Kashi is known as the land of Shiva. Everything in Kashi not only revolves around the main temple of Vishwanath, as Lord Shiva is known here, but He is also believed to be in control of everything that happens in this holy city. Normally, in Hindu mythology, the nine planets, or Navagrahas, who govern our actions, are independent, and perform their duty without interference from the Gods (a case of not even God interfering with nature and her rules). However, Kashi is a special city, an exception to this rule, where Shiva even governs the Navagrahas. It is believed that Lord Shaneeshwara (Saturn) once came to catch Shiva for the period of 7 ½ years (what is commonly called Saade-saati), and found himself unable to enter the temple. He is believed to have stayed outside the temple, and hence the temple of Shaneeshwara outside the Vishwanath temple is much frequented by pilgrims who light oil lamps here, hoping to escape the clutch of Shani.
There are just too many legends to explain why Kashi is sacred, and why Shiva chose to reside here. I recently read an article where the writer explains in scientific terms, that in this area, the Ganges flows in a curve, in the northward direction. The curvature and the force of the river led to the formation of a natural amphitheatre, or natural steps in simpler terms. This probably attracted our forefathers to this place, who built Ghats where the steps had formed, to have a bath, and installed their patron deity, Shiva as the lord of this place. Therefore, in order to avoid the confusion, let us not discuss the legends and accept the fact that here, Shiva is called Vishwanath or Vishweshwar, the lord of the world.
Kashi or Benares has been ruled by various great kings, some distinguished ones, and some not so famous. It even passed through a phase of being ruled over by the Buddhists. But the ancient temples, which saw so many rulers come and go, could not survive the onslaught of the Mughals. The temples were destroyed, not once, but a number of times by various Mughal invaders, leaving no trace of what the original temples might have looked like.
The temple, as it stands today, owes its existence to the Queen of Indore, Rani AhilyaBai Holkar. It was she who, seeing the sorry state of affairs here, not only provided the funds, but also made all the arrangements for building the temple. She was certainly a great woman, much ahead of her time, who took up the task of restoring to their glory, many of the ancient temples of India, which had suffered at the hands of plundering monarchs. The temple of Somnath is another such temple. Among the other temples which she helped build are the ones at Dwaraka, Triambakeshwar, and Parali Vaidyanat
The present temple stands beside a mosque that had been built by Aurangzeb over the ruins of the original temple. The sacred idol, the Shiva lingam, had been hidden in a well, hoping to prevent its destruction. This well, now known as the Gyaana Vapi (well of knowledge) stands in an area between the temple and the mosque. I have had the good fortune to visit Kashi twice-the first time as a 12 year old, and again recently, almost 20 years later. On my first visit, I remember seeing the well and being told its story when we were circumambulating the temple. This time however, there was some construction work going on (they are renovating the temple and the area around it), and we were unable to circumambulate the temple, and hence could not see the well.
Though Kashi is a place of great sanctity, it is also infamous for the Pandas, or a class of priests, who charge exorbitant amounts of money. If u talk to anyone who has visited Kashi, you will be sure to hear tales of how they have been overcharged and been taken for a ride by these people. The same goes for the temple too. However, the temple administration is now making efforts to remedy the situation. The first step it has taken in this direction is the creation of its own website. This site has been well organized, with complete details about the temple, as well as the pujas conducted, the timings of the different Aarthis, and the charges for the various offerings. Best of all, it is possible to book pujas on the net well in advance, and arrange whether you want the puja to be performed in your presence, in which case the ticket allows you an entry into the temple bypassing the long queue, or in your absence, in which case, the Prasad is sent to you by post. This is a good system, and must be appreciated. Of course, at this point of time, this doesn’t entirely bypass the earlier system of paying money to the priests. These days, there are a number of people who book for the pujas, and one often gets relegated to the back row from where we can hardly get a glimpse of what is going on. A little extra from your wallet goes a long way in getting you a prime position to watch the puja.
There are 2 Aartis at the temple- the Saptharishi Aarthi in the evening, and the early morning Mangalaarti.
The Saptharishi Aarthi is the aarti performed by 7 priests, each belonging to a different Gotram, performing the aarti to the lingam simultaneously. It is believed that every evening, the Saptarishis, the seven great sages come to perform aarti to the lord, and hence this puja is conducted every evening at 7 PM. This is followed by the Shringar Aarthi and finally the Shayan Aarti, when the Lord is put to sleep. We attended only the saptarishis aarthi, but if you do, pay for the Shringar Aarti and stay for the Shayan aarti as well, which is free. Seeing these Aartis is an experience which must not be missed. No words to describe the atmosphere during the final aarthi.
The early morning Mangalaarti, where the Lord is woken up is at 3AM every morning. It is, no doubt, not an easy thing to be up and ready at the temple by 2:45AM, especially on a holiday, but this is one puja which is worth the effort! First, you will get to see the Lord, as he was during the night (Nirmalya Darshan). Then, all the garlands and flowers are removed, and we get to see the original lingam in all its majesty (again, not an easy thing to see, as it is usually covered with flowers, water and bilva leaves). Then, Abhishekam is performed to the lingam followed by decoration with flowers. Again, this decoration is removed, and we get the Prasad, and finally each and everyone present is allowed to go near the lingam and offer prayers.