Varanasi, the city of temples, formerly called Banaras and historically called Kashi, is a city on the banks of the river Ganga. The whole of the river front is stringed with temples, shrines, ashrams, pavilions and bathing ghats. The numerous ghats, many temples and glorious sunrise and sunset attracts tourists and pilgrims from all over the world.
Most of the ghats were built in the 18th century by the Marathas and local people. All the 52 ghats, spread in length of about 4 kilometers are an integral part of the life of the people of Banaras. Their daily life starts with a dip in the Ganga in the morning and ends with a walk by the ghats in the evening. Ganga is sacred to the Hindus. They believe that a dip in it is enough to wash off all their sins.
Smoke rising from the burning pyres of the dead can be seen on the river side. They point to the city being the abode of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, controlling the whole cycle of creation. That is why the scenario of this city encompasses the two extremes - the life and death. With the passage of time, the city has become a place of pil-grim-salvation. Banaras is well-connected with all the major cities of India (viz. Agra, Allahabad, Khajuraho, Lucknow, Nagpur, Patna, etc by road, by rail as well as by air).
There are about 2000 temples in Varanasi, most of them having their own artistic beauty and myths surrounding their origin. The devotees believe in the sacred power of each of them.
The most famous temple of the city is the Vishwanath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The original is supposed to have been built in 1490AD. In the ensuring years, its site has changed several times. Akbar constructed a temple at Gyan Vapi in 1585AD but Aurangzeb demolished it in 1669AD and constructed a mosque, which still exists.
The present Vishwanath temple or more correctly the Vishveshwar temple is 15.5 meters high and was constructed in 1777AD by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. Its architecture is a beautiful mixture of Hindu and Islamic style, specially its dome on the mandapa (court-yard).
Once inside the boundary of the temple, the pilgrims are led to a large courtyard, in the centre of which stands a great temple itself. The followers of other religions are permitted a view from the Naubat Khana (seat of temple choir) while a Hindu devotee can entire the inside floor of the temple where the Shivalinga is kept. The main gate of the temple opens at four in the morning and closes at eleven in the night.
Shiva-Linga is worshipped five times during the day from morning till late night. Every time at the time of the worship, shehnai and tabla are elaborately played in the Naubat Khana. Bhajans are sung in chorus. The shouting, chanting and clanging of bells create an aura of sanctity and spirituality. The best time for worship is Ratri-Shrinagar of the Shiva image, when worship is most elaborate. It is performed under the golden hood of the serpent king Nag Raj. The Shiva-linga is bathed in twenty litres of milk donated by the Nattukottai Chatram, a religious trust from Tamil Nadu. In addition to the main Shiva-linga, there are other shrines and images in the courtyard of the temple. The image of Avimukteshvara is supposed to be the first Shiva Linga. Entrance to Vishwanath temple is also from the left of great "Peepal" tree in an open area, on which the wisdom well called "GyanVapi" pavilion is located. This pavilion was built in 1828AD by Rani Baiza Bai of Gwalior. The central dome and two spires (or peaks) of the temple are located here. The main attraction is the gold-plated top of the temple, plated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in 1839AD with about 820kg of gold. Hence the temple is also called the "Golden temple".
The well of wisdom or Gyan Vapi is the city's most famous well. It is supposed to have been built by Lord Shiva himself to cool the linga of Vishwanath with water. The water of this well is supposed to be the liquid form of wisdom. Anybody sipping this water feels a surge of wisdom springing forth in his own heart. This well has been covered with an iron-grill, to avoid suicides in the name of salvation by pilgrims. A cloth has also been spread on the grill to avoid coins being thrown by the pilgrims falling into the pure waters of the Gyan Vapi. Thus one cannot see the sacred water today but the strong belief in its power still remains. The sacred water from the well is taken out every morning before darshan.
Standing at a little distance is the Aurangzeb Mosque. As it is in the very precincts of the Gyan Vapi, it is also called Gyan Vapi mosque. This mosque was built on the ruins of the 16th century (1585A.D) Vishwanath temple, during Aurangzeb's time. The wall of the ruined temple, in the middle of the Mosque, is a place worth visiting. The ornate stone wall of the temple is a rare specimen of ancient temple art of India.