Category Archives: Sacred Cities

Kedarnath: Temple and Pilgrimage

 Kedarnath temple is a Saivitepilgrimage place in the Himalayan mountains, where according to tradition, Lord Siva manifested in his form as a linga of light (Whitmore 74). Kedarnath pilgrimage is a member of the four abodes system (char dham). The Kedarnath temple is located amidst the tall Himalayan Mountains and is one of the holiest Hindu places on the Indian subcontinent. The pilgrimage to Kedarnath is a difficult one for the pilgrims (yatris) due to the location of the temple which sits on top of a Himalayan mountain at an altitude of 3553 meters, a region often cited as “land of gods” (dev-Bhumi). Kedarnath is a “crossing-over place” (tirtha) that offers the possibility that one can “cross-over” the ocean of rebirth. Furthermore, Hindus consider pilgrimage (yatra) to Kedarnath as one that grants wishes, heals, and purifies karma. (Whitmore 7). In a general sense, the positioning of Kedarnath is in the shape of a linga. According to Hindu beliefs, by praying to Kedareshwar, one can get one’s desires fulfilled. The importance of the shrine can be further understood from the beliefs that Upamanyu (a rgvedic rsi) prayed to Lord Siva in this place in the Satya Yuga and the Pandavas worshipped Lord Siva here after the Mahabharata war(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W 9). The journey to Kedarnath is difficult, yet most Hindu pilgrims (yatris) undertake this pilgrimage to destroy their sins (pap) and generate merit (punya) (Whitmore 5). This Yatra is pursued especially by Hindus who are in samnyasin stage of their life. The overview of Kedarnath presents a Hindu pilgrimage (yatri) with a unique opportunity to experience, worship, and to be in the conjoined presence of Siva and Ganga in this world (Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. 2).

         The origin of Kedarnath temple is a debatable issue, but the most prominent view by devotees about its construction suggests that the Pandavasconstructed it. It was revived later by Adi Sankaracarya but nothing can be said about the date of construction of the temple with certainty (Thapliyal, U. P 1). Claims like these are common in Hindu religious literature, academics do not regard these myths as historically accurate.

           According to the old accounts, Kedarnath is one of the places correlated with the climb to heaven (swargarohan) of the five Pandavasand their joint wife Draupadi. The Pandavas were desperate to cleanse themselves of the karma generated during the Kurukshetra war in which they killed their own cousins (the Kauravas), narrated in the Mahabharata epic (Whitmore 29). Having felt guilty of killing their own cousins, the Pandavas sought the blessings of Lord Siva for redemption. Siva eluded them repeatedly and while fleeing took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull, a form commonly associated with demons (raksasas). Lord Siva, unhappy with the Pandavas, refused a meeting and left Kasi (Varanasi, U.P), his abode. He appeared as Nandi the bull in Guptakasi. In many versions of this story, the Pandavas identify Siva and grab him to prevent him from leaving. Each of the five Pandavas grabs a part of Siva, parts that remain in the landscape and then become the self-manifest rock lingas found in Kedarnath and the other four temples of the Saivite sect dedicated to god Shiva in the Garhwal region  (Panch Kedar)(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. 9).

Pilgrimage by foot (paidal-yatra) is the iconic form of yatra to the Kedarnath templeand exemplifies the pain (kasht) and inner production of focus and energy (tapas). Walking to Kedarnath barefoot was better and the traditional way for getting the full experience of the location, an experience that involved both pain and pleasure, but not every yatri is able to carry out this traditional method. Most yatris, prefer to ride on horseback, to be carried by porters, or to come by helicopter (Whitmore 127). Families that pursue this pilgrimage to Kedarnath or any other dham mention that one purpose of a yatra is to instill traditional values in the children of the family (Whitmore 127).

       Inside the temple, yatris who enter the temple in the morning are allowed to massage ghee into the linga. The puja itself is standardized and often include consecration (abhisheka) of the linga. Standard puja offerings usually include camphor, sacred thread, rice, incense, mustard oil, forehead adornments, raisins, split chickpeas, nuts, and more expensive pujas add scarves and plastic flower garlands (Whitmore 123). The general ritual procedure in Kedarnath would occur as follows: invocation (avahan), initial vow (sankalp), puja, arati, and offering of flowers (puspanjali), and finally, the ghee malish. Each member of the family would take ghee into their hands and be urged to massage the linga with ghee (clarified butter)while the priest (pujari) recites the mantra (Whitmore 123). For many yatris, massaging the linga, provides them a unique opportunity to experience intimacy with a famous and powerful form of God (Whitmore 78). Everyone irrespective of their skin colour, caste (jati) and creed is permitted to feel, touch, and express their devotion by smearing butter on the linga as a religious ritual (Hiremath, Shobha S. 1.)

Every year around 500,000 yatris visit the Kedarnath Dham valley, spaces in the eco­nomic catchment area of the Kedarnath valley became spaces predominantly aligned around the yatra tourism of middle-class pilgrims, who expect for comfortable travel. Hence, sheer numbers far exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the mountain environment (Whitmore 103). This sudden growth of yatris in the Kedarnath region, the nature of economic development connected to pilgrimage and tourism, and poorly planned infrastructure were not sustainable, leading to vast devastation in the region.

           In 2013, the flash floods in the parts of the north-west Himalayan region caused acute damage in the Uttarakhand state of India. The severity of the floods and damage was the most devastating in the Kedarnath region. It caused the death of about 4000 people and almost a similar number were reported missing. Unofficial reports suggest an even higher number of death and people missing in the region (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 193).  The cause of the flash floods was determined to be heavy rainfall, triggering landslides in some places, damaging roads, buildings, and other infrastructure. The extensive damage and large death toll displayed the frangibility of the mountainous region and a lack of synchronized relief and rescue operation (Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U, 1). Construction of several hydropower projects simultaneously, improper road alignment with poor construction, inadequate consideration of slope stability and faulty engineering techniques were some of the other major factors responsible for the 2013 flash floods (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 198).  During the disaster more than 100,000 yatris were in the region. Despite the floods, the Kedarnath shrine persevered, shielded by a massive boulder, a “divine rock” (divya sila), and by its own solid construc­tion, the temple itself held firm but filled up with debris (Whitmore 153). The unpredictability of the landscape and the continued extreme weather made it arduous for up to two days even to deliver supplies to the survivors, and some attempts even resulted in helicopter crashes. During the floods, dead bodies were coming down the Mandakini river and groups of survivors were coming out of the jungles and finding their way to villages in the upper Kedarnath. Consequently, all these events led to the closure of the Kedarnath temple.

       In Kedarnath, there is a tradition that when the shrine is closed it is the turn of divine beings to come to the site on pilgrimage while it is off limits for humans. On October 4, 2013, the first day of the fall Navaratri, Kedarnath re-opened for yatris (Whitmore 164).

       The Kedarnath valley being surrounded by the Himalayas, lakes, rivers, and forests has natural scenic beauty with several places for pilgrimage making the entire region a highly promising tourist destination. The occupation of the people living in the Kedarnath region is directly or indirectly linked with tourism, and tourism has established itself as a primary component in the Kedarnath valley economy. The relationship between residents and tourists can impact positively by providing new opportunities and negatively through restraining individuality with new restrictions (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 303).  Today, the accessibility to the Kedarnath temple compared to the last decade has become much more commodious because of better transportation provisions. The helicopter service for the Kedarnath shrine has been started for the pilgrims/tourist.

Though tourism in Kedarnath and the surrounding Himalayan regions have a huge potential for economic improvement, yet it has negatively affected the education of youth residing in Kedarnath. Much of the youth generation started working at an early age for immediate economic gain, neglecting their basic education (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 305).  “Particular constellations of social, political, and economic forces can over centuries transform the character of a particular pilgrimage place almost beyond recognition” (Whitmore 26).  Despite such a devastating flood in the Kedarnath Valley, the state government has no specific policy for develop­ment and planned construction keeping the environmental issues in mind. “Since the state leaders themselves are involved in hospitality and real estate, both overtly and covertly, no one actively discourages illegal construction” (Joshi, Hridayesh 133). Political leaders and the businessmen have not lost sight of the potential to further their own interests at the yatras, and both segments vie for advertising and merchandizing. Yet, Hindus considers it as a religious duty to embark on the pilgrimage of four holy shrines which include Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri (Chardham), the most captivating reason for this Hindu pilgrimage is that this trip washes away all the sins and cleanses the soul for paramount salvation.

                            References and other materials consulted

Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K (2011) Socio-cultural impacts of pilgrimage in Kedarnath and adjoining areas of Garhwal Himalayas. J. Env. Bio-Sci., 2011: Vol. 25 (2): 303-306

Hiremath, Shobha S. (2006) Kedar vairagya peetha: Parampara & Rawal Jagadguru Shri Bheemashankarlinga Shivacharya. Ukhimatha (Ushamath): Himavat Kedar Vairagya Simhasana Mahasamsthana.

Joshi, Hridayesh. (2016) Rage of the River: The Untold Story of Kedarnath Disaster. Translated by Vandana R. Singh. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Penguin Books India.

Lochtefeld, J. (2010) God’s gateway: identity and meaning in a Hindu pilgrimage place. Oxford University Press.

Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. (2017) Sacred groves: myths, beliefs, and biodiversity conservation—a case study from Western Himalaya, India. International journal of ecology2017.

Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. (Eds.) (2015) Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya. Routledge.

Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K. (2013) The fury of the floods in the north-west Himalayan region: the Kedarnath tragedy. Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 4(3), 193-201.

Thapliyal, U. P.(2005) Historical and Cultural Perspectives, B.R. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi,

Whitmore, L. (2018) Changes in Ritual Practice at the Himalayan Hindu Shrine of Kedarnath. Ritual Innovation: Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion, 71-90.

Whitmore, L. (2018) Mountain, Water, Rock, God: Understanding Kedarnath in the Twenty-First Century. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U. (2014) Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness–the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrological Processes, 28(24), 5985-5990.

                             Related Topics for Further Investigation    

Char Dham Yatra





Panch Kedar


                        Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Gagan Preet Singh (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content


Banaras is a sacred city that has a rich history. The city goes by various other names such Varanasi and Benares. The city is also called Kasi, which can be translated to the city of light, emphasizing its reputation among Hindus (Eck 3). Originally, the city was called Varanasi, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kasi; this is elucidated in Buddhist literature, in the Jatakas (Eck 45). Evidence from the Mahabharata suggests the name Varanasi has its roots in its proximity to the Varana river and the Asi river, which eventually combine into the Ganges river system (Sukul 16). Early Vedic literature such as the Vamana Purana, associates the two rivers as originating as body parts of the cosmic being Purusa, with the Varana river representing a right foot and the Asi river a left foot (Eck 27).

Evidence of the location of Banaras along the banks of the Ganges river, date back to 2nd century BCE. and further evidence suggests this locality continued through the Gupta period in the 6th century CE (Sukul 3). The ancient city was filled with narrow streets, houses, gardens, and temples and has been confirmed through excavations of the much older, northern area of Varanasi situated on Rajghat plateau (Sukul 5-6). This city layout continued in later times as Varanasi expanded. It was common in northern India to build cities with this type of city planning structure (Sukul 6-7).

An early morning puja to the river goddess Ganga attracts tourists and locals in Banaras.

Following the year 1035 CE a series of outside influences affected Varanasi. This included looters, and attempted campaigns against the city by Muslim conquerors (Sukul 4). These early influences also led to pockets of Muslim communities springing up within Varanasi while under Hindu rulers, from the 11th and 12th centuries (Sukul 5). Later, there were other Muslim conquerors who came and looted the city, while also destroying many temples; again this Islamic influence is characterized by the Muslim communities present today in much of northern Banaras (Sukul 6).

Buddhism was also prominent in the region, particularly in Sarnath, but also in the nearby Varanasi where the Buddhist tradition flourished up until the 12th century when the region was conquered by Qutb-ud-din Aibak (Eck 57). During this period both cities had sacred sites destroyed, however the Buddhist tradition in these areas did not recover (Eck 57). In the 500-year occupation of Muslim rule starting from the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE, a general loss of religious history is recognized through the destruction of many sacred sites (Eck 83). However, despite many important sites being destroyed, the region still served as a hub of religious and intellectual endeavors (Eck 84). Even through British occupation starting in the late 18th century, the Hindu tradition in the region remained strong (Eck 92-93).

The earliest speculated reign of Aryans in the kingdom of Kasi is between 1800 BCE and 2000 BCE. This reign is assumed to have followed a conquest led by Videgha Mathava, which is mentioned in the Shatpatha Brahmana (Sukul 18). It is speculated that this conquest was the start of the prominence of Aryan influence in the region over the indigenous inhabitants (Sukul 17). Following this, Varanasi went through a progression of control under different kings. Notably king Dhritarashtra is recognized as one of the earliest rulers (Sukul 23). During this period, the city became a hub of commerce, artisan trades, agriculture, asceticism, and philosophy, all under the influence of Vedic teachings (Sukul 24). Naturally these Vedic teachings affected the entire political structure of Varanasi with different classes being associated with certain roles in society. These Vedic influences tie into the sacredness of the city particularly its association with Siva, other deities, and prominent myths.

Even before Aryan influence in the area, non-Aryan groups living around Varanasi already had an established mythology. Ancient deities associated with aspects of nature such as trees and pools existed throughout the region (Eck 51). These deities varied greatly among different localities and were not worshipped in grand temples as seen with some Vedic deities (Eck 51). Aspects of worship in these early non-Aryan traditions are still present today. For example, many of the food offerings associated with these deities have been translated into use in Puja ceremonies (Eck 52). Similarly, blood offerings have changed to smearing icons with red vermillion coloring (Eck 52). Many of these local deities or yaksas became associated with greater Vedic deities. For example, many yaksas became part of groups, or ganas, associated with Siva, they were essentially seen as henchman of Siva (Eck 61, 68).

As Aryan influence increased, myths of greater Vedic gods became further established in the region. Among this range of mythological accounts, Siva searching for a home in Varanasi stands out. The myth tells of a recently married Siva looking for a suitable home for himself and his new wife Parvati (Eck 53-54). Siva finds Varanasi to be the only suitable location, however the city was already under control by king Divodasa (Eck 54). In order to oust the king from the city Siva sends deities from the entire pantheon to help him. One myth tells of Siva sending a deity named Nikumbha to aid him (Eck 54). Nikumbha builds a following of worshippers in Varanasi and eventually tricks the king into destroying one of his shrines (Eck 54). The destruction of this shrine forces the king to leave the city as he becomes cursed (Eck 54). In another account, after many deities fail to oust the king and end up staying behind in the city, Siva calls on Visnu. Visnu takes the form of a Buddhist monk, causes disorder in the city and counsels the king (Eck 155). The king, under the counsel of Visnu and seeking an end to the chaos, eventually creates and worships a linga for Siva in exchange for a high place in heaven, thus leaving Varanasi for Siva (Eck 155).

The sacredness of Varanasi is extoled by a popular myth in the Kasi Khanda, of Siva being cleared of sin when he first enters the region. The myth follows Siva taking the form of Bhairava and cutting off one of the five heads of Brahma after he was slandered by him (Eck 108). It is seen as a major sin to kill a Brahmin, and this sentiment was represented by Bhairava being unable to get the decapitated head of Brahma off his hand (Eck 108). Bhairava travels across India until he eventually reaches Varanasi where the head finally drops from his hand (Eck 108). This myth ties into the idea that one goes to Varanasi to cleanse themselves of sin and relates to the pilgrimage traditions in the region (Eck 108).

Of the many mythological accounts surrounding Siva and Banaras, there is a clear connection between the two. Within Banaras there are hundreds of temples and lingas, which are emblems of Siva, dedicated to him that are worshiped by Hindus (Eck 103). Furthermore, based on the mythology there is a clear connection of the entire pantheon of deities to Banaras. Many other gods such as Visnu, Devi, Durga, Hanuman, Ganesa, among others are worshipped vehemently in Banaras. A noteworthy deity is Kala Bhairava who is considered a form of Siva, and in some representations as a son of Siva (Eck 190). Bhairava is a manifestation of the terrible qualities of Siva, and Kala is etymologically related to death and fate (Eck 190). This combination of qualities warrants the role of the deity as the god of death and officer of justice in Varanasi (Eck 190-192). Yama is another well-known god of death in the pantheon of deities, but is unable to enter Varanasi, thus Bhairava fills the role and punishes and collects souls (Eck 193). It is said that all those who die in Varanasi will face the punishment of Bhairava or bhairavi yatana (Eck 193).

Smoke rises from the cremation pyres in Banaras.

Themes of life in accordance to Hindu tradition are prominent in Banaras, represented by mythological accounts and everyday life within the city. Banaras is referred to as a great mine that carries the jewels of dharma, artha, kama, and moksa (Eck 306). Respectively, each of these names corresponds to one of the aims of life in the Hindu tradition. Kama is related to the pursuit of pleasure, passion and desire (Eck 306). Kama goes beyond sexual pleasure, it can be applied to anything people do, as long as what they pursue is based on their love for doing their activities (Eck 307).  The pursuit of kama is evident in the rich traditions of music, and dance of Varanasi as well as in the mythological accounts of Siva who, although he was an ascetic, loved and pursued Varanasi with a fierce passion (Eck 309-310). Artha is referred to as a purpose, it usually refers to the pursuit of something useful that provides power and wealth (Eck 310). The Kasi Khanda suggests that the power of the universe originates in Kasi (Eck 310). In relation to wealth, as noted earlier, Varanasi has been a hub of commerce and wealth throughout its history (Eck 310). Dharma is related to living in accordance with the cosmic order or laws in Hinduism, this includes many rites involving the stage in one’s life cycle, sacrificial rites, rites for death, among others (Eck 314). Varanasi is viewed as bringing these various rites to fulfillment and amplifying the benefits of any ritual action (Eck 315). Simply to live in Banaras may be seen as fulfilling dharma (Eck 322). From these notions we can see that Banaras extols these themes of life present in the Hindu tradition.

Cows wander the steps at the banks of the river Ganga at the cremation grounds of Banaras.

The theme of death is strong in the city of Banaras, it is seen as common, inevitable, and as a process of transformation (Eck 325). Manikarnika, viewed as a sanctuary of death, home to the main cremation pyres in the city, lies in the center of Banaras (Eck 324). Death in Varanasi offers moksa or liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and death (Eck 325). This last stage of life may be associated with renouncers and ascetics but is also pursued by others. Many come to Varanasi anticipating their coming death and wait in hospice (Eck 329). In this sense Varanasi is seen as the final destination in a pilgrimage represented by life and is pursued by Hindus from various different backgrounds (Eck 329). When death comes it is thought that Siva will say the taraka mantra, to the deceased granting them liberation from samsara (Eck 332).

There are a number of rituals and festivities in Banaras, all cannot be covered here. The cremation rite known as antyesti or the last sacrifice, may be one of the more well-known rituals of Banaras (Eck 340). It involves a procession of people carrying the deceased through the streets and chanting, then dipping the body in the Ganges river, after this, the body is adorned with flowers and sandalwood oil (Eck 340). A chief mourner, who is usually the eldest son of the deceased, takes twigs that come from the holy kusa grass; these twigs are lit by an eternal sacred fire (Eck 341). Flaming twigs in hand, the chief mourner circles the pyre counterclockwise then lights the pyre (Eck 341). Once the body is almost completely cremated the chief mourner cracks the skull of the deceased by hitting it with a bamboo stick (Eck 341). This is viewed as releasing the soul from the body (Eck 341). Finally, water from the Ganges river is put in a clay pot and thrown over the left shoulder of the chief mourner onto the remaining embers (Eck 341). The chief mourner then walks away without looking back (Eck 341). What follows the cremation is eleven days of offerings of rice balls to the dead (Eck 341). Finally, on the twelfth day, it is believed that the soul of the deceased has reached the heavens (Eck 341-342). Many of the festivities that take place in Banaras are based on the time of year and the seasons. Some of these festivities include the Makara Samkranti, which is akin to a winter solstice celebration, the Maha Sivaratri, which celebrates the marriage day of Siva, and the Chaita Navaratri, which celebrates the new year in the Hindu calendar, among countless other festivities (Singh, Pravin, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute 70-71).


Eck, Diana L (1983) Banaras: City of Light. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, Bradley R., Humes, Cynthia A., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1998) Living Banaras: Hindu religion in cultural context. New Delhi: Manohar.

Parry, Jonathan P (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Singh, Rana P. B., Pravin, Rana S., and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide. Varanasi: Indica Books.

Sukul, Kuber N (1974) Varanasi down the ages. Patna: Kameshwar Nath Sukul.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Chaita Navaratri






Five Faces of Siva





Makara Samkranti




Rajgat Plateau





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Zahin Mohammed (Spring 2020) who is entirely responsible for its content.


Hardwar is known to have historically gone through multiple names before it permanently became known as Hardwar. Some of these names are known as Ahoganga, Gangadvara, Mayapuri, Kapildvara (named after the sage Kapila) and Swargadwara, meaning the way to heaven (Karar 101). Hardwar lastingly got its name from the combination of “har” meaning “Lord Shiva” and “dwar” meaning “gateway to the land of Gods” (Bajpai, Yadav and Pandey 226). The first settlers of Hardwar are believed to have been the Rajputs of Pauri, more specifically Raja Islam Singh who is believed to be the founder of the city of Hardwar (Karar 101). Hardwar being ruled by the Rajputs of Pauri came to an end, but they are still found to be living in areas close to Hardwar. A wide range of communities are involved in the famous pilgrimage activities that occur in Hardwar. For example, during the Kanwar Mela, which is the largest yearly festival that takes place in Hardwar, Hindus from nearby cities of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana “ritually carry the holy water of the Ganga in small pitchers” (Karar 102) known as Kanwar. Muslim artisans travel down to Hardwar to make these Kanwar.

            Hardwar is geographically positioned in northern India in Uttarakhand between the latitudinal parallel and longitudinal meridian (Sultan 9). The city has approximately 225, 235 inhabitants and is about 42.01km2 (Bajpai, Yadav and Pandey 227). Hardwar’s positioning contributes to the city being an extremely famous pilgrimage centre due to it being full of both natural and cultural tourism resources. Some of the natural resources include the Ganga river, hills, forests, elephants, tigers and jungle cats (Sultan 10), which also contributes to Hardwar’s aesthetic. The Ganga river is the most important factor in determining Hardwar’s religious significance as it is regarded as the most holy and scared river in the world to the Hindus since time that is immemorial (Bhutiani et al 1). Some of the cultural resources found in Hardwar are Temples, Ashrams and Dharamshalas. A major place of pilgrimage is the Maya Devi Temple located in Hardwar, which is the temple of the deity Adhisthatri and is known to be “where the heart and navel of Goddess Sati had fallen” (Sultan 11).

            Due to Hardwar’s religious/ritual significance there are many festivals and fairs that take place in the city. There is a religious festival that takes place almost every month: in January they celebrate the Makar Sakranti, the Maha Shivratri is celebrated from February-March, March-April is the Ram Navmi, in April they also celebrate Baisakhi, Buddha Poornima and Ganga Saptami are celebrated in May, Kanwar Mela is in June, Somwati Amavasya is in July, August holds the Janmashttmi, in October they celebrate the Durga Puja and finally, in November the Kartik Poornima is celebrated (Karar 103). Around 2-2.5 million people take part in these festivals (Sultan 11). As well, there is the Kumbha Mela. This festival only takes place every twelve years, marking when the sun is in Aries and Jupiter (Brihaspati) enters into the zodiac sign Aquarius (Kumbha) (Sultan 11). Some Hindus believe that Adi Shankaracharya, who is an Indian philosopher that “consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, sub-school of hindu philosophy” (Karar 103) revived the festival and in turn revived Hinduism. The Kumbha became one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, with Hindus from all over the world wanting to revive themselves by taking part in the many religious discussions, preaching and gathering blessings that occur, this is done by participating in the mass bathing in the Ganga river (Karar 103). The initiation of the Kumbha Mela is believed to be a commemoration for the event of the Devas (Gods) and the Danavas (Demons) churning the ocean and finding an Amrita-kumbha, which is a potful of nectar (Karar 101). Many rival parties fought for its possession and when the Kumbha was being taken to safety a few drops of nectar fell out of the pot and onto the site. In the year 2010 more that 80 million pilgrims visited Hardwar during the Kumbha Mela to dip in the holy water of the Ganga river (Sultan 11). It has been examined that the summer months show the biggest rise in tourists to Hardwar. This makes sense due to the fact that that the summer months mark the beginning of pilgrimage of Badrinath and Kedernath following the dip in the holy Ganga river at Hardwar (Sultan 12).

            As the Kumbh Mela is the most important ritual festival for the Hindus, the attraction of many priests, saints and yogis from all over India results in a massive rise in noise levels for the city. A study done by Madan and Pallavi (2010) evaluated the noise level of Hardwar during the Kumbh Mela compared to a normal day in the city, along with the impact this noise has on the inhabitants of Hardwar’s health. The noise levels were monitored at four different locations, the first being the Singh Dwar, which is considered the entry point of Hardwar. This location was shown to be extremely crowded with traffic and high noise levels (Madan and Pallavi 293). The second location is the Rishikul, which is a bus stop that is temporarily set up during the Kumbh Mela festival, constant horns and shrieking take place here as all traffic of the city passes by this location (Madan and Pallavi 293). The Har Ki Pauri is the third location under evaluation, it is known as the main centre of attraction for tourists in Hardwar, as hundreds of Hindus move towards it to ritually bathe in the holy Ganga river (Madan and Pallavi 293). At the Har Ki Pauri loud religious music is blasted all day and night, as well it is an extremely crowded area (Madan and Pallavi 293). The fourth and final location under examination is the Chandi Ghat, which is the junction that is very close to the Har Ki Pauri where “all round the year tourist and pilgrimage activity is clearly visible” (Madan and Pallavi 293). The results found in the study showed that the noise created during the Kumbh Mela festival impacted human health by inducing headaches, which caused a difficulty to concentrate. As well, Hindus got less sleep at night, making them tired or fatigue. The noise also resulted in increased blood pressure and hearing problems (Madan and Pallavi 295). These various impacts are significant because the Kumbh Mela is intended to be a festival in which Hindus take part in many religious rituals to seek Moksha; therefore, it is important for them to be at optimal health and peace; therefore, having little to no factors affecting their physical or mental health.        

For someone who practices religion, pilgrimage can in some cases be regarded as extremely important and significant because it represents someone’s search for happiness, bliss and satisfaction (Maheshwari and Punima 1). Pilgrims who would travel to Hardwar to participate in another religious festival admired by the Hindus called the Ardha-Kumbha, which is only celebrated every six years would travel through dense forests, rivers and rivulets (Karar 101). Kings, saints and ascetics and general pilgrims would travel by foot, on bullock-carts, horse-back, on camels or on elephants in large groups (Karar 101) and it would take months to actually reach Hardwar. On the auspicious occasion of the Ardha-Kumbha roughly 18 million people dip into the Ganga river (Maheshwari and Punima 1), which shows the religious significance of pilgrimage. Dipping in the Ganga river during these religious festivals is regarded as a Hindu attempting to attain Moksha, which is “salvation from the cycle of rebirth and freedom from one’s sins” (Maheshwari and Punima 1). Hindus believe themselves to feel closer to God by following the various rituals of the multiple festivals (Maheshwari and Punima 1). Some of the daily activities of the festivals include bathing in the Ganga, worshiping (Puja), listening to religious discourses voiced by saints and attending the various performances of the Hindu epics (Maheshwari and Punima 1). In a study done by Maheshwari and Punima (2009) the Ardha-Kumbha festival resulted in Hindus feeling more satisfied with life, relieved of all their tensions from their daily tasks and attainment of inner tranquility and peace (Maheshwari and Punima 1). They also found the religious festivals to aid people overcome terrible situations, such as, loss of a family member or loved one (Maheshwari and Punima 1).

Since the Ganga river is one of the most scared rivers in the opinion of the Hindus, concern has been raised regarding the mass amounts of bathing that take place in the river. During the festivals of the Kumbh and the Ardh-Kumbh there is special importance placed on the ritual of bathing in the Ganga river. Therefore, during these festivals millions of people dip into river and bathe themselves (Sultan 14). During the 2010 Kumbh Mela, which began in January and carried on until April there were 11 bathing dates throughout the 104-day festival which took place at Hardwar (Sultan 14). Around 80 million people took part in bathing in the Ganga river, which severely affected the quality of the water in the Ganga. This raised concern for the health of people who participate in the ritual of bathing in the river, as well, for the people downstream who drink the water from the river (Sultan 14). A study done by Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi (2010) suggested that the bathing leads to an increase in Bio-chemical oxygen demand, total dissolved solids and a decrease in dissolved oxygen. When the water quality was tested before and after the festival drastic changes were found in the physio-chemical and the microbiological dimensions of the Ganga river (Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi 4). The water quality did not show improvement, it only got worse, which resulted in stray dogs and pigs being attracted to the river. These unsanitary conditions caused various contagious and airborne diseases (Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi 4). Studies show that the holy river has reached frightening levels of pollution (Sultan 13). Eighty-nine million litres of sewage from nearby cities are dumped into the Ganga river, which is extremely alarming (Sultan 13). This is not only alarming for the Hindus who take part in these ritual practices, as their health is in danger, but this is also concerning for the religion itself. Concern is raised for the religion due to reasons of these festivals and activities having to eventually be changed or forgotten because of the issues that pollution is causing in regards to people’s health. 

Another study done by Bhutiani at al. (2016) suggested that the mass bathing that takes place in the Ganga river developed a range between good and medium water quality. Whereas, after further studies took pace it was found that the water quality of the river is poor. Thus, it is evident that the water quality of the Ganga river ranges from poor to good (Bhutiani at al. 1). The study concluded the primary sources of pollution are sewerage, solid and liquid waste contaminants or organic nature that all enter into the river. Although, the mass bathing that takes place during the religious festivals does not aid in the cleanliness of the Ganga river quality. Inhabitants of the area should take necessary measures to reduce the risks of future contamination entering the river, not only for the health of people living in the area and Hindus who practice these bathing rituals, but for the practices and rituals themselves and their survival in the religion as they are extremely significant in the many festivals held in Hardwar.

Hardwar has proven itself to be an extremely important location for those who practice Hinduism due to its major festivals such as the Kumbha Mela and the Ardha-Kumbha Mela festivals. The positioning of Hardwar close to the Ganga river is the largest contributor to its religious significance because of the ritual importance placed on the river during the Kumbha Mela and the Ardha-Kumbha Mela festivals. Considering the results from the multipul studies examined precautions should be taken in the future in regard to using the Ganga during these important religious festivals to avoid the spreading of more diseases and sickness among the Hindus, as their health is the most important.  

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bajpai, Yadav and Pandey (2015) “Tourism and Tourist Influx Evaluation and Analysis in Haridwar and Rishikesh Townships of Uttarakhand.” Dept. of Geography, Kumaun University. issn- 2348-0459.

Bhutiani, D.R. Khanna, Kulkarni and Ruhela (2016) “Assessment of Ganga River Ecosystem at Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India With Reference to Water Quality Indices.” Applied Water Sci 6, 107-113 (2016).

Karar (2010) “Impact of Pilgrim Tourism at Haridwar.” Anthropologist, 12(2): 99-105 (2010).

Maheshwari, Singh (2009) “Psychological well-being and pilgrimage: Religiosity, happiness and life satisfaction of Ardh-Kumbh Mela pilgrims (Kalpvasis) at Prayag India.” Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT.

Madan and Pallavi (2010) “Assessment of Noise Pollution in Haridwar City of Uttarakhand State, India During Kumbh Mela 2010 and its Impact on Human Health.” Journal of Applied and Natural Science 2(2): 293-295 (2010).

Sharma, Bhadula and B.D. Joshi (2010) “Impact of Mass Bathing on Water Quality of Ganga River During Maha Kumbh.” Nature and Science 2012;10(6): 1-5.

Sultan (2015) “Tourism, Economy and Environmental Problems of a Religious Town: A Case Study on Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India.” Lecturer, Dept. of Geography, Hiralal Majumdar College. issn- 2319-7722.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Kumbh Mela

Ardha-Kumbha Mela

Maya Devi Temple

Ganga river



Makar Sakranti

Maha Shivratri

Ram Navmi


Buddha Poornima

Ganga Saptami

Kanwar Mela

Somwati Amavasya


Durga Puja

Kartik Poornima

Noteworthy Websites related to the Topic,_Lumbini

This article was written by: Teneal Laturnus (Spring 2020), who is entirely responsible for its content. 


Agehananda Bharati said that if you were to ask any Hindu which city they regarded as the holiest in India, they would not hesitate to name Banaras, just as a Muslim would not hesitiate to name Mecca (Hertel & Humes 1). Banaras is a very sacred Hindu city in Northern India which is dedicated to Siva, who in Hindu literature is responsible for the creation of the world, along with the other gods Visnu and Brahma (Bedi & Keay 1). Humans have inhabited Banaras since 1000 BCE, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (Singh & Rana 31). Banaras is located on the bank of the Ganges river which itself is considered to be the holiest of India’s rivers. There are over a million people tightly packed into the city and the buildings stand in such close proximity that there is barely even any room for the sun to shine (Bed & Keay 1). There are many reasons why Banaras is such a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. Some prominent attractions include the Ganges river, the abundance of temples and lingas, and the belief that 330 million deities dwell in the city (Hertel & Humes 1). Although Banaras is revered for these things, it is important to note that it is the city of Banaras itself, which is said to predate even the gods, that renders the city sacred, not what is found within it (Hertel & Humes 1). Throughout history, Banaras has also been known also as Kasi (“The City of Light”), Avimukta (“The Never Forsaken”), and Varanasi.

            Mythological sources state that Varanasi had been an Aryan settlement since the post-Vedic period (around 1500 BCE) (Singh & Rana 31). By the 2nd millennium BCE, Varanasi was not only known as a place of learning, but it was also famous for its industrial centre which manufactured fabrics, perfumes, sculptures, and more (Varanasi 2020). Kasiis the name of a Northern Indian Kingdom that Varanasi was the capital of during the 6th century BCE, which is when Buddha gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath (Eck 2005: 778). During the three century long Muslim occupation beginning in 1194, Varanasi declined and many of the Hindu temples were subsequently destroyed (Varanasi 2020). Then under British rule in the 18th century, Varanasi became an independent kingdom (Varanasi 2020). For centuries Banaras was a forest which stretched beyond the urban centre or the “city”, and until the 12th century, the heart of modern-day urban Banaras was all forest with temples and shrines scattered throughout (Eck 2005: 778). The modern-day city is still considered a centre of Hindu learning as it was throughout the previous decades. There are many Brahmin scholars (pandits) who continue traditional learning, and the city has three universities, including the well-known Banaras Hindu University (Varanasi 2020). Banaras lacks authentic ancient buildings due to many of them having been destroyed over the years, namely during the Muslim period. These destroyed Hindu temples have been rebuilt multiple times – for example the Vishvanatha (Golden) Temple, one of the most famous temples dedicated to Siva, has been rebuilt 3 times. In fact most of the impressive places of worship in Banaras actually are Muslim mosques (Bedi & Keay 13).

The mythology of Banaras which describes Siva’s connection to the city, according to most texts, is that Banaras is where Siva’s pillar of light broke through the earth and pierced the sky, which gives rise to the name Kasi(“The City of Light”) (Eck 2005: 778). Another Hindu myth describes how Siva populated the city of Banaras with the whole pantheon of gods (Eck 2005: 779). The story describes how Siva wanted to settle in the city with his wife Paravati, so he sent down gods one-by-one to overthrow the king, but they all lost and yet were so infatuated with the city they stayed there. So, when Siva finally overthrew the king with the help of Visnu, all the gods including himself chose to inhabit the city permanently (Eck 2005: 779).  Hindus believe that Siva lives in Banaras and protects it, and it is common for Banarsis to believe that Siva dwells in everything in the city, even the pebbles: “Kashi ke Kankara Shiva Shankara” (the very pebbles of Kasi are Siva) (Singh & Rana 30). It is also believed that those who live in Banaras are themselves a form of Siva (Singh & Rana 30). All over India Siva is worshipped in the form of lingas which are said to guide Hindus to nirvana (Bedi & Keay 6) .Yet in Banaras, the city itself is sometimes seen as one big linga because of Siva’s pillar of light (Bedi & Keay 6). Banaras is said to possess 100,000 lingas, andmany of them have been carefully described and enumerated (Bedi & Keay 6).

The city is also known as Avimukta because in the puranic literature Sivasaid “Because I never forsake it, nor let it go, this great place is therefore known as Avimukta (‘never forsaken’) (Singh & Rana 29). This name comes from the myths that the city was never abandoned, by humans and deities alike, even during cosmic dissolution (Singh & Rana 29). Many Hindus who were born in Banaras will identify as a Banarsi even if they had long since moved away (Hertel & Humes 1). Pilgrim’s who have visited the city once have been known to identify themselves as a citizen of the city, saying that they feel settled elsewhere (Hertel & Humes 1).

            The Ganges river has a strong personal connection with Banaras due to the fact that it is said to have “fallen from heaven upon the head of Lord Siva, who tamed the goddess-river in his tangled ascetic’s hair before setting her loose to flow upon the plains of North India” (Eck 2005: 778). Hindus believe that the Ganga river purifies everything it touches (Peterson 3274), and in Banaras the smaller rivers called the Varanaand Asi merge with the Ganges, giving rise to the name Varanasi; there are also many kunds (sacred ponds) in the city (Hertel & Humes 3). The great stone steps are known as ghats which lead pilgrims from the city to the river to bathe, and on an auspicious day as many as 30,000 pilgrims may be up at dawn attempting to bathe in the Ganga (Bedi & Keay 7). Bathing in the Ganges in Banaras is said to be especially auspicious due to the fact that the water touches the bank of the holy city (Hertel & Humes 3).

Banaras welcomes more than a million pilgrims each year who go to experience a full range of rituals that are associated with daily, annual, and life cycles (Hertel & Humes 3). The Nitya Yatrais the daily pilgrimage which many devout Hindus perform, beginning with bathing in the Ganga in the morning, followed by worship at various temples (Singh & Rana 55). There is also a weekly pilgrimage, the Vara Yatra, and a monthly pilgrimage, the Masika Yatra, and a seasonal pilgrimage, the Ritu Yatra, and many more that range in duration and intensity (Singh & Rana 55). The most prominent rituals which take place in Banaras are the death rituals.

The Ganga in Banaras at Dawn

            “Kashyam maranam muktih” – ‘Death in Kashi is liberation’ (Eck 1983: 325). Banaras is known to be an auspicious place to die, making death rituals very prominent in the city. Many elderly Hindus go to Banaras to die in special hospitals because it is believed that by doing so, they will receive the blessing from Siva which he gives to all who die in the sacred city (Hertel & Humes 3). According to most texts it is not death itself that grants liberation, instead it is Siva who whispers in the ear of the deceased the taraka mantra, which tells the secret of enlightenment (Bedi & Keay 12). This secret enables the newly deceased to cross over the waters of samsara to the far shore of nirvana, which is also why Banaras is known as a tirtha, or a crossing place (Bedi & Keay 12).There are two cremation ghats in Banaras, the Manikarnika and Harishchandra. Manikarnikais the more popular of the two, known as the sanctuary of death, which is at the centre of the city along the riverfront where the cremation fires are eternally burning (Eck 1983: 324). Hindus believe that the deceased will remain in heaven for as long as their ashes are kept pure in the Ganges river (Parry 24). The fact that the cremation ghats are within the city of Banaras differs from the rest of India where the cremation grounds are outside of city limits as it is seen as polluting, whereas dying and being cremated in Banaras is seen as a blessing (Eck 1983: 4). In these cremation ghats, more than 38,000 deceased Hindus are cremated per year (Singh & Rana 30). After the corpses are cremated, it is said that it takes twelve days for a soul to reach the distant shore of nirvana, which is an anxious time for the deceased family full of prayer with their Brahmin priest (Bedi & Keay 13).

Cremation Ground in Banaras

            The city of Banaras is known as the holiest city in India for a multitude of reasons. The mythology which describes Siva’s connection to the city and the rich history of the city itself shows that Banaras is an old and sacred place. Between the pantheon of gods who reside within, the bathing ghats at the Ganges river, and the temples and lingas, Banaras is a key destination for pilgrims. The rituals associated with daily, annual, and life cycles attract pilgrims and tourists alike to observe and partake in, notably the death rituals. Hindus flock from all over India to die in this city so at their time of death they will be instructed by Siva on how to reach liberation, taken across the rough waters of samsara to the “far shore” of nirvana.


Bedi, R., & Keay, J (1987) Banaras, city of shiva. New Delhi: Brijbasi Printers Private Limited.

Eck, Diana L. (2005)  “Banaras.” Encyclopedia of Religion 2:778-779. Accessed January 28, 2020.

Eck, Diana L. (1983). Banaras: City of light. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Hertel, B. R., Humes, C. A., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1998) Living banaras: Hindu religion in cultural context. New Delhi: Manohar.

Parry, J. P (1994) Death in banaras. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (2005) “Ganges River.” Encyclopedia of Religion 5: 3274-3275. Accessed 1 Feb. 2020.

Singh, R. P. B., Rana, P. S., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Banaras region: A spiritual & cultural guide. Varanasi, India: Indica Books.

“Varanasi”. Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. (accessed January 28, 2020)

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Ganges River


Hindu Mythology



Sacred Places

Gods and Goddesses

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Michelle Karbashewski (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Vrindavan (Vrndavana)

India is a country with a varied and rich mythology. Vrindavan (aka Vrndavana) is located in Northern India around fifteen kilometres from Mathura and is considered to be one of the seven holiest cities for Hindus (Haberman, 272). The city features many sacred land and water features such as the Yamuna River, sacred groves (vanas), ponds (kundas) and ghats (holy steps leading down to a river) (Luthy, 4). It is also referred to as Vrindavan or Vrindivana city. The name Vrindavan is derived from ‘Vrinda’ which is another name for the sacred tulsi (i.e. basil) plant. It is one of the most holy cities within the Hindu tradition and is commonly known as the “The City of Temples” with allegedly five thousand in total.

Major religious routes within the forests of Vrindavan were first established in the sixteenth century based on the Sanksrit text Vraj Bhakti Vilasa written by Narayan Bhatt (Shah, 41). Bhatt is responsible for mapping out a large portion of the religious sites that are worshipped to this day. Bhatt more specifically mapped out the place-names found within the Puranas onto the physical terrain where these sites are found (Ghosh, 193) Pilgrimages are religious and cultural phenomena that are important features the Hindu religion. In the Hindu religion, a pilgrimage is referred to as a tirtha yatra and is a liminal process that establishes participation in the spiritual realm (Singh &Haigh, 783). A pilgrimage has been defined as a journey resulting from religious causes, externally to a holy site, and internally for spiritual purposes and internal understanding (Barber, 1). Today, pilgrimage is defined differently, as a traditional religious or modern secular journey (Collins-Kreiner, 440). For example, the Krsna Balrama Madir Temple, established in 1975 by His Divine Grace Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, has now become Vrindavan’s most popular temple and has one of the highest standards of deity worship and cleanliness. It has become one of the most popular temples and Hare Krsna devotees can be found here throughout the year (Jacobsen, 143).

Vrindavan is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for devotees of Krsna as the city is well-known as the forested region where the deity Krsna grew up as a humble cowherd (go-pala). The city itself is said to be where Krsna spent his childhood and many say that he still resides within the city itself.  It is located in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. The area of Vrindavan is described in the Puranas as the childhood home of the deity Krsna. This mythologized place was located geographically when the Bengali Saint Caitanya travelled there to rediscover Krsna’s childhood home where he then experienced visions of the deity in the uninhabited forest (jangala) which is now modern day Vrindavan (Ghosh, 194). Caitanya and his followers began to construct temples in the holy city that can still be found today. For example, the Madan Mohan Temple is the oldest temple in Vrndavan today and is closely associated with Caitanya.

Mathura (just outside of Vrindavan) is a little town and a major place of pilgrimage on the banks of the Yamuna River. It attracts about a half of a million pilgrims each year, especially during major festivals such as Krsna Janmastami, Holi, and Radhastami. These journeys are made to sacred places as an act of religious devotion (Nash, 101). Pilgrimage sites are places that people consider sacred and maintain their sanctity by visiting them regularly and relating them into their religious framework (Eck, 8). In India more than one hundred million people visit around two thousand major pilgrimage sites annually (Shinde, 449). During ritualized pilgrimages individuals travel to a sacred place and perform rituals considered necessary to appease the sacred object in that place. These ritual acts of worship acts by pilgrims (individual and collective) of worship and rituals are regarded as part of their normal their religious duties (Shinde, 450). Pilgrimages are crucial in the Hindu religion in order for an individual to engage all of the senses when to experiencing the sacred sites Vrindavan has to offer. The believer “sees” the sacred sights (temples, churches, relics, icons, monuments), he/she “hears” the sacred sounds (church and temple bells, drum beats, chanting, singing, the call to prayer), “touches” the sacred artifacts (icons, deities, texts), “eats” special food (such as consecrated food); and “smells” specific aromas (incense, fresh flowers) (Eck, 9). All of these experiences vary depending on the individual’s participation in the religious culture developed around the pilgrimage site itself (Shinde, 451).

Although there are thousands of temples erected within Vrindavan there are a few that stand out. Since the establishment in the fifteenth century, Vrindavan has continued to be a center for devotional pilgrimages dedicated to the deity Krsna. Vrindavan is a place for pilgrims to visit Krsna temples, participate in worship and rituals, listen to narration of stories from the religious epics of Krsna, and perform poetry, art, dance, song, and drama dedicated to Krsna’s glory (Shinde, 452). For example, these everyday rituals involve dressing the idol in finery and darshan, communal singing of hymns, and food offerings to the deity depending on the temple of worship. Today you can find a live video stream of the Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Mandir which has now become one of the most popular and visited temples in the world.

Vrindavan is also a major site for Vaisnava groups. For example, widows (mostly from Bengal) have been congregating in Vrindavan for years to live out the rest of their lives. In India, social mores inhibit women from remarrying and they are shunned because they are viewed as inauspicious. Nilakantha Braja (The Blue-necked God) written by Assamese writer Indira Goswami highlights the plights of the widows who reside in the sacred city by depicting the despicable and undignified life and death experiences of these women. Known as the Radheyshamis (widows who sing devotional songs in temples for a pittance) these widows sing bhajans (hymns) in order to accumulate money to survive (Bhushan, 138). Whether young or old, widowed women leave behind their colorful saris, jewelry, and even shave their heads if they are part of the more conservative Hindu traditions (Jamadar, Melkeri, & Holkar, 57). Although these women are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) they are still expected to mourn until their own deaths. Therefore, these women find refuge in Vrindavan where they lead miserable lives surviving by begging and singing hymns in praise of Gods (Pande, 209).

Today, the city of Vrindavan has become more of a tourist attraction than a pilgrimage site. Pilgrimages, themselves, are being transformed into mere sightseeing tours and can now be more accurately labeled as ‘religious tourism’ (Shinde, 184). Annually, Vrindavan receives more than six million visitors, who are no longer visiting strictly for religious reasons (Shinde, 448). Places that were once Hindu holy sites may be accessed with a simple search on Google where the best flight deals and top places to visit are a click away. However, some temples remain constant to modern Hindus such as the Banke-Bihari Temple which is considered to be the most popular shrine and is associated with Swami Haridas and Nimbarka. Another is Nidhi Van Temple where Krsna and Radha are said to come out after midnight and indulge in raas-leela (dance found in the Puranas) and then rest in the Rang Mahal Temple which is decorated daily for the two deities.

In conclusion, Vrindavan is gaining popularity due to its numerous temples. Construction and development are ongoing which includes temples, guest houses, and apartments. Simply wandering around Vrindavan allows one to see the vast beauty of the holy city and share vicariously in the myths of Krsna.



Barber, R. (1993) Pilgrimages. London: The Boydell Press.

Bhushan, Ravi. (2014) “Estranged Identity: The Problem of Hindu Widows in Indira Goswami’s Nilakantha Braja.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 5 #2:138-141.

Collins-Kreiner, N. (2010) “Researching pilgrimage: Continuity and transformations.” Annals of tourism research, 37(2): 440-456.

Eck, D. L. (1981) “Darsan: Seeing the divine image in India.” Chambersberg, PA: Anima Books: 8-9.

Ghosh, P. (2002) “Tales, tanks, and temples:the creation of a sacred center in seventeenth-century Bengal,” Asian Folklore, 61 #2:193-222.

Haberman, D. (1994) Journey through the Twelve Forests: An encounter with Krsna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luthy, T. (2016) “Few people know that Krishna was the first environmentalist”. Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, power and the environment.

Jacobsen, K. A. (2015) “Book review: Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, written by Ferdinando Sardella.” Numen, 62(1): 143-146.

Jamadar, C., Melkeri, S. P., & Holkar, A. (2015) “Quality of Life among Widows”. #1: 57-68.

Mostafanezhad, M., Norum, R., Shelton, E. J., & Thompson-Carr, A. (2016) “Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, Power and the Environment”. Routledge: #2.

Pande, Rekha (2015) “Widows Of Vrindavan-Feminisation Of Old Age In India.” Pakistan Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 10: 209-223.

Shah, B. (2006) “The Pilgrimage of the Groves: Reconstructing the Meaning of a Sixteenth-Century Hindu Landscape”. Arnoldia: 39-41.

Shinde, K. A. (2015) “Religious tourism and religious tolerance: insights from pilgrimage sites in India.” Tourism Review, 70(3): 179-196.

Shinde, K. A. (2011) ““This is a religious environment”: Sacred space, environmental discourse, and environmental behavior at a Hindu pilgrimage site in India””. Space and Culture. 14: 448-463.

Shinde, K. A. (2008) “The environment of pilgrimage in the sacred site of Vrindavan, India.” PhD diss., Monash University: 449-451.

Shinde, K. A. (2007) “Case study 6: Visiting sacred sites in India: Religious tourism or pilgrimage.” Religious tourism and pilgrimage festivals management: An international perspective: 184-197.

Singh, R. P., & Haigh, M. J. (2015) “Hindu Pilgrimages: The Contemporary Scene.” The Changing World Religion Map: 783-801


Related Topics for Further Investigation

Banke-Bihari Temple

Bhagauata Purana






Hare Krsna





Krsna Balrama Madir Temple

Madan Mohan Temple



Nidhi Van

Nilakantha Braya




Rang Mahal


Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Madir Temple

Swami Haridas

tirtha yatra




Vraj Bhakti Vilasa

Yamuna River


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic (Sri Vrindavan Dham, 2016). (Daily Bhaskar, 2016). (Hindu Website, 2016). (Vrindavana: The Holy Land of Lord Krsna, 2009). (, 2016).


Article written by: Lindsay Tymchyna (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.






Pattadakal Temples

In the Indian state of Karnataka lies the sacred village of Pattadakal, or Kisuvolal as it used to be called, and its 10 temples, constructed from the 6th to the 9th century. Pattadakal was once the place of anointment for the early Chalukya kings of Badami, and it served as their secondary capital. The Malaprabha river flows north near the old city (Annigeri 2). The people of India believe that rivers that flow north are sacred due to the fact that they are rare as most rivers in India flow to the east or the west. The surrounding mountains provided an abundant amount of sandstone to build the temples, and there are several lingas around the village that give a sense that it used to be a large place for Siva worship. Pattadakal is a marvellous masterpiece where the architectural styles of North and South India are blended (Annigeri 6). The influence between the mixing of the northern and southern styles resulted in a different adaptation of ideas. Unfortunately, tracing the development of the northern style is quite difficult as a large quantity of Nagara style temples were destroyed during periods of warfare. They are still distinguished by the tall, convex shape of the tower above the hall of the temples (Dallapiccola 1) . Architects such as Gunda and Revadi Ovajja graced Pattadakal with the construction of temples and sculptors such as Chengamma, Pullappan and Deva-arya decorated the temples with their magnificent sculptures (Annigeri 6).

The biggest of the temples at Pattadakal is the Virupaksha Temple (formerly known as Lokesvara). It was constructed between 733 and 745 CE by queen Lokamahadevi to celebrate the three victories of her husband and early Chalukya ruler, Vikramaditya II, over his rival, the Pallavas of Kanchipuram (Kadambi 266). Along with commemorating his victories, the temple also shows a sense of rajadharma (duties and obligations of a king) and moksadharma (liberation of the soul). The Virupaksha temple was modelled after the Kailasanatha temple (formerly known as the Rajasimhesvara temple) at Kanchi, the town that the king had just conquered. The Virupaksha temple was built by the architect Gunda along with others, such as Sarvasiddhi Achari and Baladeva in a Dravidian (South) style of architecture. The Virupaksha Temple has a nandi mantapa (open pavilion with roof) which Cummings argues is a shrine to the queen (as stated in Kadambi 267). Inside this pavilion resides a sculpture of Nandi (bull) in black stone (Annigeri 14). Her assumptions are proven by the two royal portraits on the temple. One of Lokamahadevi, which shows her standing on a lion throne while holding an elephant-staff in her left hand. The other picture is of the other wife of the king, Trailokyamahadevi. Coincidentally, these two queens were also sisters (Kadambi 267). The pillars of the great hall are covered in episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata (Annigeri 15). On the outer wall to the south, there are sculptures of Ravana killing Jatayu and Siva seated in Kailasa. On the north porch, there is an eight-armed Siva who is dancing on the demon Apasmarapurusha (Annigeri 20). Covering the rest of the outer walls are sculptures of Siva, Lakulisa, Nataraja, Lingodbhavamurti, Visnu with a conch and fruit, and more (Annigeri 20). On the ceiling of the eastern porch you can see the god Surya standing in a horse-drawn chariot, with seven horses and a lotus flower in each hand (Annigeri 15). In the shrine is the linga of Virupaksha that was worshipped (Annigeri 18).

Almost simultaneously, the Mallikarjuna temple (formerly known as Trailokesvara) was built in around 740 CE by his younger queen Trailokyamahadevi, who was also the sister of the main queen (Annigeri 25).  It was built to celebrate the victories against Kanchi, just like her sister’s temple. The two temples are very close in architecture and some of the sculptures are in identical locations on the temple (Annigeri 25). There are two Saiva Dvaraplas at the entrance to the hall and  an image of Visnu riding Garuda is on the door frame. Even with the depiction of Visnu, it can still be concluded that the temple is dedicated to Siva (Annigeri 26). The stories that are told along the walls are that of the domestic life, clothing and religious practices of the early Chalukyan era. The great victories of Krsna are depicted along the pillars of the great hall. These include Krsna holding up a mountain, killing the demons Kesi, who was in the form of a horse, and killing Kharasura who was in the disguise as a donkey (Annigeri 28). In the shrine lies a linga with a large lotus flower carved in the wall over the linga, and sculptures of Siva and Parvati all over the ceiling of the shrine (Annigeri 30).

The temple of Sangamesvara (originally known as Vijayesvara) was built by King Vijayaditya to praise the god Vijayesvara (Siva) (Annigeri 34).  There is no date on the inscription but since the King Vijayaditya reigned from 696-733 CE, we can assume it was built during that time period (Bolar 38). On the pillars in the hall are several inscriptions relating to the building of the temple. The first one speaks of how “peggade-Poleyachchi of Mahadevigeri gave 51 gadyanas for the making of this pillar” (Bolar 38). The second one explains that the pillar was donated by an individual named “Vidyasiva” (Bolar 38). The third pillar  tells how “a courtesan of this temple named Chalabbe, donated 3 pillars to the temple” (Bolar 38). The fourth pillar says that Motibodamma donated two pillars sculpted by the sculptor Paka (Bolar 38). There is an inscribed slab standing in the hall belonging to King Kirtivarma II of the Calukyas of Badami dated 754 CE which states that Jnanasivacarya granted land as a provision “for the studies of those who attend the rites of the god” (Bolar 101). The architecture of the temple is quite plain and does not have any of the great sculptures on its walls. There are big sculptures of Visnu, Varaha, Siva with Nandi and Gajasurantaka on the outside of the walls that were never finished due to some unforeseen reason (Annigeri 34). What the temple lacks in design, it makes up for in size as it has three shrines, a walkway around the main shrine and the great hall. What was once worshiped in the shrine is now a broken linga (Annigeri 34).

The Kasivisvesvara Temple was built in the Nagara (northern) style of architecture using sand-stone blocks in the 8th century CE (Annigeri 31). Interestingly enough, there happens to be miniature temples sculpted into the outer wall in a Dravidian or South Indian style of architecture in an attempt to combine the two types of work (Annigeri 32). The temple is divided into two different parts, the hall or mantapa, and the shrine and the ante-chamber or sukanasi. In the shrine there is a black stone linga in the centre (Annigeri 32). On the ceiling of the mantapa is depicted Siva, Parvati with a child in her arms, Nandi, four hybrid creatures, swans and dwarfish garland carriers (Annigeri 33). On the pillars, many stories from the Bhagavata and Sivapuranas are told. One of these such stories is the wedding scene of Siva and Parvati, where other gods have attended (Annigeri 33).

To the left and a few yards away, lies the Galaganatha Temple with its very tall structure. Having been built in the North Indian style (Nagara) in the 8th century CE, it is quite different from the Virupaksha, Mallikarjuna and Sangamesvara which are all built in the South Indian style (Dravidian) (Annigeri 37). In the shrine is a linga in black stone and a sculpture of Nataraja on the door. With age, the wall to the south has been destroyed, but it was possible to conclude their method of constructing walls, which was to lay them on each other without any cementing agent (Annigeri 38). Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this temple is the sculpture of Siva as Andhakasura. The sculpture has eight hands, one with a sword, one with a trident in the body of a demon, one with a shield, and another with a trident, and the rest placed in different poses (Annigeri 39).

The Jambulinga Temple is very small now and has no ceiling. There was once a bigger hall, but it is now in ruins. There once was sculpture of Siva and Visnu, but time has worn them down. It seems to have been built around the same time as the Galaganatha Temple (Annigeri 39).

The Chandrasekhara Temple is quite plain and has been dated to around 750 CE (Annigeri 37). It has a preserved Dvarapalas on the side of the door with a visible trident-like decoration behind his head.

The Kadasiddhesvara Temple has seen better days. It is almost impossible to determine to which god or goddess the temple was dedicated. The only evidence we have is Harihara with four hands carrying an axe, a conch and cloth on the outer wall and, an image of Siva with a serpent and a trident and Parvati and Nandi on the door frame (Annigeri 40). Again, the hall has no roof and there is a Dvarapala who stands on both sides of the door. The other gods depicted around the temple are Brahma, Visnu, Ganga, Yamuna and Ardhanarisvara (Annigeri 40).

The temple of Papanatha is situated only a few yards from the river Malaprabha. It is accepted that it was constructed at around 680 CE (Annigeri 41). This temple does not reflect the advanced architecture of the Virupaksha temple and has very weird proportions. The temple is 90ft. in length but has a very short vertical structure. The improper spacing in the temple has convinced scholars that the temple was built in the early stages of the art of temple building. Contrary to that, the inscription states that the same sculptors that worked on the Virupaksha temple worked on Papanatha, so we are led to believe that the temple could not have been built more than 30-40 years before Virupaksha (Annigeri 41). The temple was not originally dedicated to Siva this time, but dedicated to Visnu or Surya. Scholars have come to his conclusion because there is a image of Surya on the west outer wall, and the image of Nandi was placed in the hall at a later date, after the temple was constructed. But there are some scholars who say that the temple was still dedicated to Siva from the start (Annigeri 42). Even though the temple is one of the oldest, it is still decorated with images of couples and gods and stories of the ages.

The Old Jain Temple, built in the 9th century CE, consists of a second shrine on top of the main shrine that houses two Jaina sculptures. The temple is very simple with a few exceptions like the makaratorana on the doorframe of the shrine door (Annigeri 47). There is a single inscription on a pillar that tells the story of how Jnanasivacharya came from his home in the north of India to live in the Sangamesvara temple. This illustrates the religious ties between North India and Karnataka during the period of the Calukyas of Badami (Annigeri 48).

The temples at Pattadakal, depict a wide assortment of deities in the Hindu pantheon. The site at Pattadakal shows a great amount of history in its walls and tells a great story that has been solidified with the hard work of the architects and sculptors that made the temples possible. The combination of the Dravidian and the Nagara style of architecture is distinctive. Present generations can view the style advancements in temple building as they developed from the oldest temple to the newest. In 1987, Pattadakal was included in the list of World Heritage Sites. Today, for a small entrance fee, an individual can enter the grounds of the temples to look around or to give worship to the deities. The temples have become a very popular tourist destination.



Annigeri, A. (1961) A Guide to the Pattadakal Temples. Dharwad: Kannada Research Institute.

Bolar, Varija (2010) Temples of Karnataka: An Epigraphical Study (from the earliest to 1050 A.D.). New Delhi: Roadworthy Publications (P) Ltd.

Dallapiccola, Anna (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kadambi, Hemanth (2015) “Cathleen Cummings, “Decoding a Hindu Temple: Royalty and Religion in the Iconographic Program of the Virupaksha Temple”, Pattadakal”. South Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No.2: 266-268.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The caves of Badami

Temples of Aihole

The Calukyas of Badami

Temples at Mahakuta


Websites Related to the Temples of Pattadakal


Article written by: Rebecca Scott (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.


Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).


Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).


Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.



The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).


Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).



Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.


Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals


Related Websites

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Kanchipuram (City of a Thousand Temples)

The city of Kanchipuram is located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the banks of the Vegavathi River, thirty-one miles from the city of Madras (Schellinger 435). It is known as Siva Visnu Kanchi, or simply as Kanchi (Schellinger 435). In the Hindu culture, there are seven cities that are held as sacred, Kanchipuram being one of them. Although the city has earned the name “The City of a Thousand Temples,” it does not actually have a thousand temples located within the city. The city does however have a sizeable amount of religious sites and monuments that are used for worship. Centuries of Indian history can be seen when one travels to this holy city. Kanchipuram was established by the Pallava Dynasty and was named the capital of their empire (Schellinger 435).  After the reign of the Pallava Dynasty the history of this city is very vague. It was controlled by many other dynasties none of which lasted any substantial amount of years.

During the reign of Asoka (who was an adamant supporter of Buddhism and actively worked to spread the religion throughout India), the city fell under the control of his empire and had Buddhist stupas built within it. Records of various pilgrimages suggest that the Buddha himself may have visited Kanchipuram, which explains the flourishing of the Buddhist tradition within the city, however, there are many other reasons for the city’s popularity that are based on fact and not on religious speculation. The first king to rule over Kanchipuram was Sivaskandavarman, who ruled in the middle of the third century BCE (Schellinger 436). His status as the first king of Kanchipuram has been disputed, though there is a certain mythological story of how a man named Virakurcha married the daughter of a naga (a serpentine type creature) and became the first king of the Pallava Dynasty (Schellinger 435). This story is purely mythological but still raises the question about Sivaskandavarman really being the first king. During the Pallava Dynasty, temple building in India turned from using wood as a primary source for building temples, to stone, a material that is much stronger and adds greater strength to the structure – this is why the temples in Kanchipuram have withstood weathering for centuries (Schellinger 437). Education grew during the Pallava Dynasty, particularly in the religious studies of Buddhism and Hinduism; Kanchipuram now has several colleges affiliated with the University of Madras (Schellinger 438). Over the centuries temples dedicated to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have been constructed by the followers of these religions (Schellinger 436). The fame Kanchipuram has gained as a holy city is undoubtedly due to the fact that it has been the site for visits from great spiritual teachers and the many magnificent temples that have been constructed to various gods and goddesses. Another factor is the religious teachings and enhanced sense of spirituality that one gains from venturing into the city, which is a major factor in the pilgrimages that the people of India make to Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram has some of India’s most beautiful temples; one such temple is the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple. The emperor Rajasimha of the Pallava Dynasty is credited with commissioning the temples’ construction from 685 to 705 CE and dedicating it to the God Siva (Hudson 50), although there are other gods for whom the temple is also dedicated. It is the oldest temple in Kanchipuram and is famous for its architecture. An example of the famed architecture is one of the depictions of the god Siva carved into the temple as a begging ascetic on the south wall (Hudson 51), other carvings accompany this one and tell various stories that relate to Siva. This great temple was built in the 8th century by the architect Rajasimha and his son Mehendra (Dobbie 111), and is surrounded by smaller shrines. It is dedicated to the gods Visnu, Siva, Devi, Surya, Ganapathi and Kartikey, and its name means “Lord of the Cosmic Mountain” (Narasimha 96).  Another temple situated in the northern part of Kanchipuram is Ekambareswarar, which is the largest temple in the city and one of the main tourist attractions. It is dedicated to the god Siva; the temple is one of five major monuments built specifically to worship the god, each temple representing a different element (Ninan 132).  The legend behind this temple and one of the main reasons for its popularity is the story of Parvati. The legend states that Parvati, who was a companion of Siva, was praying underneath the temple’s mango tree, In order to test her faith and dedication, Siva set her on fire. Even while on fire, Parvati continued to pray and passed Siva’s test. She then constructed a Siva Linga (a mark used to worship Siva) out of sand to unite herself with Siva and the god came to be known as Ekambareswarar or “Lord of the Mango Trees” (Ayyar 71-72). There are many other legends pertaining to how this temple became one of the most revered places to worship Siva and a place of peace and spirituality but this is just one such example.

The Vaikuntha Perumal is the second imperial city built by Nandivarman II Pallavamalla, who was one of the emperors of the Pallava Dynasty (Hudson 52). It has many architectural marvels such as the massive vimana or towered sanctuary that rises above the temple and is said to be the place that the god of the temple dwells (Hudson 52). This structure has carvings depicting the establishment and history of the Pallava Dynasty, from its founding to the construction of the Vaikuntha Perumal (Hudson 52). Inside, a huge carving of Visnu is depicted as a god king and is facing west. On the outside of the temple there are three other sculptures facing the remaining cardinal directions (Hudson 53).

Rituals and ceremonies are a part of daily life in Kanchipuram. Various temples, sometimes share the same rituals. For example, a ritual performed at the Ekamra temple is also performed at the Varadaraja temple. The ceremony features priests of the temple making offerings to Varadaraja five times a day (Hudson 58). Yet, before the offerings are made, the Brahmins (priests) must summon Visnu’s presence within the temple through the uttering of mantras (Hudson 58). This praying to Visnu essentially wakes up the god and sets into motion all other rituals that are to take place that day. Along with the daily rituals and ceremonies are festivals that take place throughout the year. Festivals are conducted according to solstices and equinoxes. They are timed to coordinate with a day in the life of a god, where the winter solstice is the sunrise and the summer solstice is the sunset (Hudson 60). The year is also divided into different sections of months in which various festivals are to be performed. The beginning of the year, January, is a time to be thankful for the sun and a time to renew friendships (Hudson 61). The end of a year is called Margali and is from December to January and is the time of the year for meditation at the temples of Kanchipuram and reflection on the new knowledge one has gained throughout the year (Hudson 62).

Kanchipuram silk weavers are credited with producing the finest saris not just in South East Asia but also in the entire world. One factor that sets Kanchi saris above other saris is the silk that these garments are made from. Hand-woven, they are designed for auspiciousness. This means that the saris are meant to bring good fortune and happiness to the women who wear them and is directly related to the auspiciousness of events and persons the wearer may encounter (Kawlra 62); this quality of the saris gives them a religious appeal to their buyers. Also considered a part of the stages of life for women, various designs and patterns of the cloth can indicate the women’s different statuses – for instance, whether or not they are married (Kwalra 62). The makers of the clothing are called Padma Saliyars, and along with being skillfully trained in the art of weaving, they also have to have great knowledge of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. The weavers also conduct their lives and work with good practice so as to heighten their own auspiciousness and allow them to transfer this into their weaving (Kwalra 64). The weavers of raasi saris consult constellations in an effort to remain in accordance with the cosmos and avoid inauspiciousness. Failure to avoid weaving during certain times of the year is said to result in “bad luck” for anybody involved in its selling, weaving or even wearing (Kwalra 64). The shop that produces the saris is regarded as an auspicious shop and purchases made there have to follow an almost ritualistic transaction. This means that when a customer purchases from the shop the sari has to be exchanged in front of the shop deity and wrapped in white cloth to ensure purity and auspiciousness (Kwalra 65). This concept of auspiciousness is not a factual reason for the saris’ high value; a more concrete reason is likely the quality of the product and its importance in religious rituals and wedding ceremonies that take place within the city.

The city of Kanchipuram is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and spiritual cities in India. Its history is permeated in mythology and mysticism and can inspire a sense of wonder in the visitor or researcher. The large number of temples offers an interesting view into the Hindu religion and its practices. They have been the sites of many pilgrimages for the ascetic traveler and the aspiring scholar. Famous religious figures have been said to have traveled to the city and worshipped there. This has added to the fame of Kanchipuram, as well as its revered status as a “sacred city.” Depictions of various gods and the beautiful architecture of the city shed light on a not-so-distant Hindu past that has influenced many religious followers. The rituals and ceremonies that are daily occurrences in Kanchipuram give the city a sacred appeal to the outsider. Along with a very prominent religious appeal, some of the residents profit from the production of the city’s famed saris and offer potential auspiciousness for the person that owns one. Kanchipuram will undoubtedly remain a place where worship and spiritual teaching of the Hindu religion can occur and will hold its place as one of the most sacred cities in India.
References and Further Recommended Reading

Ayyar P.V. Jagadisa (1993) South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Dobbie, Aline (2006) India: The Elephants Blessing. Cambridgeshire: Melrose Book Press Limited.

Gopal, Madan (1990) India through the ages. K.S. Gautam, (ed). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Hudson, D. Dennis, and Stratton Hawley John (2010) Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kawlra, Aarti (2005) Kanchipuram Sari: Design for Auspiciousness. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Narasimha Rao, P.V.L (2008) Kanchipuram: Land of Legends, Saints and Temples. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications.

Ninan, M.M. (2008) The Development of Hinduism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Padman, Kaimal (2005) Learning to See the Goddess Once Again: Male and Female in Balance at the Kailāsanāth Temple in Kāñcīpuram. Oxford University Press

Schellinger, Paul E (1996) International dictionary of historic places: Asia and Oceania. Singapore: Toppan Co.


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Article Written By: Josh Prefontaine (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Culture in Banaras

Banaras is known as one of the oldest, and most sacred holy cities in the world. Most scholars date Banaras to be approximately three thousand years old, while others have dated important structures in Banaras to the eight century BC (Justice 15). This holy city is most widely known as Banaras, but has many names representing its different cultural aspects. The oldest name is Kashi, which is most commonly said to be a derivation from the Sanskrit root kash, “to shine, to look brilliant, or beautiful” (Eck 26). Banaras is also known as the City of Light, which has many different connotations, one of which is that the light implies enlightenment, for it is said that to die in Banaras is to attain enlightenment or liberation. Another name, which is said to be the official name by its residents, is Varanasi, which comes from the names of the two rivers that flow by it. From this name came the Pali version, Banarasi, which eventually became anglicized as Banaras or Benares in British and Muslim India (Eck 26).

Geographically, Banaras only occupies a strip of land along the banks of the Ganges approximately three miles long, but has millions visiting the holy site annually, making it an extremely densely populated area. It is situated on the west side of the Ganges where the Varana (on the north) and Asi (on the south) rivers join. The river flows north to south at this location, back towards its source in the Himalayas, placing Banaras in a very auspicious location. Banaras’ location near the Ganges also makes it an incredibly beautiful site, especially while the sun rises over the river at dawn. It was this incredible beauty that captivated Siva’s imagination and drew him to Banaras to make it his home (Eck 95). Other relations the city has to Siva is that the area is roughly shaped like the crescent moon that is placed over Siva’s head, and in the cosmological frame the city lies on the Trident of Siva [On the cosmological frame, see Singh and Rana (2002)].

While many famous cities around the world are known for their incredible architecture, Banaras is not what you would call architecturally interesting with its narrow lanes and dilapidated buildings. To most observers the most attractive buildings are the few palaces that were built by past princes. During the Ganges’ flooding season the basements of these palaces are flooded and many pilgrims will come there to bathe in the Ganges’ water before death. There are eighty-four ghats (stairs leading into the water) in Banaras forming a symbolic chain of holy sites (Singh and Rana 85). Some of the more popular ghats include Asi, Dasasvamedha, Adi Kesava, Pancaganga, and Manikarnika that are visited during the Pancatirthi pilgrimage to the “Five Tirthas”, or five crossing places (Eck 220). Manikarnika is one of the more visited ghats in Banaras, placed at the center of the city’s riverfront. In Banaras it is said that Manikarnika is the place of the earth’s creation and destruction, hence this ghat is used for cremation and to perform the proper death rituals and thus attain moksa [For more on cremation ghats, see Parry (1994)]. Besides ghats, there are also thousands of Hindu temples, and innumerable smaller shrines, nearly all dedicated to Siva, while the others are dedicated to family deities (kula-devatas) or personal deities (ista-devatas) (Eck 94). Along with the multiple Hindu temples, you can also find many Muslim mosques. While the majority of the population of Banaras is Hindu, it is a multicultural and multireligious city with a small percentage of its population being Muslim.

Another title that Banaras has come to achieve is “Rudravasa: The City of Siva” (Eck 31). The worship of Siva is predominant in Banaras culture. Siva has been the principal deity of Banaras since the first half of the seventh century, most likely earlier, but also shares the city with the whole pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses (Eck 146). It is a belief to many who live in Banaras that the Divine, or the pantheon of gods, can be visualized in Siva (Eck 41). Similarly, the sacred river, the Ganges, can be visualized as a “prototype for other sacred waters,” and Banaras can be seen as encompassing all other pilgrimage places in India (Eck 40). Many making a pilgrimage to Banaras are on the verge of death because there is a belief that if they die in the city they will undergo a final release and union with Shiva (Lannoy 143). It is here that they will be liberated from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and attain moksa.

Hindus believe there are three fundamental states of the cosmos, each represented or controlled by a god, forming a sort of Trinity known as the Trimurti (Singh and Rana 61). Brahma is “the creator”, Visnu is “the preserver”, while Siva is “the destroyer” (Singh and Rana 61). Siva being seen as this element of death or endings fits accordingly with the idea of Banaras being a place of death. It is a place to move out of the human realm and leave one’s physical body. Pilgrims at Banaras believe that Siva is Mahadeva, the great god, or Isvara, the Self, and he represents all the powers of the Trimurti (Havell 39).

Siva is almost always connected with the tradition of yoga, and is represented and associated with phallic worship in the form of a linga (Lannoy 139). As one enters into Banaras, a first observance would be the multitude of lingas in the city found under and around every corner. It is a common saying among the residents of Banaras that “The very stones of Kashi are Siva” (Eck 110). A linga, meaning “phallus” and “emblem”, is a rounded vertical shaft of stone implanted in a circular base (Eck 103). This is a symbol of Siva’s reproductive and creative power. One may point out that the linga is also a way for Siva to be represented in bisexual form, with the erect shaft representing the male Siva, and the seat in which it is placed personifying the female half of Siva known as Sakti. While Banaras is most well known for being a place of pilgrimage and worship of Siva, it is also a place of education and art industry.

Banaras is home to three universities with one of them being a Sanskrit university. At any one time in the city you may also find many researchers among the pilgrims studying the culture and the “microcosm” that Banaras is (Justice 19). Indian life, customs, and popular beliefs are what some would say strained and concentrated in this city, making it a popular place for anyone studying anthropology, language (especially Sanskrit), or religious studies. Some famous sages, such as the Buddha, Mahavir, and Sankara, have come to Banaras to teach as well (Eck 4). Besides the educational aspect of the city, there is also a strong art industry found in Banaras. The city is well known for the weaving of silks, brocades, and saris, as well as metal work. The manufacturing of brass and copper idols, lamps, sacrificial utensils, and all sorts of native cooking drinking vessels, is a popular art form in the city (Havell 49-50).

Festivals and performances in the city are another prominent part of the culture in Banaras as well as an attracting force for visitors. Nearly every day in Banaras some kind of festival is taking place (whether it is Hindu or Muslim), with some of them lasting longer than one day. Many of the rituals and ceremonies (daily and seasonal, individual and public) have remained outwardly similar for the nearly three thousand years Banaras has said to be in existence (Lannoy 27). Nearly all the fairs and festivals in Banaras are religious with different cultural and social perspectives. The festivals serve as a means to gather for rejoicing, public worship, and cultural interaction. It is through these festivals that Hindus and other religious sects in the city have grown together just by attending each other’s popular religious festivals. The festivals also serve as a growth of community within their own religion as the role of the srota (hearer) in these festivities is more active than passive (Freitag 37). Popular forms of festivals are katha (oral explanation of a story) and Vedic chanting mainly organized and put on by the Banaras Sanskrit University [For further reading on Manaskatha festivals, see Freitag (1989)].

The yearly cycle in Hindu is divided into 12 months, similar, but not the same as the months known in the West. Each year will begin in the middle of the month, for example, Chaitra is the month beginning in the middle of March, and ending in the middle of April (Eck 258). As well, an extra month is added into the Hindu calendar whenever it is needed to match the solar calendar. During the month of Sravana (July/August), as well as Mondays, is when there is a special focus on Siva; hence it is a spectacular time in Banaras (Eck 262). For each month a specific holy city is mythologized as the sacred abode, or puri, where festivals and religious ceremonies are to be performed. In Banaras, all the puris are established making the city known as the “city of all seasons” (Singh and Rana 68). While many festivals are held annually in Banaras, the more popular festivals are Divali (Festival of Lights), Ram Lila, Sivaratri, Holi, and the Nakkatayya festivals [For a list of all Hindu festivals, and explanations of many, see Singh and Rana (2002)]. During many of these festivals there are retelling of the epics (the Ramayana and Mahabharata), or reenactments of parts of the stories such as during the Rama Lila and Nakkatayya. These festivals are celebrated in Asvina (September/October), and they reenact different parts of the story of the Ramayana. Other festivals are mainly ceremonial where the major component is bathing in the Ganges River. The largest bathing festival is Karttika Purnima, which is celebrated in October/November (Karttika). Other smaller ceremonies take place in the Ganges for couples who are recently married, celebrating anniversaries, anyone who has recovered from an illness, or many other reasons (Havell 59). Many of the festivals include grand decorations and offerings. Sivaratri, celebrated in February/March (Phalguna), is a festival celebrating the marriage of Siva to Parvati. All of Siva’s temples are majestically decorated in sringara and celebrations are held where Ganges water and red powder is sprinkled on the Siva linga. The Divali festival, or festival of lamps and lights, is another that greatly relies on the use of decorations. Rows of oil lamps and candles are put out in the streets or on the Ganges, and clay images of Ganesa and Laksmi are sold. In festivals such as the Holi festival (also known as the Festival of Colors), offerings of flowers, dry colored powders, and sweets are given to the participants and the temples (Singh and Rana 70-77).

Culture in Banaras has remained relatively similar since its existence as far as scholars can see. This is quite an accomplishment for the holy city, as many other cities of other religious merit have become quite secularized. There is some evidence of Banaras becoming more materialistic, and although it is deemed as one of the holiest cities it does have a portion of the population who live there to attract tourists, and devout pilgrims, and make money off them. While this is true, Banaras still contains its main aspects of the worship of Siva, religious festivals, and rituals in the Ganges, and will remain a highly religion-centered culture.


Bhardwaj, Surinder M. (2003) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: a study in cultural geography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers

Eck, Diana L (1983) Banaras: city of light. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Freitag, Sandria B. (ed) (1989) Culture and power in Banaras: community, performance, and environment, 1800-1980. Berkeley: University of California Press

Havell, E. B. (2000) Benares, the sacred city: sketches of Hindu life and religion. New Delhi: Book Faith India

Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Lannoy, Richard (2002) Benares: a world within a world: the microcosm of Kashi, yesterday and today. Varanasi: Indica Books

Morinis, Alan E. (1984) Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Sen, Rajani R. (1912) The Holy City: Benares. Gurgaon, India: Shubhi Publications

Singh, Rana P.B. and Pravin S. Rana (2002) Banaras region: a spiritual & cultural guide. Varanasi, India: Indica Books

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Article written by Katie Lohues (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.