Nag Temple, Chauki Ghat

The first time I read about the Naag Temple of Chauki Ghat, Varanasi, was in Diana L Eck’s Banaras: The City of Light. It was in the context of the religious pre-history of the city that the nature worshippers and the Naags were mentioned, if I recollect it right.

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Naag Idols

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Tara Pith, Bengali Tola, Varanasi

Arch and bell, Tara Pith

I used to pass the entrance of the temple and through the gali on nearly daily basis but I never suspected that there would be such a huge temple in an apparently constricted space that’s in no way unique to Tara Pith in Varanasi. I have seen spacious inner courtyards with rectangular gardens in them, e.g. Agrasen Mahajani Vidyalaya building at Chaukhambha and Kymarswami Mutt beside Kedareshwar Temple. The front courtyard has arched passageways supported on columns that lead to the two side courtyards of the temples of Ma Vishalakshi and Ma Kali. Another passage by the courtyard at the right hand leads to Tara Temple.

Vishalakshi Devi, Tara Pith

The gates were closed when I reached the compound. A gentleman, probably from the family of the caretakers, was cleaning the courtyard and passageway at the entrance (only one entrance is functional, the other entrances from the gali are kept locked nowadays). The walls of the whole compound were freshly painted with ochre – the colour of renunciation, ergo, symbolising holiness – and white. The columns and multi-globulated arches looked strangely Bengali and Rajasthani.

Courtyard and gali opening side

“Those who know” is the term generally used for those with inside information about the past and present of a place. Their names are lost in amorphous haze. Well, not in this case, because this time,  “those who know” happen to be my uncle (Babla Mama) and grandmother (Nani). So, they told me that Rani Rashmoni had the temple constructed. They also told me a story about the temple and its past. Their story had a point, and another story in it. It was about the platform upon which the idol of Ma Tara rests. Before we proceed, I must direct the reader to the P.S. Please go there and then come back.

Rani_Rashmoni_indiapicks.com

(Source: indiapicks.com)

Before going into the story let me share what I came to know through my search with the key word “Rani Rashmoni”. She was born in 1793 and lived up to 1861. She’s called “Lokmata” the mother of the people. There’s a mission bearing her name. A Bangla movie of 1955 bears her name too. She was a real hero (ine). The span through which she remained at the helm of her zamindari was also the period of the rise of the power of the East India Company in India. She was the original Iron Lady. At least that’s what I gather from her biography. She had the courage to stand firmly against the East India Company and twist their metaphorical arms more than once to get what she saw as good for her sons: her people, as she was the lokmata. It’s the story of such personalities that pass on to become legends and her legend transcended both geographical and temporal boundaries.

Ma Kali, Tara Pith

The Government of India issued a postage stamp in 1994, to commemorate her bicentennial year. She will always be remembered for having Dakshineshwar Kali Temple constructed, and for her courage and balance of the spiritual with the meterial.

A couple of pages on her that I liked are:

http://suvrobemused.blogspot.in/2008/11/rashmoni-dim-distant-light.html

http://www.dakshineswarkalitemple.org/rashmoni.html

Tantrik Yajna Vedi, Tara Pith

After having read about her, now I know that her legend that I received in Banaras is definitely false. Yet, it lives on, and with each re-telling, breathes one more time. The story that I was told had a defiant queen denying some Englishman her daughter’s hand. As they come storming into her palace, she, a devotee of Ma Tara, orders her men to bury her daughter alive, construct a platform and establish the Mother’s idol over the platform. Her command was obeyed and the kanya’s form was fused into that of the goddess. The story was embedded  into the minds of “those who knew”, and then was told and re-told. The legend of the Rani and her temple in Kashi (although none of the pages I read mentions any such temple) lived and grew.

Ma Tara, Tara Pith

When it reached me, it had an addendum. I was told that in the olden times the sanctum of Ma Tara was illuminated with the light of one lamp only. In those olden days, only the brave heart would go there and there was only one person who could act as the priest in the Mother’s temple. He was partially mad. Other than him, whosoever tried to worship he as her priest would either turn mad or die a painful death. After electricity bulbs were introduced, the place is now open to all who wish to go there. So, inducted in the lore of fear, nay terror, I entered the compound.

Incongruous repair work with bricks

 Well, during my journey between the three sanctums, the only fear that lingered in my mind was that I’d be forbidden to take pictures. So, I clicked quickly and when no one was looking. In fact, the whole compound was deserted while I roamed and clicked, yet the fear did not leave me until I had left the compound and entered the gali. More about that fear later.

 A word about the defacement in the name of reconstruction of heritage buildings in Banaras here: I marked that the portions where stone had broken beyond repair, they had erected brick and cement walls, like ugly patches on a beautiful Banarsi Sari.

P.S. Sri Rama Murthy corrected my error by mentioning that the temple was constructed by Rani Bhavani. He is right. And here’s the evidence:

tara temple

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Surdas and Krishna

It started with my search for one of Surdasji’s songs, and for its lyrics. Google took me to kavitakosh and I got the lyrics:

जसोदा हरि पालनैं झुलावै।
हलरावै, दुलराइ मल्हावै, जोइ-जोइ कछु गावै ॥
मेरे लाल कौं आउ निंदरिया, काहैं न आनि सुवावै ।
तू काहैं नहिं बेगहिं आवै, तोकौं कान्ह बुलावै ॥
कबहुँ पलक हरि मूँदि लेत हैं, कबहुँ अधर फरकावै ।
सोवत जानि मौन ह्वै कै रहि, करि-करि सैन बतावै ॥
इहिं अंतर अकुलाइ उठे हरि, जसुमति मधुरैं गावै ।
जो सुख सूर अमर-मुनि दुरलभ, सो नँद-भामिनि पावै ॥

(Source: kavitakosh.org)

My Translation:

Yashoda rocks Krishna in the cradle. She sings a lullaby for him lovingly and joins whichever word first comes to her mind for the lyrics. She calls Sleep and urges her to come quickly to her son. Krishna closes his eyes at times and sometimes he starts moving his lips. He sleeps for a time and during the sleep he probably has a nightmare. Yashoda sings sweetly. She gets the bliss rare even for the immortal sages so easily.

Why this song on a blog page on Kashi? Surdas had no Banaras connection, as far as we know. Neither has Krishna been reported coming to the city. His guru, sage Sandeepan, was from the city alright, but linking him to the city on the basis of that will be stretching it too far. What is the justification for their appearance then?

Bindu Madhav Idol

Well, the logical justification is in the traditionally centrally established cult of Krishna in Kashi. Before Aurangzeb had ordered its destruction, the temple of Bindu Madhav (Krishna) was the second largest temple of India (After the Jagannath temple of Puri), as Tavernier reports. The Vaishnavs have been strong in the city and that can be proven through facts like Goswami Tulsidas’s residing in the city for a long time, the rise of the Gosains in the nineteenth century, and, of course, the ancient Adi Keshav temple and the sacred Manikarnika dug by Vishnu. Although Kashi is Shivji’s beloved city, Vishnu resides here too.

Now, the personal reasons behind the appearance of the poet and his Lord. Surdas and Krishna are deeply related to the author of the blog. I was introduced to Krishna in my childhood through the stories my grandmother used to tell me and I used to read in Chandamama and  Amar Chitra Katha. Surdas came later. He was a regular presence in the Hindi books of Uttar Pradesh Board schools. I very clearly remember having read in my course books of Hindi the song given above and two more in this post.

The next song is about nostalgia. It’s about a person’s missing their home: the place and people they grew up with. It’s about a son’s missing his childhood, his parents and the love that they showered on him back then. So what is Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu? His emotions are human:

ऊधो, मोहिं ब्रज बिसरत नाहीं।
बृंदावन गोकुल तन आवत सघन तृनन की छाहीं॥
प्रात समय माता जसुमति अरु नंद देखि सुख पावत।
माखन रोटी दह्यो सजायौ अति हित साथ खवावत॥
गोपी ग्वाल बाल संग खेलत सब दिन हंसत सिरात।
सूरदास, धनि धनि ब्रजबासी जिनसों हंसत ब्रजनाथ॥

(Source: kavitakosh.org)

My Translation:

The nostalgic Krishna tells his friend Udhav that he can’t forget his home: his Braj. He remembers the cool shade of the dense arbors of Vrindawan, and the satisfaction of looking at his parents in the morning. He can’t forget how mother used to feed him bread with butter and yogurt, and her love. He remembers how he used to play throughout the day with his friends. Surdas says blessed are the dwellers of Braj with whom Lord Krishna smiles and plays.

In a way, I suspect, he too can’t accept change as the only unchangeable law of nature. The good old days are past and will not come back, not even for Him from whom space and time originated.

I like the next song for its dense placement of similies, contarsts and analogies.

मेरो मन अनत कहाँ सुख पावै।
जैसे उड़ि जहाज की पंछी, फिरि जहाज पै आवै॥
कमल-नैन को छाँड़ि महातम, और देव को ध्यावै।
परम गंग को छाँड़ि पियासो, दुरमति कूप खनावै॥
जिहिं मधुकर अंबुज-रस चाख्यो, क्यों करील-फल भावै।
‘सूरदास’ प्रभु कामधेनु तजि, छेरी कौन दुहावै॥

(Source: kavitakosh.org)

My Translation:

Where else can my heart get rest. Like the bird of the ship returns to it after circling it in the ocean (my heart is drawn towards my home). Like the fool who worships some other gods instead of He whose eyes are like the lotus flower, or the person whose mental faculties have been so much compromised that he commissions the digging of a well by the side of river Ganga. How can the honey collecting wasp who has tasted the nectar, like the taste of a wild berry. Surdas says who would leave Kaamdhenu, the celestial cow,and opt for the milk of a goat.

 

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The Water Bodies of Kashi: Ram, Laxmi, Kapalmochan, Macchodari and Kapildhara

Laat Bhairav, Varanasi

I kept my promise that I had made to myself before leaving for Varanasi. I saw at least four kunds and revised the location of one more. The post begins with the one kund that I found the most challenging to reach: Kapalmochan. I had decided to go there because the famous Laat Bhairav is just by the kund. Laat Bhairav is from where the much analysed and written about communal riots of 1809 had begun. I have read Gyanendra Pandey’s beautifully written book with a large section on it, and then the Viswalingams’ work on it, along with what some British writers had mentioned about it in their books.

Kapalmochan Kund

My friend Rishi had maintained from the first mention of the place that he’d not even look towards that direction. He is a man of very firm resolution. So he took me there. Had there been no Rishi, I’d never have reached there. It took me one visit to Kazzakpura, densely populated with Muslims, to overcome to a limited degree my fear of entering such areas alone. It acted like inoculation.

Macchodari Talao

It was that visit that had given me the exposure and thus courage required for my next trip and I went searching for Omkareshwar to Macchodari Talao and from there to Koyla Bazar and Peeli Kothi areas both Muslim localities. I even asked few recognizably Muslim men for the directions to the Temple, and was rightly led by their instructions. Whenever I look at Macchodari, I ask myself anachronistically: “Why did James Prinsep not get inspired by the way the Ranas of Udaipur maintained their lakes?” Then, he’d have let Mandakini and Matsyodari Lakes remain in their original form, for the posterity to look at and wonder. Had the process begun then, Banaras would have been a city of kunds and ponds too, along with their parallel waterline of the divine Ganga Maiya.

Kapildhara Kund

The one Kund I saw in Banaras that is better maintained than any other, is Kapildhara at Kandwa at the famous Panchkroshi Marg. I have read that the kund is famous because of the Kardameshwar Temple on it. I have heard that it was reconstructed by Queen Bhawani of Bengal, the same queen who had the Durga Temple and pond constructed, also many ghats. Wikipedia records that Rani Bhawani was the Queen of Natore and had lived between 1716 and 1795. It also mentions Queen Ahilyabai Holker, her contemporary (1725 to 1795). Both the queens were philanthropists and are known in Banaras because they had many temples, ponds, ghats etc. constructed in the holy city. In a way, it’s because of these two queens and many other Kings and Queens that we look at the present form of the city.

Laxmi Kund, Luxa

Ram Kund, Luxa

 

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Koochbehar Kali Bari, Banaras

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Temple complex at the entrance of Kali Bari

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Shikhar of one of the three from the temple complex

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Lions and Devi over the entrance

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Kali Bari inner courtyard behind the pinnacles

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Rang Mahal, view from the back

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The Kali Bari, or the abode of Goddess Kali

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Entrance to Kali Bari

 

 

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Restoration and Defacement in Banaras

 

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Rang Mahal, Kalibari, Sonarpura, Varanasi (April 2014)

Once again, I returned to Koochbehar Kali Bari. I have been there so many times that its counterpoint Gurudham Temple stands conspicuous with only two visits, that too in past four months. It also stands apart because of the way it is being restored. The Rang Mahal in Kalibari and Gurudham Temple are receiving attention that has been lacking for over half a century. I have returned to Kalibari in each visit of mine and wished for someone to save it from turning into ruins. My prayers have been listened to. Finally! Albeit with a cruel twist. They have started erecting common brick and cement walls in a structure built with lakheria bricks and surkhi with lime mortar (gara). One look at the column and the ugly walls marring the beauty of the balcony will suffice to show the incongruity of the practice. It’s more of defacement than restoration.

 

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Rang Mahal, Kalibari, Sonarpura, Varanasi (January 2014)

 

There’s a definite introduction of ugliness to the structure of the balcony of the first floor when the two images of the same building, taken at a gap of three months only, are compared. In the image of January 2014, the balcony has a couple of wooden railings, matching with the material of the wooden paneling at the top end of the columns of the verandah. There must have been iron rods at definite intervals to cover the gap between the floor and the railing, while leaving space for the cool evening breeze to pass. That kind of structure has grown organically in the colonial bungalows nativised, quite in sync with the local climate. The present, brick replacement is not only aesthetically jarring but also not in keeping with the need of the building in the kind of climate Banaras has. What’s worse, the defacement is irreversible, that too in a compound owned by the government, as is mentioned on the board at the entrance:

Koochbehar Kali Bari, Varanasi,

Devottar Trust Board, Koochbehar

Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal

One may pardon those in charge for this vulgarity that amounts to vandalism, but the Government of West Bengal must not have neglected a structure of cultural and historical significance.

[While googling “Devottar Trust Board, Koochbehar” I found out that Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur was from Koochbehar royal family, the youngest daughter of Maharaja Jitendra Narayan. Koochbehar comprised of Northern West Bengal, parts of Assam, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Kisanganj before its union with Indian territory. coochbehar.nic.in and coochbehar.gov.in provide information about the district, so does wikipedia]

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Reconstructed wall, Gurudham Temple, Varanasi

I find the restoration work at Gurudham superior in many ways. Although I don’t have the specialist’s knowledge and common sense may not work efficiently here, I do grasp the logic of using same or similar material while reconstructing parts that must unite with some other parts to make a harmonious whole. My friends Vivek and Ganesh showed me the improved new structure of the temple and the wall that they had restored using an ingenious slice-like construction strategy. There was a portion of the wall inside the temple that someone had tried to bolster by inserting common bricks and cement within. It was reconstructed keeping the portion above the newly (and incongruously) constructed section unharmed. They used only gara for the construction. Lakheria bricks they could not use because funds weren’t sufficient for that.

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The tip of the bamboo stick shows the exact spot where pieces of stone were inserted in the mixture of gara to give more strength to the repair work. Vivek is at the other end of the stick. He kept using it as a pointer throughout the guided tour to the premises. What they are trying to achieve at Gurudham is a minimum alteration kind of restoration that keeps the spirit of the place intact. Whatever is being done at Kalibari may end up altering the very spirit of the place, along with the classic appearance of the Rang Mahal that is being reconstructed by people sans any kind of aesthetic sense. For them, the new Rang Mahal will make money by serving the dual purposes of being a rest house and a venue for wedding parties.

Mrinalini Bangroo’s organization has done a commendable work at Gurudham and I congratulate them on what they have achieved already. Vivek told me that the reconstruction work may be complete by the month of August. The bicentennial celebrations of Gurudham fall in September. Mr. Subhash Yadav’s name keeps cropping repeatedly in my talks about the Temple with people who know about it. Dr A. P. Singh had asked me to meet him when I’d informed him that I was going there. Vivek is all praise for the gentleman. I must seek for an appointment in my next trip.

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Gurudham Temple, Varanasi

P.S.

I actually sent a mail to the concerned authorities about Koochbehar Kali Bari with a lot of cc’s. It reads:

 

Dear Sir

I write you this mail because it gives me pain when I look at the present structure of the Rang Mahal of Koochbehar Kali Bari, Varanasi. I am attaching the images of the same structure that I had taken in January 2014, and then in April 2014. They prove that the beauty of the balcony of the first floor has been marred by the mindless and unaesthetic brick and cement construction.

I am from Varanasi and have grown up playing in the Kali Bari compound. I see it as my duty to inform the concerned authorities and to suggest that the reconstruction work must be in sync with the basic form of the building, and must keep aesthetics in mind. Hence, it should proceed under the supervision of some one with better expertise.

I hope that some action is taken in this matter, before more damage is done.

I have published a blog about the same that has another reconstruction work being done in Banaras, scientifically.

Regards

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Ram Ramapati Bank, Varanasi

I went there in the evening this time. I was passing through the gali and some impulse took me in. I met a gentleman in the sanctum and after a introduced myself to him after a couple of minutes. I told Mehrotraji that I am not a religious man and it was only because of my emotional attachment to the place that I had gone there. He smiled and replied that for him that would suffice: emotion as religion! I told him how I used to go there with my grandmother decades ago. She passed away, but I keep returning to some old haunts where we used to go together. Mehrotraji very graciously gave me the permission to take snaps. The ones I took were of the gentleman himself, his Lord Ram and of the person who had established that unique bank.

manager ram bank

The First Manager of Ram Ramapati Bank, the Earth, Kashi

I had reached there on 15 April, within a week of Ram Navami, and well within the ten day’s range of the auspicious day of Lord Ram’s Navami. So, the idol was specially decorated. The red coloured columns on the white paper behind are thousands of Ram Naam written by the account holders of the bank on the paper the bank provides, with the ink it provides too. As the bank is nearly a century old, it operates in a devoutly religious city, and the account holders are from all over the world, that means millions of paper rolls, all with the name of Lord Ram written over them.

Mehrotraji

Mehrotraji, a member of the family that runs the bank

I had seen an old lady with definite signs of painful arthritic knees climbing the stairs of the Bank while entering. Inside I saw several children too. The circle was completed by the devotees of ages in the range between old and young. Faith still lives in the city that strives to remain unchanged despite being in the middle of the current of change.

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The decorations around Lord Ram

 

 

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Man Mandir Observatory, Varanasi

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The Samrat Yantra

After returning from Banaras I googled Jantar Mantar and downloaded a pdf from the link <www.math.nus.edu.sg/aslaksen/gem-projects/hm/0203-1-07-jantar_mantar.pdf>. It gave me some basic information about the various yantras there. The description below comes either ffrom that pdf or from the information provided on marble tablets set in the instruments themselves.

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The Samrat Yantra, closer view

The Samrat Yantra is a grand sundial. The marble tablet declares that it’s for “finding time and declination and hour angle of the heavenly bodies”. Its gnomon (hypotenuse), whose angle with the horizon is same as the latitude of Varanasi, points towards the North (Star).

 

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The Digansh Yantra

“The azimuth of the heavenly bodies is known by this instrument”.

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The Nadi Valay Yantra

“The use of this yantra is to know whether the heavenly bodies are in the Northern or the Southern hemisphere. It gives time also”.

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The Chakra Yantra

“For measuring the declination of the sun, moon and stars and their distance in time (hour angle) from the meridian”.

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The Laghu Samrat Yantra

It’s the smaller version of the Samrat Yantra and performs similar functions.

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The Dakshinottarbhitti Yantra

“The altitude of the heavenly bodies when on the meridian is known by this instrument”.

 

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Omkareshwar, near Macchodari, Varanasi

My quest had begun the very day I had read Diana L. Eck’s Banaras: City of Light. I realized it nearly a decade later. I had to go to Omkareshwar Temple, the nucleus of Omkareshwar Khand, the oldest of the three khandas of Kashi. There’s a photograph of the lone temple on the mound in her book. I captured the image from a similar angle on reaching there, doing with one classic book on Banaras, what I couldn’t do with another. In my own way, I acknowledged my debt to Professor Eck’s work, although I had failed in doing the same with Prinsep’s work in the same trip.

Omkareshwar temple on the Mound

Eck mentions in her book that the temple once used to be at the confluence of Gangaji and the Macchodari Kund, when the monsoon rains had swelled both and the water of the river used to push back through Varuna and enter the city through Rinamochan, Dhanesh etc. That great kund was nearly drained in the beginning of nineteenth century. The mind behind the draining was James Prinsep’s. It’s present diminished form can still be seen in Macchodari Park.

Macchodari (Matsyodari) Talao

 

Baba Omkareshwar

 

Broken Sculpture at Makareshwar Temple

 

Broken Sculpture at Omkareshwar Temple

 

 

 

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