The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/Vishvanatha (Vishveshvara) temple
25º 18.637’N and 83º 00.594’E
Exact location on a map
Jnanavapi, House No. CK 35/ 19
The first original site of Vishveshvara or Vishvanatha (Golden) Temple is an issue of historical investigation. However it is accepted that the first destruction took place in 1194 by the order of Qutb-ud-din Aibak, including demolishing the temple of Visheshvara which was at the presently existing Razia Mosque. During her reign Razia Sultana (1236-1240) had built a mosque on the deserted site of the above temple. By the end of 13th century the Visheshvara temple was built in the compound of Avimukteshvara, and continued till the next destruction under the control of Sharqi kings of Jaunpur (1436-1458).
In 1490 Sikander Lodi once again demolished most of the important temples of Banaras, and the prominence of Avimukteshvara was lost. By the patronage of Raghunath Pandit (known as Todaramala), a wealthy merchant of Banaras, the new temple of Visheshvara was built in 1585. He strictly adopted the basic architectural and structural plan of Visheshvara temple built in late 13th century, described earlier. This was demolished by the order of Aurangzeb in 1669 and converted into a mosque (71m high minarets). Today atop the ruins of the old Vishvanatha Temple, sit two different mosques, one built in the 13th century by Razia and one in the 17th century by Aurangzeb. Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore built the present temple in 1776-77.
The Puranic description mentions the 15th century Visheshvara temple in the name of Mokshalakshmivilasa temple, and its architectural plan was described in detail. There were five mandapas (pavilions) in the four directions, and additionally one in a centre which was the Visheshvara sanctuary. The directional orientation was strictly followed in the construction. From the east to north the four mandapas were Jnana (“wisdom”), Mukti (“liberation”), Shringara (“beauty”), and Aishvarya (“prosperity”). At the four cardinal directions there were shrines of four auxiliary deities, viz. Tarakeshvara (SE), Dandapani (SW), Ganesha (NW) and Bhairava (NE). The main entrance was in the west.
=== Description ===: As one approaches Vishvanatha, there are flower merchants whose baskets are heaped with garlands of marigolds and jasmine. Entering through the doorway from Vishvanath lane with their offerings of pushpa (flowers), naivedya (sweets) and Gangajala (Ganga water), pilgrims come into a large rectangular courtyard in the centre of which stands the temple itself. Turning to the right turn one visits the Jnanavapi Mandapa where exist images of Gauri Shankara, Tarakeshvara, the great Nandi bull (ca 2m high), Jnanavapi Kupa (“Well of the Wisdom”), and at the there is a small image of Maheshvara under the fig tree. The Jnanavapi Kupa symbolises the primordial water associated with the story of Ishana (Shiva’s form controlling the northeast realm) who dug the earth at this site with his trident and offered the water to Avimukteshvara, the most ancient form of Shiva. According to the folk tradition, after the demolition of the old temple in 1669 Vishvanatha-Shiva took refuge in the Well and since then resides there. While on a ritual journey, most pilgrims first come here to sip the water and take a vow (sankalpa) of initiation, and finally return here to complete the journey and do the ritual of thanksgiving. Passing through the iron railing one can pass through the backside of the mosque and see the remains of the ancient temple. The present Vishvanatha temple is at its fourth site, shifted and reconstructed after destruction. The history of the previous temples that housed the linga of Vishvanatha is, in a nutshell, the history of Varanasi over the past thousand years: a tale of repeated destruction, and desecration and rebuilding. Going straight after passing through the entrance, one first meets the central linga of Vaikuntheshvara. From there in the room on the right is Vishvanatha, and in the left room Dandapanishvara. In the left corner near the entrance are Vishnu, Virupakshi Gauri and Avimukta Vinayaka. To the far right is Avimukteshvara, whose antiquity and significance reaches even earlier than Vishvanatha. There are images of Shiva’s assistants and associates, including Kala Bhairava, who maintain the order of the world at Shiva’s wish. Worshippers pass around the back of the temple through a dark exterior corridor where scores of Shiva lingas are arrayed in an area called “Shiva’s Court”. In the northwest corner there are images of Saubhadya Gauri, Vighneshvara Ganesha, Nikumbheshvara and Kapileshvara. All these divinities are part of Shiva’s cosmos. The temple compound is a microcosm of Kashi.
History and development
The Vishvanatha (Golden) temple is situated in the midst of a quadrangle. Each corner is a dome, and at the southeast corner is the main temple of Vishvanatha. There are three divisions of the present temple complex (built in 1776-77): the spire of Mahadeva Temple, a large gilded dome, and the gilded tower of Vishvanatha. The Vishvanatha Linga is set into the floor of the temple in a square solid-silver recessed altar. The seat of the linga is also silver and the shaft of the linga is smooth black stone having quartzite particles. A Sikh king, Ranjit Singh of Lahore, provided the gold plating on the roof of the two spires in 1835. The main tower is 15.5m (51ft) in height. The space between the temples of Vishvanath and Mahadeva, beneath the dome, is used as belfry, and as many as nine bells as suspended in it. The main door of this temple is covered with silver plates. Pilgrims drench the linga with holy water (of Ganga together with milk), cover it with flowers and bilva (thorn apple) leaves and bend down to touch it with their hands while chanting the sacred verse (mantra): Om namah Shivaya (O supreme Lord Shiva! We pray one). The surrounding atmosphere of the Vishvanatha temple area is full of worship and devotion and is powerfully impressive. The sights and sounds and smells of the temple, the shouting and chanting and clanging of bells, even the jostling of the crowds, all contribute to the aura of sanctity.
Present state of conservation
The sacred centre of this area is the Vishvanatha (Vishveshvara) temple which is maintained by the “Vishvanatha Temple Trust” (Nyasa), the president of which is the Commissioner of Varanasi. With the support of this Trust various programmes of conservation and preservation are in process, however due to lack of civic sense and public participation it is a very hard task. The VDA and Municipal Corporation are also supporting at various levels.
Specific measures being taken for conserving the specific property
The Vishvanatha Temple Trust has already started purchase of the various temple properties a with a view to making the whole area really clean, serene and maintenance of the spirit of place.
Owned and managed by the Sri Vishvanatha Temple Trust (Nyasa).