Sunday, January 18, 2009


It was like one of those stray thoughts that begin quite randomly and carelessly and before you realise or take serious notice, overtake your mind and senses and soul completely.I was reading a description on the ancient and holy city of Varanasi (Benaras) when a quote by the acclaimed American author, Mark Twain caught my attention , " Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together," Without saying much, these words conveyed everything and filled and possessed me with the overpowering desire to explore the legendary, ancient and holy land of Lord Vishwanath.

And so in the last week of the year's last month, we set out on a curious and inquisitive journey to the holy city of Varanasi, which is also known as Kashi in Hindu scriptures.But late December in northern India is not a very good time to undertake long journeys.Dense clouds of fog and smog envelop towns and cities and due to poor visibility, more often than not , trains and flights get delayed, sometimes for hours and hours at a stretch.In our excitement at exploring the legend and antiquity of Benaras, we failed to foresee this cumbersome reality of north Indian winter.And as a consequence, ended up spending a good twenty hours, either waiting for the train or languidly whiling away time in our compartment once it started the journey.All this while, the anticipation and excitement continued to build up.

We finally reached Benaras at night the next day instead of the scheduled early morning arrival the same day ! The body was tired but the mind felt surprisingly fresh and active.Did it have something to do with the cool and sacred breeze coming from the direction of the holy Ganges or had the resilience and quiet strength of the ancient city of Lord Shiva started rubbing on to us ? Afterall, it takes an exceptional and extraordinary amount of physical, material and spiritual strength to be the oldest surviving city in the world !

The first sight that caught the eye as we set feet in Benaras was that of the imposing structure of the city railway station.The building modelled like a temple complex was certainly the most innovative design for a railway station that I had ever seen.There was a chill and sharpness in the wind and I shrunk further in the warmth of my jacket.We took an auto rickshaw and set out on what turned out to be a two-hour long hunt for a decent hotel through the narrow lanes and bylanes of the city.It was way past nine pm and the darkness and the fast thickening fog were making the search more difficult.We finally found a place to check in barely three hours before the pre-dawn Mangala aarti at Kashi Vishwanath. We had just about two hours to freshen up and absolutely no time to catch a nap.

Packing ourselves in layers of clothes, we took a cycle rickshaw ride to the temple at about two in the morning.It was a brief but very quiet and contemplative ride through the empty, fog laden streets of the city.The temple is located in the heart of the city on the western bank of the holy Ganges.The area is old and congested and like all holy places, no vehicles are allowed inside.Besides, the lanes leading to the temple are too narrow for any vehicle to be able to move about freely.There was heavy security at the entrance to the pathway to the temple even at that early hour.Heavily armed security personnel guarded all the important points leading to the temple.We were told that the security at Kashi Vishwanath was particularly beefed up after the terrorist attack on another famous temple in the city, the Sankatmochan temple, in March 2006.

After all the security checks, we were finally ushered inside the small Kashi Vishwanath temple complex where the jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva is enshrined.It is said that one can earn the merits of darshan of all the twelve jyotirlinga sacttered in various parts of the country by a single visit to Kashi Vishwanath and therefore, every day, thousands and thousands of devotees from all across the world throng the temple complex to seek spiritual peace and divine blessings.This Shiva temple is believed to have been there in the site for thousands of years.But due to invasions, it has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.The current structure is believed to have been constructed by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.The Vishwanatha temple consists of a mandapa and a sanctum.The sanctum has a linga set into the centre of the floor in a square silver altar. The Linga is of black stone.

Once inside, we joined other devotees at one of the four entrances to the sanctum.The Shringar ceremony of Lord Vishwanath had just started amidst chanting of holy mantras by the group of priests performing the pooja.The linga was bathed with water, milk, ghee, honey and then decorated with offerings of fresh flowers and garlands.Fresh new clothes were placed on each side of the linga within the silver altar.There was a magic in all those chantings and prayers and as I looked upwards , I saw the most beautiful site of my life..through the early morning fog, the golden temple spirals glistened and sparkled majestically as the leafless branches of an old tree caressed them softly.

As the Shringar ceremony got over, all of us looking at it from outside the sanctum were asked to come one by one for darshan from closer quarters and for making whatever offerings we had brought for the Lord.At the crack of the dawn,accompanied by the unintrusive and soft strains of tanpura, the legendary M S Subbulakshmi's soulful rendition of the Kashi Vishwanath Suprabhatam announced yet another spiritually enlightened morning within the sacred premises.It was the beginning of just another ordinary day in Benaras, but to my deeply awakened mind and senses, it seemed the most important moment of my life.