Varanasi has always been one of the top tourist destinations in India but for a Nepali like me it never actually ‘sounded’ like one. My impressions of the city has always been related to the Hindu belief that Kashi is THE place to die to attain Moksha (salvation). True to this belief hundreds of thousands of Hindus make it a point to come to this place at least once in their lifetime to bathe in the Ganges and worship Shiva (Lord of the Universe or Vishwanath) if not to die. And the pilgrims who visit this place make ‘People watching’ more interesting than anything else in Varanasi.
Pilgrims in some parts of Varanasi will always outnumber the locals and non-pilgrims. The main attractions for the Westerns or other travelers alike are the pilgrims and the religious activities themselves apart from the gallis, ghats and the Ganges. And like all tourists, we were also there to explore the city. Eager to taste, smell, hear and experience the new irrespective of our religious up-bringing. Varanasi, however, cannot be understood by keeping aside its religious aspects. Hence it must be dealt with.
On the onset, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the main attraction for pilgrims. Despite its utmost importance to the Hindus, the temple was no the grand monument I expected it to be. Three of the four entrances to the temple are from the gallis and you can never actually see the façade of the building if you enter from any of these gates. I can’t say if you can see that if you enter from Gate 1 but there is no chance you can see how the temple looks like from all directions.
The temple is virtually enclosed by tall, ugly houses which looked suffocating. May be it was lack of spirituality on my part that I was more drawn to the physical and not spiritual aspect of the place. Or perhaps I did not understand the human-God proximity created by the surrounding houses and the loose wires. Still, standing in the temple premises, my exact sentiments were: “The Kashi Vishwanath Temple needs to breathe for God’s sake. Is this how a temple of utmost importance to millions maintained?”
I might look like a Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and all of them put together but the fact is I am not. So, it’s obvious that I can’t give a detached or overwhelmed tourist overview of Varanasi. Coming from the country of Pashupatinath you definitely expect more. The frequent cleaning of the marble floors with water won’t help ease the suffocating atmosphere. There were a few good experiences too.
Everyone devotee can touch the main Shiva Linga. The human-God proximity in this case is commendable. The Shiva Linga is very short so one has to bend to touch or bow it. But right next to it you will find a priest who will shamelessly ask you to offer something to the Lord as if he will hand it to Shiva himself. As we know he won’t you can offer the Bel leaves or anything else on the main statue yourself, do your kind of Puja and move on before the priest starts yelling at you to leave! Expect a human (‘priests’) beside every god/goddess who will ask for some offering (money) but before you fall into their trap read the boards placed around the temple premises which ask the devotees to make a receipt of their donations if it is large or just drop money in the donation boxes so that it utilised for the benefit of the temple. It clearly states that if money given in any other way it will not reach the temple management. I have serious doubts whether the Temple Management Committee will make any good use of the money either but it’s surely a safer bet than handing cash to the priest. I made no donations.
Another interesting thing: tight security. Bag, camera or cell phone is not allowed inside the temple. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed inside the main temple. A foreigner had to leave her PEN at the main entrance! So that is how tight the security is. There are security checks everywhere: even while moving from one part of the temple to another. Security people are placed in all seen in all the gallis leading to the temple. This is understandable because what is worshipped the main temple today is not really at the ‘original’ site. The Gyanavapi mosque, which is next to the temple, is the original site of the temple. A police officer told us that Aurangzeb built a mosque in the original temple site. As he said so I pictured a huge white marble dome falling out of the sky and landing atop the original temple. He expressed slight disapproval on having to listen to the Namaj read out next door though am sure the temple sounds are heard in the mosque too. One can experience an uneasy calmness surrounding the temple when you see a group of security personnel stationed near the barbed wire fence next to the mosque. You cannot enter the mosque through the temple premises. There is a different route which includes equally tight security checks to reach the mosque.
For now, let us just wish for Peace to prevail.