The boat chugged cheerfully in the waters, carrying its load of chattering, smiling, laughing, gesticulating people onboard. It headed for the mid-stream of the river, and then turned and headed north, the direction where our destination, the Kashi Vishwanath temple lay.
The Kashi Vishwanath, is one of the twelve jyotirlingams in India. A jyotirlingam is a site where Shiva, the primordial ascetic, the Mahadeva, has manifested himself as a pillar of fire. Each jyotirlingam has a name, depending upon the legend associated with the place and the circumstances of Shiva’s appearance there. The name of the jyotirlingam in Varanasi is Vishveshwar, or Vishwanath, Lord of the World. Since the ancient name of Varanasi is Kashi, the city of light, hence the jyotirlingam associated with Kashi came to be known, in time, as Kashi Vishwanath. The Kashi Vishwanath jyotirlingam is one of the holiest sites for Hindus from across the world, and hence has also been a focal point for religious oppression by bigots.
Since the twelfth century CE, this holy site has been demolished and vandalized several times by religious zealots, only to be rebuilt by devout Hindus. The last time it was demolished, was in the seventeenth century by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, and the rubble from the temple was used to construct a mosque at the very site where the temple stood. This mosque was called, and is still known as, ironically, the Gyanvapi mosque. Since the original site of the temple was no longer accessible to the Hindus, due to the mosque standing over its very foundations, the Maratha queen Ahalya Bai Holkar rebuilt the temple at an adjacent site in the year 1780, where it still stands.
This temple site is now being renovated by the government of India by acquiring land around the ancient structure, and building a temple complex around it. The area between the temple, and the Lalita Ghat, the ghat adjacent to the shrine, is also being cleared of encroachments to enable its use by the pilgrims for taking a ritual bath before visiting the temple, or for carrying water from the Ganges for abhishekam, or anointing of the deity. This upgraded shrine is proposed to be renamed as the Kashi Vishwanath Dham, or Kashi Vishwanath Pilgrimage site. It was this project, still under construction, that we all wanted to see while in Varanasi, and hence this boat ride had been arranged so that we may take the ancient route to the shrine; from the Lalita ghat.
To be continued…..
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