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210 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

W A T E R S Y M B O L I S M A N D S A C R E D L A N D S C A P E I N H I N D U I S M :

A S T U D Y O F B E N A R E S ( V A R A N A S I )

With 7 figures and 6 photos


Zusammenfassung: Wassersymbolismus und heilige Land- notation in mythologies. Says E L I A D E (1959, 131),
schaft im Hinduismus: Eine Studie aus Benares (Väränasi) "Everything that is form manifests itself above the
In der überlieferten Hindu-Mythologie wird Wasser als waters, by detaching itself from the waters". The run-
die Ursprungsquelle von Schöpfung und Leben beschrie- ning water in general and the Gariga (Ganges) water
ben. Später werden Gewässern und Flußufern Heilkräfte
in particular, and sacred ponds, too, are described
zugeschrieben. Sie werden dementsprechend als heilige
as bestowers of sanctity and miracles. In this way a
Stätten betrachtet. Der Ganges wird als die „ M u t t e r aller
Flüsse" angesehen und man glaubt, daß besonders der common chain of interrelationship between water-
nördlich fließende Abschnitt bei Väränasi höchste Gnade bodies and human society is maintained by the
verheißt. In Väränasi führen vierundachtzig Stufenanlagen varieties of performances and rituals. T h e psychic
(ghäts) zum Ganges hinunter und es gibt mehr als fünfzig attachment to a place and maintenance of cultural
Weiher. Diese Wasserstellen sind von mythologischer Be- traditions reflect a realization of the divine mani-
deutung und werden regelmäßig von Gläubigen besucht - festation at the place. The intensity of this manifest
entweder für Reinigungsrituale oder aus speziellen Moti- power varies from one place to another. Such specific
ven zu verschiedenen günstigen Gelegenheiten. Die räum-
places are known as tirthas (holy sites, or sacred
liche Nähe und sakrale Gemeinsamkeit von Wasserstellen
führten zur Entstehung einer Wasserlandschaft in der hei-
places). The three more generally identifiable factors
ligen Stadt Väränasi. Darüber hinaus gilt die Stadt als der for popularity and acceptance of sacred places are:
heiligste Ort des hinduistischen Glaubens überhaupt. Die- unique natural landscape, unique body of water, and
ser Aufsatz versucht, dessen speziellen Wassersymbolis- an association with some great sage. These charac-
mus im Zusammenhang mit der heiligen Landschaft zu teristics are eulogized in Hindu mythology. Varanasi
beschreiben. (Benares) in span of time acquired a distinct status
among the holy sites in India. Its location between the
two rivers and along the notherly flow of the Gariga,
Introduction and its association with Lord Siva are its unique
In ancient Hindu mythology (about 800 BCE)
water is described as the foundation of the whole
world, the basis for life and the elixir of immortality The Gahga (Ganges) River
(see SBr IV. 8.2.2; III. 6.1.7; and IV. 4.3, 15). The
Atharva Veda (II. 3.6) prays: " M a y the waters bring In Hindu mythology all the rivers are revered as
us well-being!". There appear many such descrip- remover of pollution, however, the Gariga is embody-
tions about the quality, use, sanctity and symbolism ing the most prominent and purifying liquid power.
of water ( E L I A D E 1958, 188). In the later period water No river in the world's history has achieved such
becomes a symbol of life, and the flow of water: life- fame as the sacred river Gariga. At least from about
world. In curative terms water is regarded as a healer the third century the Gariga has played a vital role
(AVIV. 91.3). Metaphorically and metaphysically the in ceremonies and worship - in rituals of birth and
ancient mythologies refer to water as the container initiation, of purification and religious merit, of mar-
of life, strength and eternity. More commonly water riage and death. The Gariga is known as Mother
is perceived as a purifying medium. However, to Gariga (Gahga Mai) bringing life in the form of sacred
reach the source and receive the merit of "living water. T h e Gariga is a sacred fluid, an essential ele-
water" involves a series of consecrations, rituals and ment for all the Hindu rites and rituals.
religious activities like pilgrimage and sacred baths. The Gariga is often described as the river flowing
T h e cult of water is described in the vedic literature, in heaven, on earth and also in the netherworlds
and followed on vividly in the puranic literature. (Tripathaga). That is how the Gariga is a "liquid axis
The "wash away sins" quality of water is bound mundi, a pathway connecting all spheres of reality, a
up with the power of sanctity and cosmological con- presence at which or in which one may cross over to
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 211

Fig. 1: T h e Gariga river flows from Gomukha (source) to Garigäsagara (mouth) and covers a distance of 2,525 km
Der Ganges verläuft von Gomukha (Quelle) nach Garigäsagara ( M ü n d u n g ) und ist 2525 km lang

another sphere of the cosmos, ascend to heavenly munication, interaction and environmental sensitiv-
worlds, or transcend human limitations" ( K I N S L E Y ity. That is how the Gariga is known as the mother.
1 9 8 7 , 1 9 3 ) . Paraphrasing one of C A R L J U N G ' S state- Beyond the economic and physical milieu one
ments one could propose an ethics for the Gariga reaches the point of realizing the true spiritual value
river and Hinduism: "People of India would never of the power of the Gariga for what it really is: a
find true peace until they could come into harmo- sense of power. As natural place she has physical,
nious relationship with and deep feelings of rever- mental, emotional and spiritual powers (energy)
ence to the Gariga river who is the cradle and identity beyond her economic value. The stories of the Gariga
of India's culture and civilization since time imme- may change, but the motherly river lives on. The
morial" ( S I N G H 1 9 9 3 , 3 0 1 ) . Gariga is described as the soul of India.
Only after walking along the Gariga's bank one There are many sacred sites and centres of pilgrim-
realizes that one's great-great-grandfathers once age along the Gariga river (2525 km), for example
walked that very bank and had certain experiences, Gomukha, Garigotri, Devaprayaga, Rsikesa, Harid-
manifestations and revelations. Revealing the Gariga vara, Karikhala, Soron, Bithura, Prayaga/Allahabad,
as the living organism requires specific forms of com- Vindyacala, Cunara, Varanasi, Patna, Sultanganj
Fig. 2: Varanasi: T h e 84 ghats along the Gariga riverfront
Varanasi: Die 84 ghats am Ufer des Ganges
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 213

and Garigasagara - from source to mouth (Fig. 1). water, and take blessings or religious instructions
The most sacred place among all the holy places of from the ghatias ("priests" at the ghats) who, while
India is Varanasi, known as the microcosm of India. seated at the river's edge under a typical canopy,
preside over various offerings, including ancestral
offerings. Pilgrims then move into the narrow lanes to
The Gahga River in Varanasi take a 'darsana' (auspicious sight) of the Visvesvara/
Visvanatha temple and the other sacred entities.
In its whole course the Gariga flows south to north Among the 84 ghats five are considered as more
in a crescent shape only in Varanasi. O n the other auspicious (Pancatirthi); from the south to the north
hand, the current has not shifted its water-edge along they are: Asi, Dasasvamedha, Manikarnika, Panca-
the left-bank cliff since the ancient past, while the gariga, and Adi Kesava. Says the KKh (84.107) that
other side is a flood-prone area. This natural condi- 'having bathed in which a person shall never again
tion has tended to support the natural beauty of be born'. These ghats are the most commonly visited
Varanasi. by pilgrims and devotees. These selective spots are
The Gahga, the patron deity Lord Siva, and the prescribed and described in detail in the KKh
sacred territory of Kasi together form the Cosmic (84.107-110), and are still very popularly visited
Trinity (Trimurti) of this great city says a 12th cen- places - either daily, or on auspicious occasions. T h e
tury text, the KKh (35.10): architectural beauty of the city is not completed
The Gahga, Siva, and Kasi: without thz ghats. Vast beaches of stones, pavements
Where this Trinity is watchful, and landings, ensure passage towards the waters of
No wonder where is found the grace, the Gariga. They were developed during the con-
That leads one on to perfect bliss. struction of the palaces and the bank buildings and
With the realization of its highest mystic power of ensure a transition of space. The palatial building
sanctity, especially in Varanasi, people from all parts at Ranamahala Ghat was made in late 17th century,
of India came and settled along the river - resulting and the Darbhanga Ghat in early 20th century in
in the development of a social space encompassing Greek pillar style (Photo 1). This portion is the most
all of India ( S I N G H 1 9 8 0 , 1 9 9 0 , 1 2 5 ) . scenic spot along the Gariga.
The Gahga riverfront spreads over an arc of 6.4 km
(4 miles) along which lie 84 ghats (steps to the river-
bank) between the confluence of the Asi in south and Asi Ghat
the Varana in north (Fig. 2). In archetypal terms each
ghat represents one lakha (100 000) of organic species Marking the southern edge of the city at the con-
as described in Hindu mythologies; that is how in fluence of the Asi, this ghat was referred to in a 17th
total all the 8 400 000 species are symbolized along the century text. The palatial buildings were made by
84 ghats in Varanasi. Further, 12 zodiacs X 7 layers the king of Varanasi in about 1830. This is one of
of atmosphere, or 7 cakras (sheaths in the h u m a n the famous sites for celebrating the Surya Sasthi
body) also comes to 84. T h u s the annual cycle of the ("the Sixth day of the S u n " as mother goddess)
cosmic journey is completed by taking a sacred bath festival held on the 5th and 6th day of the waxing
at the 84 ghats. At these sacred sites puranic texts fortnight of the month Karttika (October-Novem-
identify 98 water-front sacred spots. The number 98 ber), when over ten thousand mothers perform this
indicates the cosmic frame linking 14 bhuvana-kosa festival for the wellbeing of their sons.
(sheaths in total) of the h u m a n body and 7 layers
between earth and heaven ( S I N G H 1993, 68).
According to the Brahma Purana (a 15th century Dasasvamedha Ghat
text), the mystic power of bestowing bliss increases
ten times when the Gariga enters the Vindhya region; This ghat (Fig. 3, Photo 2) is presumed to be the
where it follows a westerly flow it is increased by first historically recorded site associated with the myth
hundred times, and when it follows a northerly flow of the horse-sacrifice performed by the Bhara Siva
in Varanasi the merit increases by a thousand times Naga kings around the 2nd century CE. Throughout
( S I N G H 1987, 509). Following a common Hindu tra- the year this is the busiest ghat. O n the 10th day of
dition in the early morning at sunrise, pilgrims or the waxing fortnight of Jyestha ( M a y - J u n e ) worship
devout citizens gather on the ghats to bathe in the of the Gariga is celebrated on a grand scale in the
Gariga, drink at least a few drops of the sacred Gariga temple at the top of the ghat. T h e sacred bath
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 215

' ^Vv.
-tei •• '

Photo 2: Varanasi: An early scene of Dasasvamedha Ghat as pictured by J A M E S PRINSEP in 1830

Väränasi: Eine frühe Szenerie von Dasäsvamedha Ghät, 1830 gemalt von JAMES PRINSEP

on the occasions of solar and lunar eclipses and in tion of Visnu, which was demolished and converted
the month of Magha (December-January) is also into a mosque in 1670 by the Mughal king Aurang-
important. zeb. That mosque still serves as a landmark along
the arc of the river. The Gahga-arati ("offering oil
lamps to the goddess Gariga") at the time of sunrise
Manikarnika Ghat
and sunset is the most attractive scene at this ghat.
In the month of Karttika (October-November) the
Mythologically known as "the great cremation
ritual of offering oil lamps to ancestors, hung up in
ground", this ghat (Fig. 4, Photo 3) is mentioned in
the air on bamboo poles, is performed by the ghatias
the Gupta inscriptions of the 4th century. T h e ghat
(¿to-priests) on behalf of the devotees who patronize
has two parts - one for cremation, and the other for
the cost or materials involved. Additional payment is
bathing and rituals. After cremating corpses, the
also made for service of hoisting the lamps (daksina)
mourner and attendants take a bath at this site.
every night. A ghatia tells many such stories of the
Pilgrims and devotees perform ancestral rites at this
families which by doing this ritual had received bles-
ghat, more commonly in the special period of the
sings from their ancestors resulting in prosperity.
waning fortnight of Asvina (September-October).

Pancagahga Ghat Adi Kesava Ghat

In 11th century mythologies this ghat (Fig. 5, Since the Gahadavala period (11th century), this
Photo 4) is referred to frequently. It was famous for ghat is famous for the temple of Visnu as Kesava -
the grand temple of Veni Madhava, one representa- assumed to be the oldest in the region. For Vaisnavi-
216 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

1 Sülatankesvara
2 Sita I a DevT
3 DasahareSvara
4 Da§ä§vamedhe§vara
5 Band! DevT
6 PrayägeSvara
7 T r i b h u v a n a Ke§ava
8 Räma M a n d i r a

50 m

Fig. 3: Varanasi: Dasäsvamedha and nearby ghäts, the busiest places. Numbers 1 to 8 show the notable shrines and
Väränasi: Dasäsvamedha und die umliegenden, am häufigsten besuchten ghäts. Die N u m m e r n 1 bis 8 markieren
die Lage der bedeutenden Schreine und Tempel
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 217

Photo 3: Varanasi: A scene of Manikarnika Ghat. T h e ritual of offering oil lamps hung u p in the air on bamboo poles
marks an ancestral rite (courtesy N I E L S G U T S C H O W )
Väränasi: Eine Szenerie von Manikarnika Ghät. Das Ritual der Darbietung von Ollampen an Bambusstöcken be-
inhaltet die Verehrung der Ahnen

tes (devotees of Visnu) this is the most attractive solstice; 14th of January), and mesa-samkranti (vernal
site. In practice, most of the pilgrims take a bath atequinox; 14th of April). The other important occa-
the closeby confluence of the Varana and the Gariga, sions are the full-moon days (especially of Octo-
followed by a visit and rituals in the Adi Kesava ber-November), eclipses, and the new-moon days.
temple. O n any of these occasions over a hundred thousand
visitors take a holy bath in the Gariga.
It is obvious from the participatory survey on the
occasion of the winter solstice (14th of J a n u a r y 1993,
The five ghats in perspective Thursday) that a little less than half of the visitors
belonged to higher castes (Brahmins, Rajputs and
These five ghats symbolize the microcosmic body Bhumihars) - reflecting the sense of faith and better
of Lord Visnu: Asi is the head, Dasasvamedha is the economic affordability. Age (50 and above), low
chest, Manikarnika is the navel, Pancaganga is the education and nearness to the city are among the fac-
thighs, and Adi Kesava is the feet. This recalls the tors for the intensity of participation. Similar results
myth that Visnu first placed his holy feet in Vara- were also found on the occasion of the new-moon
nasi. Thus the area along the Gariga river is sym- day that fell on the 26th February 1993 (Saturday).
bolized as Visnu's body. Says the KKh (84.114) that If the new-moon day falls on Monday it increases
"having bathed in the five ghats a person never again the power of bestowing merit, e. g. on the 18th of
receives a body of five elements; rather he becomes J a n u a r y 1988. Most of the visitors belong to the
the five-faced Siva in Kasi." middle-class income group.
The two most important occasions for bathing in After a purificatory bath in the Gariga and wor-
the Gariga at Varanasi are makara-sarhkranti (winter shipping her, pilgrims head for an auspicious glimpse
218 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

Fig. 4: Varanasi: Manikarnika and nearby ghats, known for cremation and ancestral rites. Numbers 1 to 8 show the
important shrines and temples
Varànasi: Manikarnika und die umliegenden ghäts, bekannt für Einäscherungen und Rituale, die den Ahnen gewid-
met sind. Die N u m m e r n 1 bis 8 markieren die Lage der bedeutenden Schreine und Tempel

(darsana) of the patron deity, Visvesvara/Visvanatha Kundas/Sacred Ponds

and the ancillary shrines in and around the temple
compound, Kala Bhairava (the protector of the city T h e sacred territory of Varanasi is dramatically
and controller of Death), Sarikatamocana, Durga, associated with water bodies. T h e eastern edge is
and others. determined by the Gariga river, north by the Varana
The birth of the Gariga, referring to her coming on river, and south by the Asi. The whole city has hun-
earth from heaven, is celebrated on the 10th of the dreds of water ponds (Hindi: talab, Sanskrit: kunda)
waxing fortnight of Jyestha ( M a y - J u n e ) . In 1992 it which even as late as the mid nineteenth century
fell on J u n e 10. Devotees believe that to bathe in the formed a series of streams dividing the city into five
Gariga in the morning of this day bestows high merit forest tracts (vana) - from north to south these were
and relief from the sins committed earlier. This day M a h a Vana, Daru Vana, Ananda Vana, Harikesa
is followed by another auspicious day, ekadasi, asso- Vana and Bhadra Vana (Fig. 6) M a n y of the water
ciated with the worship of Visnu, the protector. ponds were interlinked during heavy rains (July-
Those who take a religious vow (sahkalpa) to worship September), draining the area. In a way the sacred
the Gariga start the bathing and associated rituals topography of the city thus followed a seasonal
from the first day of Jyestha and complete the cycle rhythm of nature. The m a p of Varanasi made by the
on the 11 th day (ekadasi). British scholar P R I N S E P in 1 8 2 2 clearly shows how
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 219

Fig. 5: Varanasi: Pancaganga and nearby ghäts. Numbers 1 to 8 refer to important shrines and temples
Väränasi: Pancagangä und die umliegenden ghäts. Die N u m m e r n 1 bis 8 markieren die Lage von bedeutenden
Schreinen und Tempeln

numerous these ponds and tanks were (Fig. 6). His many religious activities are performed, and fairs
drawing shows how in the north M a h a Vana and (melas) and bathing rituals held. These are eulogized
Daru Vana were divided by the stream linking Mari- in the mythological literature and maintained by
dakini and Matsyodari, further meeting Rinamocana continuing tradition.
and finally flowing into the Varana river. O n e part T h e mythological literature mentions sixty sacred
of this stream, during heavy rains, met the Gariga ponds, six bigger wells (vapis) and thirty-one sacred
river near Manikarnika Ghat. The overflow of the wells (kupas) in Varanasi. With the increase of pop-
water connected Bhulotana Garha, Benia Talab, ulation and spread of settlements, many of the water
Suraja Kunda Misira Pokhara and finally met the sites were either filled up, or were encroached upon
Gariga at Dasasvamedha Ghat. Of course, these within the residential quarters. However, the famous
water bodies are filled up, however, only during sites are still alive. The notable onces are described
heavy rains or floods, when the channels come again below.
to the surface, reminding us of the old water bodies
and their routes, as in the years 1948, 1978 and
1992. Jhanavapi ("Well of Wisdom ")
In spite of such changes in landscape, the impor-
tance of sacred ponds (kundas) is not lost. O n auspi- This well symbolizes the primordial water asso-
cious occasions at the bank of these sacred ponds ciated with the story of Isana (Siva's form controlling
220 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

Photo 4: Varanasi: A scene of Pancagariga Ghat. A series of chatari (canopy) of priests is a distinct view (courtesy

Väränasi: Eine Szenerie von Pancagariga Ghät. Eine Ansammlung von Schirmen für die Priester ist ein bezeichnen-
der Anblick

the northeast realm of the universe), who dug the Presently the well is well equipped with iron bars
earth at this site with his trident and offered the water across the top, and a cloth is spread over the iron
to Avimuktesvara, the most ancient form of Siva in grill to prevent coins, flowers and ritual items of
Varanasi (KKh 33.17, 18). Says the KKh (33.50) that pilgrims from plunging into it. T h e well is surrounded
Siva, on becoming acquainted with the circumstance, by a low-roofed colonnade, the stone pillars of which
promised to take up his abode in the well in liquid are arranged in four rows.
form, and to reside there for destroying ignorance and
to give wisdom (jnana). According to local tradition,
after the temple was demolished in 1669 by the Manikarnika, or Cakrapuskarini Kunda
Mughal king Aurangzeb, Visvanatha-Siva took refuge
in the well and since then resides there. Jfianavapi is The mythology given in the KKh (60.137-138;
the highest among all the pilgrimage centres, and a 61.83-85) tells us that for the benefit of the three
direct manifestation of wisdom, giver of all sorts of worlds the mythic king Bhagiratha brought the Gariga
knowledge, preserver of merits of all the lihgas, the to the place where Manikarnika is - to Siva's Forest
most auspicious and direct manifestation of Siva, of Bliss, to Visnu's Lotus Pool. This is eulogized as
and was in Varanasi long before the Gariga came to the " D o o r of Heaven", located close to the Ghat,
earth (KKh 34.123). around which the cremation ground is situated. T h e
During most of the sacred journeys and rituals tank, surrounded today by a cast-iron railing, is
pilgrims first come here to sip the water and take a some sixty feet square at the top, narrowing to about
vow (sahkalpa) of initiation and completion of their twenty feet square at the water's edge (Photo 5). T h e
ritual journeys. At the end of the journey they return well is said "to spring from a square independent of
to sip the saced water again as a mark of completion. the Gariga - an underground river that flows directly
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 221

Photo 5: Varanasi: A scene of Cakrapuskarini Kunda, Manikarnika Ghat (courtesy NIELS GUTSCHOW)

Varanasi: Eine Szenerie von Cakrapuskarini Kunda, Manikarnika Ghat

from Gomukha, the " C o w ' s m o u t h " in the Hima- have sprinkled it with holy water and adorned it
laya, the place where the River Gariga emerges from with flowers. Whenever a Maharaja (king) of Bena-
a mountain glacier" (ECK 1983, 239f). T h e KKh res dies, it is alongside the footprints that he is
(chapter 26) says: cremated.
Each year when the Gariga recedes the water
During the cosmic flood of dissolution, there was nothing
leaves a huge mass of alluvial silt in the tank.
at all. . . . There was only Pure Reality, a Brahmana. . . .
Moreover, during the peak floods the kunda is com-
Then that One pure form, Lord Siva ["spirit"] was the
pletely inundated and often disappears from view,
form of that Formless One, and with him was the goddess
as in August 1993. When floods and waters recede,
Sakti, called Prakrti ["Matter "J as well as Maya ["Illu-
gradually the excavation and reclamation of the silt
sion"]. And the two of them, Siva and Sakti, created this
begins and is completed by sivaratri (the new-moon
place. . . . Thereafter they created a Divine Man (Visnu)
day of February-March). O n this occasion a grand
for the creation of world. ... At this site Visnu made a
celebration takes place. T h e pilgrims passing along
beautiful lotus pond and filled it up with water from the
this route perform special rituals in honour of their
sweat of his own limbs, and performed fierce austerities
ancestors; additionally as a completion rite pilgrims
for 500 000years (KKh 26.8, 15, 28, 43, 52).
also come here and perform the rituals of thanks-
This kunda was the world's first pool. It was the giving.
first holy spot dug out at the dawn of time and filled
with the sacred water of Lord Visnu's perspiration.
As a testimony to that story Visnu's footprints are Durga Kunda
visible there. Before purifying themselves in the
pond, Hindu pilgrims first pray at the marble slab The temple of the goddess Durga is located in the
which bears Visnu's footprints. Millions of Hindus southern extremity of Varanasi and associated with
222 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

Fig. 6: Varanasi: Ancient water bodies and five forest tracts (after JAMES PRINSEP 1822)

Väränasi: Uralte Gewässer und fünf Waldgebiete

Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 223

1 Durgä Devi 2 Laksmi 3 Sarasvati 4 Canda Bhairava 5 BhadrakälT 6 Ganesa

7 Jalesvara 8 Sürya 9 Kukkutesvara 10 Jvälaharesvara 11 Durga Vinäyaka G Gate
Fig. 7: Väränasi: Durgä Kunda and Durgä temple. Numbers 1 to 12 show the shrines
Väränasi: Durgä Kunda und der Tempel von Durgä. Die N u m m e r n 1 bis 12 markieren die Lage der Schreine

a sacred pond (Fig. 7). According to mythology of this water upon their head as a mark of the puri-
Durga protects the city from the south. She is said ficatory rite. Pilgrims performing sacred journeys
to have rested at Durga K u n d a after slaying the like the Nagara Pradaksina ("Pilgrimage around
mythic demon. Durga here is called Kusmanda the City"), Kedara Khanda ("Sacred segment of
("Pumpkin G o u r d " ) , one among the nine manifesta- Kedara") and Pancakrosi (the outer sacred circuit)
tions. O n every Tuesday, and more frequently in the pass through this site and perform rituals. During the
month of Sravana (July-August) worshippers per- month of Sravana (July-August) a religious fair is
form rituals at this site. Presently the water of the held - attended by an enormous multitude of people.
pond is so polluted that only a few pilgrims dare Both sides of the road are decorated by shops for
to bathe; in fact most of them put only some drops sweets and ritual items. The other two periods of
224 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

mass visitation are the 1st to 9th day of the waxing Laksmi Kunda
fortnight of Caitra (March-April) and Asvina (Sep-
tember - October). Lying in the central part of the city the tank is
Closeby to this sacred pond lies Kuruksetra Kunda, associated with Laksmi, the goddess of "wealth" (see
which is famous for the bath taken there on the occa- KKh 70.63). O n the 8th of the waxing fortnight of
sion of a solar eclipse. This tank was constructed by Bhadrapada (August-September) the goddess moves
Queen Rani Bhavani of Bengal in about 1775, in from the sanctum to the foreground. And, on the
commemoration of the war fought at Kuruksetra 16th day a religious fair is held there. Those who
described in the epic Mahabharata. This tank is square, perform fasting and austerity for Laksmi bathe in
and is built with stone stairs, leading down to the the tank, listen to puranic stories, enjoy the glimpse
water. of Laksmi, and honour her with sixteen kinds of
grains and sixteen kinds of flowers. The sixteen-day
Lolarka Kunda ("Well of the Trembling Sun ") period is called "Sorahia Mela". O n the final day of
this period - the eighth day of the waning fortnight
Of the twelve sun shrines of the city, the one called of Asvina (September-October) - the festival of
Lolarka is the most famous and marks the southern Jivita Putrika, or popularly known as Jiutia is cele-
edge of the city. Its first reference is made in a 8th brated on a great scale. In 1993 this period started
century BC text, the SBr (VI. 1.28), which describes on 23rd September and was completed on 8th
the twelve Suns associated with twelve solar months. October. This festival is mostly observed by women
Long before the formation of Hinduism, Lolarka for a long and prosperous life of their children. At
was famous for sun and snake worship during Bud- the embankments of Laksmi Kunda ladies make
dha's time. Historically it became more famous yantras (sacred designs) under the guidance of a
during the Gahadavala kings in the 11th century. priest with vermilion and wheat and rice flour. While
Presently, Lolarka Kunda is a Sun and Saivite site performing thanksgiving both husband and wife
of worship that reflects a complex history of gradual together take an active part in rituals.
mythological fusion, and it remains a powerful place
that draws thousands of Hindus. Eulogizing this
tank the KKh (46.67) states that the water of Asi Pisacamocana Kunda
River and the rays of the sun god Lolarka work
together to erase the sins of those who come to Vara- This sacred tank is one among the three sites for
nasi. Bathing in this tank provides the merit of ancestral worship and rituals; the others are Mani-
purification from sin and disease, and finally bles- karnika Kunda and Kapiladhara Kunda. T h e wan-
sing for life and fertility. ing fortnight of Asvina (September-October) is the
O n every Sunday many people still take baths and most auspicious period of worship at these sites. T h e
worship the Sun god Lolarka and a nearby lihga ancient name of this pond was Vimaladaka Kunda,
of Lolarka-Siva (Lolarkesvara). The 6th day of the but after its association with providing liberation
waxing fortnight of Bhadrapada (August-Septem- (-mocana) to a departed soul that took the form of a
ber) is the most auspicious day, Lolarka Sasthi, when goblin (Pisaca-), the present name became popular
tens of thousands of worshippers, mostly ladies, take (see KKh 54.74; KP 32, 62). For those departed
baths in the tank to receive bliss for their sons and souls fated to become a goblin, by baths and doing
their wellbeing. This tank maintains its popularity rituals here they are "set free". After a passage of
as a site of a non-Brahmanical fertility ritual. Both, time there also developed exorcism to get relief from
vow-taking and thanksgiving rites are performed on the evil spirit. Most commonly on every Sunday and
this occasion. Most pilgrims come here to perform Tuesday victims pay a visit and by the complicated
thanksgiving who have earlier received an offspring, rituals under the guidance of oracles obtain libera-
tion from the evil spirits. On the 14th day of the
and finally they perform the tonsure of small chil-
waxing fortnight of Margasirsa (November-Decem-
dren (mundana) as a rite of passage at the same spot.
ber), a sacred journey in the form of a circumam-
As is customary since the early 19th century, after
bulation of the tank is done. A huge crowd of visitors
taking baths and performing rituals at this site pil-
stop on this occasion and cook wheat-flour balls and
grims proceed to Krnga Kunda, about half a kilo-
fry eggplants on the open fire made of pats of cow
metre northwest, associated with the Tantric sage
dung. This food is called "pure food" (sattvika), the
Kina Rama. They again take baths in the latter tank
one inclined towards tranquillity and quietism ( P A R R Y
and sing religious songs.
Rana P. B. Singh: Water symbolism and sacred landscape in Hinduism 225

Photo 6: Varanasi: A scene of D h a r m a K u p a , a sacred well associated with Dharmaraja - the Lord of Death, Yama
(courtesy N I E L S G U T S C H O W )
Väränasi: Eine Szenerie von D h a r m a K ü p a , ein heiliger Brunnen, zugeordnet D h a r m a r ä j a - dem " H e r r n des
Todes", Yama

1985, 613). This fair is called Lota-Bhanta Mela. (October - November) to receive blessing from Yama,
The ritual performed here is meant to remember the or Dharmaraja (Lord of Death; see KKh 97.58);
Pisaca's soul finally was set free. The majority of the Naga ("snake") Kupa, visited on the 5th of the
attendants are women from nearby villages. waxing day of Sravana (July-August) to be safe from
snakes (see KKh 66.10); and Candresvara Kupa
visited on the full-moon day of Caitra (March-April)
Sacred Ponds along the Pancakrosi Route to honour the Moon (see KKh 68.51).
There are still many lakes, pools and wells in Vara-
The route which delimits the sacred territory nasi today. In addition to their mundane use they
(Kasi), called pancakrosiydtra, passes by eight sacred serve as places of ritual bathing. Most of them still
ponds and wells; from east to west (clockwise) they remain as natural, clay-banked pools; however, some
are: Lolarka, Durga, Kardama, Gandharva, Bhai- of them have been converted into tanks with stone
rava, Sindhusarovara, Yupa and Kapiladhara. In steps leading to the water along all four sides. These
these ponds pilgrims take baths and receive merit; pools in the ancient past served as popular religious
however, at present Sindhusarovara and Yupa have sites for Hindus, and the city was famous as a place
lost their existence due to lack of water, while the rest of abundant waters. But nowadays the visitor to the
have polluted water. Kapiladhara Kunda represents city would hardly notice this unusual geography.
the holy spot of Gahgasagara, the meeting point of E C K ( 1 9 8 3 , 5 1 ) has rightly remarked that "Its many
the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal, and is famous for tanks and pools are hidden in crowded sections of
ancestral rites. To avoid pollution, pilgrims bathe the city, accessible only by very narrow lanes. T h e
at the closeby wells and perform an abstract form basins that were once lakes have become city parks,
of bathing at these sites by pouring a few drops of and the running streams have become streets".
water from these ponds upon their heads.
The other important sacred ponds are: Suraja
( " s u n " ) Kunda, specially visited on every Sunday of Towards Sacred Ecology
Caitra (March-April) to get relief from skin diseases
(see KKh 48.53); Dharma Kupa (Photo 6), visited Concerning environmental problems, ethics of
during the l l t h - 1 5 t h of the waxing days of Karttika land use is suggested as a philosophical legacy. T h e
226 Erdkunde Band 48/1994

Gariga river is symbolized as the liquid divine energy in terms of divine and natural landscape. Above all,
nourishing the inhabitants and purifying them. The we are part of the cosmos where the order and unity
mythologies recall that the water of the Gariga meets of the whole world ist maintained.
various water bodies (ponds and wells) on auspicious
occasions through legendary underground connec-
tions. This refers to the idea of transferring energy
at various spots. The sacred bath and astronomically
defined sacred time suitable for it are described in
conjunction with the position of the sun and its
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