred to the Vishwanath temple as either a Golden temple or a pagoda. Amongst them, British merchant and traveller Peter Mundy’s account is arguably noteworthy. Peter Mundy visited Varanasi in 1632 and described the populous city’s Hindu temples.  He called the main deity as ‘Cassibessuua’ (Vishveshwara) and sketched (see fig. 1) the inner sanctum of the temple[xii].

In 1632, when Mundy visited the Vishwanath temple, he saw the revered Linga on the elevated place in the centre of the main temple building. His description of the temple (along with the sketch of the deity inside) was written before its demolition by Aurangzeb in 1669.

Later, in 1822, British scholar James Prinsep published his map of Varanasi and carried out the census exercise of the city. His census provides a list of 1,000 Hindu temples, 333 mosques[xiii] and 174 gardens[xiv]. James Prinsep along with the detailed sketch of the Vishwanath temple (see fig. 2), described the architecture and engravings on the temple. Prinsep writes,

The temple of Vishveshvur consists of two dewuls connected by a portico or subha-mundup. The principal dewul, which contains the lingam of Mahadeo, is more lofty to mark its superiority over the other, which is called the DUNDPAN or "the staff bearer's," as before explained. It is also more minutely carved; and the scrolls flowers upon the janghee, koombha, and morha, are of singular delicacy and elegance.[xv]

Reginald Heber during his visit to Varanasi in 1825, mentioned about the pilgrims not only from different parts of India but also from Nepal, Tibet and present Myanmar (Burma)[xvi] visiting the city to bathe in river Ganga and pay homage to Vishwanath.

Matthew Atmore Sherring was a missionary who lived in Varanasi for many years[xvii]. Sherring in his description on the temples of Varanasi mentioned about the demolition of the Vishwanath temple by Aurangzeb[xviii]. Based on the ruins of the demolished temple, Sherring argued that the previous temple must have been a lofty structure with spacious area compared with the rebuilt temple in late eighteenth century.

After three decades, in 1897 John Murdoch visited the Vishwanath temple and noticed the ancient remains of the old temple of Vishwanath[1]. He additionally referred to the temple as Golden temple and calculated the height of the tower as 51 feet.

Concluding Remarks

Diana Eck, in her critically acclaimed book on Varanasi, mentions the two-centuries-old reconstructed temple of Shri Kashi Vishwanath as an archetype of the Shiva temples spread across India[2]. Although this is one of the most prominent temples, it lacks the grand architectural appearance of temples especially when compared with temple architecture of the southern part of India. This observation reveals the volatile era of destruction and demolition of many temples in Varanasi and explains the constraints and challenges of reconstructing temples during Muslim rule. Furthermore, the revered Shiva Linga is not in the centre of the garbhagriha (inner sanctum), but in the corner. After the demolition of Vishwanath temple in 1669, the present temple of Kashi Vishwanath was rebuilt after one century. The authoritative records during these times are inaccessible. However, after the death of Aurangzeb gradually the Mughal rule started crumbling and then the Vishwanath temple was rebuilt by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar at its present location in 1775-1777.

Varanasi city along with the prominent Vishwanath temple of Shiva also houses countless temples

[1] Murdoch, John. 1897 (second Edition). Kasi or Benares: The Holy City of the Hindus. London and Madras: The Christian Literature Society for India.

[2] Eck, Diana L. 2015 (first edition. 1983). Banaras: City of Light. New Delhi: Penguin India.

[i] Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo. (Translated and annotated by). 1996-1997. The Skanda-Purāṇa. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

[ii] Skanda Purana comprises seven chapters (khanda). Chapter four, titled 'Kashi Khanda' is split into two sections. Renowned scholar Kuber Nath Sukul (1977) suggests that the composition of Kashi Khanda occurred somewhere between the beginning and middle of the 14th century. The present-day Telugu translation confirms the authenticity of the text.

[iii] The Kashi territory is the largest; the Varanasi area is a relatively smaller region between the Varana and the Asi—two tributaries of river Ganga. Inside Varanasi territory, a still smaller region is called as Avimukta. However, as per Skanda Purana, Varanasi and Avimukta are synonyms.

[iv] The concept of tirtha is deeply anchored in the Hindu philosophy and has spatiotemporal dimensions. Tirtha 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.

[v] Altekar, Anant Sadashiv. 1947 (second edition). Benares and Sarnath: Past and Present. Varanasi: Culture Publication House. Benares Hindu University.

[vi] Enugula Veeraswamy worked as an interpreter in British East India Company.

[vii] Enugula Veeraswamy's Journal (Kasiyatra Charitra) (Pillai, Komaleswarapuram Srinivasa. Telugu original compiled). Sitapati, P., and Purushottam, V. (edited and translated). 1973. Hyderabad: Andhra Pradesh Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute.

[viii] Niyogi, Roma. 1959. The History of The Gahadavala Dynasty. Calcutta: Oriental Book Agency.

[ix] Before the invasion and demolition of temples of Varanasi, the main Shivayatan was Avimukteshvara temple. However, the Vishwanath temple was more prominent in that period also.

[x] Kane, Pandurang Vaman. 1953. History of Dharmasastra. (Vol. IV). Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

[xi] Sukul, Kuber Nath. 1977. Varanasi-Vaibhav (The Glory of Varanasi). Patna: Bihar-Rashtrabhasha- Parishad.

[xii] Temple, Richard Carnac (ed). 1914. The Travels of Peter Mundy, in Europe and Asia. 1608-1667. Vol. II. Travels in Asia 1628-1634. London: Hakluyt Society.

[xiii] Sherring, Matthew Atmore. 1868. The Sacred City of the Hindus: An Account of Benares in Ancient and Modern Times. London: Trübner & Co.

[xiv] Singh, Rana P. B. 1993. Varanasi: Demographic Profile - From Ancient to Late 1820s and the Present State. Varanasi: Tara Book Agency. (pp. 279 - 288).

[xv] Prinsep, James., and Kejriwal, O. P. 2009. Benares Illustrated and James Prinsep and Benares. Varanasi: Pilgrims Publishing. (p. 92).

[xvi] Heber, Reginald. 1929. Some Account of the Life of Reginald Heber. London: Simpkin and Marshall.

[xvii] Eck, Diana L. 2015 (first edition. 1983). Banaras: City of Light. New Delhi: Penguin India. 

[xviii] Sherring, Matthew Atmore. 1868. The Sacred City of the Hindus: An Account of Benares in Ancient and Modern Times. London: Trübner & Co.

© National Museum Institute, 
New Delhi, 2021
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