Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Kashi Yatra


Undertaken by: K. Natarajan and Hema Natrarajan
During  June  6 - 10,  2009

Report by K.Natarajan, Chennai   Ph.: 22200440


Some data are available about Kasi Yatra in the literature; mainly the internet: but, I could not get a detailed information on the subject. The available data are inadequate, because, several questions remain unanswered. A number of readers have given brief info on some aspects of the Yatra; while others have given on some other aspects. But, comprehensive information covering all essential aspects of the Yatra is not available in the literature: mainly, the net. This is perhaps because, one has to spend considerable amount of time for a detailed write-up. I have spent about ten days in collating the information based on my own travel and experience. Before emabarking on Kasi Yatra, one must be familiar with terms like: Triveni Sangam, Manikarnika Ghats, Veni Daan, Akshaya Vada, Vishnu Paad, Gaya Shrardham, Ganga Aarti, Kasi Vishwanath, Annapoorna, etc. I hope this write-up would be useful to the pilgrims who contemplate  Kasi Yatra in the near future.

Why Kasi Yatra?
Several Hindus talk of embarking on Kasi Yatra when they get old. The Hindus believe that Kasi Yatra constitutes the final journey of life. As one becomes aware that he is getting old, he  comes to terms with the process of  life and death. One seeks salvation despite the sins he has committed knowingly or unknowingly all through his life. Kasi may provide a path to Moksha notwithstanding the present and past Karmas: notwithstanding the present and past sins. Kasi provides one last hope for salvation. This is the Hindu belief. Also Kasi Yatra includes trip to Gaya and Prayaag (Allahabad). You feed the hungry ancestors waiting anxiously at Gaya: for you to offer food to them in the form of pindams. The satisfied ancestors bless you with good health, wealth and happiness. They will bless you with all best things on Earth that you have desired. Kasi is the place for liberation as well, apart from salvation. Liberation from what?: Liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Having experienced misery several times in life, no sane person wants to be born again and again in this world? During the ancient days, old people used to embark on Kasi Yatra, walking all the way to Kasi from deep down South, just to die in Kasi. They used to walk through forests and mountainous terrains.  Many died on the way. Nevertheless Moksha is assured. Those days, if one goes on Kasi Yatra, he or she will never be seen any time in future. Because, we never had high-speed transportation system or infrastructure to support such travel. The Yatra was invariably by walk.

These days, many people don’t have a good idea regarding what exactly constitutes Kasi Yatra. Some people think that a Kasi Yatra simply means a trip to Kasi and a dip in the River Ganga. This is not true. Some others, who have heard of the trips to places such as Kasi, Gaya, Prayaag, etc. in connection with Kasi Yatra, are aware of the rites or Samskaras, But, they think that it may be a very expensive process. This is also not true. Kasi Yatra with your partner (wife or husband) need not be very expensive: it can actually be quite affordable. Note that, in order to carry out ceremonies like Shrardham, one must be accompanied by his wife: since, both husband and wife are involved in most of the ceremonies. It is better not to take children with us.

The main purpose of our trip has been to carry out the rituals related to Kasi Yatra: not site-seeing. These include prayers at Temples like Viswanath, Visalakshi, etc. Someone told me that there are at least a thousand temples at Kasi: so, it is called the City of Temples. There are a hundred major Temples. The Kasi Yatra also includes trips to Gaya and Prayag (Allahabad). A dip in Ganges and Triveni Sangam and prayers at Viswanath and Visalakshi Temples will help cleanse our sins and facilitate Moksha. Performing  Shrardham at Gaya will give us the best opportunity to receive the blessings of our ancestors, who will be too pleased to bless us after we offer the pindams. At Kasi, we may also perform Ganga Pooja and Dampati Pooja.

The best age for embarking on  Kasi Yatra is between 55 to 65 years. Because, by that age people normally finish all their responsibilities / commitments to the family. Further, after 65 years, one may not be physically fit to withstand the rigors of the trips to various places; not to mention the highly-involved  ceremonies. Further, one needs some mental make-up in terms of renunciation, maturity, spiritual outlook, etc. which are not possible when you are too young. As one grows old, he gets mellowed down in matters relating to materialism. This kind of mind-set is appropriate for Kasi Yatra.  Like I have mentioned before, please do not take your children during Kasi Yatra. It is inauspicious to witness things like Akshaya Vata and Vishnu Paada when the parents are alive. Besides, Kasi Yatra is not precisely a pleasure trip for fun.

In this write-up, I have given a brief description of the three places involved: Kasi, Prayaag and Gaya. In summer, it is very hot in all these places: temperature goes up to 45 deg. C. So, please avoid peak of summer. Also, winter will be very cold. So, bathing in the rivers will be difficult. Hence, it is a good idea to choose a proper time for Kasi Yatra.

About Benaras

Since Kasi Yatra mainly refers to Kasi, I consider it necessary to tell you all something about Kasi or Benaras, which is referred to as Varanasi in the Railway Guides, Air Maps, and for all official purposes. Clearly, there are three names pertaining to the same place: Kasi, Benaras and Varanasi: So, I am a bit confused regarding the name by which I am supposed to talk about this place. This confusion comes because: the pilgrimage to this city is Kasi Yatra; the major University here is Benaras Hindu University; the official name is Varanasi. Anyway, I will use all these three names in this write-up, depending on the situation and purpose. For instance, no one says it is Varanasi Yatra; but it is always Varanasi Airport; and Benaras Hindu University. Varanasi is derived from Varuna plus Assi, the two rivers. Varanasi is situated between the confluence of the rivers, Varuna and Assi with the Ganges. There is mention of Kasi in Rig Veda, Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. So, the city is certainly very old: perhaps, older than 3,000 years. Clearly, Benaras is one of the oldest civilizations of the world. No wonder, Mark Twain had described Benaras as older than history and older than tradition. More than 30 lakh people live here; a very populated and crowded place indeed. I have heard of this city in connection with:  pilgrimage (Kasi Yatra), silk sarees (Benares silk), Kasi Vishwanath Temple, etc. I also know that Kasi has been a major Center of Learning for Vedic studies for three thousand years. Some important Universities have been established here during ancient times: one being Taxila. Well known poets or scholars like Kabir, Tulsi Das, Pundit Ravi Shankar, Bismilla Khan, etc. have lived here. Adi Shankara wrote his commentaries on Hinduism here, leading to the great Hindu revival.  Vaishnavism, Shaivism as well as Shakta Sect have coexisted in Kasi harmoniously for hundreds of years.

Nearly 20 years back, my sister who has been working in the Benaras Hindu University (BHU), has said that Benaras is not very clean; and that Ganges is actually very dirty. Even now, Ganges is far from clean; despite the crores of Rupees spent under Clean Ganga Project of the Govt. of India. The boatman told me that the money allocated for the Project has not been effectively spent; and that some people may have actually swindled considerable part of the budget.

Benaras is a highly crowded city. It is full of lanes. Lanes and lanes, everywhere. As if these are not enough, there are also sub-lanes along the lanes. You will see cows and cattle blocking the lanes. These cows generally allow no more than one-foot-space for us to get through them. No, they will never hurt you. Still, one is always skeptical while walking through them. Also, you will have to be careful while crossing the gallis (lanes); lest you skid as you walk on the cow-dung. Regarding neatness, cleanliness etc., less said, the better. Note that, in order to get to the Ganges and various Ghats, you should necessarily walk through these gallis; or galli-gallis: I mean sublanes. Most of the Mutts or Halls where religious ceremonies are held are along these gallis; so no escape from these. I had already read about them in one of the issues of Mangaiyar Malar, the Tamil Magazine; so, I was mentally prepared for this kind of experience. Therefore, what I saw was something very similar to what I had visualised in my mind about Benaras; except that I did not bargain for gallis within the gallis; this is something too much for me. Within these lanes, you have various shops; selling nice things: lassis, cool drinks, sweets, etc. There are some shops next to the public toilets. Yet, people eat happily as if they live in a very different world notwithstanding the stink from the toilets. Apparently, the fine smell of the hot-hot delicacies has overpowered the stink from the toilets which are just a few feet apart. The old city is highly congested and polluted; so, the affluent section of the present population has moved to the suburbs with better facilities. However, all the ancient Temples are situated in the old city: generally, along the Ganga River.

In this connection, I want to caution the readers about one thing. When you want to visit Kasi for pilgrimage, just don’t bother about things like cleanliness. Be a part of the crowd. Be a team player. You will actually feel nice that way. Even if you live in a star hotel, you still have to come to one of these ancient houses or Mutts for ceremonies. That is why, we actually decided to stay in one an a/c hotels just opposite one of those religious joints in a lane. This is not the ultimate-quality hotel; but would serve our purpose. Indeed, several VIPs have carried out the religious ceremonies from this house owned by Shri Krishnamoorthy Ganapadigal. Nadigar Thilagam Shivaji Ganesan and his family, for instance; Shri Radha Ravi being another visitor. I was gaping at the huge photo of Shivaji in his house for several minutes. I was told that Radha Ravi was also constantly looking at this very photo for a long time. The way Shivaji was standing with folded hands in front of the Ganapadigal with absolute humility and piety is impressive. Anyone will get that feeling. The Ganapadigal said that Benaras is bursting at the seams; because, a city basically designed for just 5,000 people several hundred years back, is now catering to a crowd of 50 lakhs. (I checked up the population data later; it appears that the actual population is around 31 lakhs as on 2001). What else can you expect from such a situation? Nevertheless, thousands and thousands of people keep pushing each other as they walk to the Ganges or as they have a dip in the Holy River. The thought of attaining Moksha is too overpowering and tempting in relation to the cleanliness of the river or inconvenience due to excessive crowd. If you expect clean, crystal - clear water in the Ganges, you are asking for the Moon. The water is muddy; dead bodies are dipped into the Ganges just very close to your bathing spot; I have seen, even sewage water flowing into the Ganges. Yet, the water is fairly acceptable for a bath. Indeed, we enjoyed bathing in the Ganges; we refused to come out of water; but for the need to do ceremonies. The Priest told me that Maha Shivratri is the most famous festival in Kasi, when the devotees take bath in the Ganges and pray Lord Vishwanath. Very large number of people visit Kasi at that time.
About Prayaag (Allahabad)
Though Prayag has been in existence for ages, the name Allahabad was given by the  Mughal emperor, Akbar. Allahabad or Prayag is also called the "Tirth Raj", the king of all pilgrimage centers. There are many references to Prayag in the Epics, Vedas and Puranas. Allahabad is situated at the confluence of the three rivers: Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati  (a mythical river which is not visible). The place where Ganga and Yamuna meet is called Sangam (union): the venue of many sacred fairs and rituals: the place that attracts thousands of pilgrims throughout the year. The most important event at Prayag is the Kumbha Mela. Millions of people from all over India gather at Prayag to take a holy dip at Sangam. People also go to Prayaag for the annual Magha Mela, which is also holy. We took a car to Allahabad, which is about 2 1/2 hours drive from Kasi. After completing all the rituals at Prayaag, we got back to Benaras the same day. Indeed, we had enough time in the evening to visit a few places, as well as to witness Ganga Aarti.
About Gaya

Gaya is situated on the banks of Phalgu (or Phalguni) river in the State of Bihar. Gaya was a part of the ancient Province of Magadha, and is a sacred city not only for the Hindus, but also for the Budhists. Gaya derives its name from the demon, Gayasur (Gaya plus Asur, the demon). Lord Vishnu killed the demon by placing his foot on him. The foot-print of Vishnu was left in Gaya. The demon got transformed to a series of rocks and hills around Gaya. The whole city has become holy and blessed by Mahavishnu. That is why lakhs of people visit Gaya to perform Shraddha to absolve the sins of the ancestors. The pleased and satisfied ancestors bless us with good health and wealth: not only for us; but also for the entire family. Gods and Goddesses have promised to live on Gayasur’s body, which is present everywhere in Gaya. There are various Ghats and Temples along the Falgu (Phalgu) River. There are also a few Temples on hill-tops: such as: Rama Shila, Mangla Gauri, Shringa Sthan and Brahmayoni. These Temples are generally part of the pilgrimage circuit. Elaborate staircases have been built in most of them, when there is an ascent. I did not have time to visit most of them, though. In this region, trees such as Pipal and Akshaya Vat (the banyan tree that does not die) are popular and considered holy. The Mangla Gauri shrine has two round stones representing Goddess Sati, the consort of Lord Shiva. The most important Temple however, is Vishnu Paad Temple along the Phalgu River. Vishnu Paad or Foot is very holy, because the Holy Foot has annihilated the demon. You should place the pindas; wash them; and then place your head on the Holy Foot to attain Moksha. We went to Gaya by car and returned to Benaras by the same car, which was arranged by our Pundit Ganapaadigal. There is no need to book a hotel at Gaya. We started from Benaras at 2 AM and reached Gaya at 7 AM. After completing the rituals at Gaya, we started from Gaya at 1 PM and reached Benaras by 6 PM. We had enough time in the evening to visit some temples in Kasi.

Tour Schemes and Options

There are various schemes available from the Tour Operators suiting your budget. There are a number of methods of embarking on Kasi Yatra. My wife and self have chosen a somewhat costly method in view of my time limitations (I still continue to work; I am 62 plus): I have the need to complete the whole Yatra and important rituals in 5 days. I have problem of leave. So, I have decided to fly wherever possible along with my wife. Chennai-Benaras – Chennai; via Delhi, where there is a stop-over for one to four hours depending on the flight. But, even this is not too expensive. It is a good idea to carry with you some bread and snacks to eat in places like airport during the waiting periods; or even inside the plane. The present day flights may or may not provide food onboard. Besides, after performing Shrardham, one is not supposed to eat all kinds of food offered in the airlines during the return trip.

There are a number of Tour Operators all over India. There are a few at Chennai too; for instance, there is one at T.Nagar who regularly advertises in the local magazines giving details of the programmes as well as amount involved. The budget varies between Rs. 6,000 to 10,000 depending on the services provided. We went through a Service Provider, Mr. Vaideeswaran, who has an office at Spencer Plaza, Chennai. For myself and my wife, he has designed a specific programme by arranging appropriate flights, so that we could complete the whole programme in 4 days; that too within the budget that we had in mind. For us, time was at premium. I find Mr. Vaideeswaran a very cordial, friendly and reasonable person. He has provided us quality service and has been in touch with us even while we were at Kasi, Gaya or Allahabad. Wherever we went, someone was there to receive us. The coordination was near-perfect. Whenever we had some problems: minor, though: he sorted them out through his representatives at various places. I will be happy to give his address on request.

There are various tour – programmess, generally, extending to a period of 10 to 15 days, organized by tour operators using modes such as trains, vans or cars. Such programmes may cost less. Some service providers offer very cost-effective programs when you go in groups; they may provide group accommodation in modest places.

There is a difference of opinion regarding the sequence of visits to varied places. Some say, you should visit Triveni first; others say, Benaras. I went through the literature on the subject; there is no conclusive advice in such matters. Also, the problem of flight availability, landing spot, connecting flight etc. will impose further restraints on your programs. So, we decided to have our programs as follows: Chennai – Benaras – Prayag (Allahabad) – Benaras – Gaya – Bodh Gaya – Benaras – Chennai. For people residing at Chennai, this is the best bet; in case you want to fly.

The Indian Railways operate a popular ten-day Tour Programme from Chennai by means of Ganga-Kavery Express. Most of the pilgrims may find this method convenient and suitable. Even for such programmes, I feel, it is better to engage a professional  coordinator or tour advisor. It will make immense sense; and is also cost effective. Mr. Vaideeswaran, our Service Provider, also coordinates with the Railways and others to facilitate such tours.  Please note that irrespective of the type of the tour programme, mode of travel, number of days, and itinerary, the  charges may not include the expenses required for performing religious rites or rituals; which  may be around Rs. 10000 to 20000 depending on what you intend to do.  The amount required for daan depends entirely on your generosity. If you are aware of this, you won’t have any problem with your Tour Operators.

A typical itinerary for the Indian Railways Kasi Yatra is as follows: (Tariff:  Economy: Rs. 6650 per person (twin sharing);  Standard: Rs. 9200 (twin sharing)):

  • Day 1: Monday: Dep from Chennai Central by 2669, Ganga Kaveri Express at 17:30 hrs
  • Day 2: Tuesday: Train journey
  • Day 3: Wednesday: Arrival Allahabad at 03:50 hrs. Check-in for Wash and fresh up in Dharamshala. Visit to Triveni Sangamam for bathing. Darshan of  Anjaneya. After lunch, visit Anand Bhavanand and reach Ayodhya at 20.00 hrs. Overnight stay in Ayodhya
  • Day 4: Thursday: Bath in river Sarayu and visit Valmiki Bhavan, Ram Janam Bhoomi,  Kanak Bhavan and Hanuman Temple. After lunch check out from hotel at Ayodhya and Proceed to Varanasi (220 kms). On arrival, get to your hotel and stay overnight at Varanasi.
  • Day 5: Friday: Bathe in river Ganga. Perform rituals to ancestors. Visit Kasi Viswanath Temple, Visalakshi Temple and Annapoorani Temple. After lunch and rest, visit Ganga Aarathi in the evening. Stay overnight at Varanasi
  • Day 6: Friday: After breakfast, check-out hotel from Varanasi, proceed to Gaya. Visit Kal Bairav Temple enroute and arrive at Gaya. Proceed to Buddha Gaya and visit Main Temple and Monasteries of various countries. Check into hotel at Gaya and stay overnight.
  • Day 7: Sunday: Perform rituals for ancestors and visit Vishnu Pad Temple. After lunch, check-out from hotel at Gaya and proceed to Varanasi. Check into hotel at Varanasi and stay overnight.
  • Day 8: Monday: Enjoy Boat ride in river Ganga  in the morning. After lunch, check out from Hotel and visit  Banaras Hindu Uiversity, Birla Temple, Sankat Mochan Mandir, Thulasi Manas Mandir, Gaudi Bai Mandir and Saranath temple. Proceed to Varanasi Railway station to board Train no. 2670, Ganga Kaveri Express: Dep. at 20:25 hrs.
  • Day 9: Tuesday: Train journey
  • Day 10: Wednesday: Arrive Chennai Central Railway station at 09:50 hrs.

Like I have pointed out before, my own programme has been short and sweet, but hectic. The Chennai-Varanasi-Chennai travel has been by air via Delhi (stopover). The whole programme was over in four days; but this will kept us very busy every moment from take-off to landing. There have been a series of programmes; never a dull moment. In such high-density programmes, one should have the capacity to withstand the rigorous time schedule as well as the rigors of the rituals and successive visits to the temples. However, most of the important activities (rituals, ghats, and temples) have been covered albeit in an intensive  way. I recommend that the readers take 6 sets of inner garments. You won’t have time to wash them, anywhere. Take four sets of dhotis as well as  angavastarams. The ladies should take four sets of 9 yards sarees. Also take a few towels and hand-kerchiefs. It is a good idea to take elementary medicines like antacids, paracetamol, multivitamin tablets, etc. Also, learn to wear the Panchkatchan Dhoti or Madissar Pudavai (for ladies): you may not get help in such matters at Kasi, Prayaag, Gaya etc. My itinerary is as follows: (Total fare: Rs. 18,496 per head):

Day 1:

Dep. Chennai:  June , 09: IC 440: 0640 Hrs
Arrive Delhi: June , 09: 0910 Hrs.
Dep. Delhi: June , 09: IC 406: 1005 hrs.
Arrive Varanasi: June 6, 09: 1120 Hrs.
Lunch at the residence of Sh. Krishnamurthy: 1200Hrs; Tea at the same place: 1600 Hrs.
Visit Temples: Kal Bairav, Birla Mandir, etc.

Day 2:

Travel to Allahabad by car (about 2 ½ hours). Bathing in Triveni Sangam. Take water from Sangam in a can. Buy small copper containers from a shop. You may buy some 10 containers. Also buy one big container to take Ganga water for Abhishek at Rameshwaram. Give Ganga water for pouring in these containers and sealing.
Return to Kasi by 3 PM
Boating in Ganga. Visit the Ghats of Ganga
Ganga Aarti (about 2 hours): Float a lamp on the Ganges.
Visit Temples: Viswanath, Annapoorni
Go to sleep early: say by 8 to 9 PM.

Day 3:

Wake up at 1 AM. Take bath. Get ready by 2 AM. Take clothes for bathing and Shrardh.
Travel to Gaya. Dep. 2 AM. Reach Gaya by 7 AM.
Perform Gaya Shrardh
Visit Vishnu Pada Temple. Perform rituals at this Temple.
Visit Bodh Gaya enroute to Benaras.
Reach Kasi by 5-30 PM.
Visit Visalakshi Temple.

Day 4:

Rituals and Poojas at the Mutt of Shri Krishnamurthy Ganapadigal
Perform Shrardh in the Ghats: 5 times.
Concluding Pooja: Namaskarams (Pranaams): Daans
Offering of  Shrardh Lunch for the Brahmins at the residence of Ganapadigal
We may eat Shrardh Lunch thereafter.
Leave for Varanasi Airport by 1230 Hrs.
Dep.: Varanasi: June 9, 09: IC 405: 1540 Hrs.
Arrive: Delhi: 1700 Hrs.
Dep. Delhi: June 9, 09: IC 540: 2000 Hrs.
Arrive: Chennai: June 9, 09: 2235 Hrs.

Note: By the time you reach your residence at Chennai it will be past midnight. Most of the times, the airlines don’t maintain the scheduled time; invariably there are delays; you must allow for them. We almost missed the connecting flight to Varanasi from Delhi. However, we managed to get the flight because, the connecting flight to Varanasi was also late! So, one mistake corrected the other!

The best method of visiting various ancient Temples at Kasi is by means of an auto rickshaw; not car. A bigger vehicle like car cannot swiftly move through the huge crowd along the lanes. The cycle rickshaws are also used. It is a painful sight to see the cycle rickshaw pullers pedaling their ways through the lanes: a practice no more prevalent in most of the areas of Chennai. Just imaging an old man moving the rickshaw on which,  three fat ladies have been happily sitting. It is painful to see such a sight.

For visiting places like Gaya, Prayag (Allahabad) etc. from Benaras, I suggest that you go by a car. You need not book a hotel at Gaya. You need to book only one hotel for all these visits; say, at Benaras. You can move back and forth from Benaras. For a pilgrimage consisting of three nights and four days, I booked an a/c hotel at Benaras through Shri Krishnamoorthy Ganapaadigal, who was recommended by Mr. Vaideeswaran. I found this arrangement very convenient. It will take about six hours to reach Gaya from Benaras. After doing the ceremonies at Gaya, you can be back to Benaras by 6 PM. And take rest for some time in your hotel. Triveni at Allahabad is about 2 ½ hours drive from Benaras. There is a minor problem in such an arrangement, though. You need to get up at 1 AM for your trip to Gaya; and take bath in the hotel; and get into the car by 2 AM; you will reach Gaya early in the morning (by 7 AM); just in time for conducting the ceremonies. Our Ganapadigal had already arranged for someone to receive us at the site at Gaya. Everything went off with clock-work- precision vis-à-vis time-schedule. That is why I say, it is better to go through a reliable travel coordinator or advisor.

There are a number of star hotels in Benaras: most of which are away from the major Temples, Thirthas or Ghats. These hotels will provide you all luxury and comfort to be expected in such hotels. However, for rituals, you still have to travel some 15 km and come to the Ghats via the lanes. So, it becomes pointless to stay in such high class hotels. The idea of coming to Kasi is for pilgrimage; not for fun. The accent is on rites, rituals and Vedic procedures; not comfort and pleasure. However, please note that the power (current) fails too often. In this sense, a decent hotel has an advantage. Because, the hotel may have a generator. Otherwise, you may get burnt in the heat of summer. The generator allows you to switch on at least a fan, if not the a/c. Considering these points, we stayed in a modest a/c hotel just opposite the house of the Ganapaadigal, albeit in a lane! When the power failed, a fan came to our rescue. I suggest that you choose an accommodation in one of the lanes at Hanuman Ghat. I feel, it is a good idea to be with the public rather than seeking exclusive treatment in a stylish hotel. In my opinion, a good, decent, clean hotel near one of the Ghats would do. We stayed at the  Hotel Arti in Hanuman Ghat (a/c hotel). It is not very expensive by the standards of Chennai or Mumbai. It is also just opposite the House where the Vaadhyar or Pundit performed ceremonies like Sankalpam; so very convenient. We were also provided with South Indian food in the same House (Mutt), which has a decent Mess. The food is prepared by a group of Brahmins. Even if you stay in star hotels several kms apart, it is inconvenient to travel by the car in the narrow lanes where the Ghats are situated. So, staying in such hotels don’t make much sense in whatever way you look at it.

Ganga Snaan

Ganga Snaan means, bathing in the Ganges or Triveni Sangam. Ganga Snaan ensures Moksham. You can get rid of all your sins and avoid rebirth. The Ganges is highly polluted and unclean. I am generally very finicky about cleanliness; but in Kasi, I just went with the general public; and I actually felt quite comfortable; and was generally, at ease. When you see dead bodies being cremated along the Ghats, what cleanliness are we talking about? However, we realize that, after all, human body is basically a filthy unclean system; this is how one feels in Kasi. Besides, the Holy Ganges cleanses the whole body; and also our sins. I would like to mention that in spite of repeated baths in the various Ghats as well as Triveni Sangam, we never had any problem with our body or skin when we returned to Chennai. No itching! The Priest told me that the Ganges water is known to last a hundred years without getting spoiled. The water in Triveni appears to be cleaner. It is a pleasure to take bath at the Triveni Sangam. There is considerable force exerted on you by the rivers. So, you should hold on to one of the poles erected at the Sangam. There is also a rope at which you can place your feet for security. The platform, the pole and the rope provides enough security for a safe bath. The platform is placed in a region where the depth of water is not too much: say, 3 to 4 feet. During the days of flood, I am told, people don’t take bath at the interior region; but on the steps near the banks. You should dip into the Ganges or Sangam nine times, with your head fully immersed in water as you chant: Om Namakshivaya.  At Sangam, don’t forget to immerse the Holy Sand brought from Agni Theerth, Rameshwaram. Also, you should immerse a few strands of your wife’s hair at Sangam, constituting Veni Daanam. I have discussed about this separately in another Section.

The Ghats of the Ganges

I am told that there are around 100 Ghats along the Ganga River; but from the point of pilgrimage and / or bathing, five Ghats are very popular: Dasaswamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Harischandra Ghat, Panch Ganga and Assi Ghat. In a few Ghats like Harishchandra and Manikarnika, we noticed that a large number of dead bodies are cremated after dipping them in the Ganges; yes, the dead bodies are dipped on one side, as people take bath nearby unmindful of this. This is Varanasi. The Ghats of Ganga constitute the holiest spots along the Ganges. Several kings of the past have built palaces near the Ghats. I was also told by our Vaadhiyar (Priest) that the ladies of King Ranjit Singh used to take bath in a Ghat regularly in the residence which exists even now along the Ganga. There are a large number of Temples along the Ganga; esp. near the Ghats. People pray in these Temples after a bath in the Ghats. We had a dip in three of the Ghats and prayed in one of the Temples on the shore. Not all the Ghats have Temples; they are simply for taking bath. The Tulsi Ghat is named after the famous poet, Tulsi Das, who actually lived here for several years and composed Ram Charit Manas. It is like our Kamba Ramayanam. Aurangazeb has built a big mosque near the Panch Ganga Ghat; five rivers are supposed to meet in this Ghat. It is compulsory to take bath in the Assi Ghat, one of the first Ghats, and offer prayers to the Lingam under the Peepal Tree. At the Dasawamedha Ghat, Lord Brahma has sacrificed ten horses; and is an important spot. When you take bath here, you get the benefits of doing Aswamedha Yagam. The Chakra Thirth is actually a well; we poured one sombu (about a litre) of water drawn from the well constituting Chakra Thirtha. We bought some lamps from the vendors and floated them on the Ganges.

Cremation Ghats

At Manikarnika Ghat, you can see several dead bodies burning at once at several heights. The ashes will be dumped in the Ganges. The souls will be liberated. For several minutes, I was watching the dead bodies burning constantly. It becomes very clear to one and all that no one is going to live permanently on Earth; death is assured for all. None can take even one Rupee when he dies; indicating the futility of materialistic objects. Such thoughts make one calm and quiet. Some equanimity is transmitted to your person instantly as you watch the cremation of innumerable bodies. Several bodies are placed in the Que awaiting cremation. Anyone who visits Benaras must witness such cremation in these Ghats. According to the legend, Vishnu dug a pit with his chakra, and the sweat created during his meditation filled the pit. Shiva shook his head and his jeweled earring fell into the pit, hence the name Manikarnika. Tradition has it that those who die at Benaras and get cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat, get liberated from the cycle of life and death.

When I saw cremation in the Harishchandra Ghats, my mind naturally recollected the story of this ancient King who followed the path of truth; I recalled the way his wife Chandramati had undergone suffering as a sequel to this. A bath in these Ghats will ensure that your sins are dissolved and you attain Moksha after your death. This is the main reason why the Hindus want to have a bath in the Ganges; esp., in these Ghats. I am told that the Manikarnika Ghat is THE most important one for cremation; and hence for doing  Shrardham. We offered pindams to the ancestors here. Nowhere in India, you will see cremation right at the center of the city; except Varanasi, which is considered as Mahashmashan; the Great Cremation Ground. In the olden days, thousands of Hindus used to do Kasi Yatra just to die at Kasi and attain Moksha.  So, Kasi became the Great Cremation Ground for the whole of Hindustan. The Cremation Ghats convey a clear message to all: Nothing is permanent. Death is certain. Death is assured for all those who are born. It is only a matter of time. Kasi Yatra and a trip to Gaya signify these facts. So, one has to behave himself while alive. This is the message of the cremation Ghats during Kasi Yatra. So, when you embark on Kasi Yatra, make it a point to get close to the Cremation Ghats. Please don’t avoid them.

Ganga Aarti

All the pilgrims visiting Kasi should not fail to participate in the Ganga Aarti event. It is simply spectacular. Ganga Aarti is held in a few places along the Ghats; but the one at Dasaawameth Ghat is the most scintillating show. There are a number of priests clad in identical saffron uniform, performing a series of Poojas: say, 16 types: like doopam, deepams, karpooraadanai, etc., constituting the Shodasobachara Pooja. Before starting the Aarti, some experts give discourses on some Vedic topics. The deepaaradanai done by nearly ten priests, each holding a tall lamp with several steps of lighted lamps  at different levels constitutes a magnificent sight. You may see a good portrayal of the Ganga Aarti at Youtube. Several high quality photos are also displayed in the Wikipaedia. The Ganga Aarti is held each day at 5 PM, and takes nearly an hour. Hundreds of people witness the same from innumerable boats in the nearby Ghats. One problem is Ganga Aarti is held simultaneously from two nearby areas and the loud-speakers from both create disturbing conditions creating interference on both.  I think, there is no need of loud speakers in the first place. Besides, one does not need two Ganga Aartis at such close locations. However, despite these aberrations, it is a marvelous spectacle to watch.

Pic.: Ganga Aarti: (Thanks: Wikipaedia)

Pic.: Ganga Aarti (Thanks: Fiveprime.org)


There are two types of Shrardhams: Anna Shrardham and Hiranya Shrardham. In Anna Shrardham, a few Brahmins: 3 to 4: are fed after the ceremonies. These Brahmins represent our ancestors. In Hiranya Shrardham, no such elaborate feeding takes place: instead, plantains and rice are offered; however, certain rituals are still carried out. Anna Shrardham is more involved and expensive in relation to the latter. It also takes more time. While regular, full-fledged Anna Shrardham is mandatory at Gaya, you may opt for Hiranya Shrardham at Kasi, which is repeatedly done five times in the various Ghats of Kasi. The most important Shrardhams at Kasi are the ones performed at Manikarnika and Pancha Thirtha. Nandi is meant for the appeasement of the ancestors; while Vaishnava Shrardham is for pleasing or satisfying the Gods. Pinda Pradaanam is the ritual of offering food to three or more generations of our ancestors. Balls of cooked rice to which a small quantity of ellu (sesame seeds) is added constitute Pindams. The offering of the same is Pinda Pradaanam.

Dhaanam: (or Daan)

You should also do an important thing during Kasi Yatra, particularly at Kasi: “dhaanam” (or daan) or charity. You may do this to anyone; Brahmins in particular. Anything can be given as daanam: vessels, money, clothes, mats, cow (go-daan), gold, etc., depending on your capacity and generosity. The Poorvanga Daan refers to the one at the beginning of the rituals; while the Uttaranga Daan refers to the one at the end of the rituals. The Dasa Daan refers to the ten traditional daans recommended in the Scriptures. Nowadays, the daans are given based on one’s generosity and economic conditions; no prescribed rules are followed. The daans are mainly for the Brahmins who conduct the rituals; but you can give daan to anyone and everyone; the poor and needy; irrespective of the caste. Anna Daan is the most important daan. I may mention that after completing the Kasi Yatra, we are expected to feed 10 couples and offer daans.

 If you do dhaanam properly, the Brahmins will say: tripti. But, it is difficult to get a “tripti” from the Brahmins  at Gaya. You really have to be a bit liberal; and also kind. The readers should not imagine that it will cost them the Earth to get “tripti” from the Brahmins. Liberal charity with love and affection would do. Dhaanam or charity or donation constitutes one of the most important aspects of Kasi Yatra. We are aware that several people have offered dhaanam of cow (go-dhaanam) or even gold from time to time. If we can’t do that, the least we can do is to give liberal amount of money to the poor and needy; Brahmins in particular. Why Brahmins? Because, they are the ones who perform the rituals. They have no other income. During our Kasai Yatra, my wife and self could manage to get tripti from the Pundits and Priests in most of the places; and the expenses were still manageable. Sometimes, I have noted that even some well to do people offer meager amounts. This is improper in these days of inflation. Please note that the Brahmins doing religious service are not beggars; they are learned people; well-versed in Vedic rites; and also do enormous work during the rituals; and deserve a better deal. Besides, they too have children studying in colleges. There are innumerable poor people and even beggars who will seek charity from you. It will be impossible to please or satisfy all these. They also prove to be a big nuisance; since they won’t let you do your ceremonies peacefully. In Kasi, I noticed that one beggar lady was trying to get daan from us repeatedly, even after receiving liberal amount from us. Needless to say, one would get disgusted with such cheats. Notwithstanding these, we have tried to give some money to the poor wherever possible. The Pandas in temples, Ghats, etc. will try to exploit you. So, avoid them to the extent possible. Like I have said before, it is better to go through a Service Provider or Coordinator, who will generally take care of such matters; so that you won’t be harassed by the unwanted elements.

Gaya Shrarddha

The most important ritual to be performed at Gaya is Shraddha: that too at the bank of the Phalguni River. The Phalgu River is dry most of the time; so a bath here is out of question. We were astonished by the length and breadth of the river; yet, devoid of water: it is all sand everywhere along the river. The Priest narrated the legend about Phalguni River. Rama and Sita, came to Gaya to perform the sacred rites for Rama’s father, Dasaratha. Sita was playing on the sand when Rama went for bathing. At that time, Dasaratha suddenly appeared in front of Sita and asked for pindam (food), which Sita offered after converting sand to pindams. When Rama came after a bath, he could not believe this. Sita said, she has five witnesses: the Akshaya Vatam (banyan tree), the Falguni River, a Cow, a Tulsi Plant and a Brahmin. Of these, only the Akshaya Vatam supported her stand; all the others kept quiet. Sita became very angry and cursed the four as follows: there would be no water in Phalguni most of the times; the Cow would always be worshipped from the back side (never from the front side, as is the normal practice); there would be no Tulsi Plant at Gaya; the Brahmins would never be satisfied at Gaya (that is why, they rarely say “tripti” at Gaya). On the contrary, Sita blessed that the Banyan Tree would remain immortal. That is why this tree is known as Akshaya Vat: Aakshaya means one that never decays; Vat means a banyan tree). We are also told that while all the banyan trees generally shed their leaves sometime during a year, the Akshayavat remains ever green: even in draught. The readers may note that even though, the Phalguni River is bone-dry, we would see water even if we dig the sand by one foot. There is sub-soil water everywhere along the river. Other important temples in the vicinity are the Sakshi Gopal temple and the Mangala Gauri Temple (this is a part of the Shakti Peetam).

Gaya is significant to all the Hindus from the point of view of salvation of the souls of their ancestors. People perform Gaya Shraddha; esp. a ritual called pinda daan. These pindas would constitute food for the hungry ancestors, who have been keenly awaiting our presence at Gaya to offer the pindas after proper Shraddha. The satisfied ancestors will bless us offering us anything and everything that we need for ourselves as well as our entire family. If all the members of a big family can’t perform Gaya Shraddha due to some inconvenience, it would not matter. Even if one member performs the same accompanied by his wife, the ancestors will be pleased and bless all. This is the advantage. I am happy that I could perform Gaya Shraddha along with my wife for the benefit of the entire family; the other members of my family have not had a chance to perform the same. I am happy that I could fill the void. The Vedic Rites are performed not just for three generations; but for all the ancestors connected with the families of bot the husband and wife participating in the Gaya Shraddha. The “Bhumihar Brahmins” have been the traditional priests at Vishnupad Mandir. We were told by the Pandas that the present day temple was rebuilt by Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar, the Maharani of Indore in the 18th century.
I will now narrate the way the Gaya Shraddha is performed. This is very important for the readers. We should note that, when Gayasur died he had requested Vishnu one boon: that people should be perform the Shraddha and the sacred rites including Pinda Pradaanam: not only for their ancestors, but for anyone and everyone: ancestors of the immediate family, distant relatives, friends and foes, non-Hindus, pets, unclaimed bodies, etc: in short, for any person or animal that has died naturally or through some mishap. This is an exceptional act of kindness on the part of Gayasur as well as Maha Vishnu who granted the boon. The pindams are offered even for the realatives who were not well-disposed to our family. Because, even those realtives, who had been generally adverse to our interests, have done some good things some time in their life: say, by attending or gracing our functions. The pindams are also offered to people who have died during accidents, natural disasters, mishaps, etc. as well as people who have committed suicide. Similarly, pindams are offered for friends, birds, animals, etc; indeed, anything and everything associated with our life directly or indirectly. We chant mantras and offer pindams sequentially one by one to all ancestors, friends, enemies, animals and birds.   This is the beauty of Gaya Sraddha. Gaya is the only place where Pinda Pradaanam is carried out in this manner for anyone and everyone. The Akshaya Vata and the Vishnu Pada are the only two places where one can perform the Vedic rites not only for our forefathers, but for anyone: family, friends, acquaintances, people of whatever caste or religion, animals, pets, abandoned bodies, etc.
In a conventional  Shrardham performed at home, 3 pindams are made: for three generations. In a Tirtha Shrardham, a la at Kasi, Prayaag, Rameswaram, etc., 16 pindams are offered for all ancestors of father as well as mother. In the Gaya Sraddham, as many as 32 to 64 pindams are offered. If 64 pindas are offered, 32 are for the mother alone; 16 for the ancestors; and 16 for all the others. If 32 pindas are offered, 16 are for the mother; and the other 16 are for the ancestors and others. At Gaya, we offered only 32 pindas. At Kasi, we offered a total of 16 pindas at each of the five Ghats. The rituals for the mother are the most important and very touching too. Generally, 16 pindams are offered as we tell the mantras one by one in some sequence, meaning: (I have given only those that I remember. As I chanted the mantras and offered the pindams, I nearly got choked due to emotions; my eyes got moist; the priest also noted this):
·        Mother, you have carried me for 10 months continuously; for that, I offer a pindam.
·        Mother, I have kicked you several times while in your uterus; you have tolerated that with a smile; for that, I offer you a pindam.
·        Mother, you have taken pains to perform various ceremonies and rituals for my general welfare and health; for that I offer you a pindam.
·        Mother, when I was young, you did not consider it dirty or nasty to wash me and clean me, whenever I urinated or defecated;  for that, I offer you a pindam.
·        Mother, you did not sleep for several days whenever I was sick to make sure that I have a good sleep and recover soon; for that I offer you a pindam.
·        Mother, you have denied yourself all the privileges, so that I have good education and life; for that I offer you a pindam.
Sita has blessed the Akshaya Vata saying that all who came to Gaya would perform the Pinda Pradaanam at the Akshaya Vatam too. That is why, we placed the Pinda Pradaanam at the base of the Akshaya Vata (banyan tree) too. So, when you perform Shrarddha at Gaya, after the ceremonies, you should place the pinda pradaanams at the Vishnu Paada as well as Akshaya Vata. Also, a round rice ball, along with some ghee poured over that, has to be offered to the crows inside the temple so that the hungry ancestors, who would arrive in the form of crows, can take their food. I am told that for a fee of Rs.100/- an imprint of the Padam is taken on a muslin cloth and given to the devotee. You may keep it in the Pooja room; it is considered very auspicious.

Photo: Vishnu Padam

Bodh Gaya

When we were returning from Gaya, we stopped at Bodh Gaya, about 25 Km from Gaya. This is the place where Lord Budha got enlightened under Bodh Tree. It was very hot; some 45 deg C. To get to the Budha Statue, one has to climb a large number of steps. The steps were very hot; so people were running up and down to beat the heat. A saving grace was that there was a simple carpet along the steps; yet it was pretty hot. Since you have to remove your chapels if you want to get to the Bodh Tree, we were content to have a close look at it from a distance; rather than getting the feet burnt.

Budha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. A lot of Budhists as well as Hindus visit this place. I have seen several Budhist Monasteries operated by foreign agencies; for instance, the Thai Government. Indeed, many foreign governments (Burma, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc.) have contributed liberally for the construction and infrastructure development at Bodh Gaya. The Thai Monastery, which I could see from the road as we drove, is very impressive. To me, it looked as though the various Budhist governments maintain their religious embassies here. 

Allahabad-Benaras-Gaya Highway

The Highway to Benaras from Gaya is actually the Delhi-Calcutta Highway; part of the Super Highways Program of Vajpayee: perhaps, a part of the Golden Quadrilateral. It is not as crowded as the Southern Highways; perhaps due to the absence of industrialization a la South; clearly the entire UP-Bihar belt is relatively very poor. So, the cars move fast; this is a saving grace given the hot temperature (around 45 deg. C). The Sun was beating down heavily on us. The air-conditioned car gave some relief. Otherwise, heat stroke is a possibility. The local people use clothes to cover their heads and bodies to beat the heat. I saw one lady pouring water from a bottle all over her body before boarding her car. This is one way of beating the heat, I guess. If you travel in summer, make sure that you drink plenty of water, lassi, cool drinks, etc., which are available on the way. This will give you protection from dehydration.

Important Temples During Kasi Yatra

  • Viswanath Temple (Kasi)

This is the most important Temple at Kasi and is dedicated to Lord Visweswara. It is one of the twelve Jyothir Lingas of Lord Shiva. It is believed to be the holiest place for the Hindus, due to the permanent presence of Lord Shiva, as Kasi Viswanath. So, one would feel the waves of Lord Shiva impinging on him at all time. The Viswanath Temple was destroyed several times by the rulers like Mohammed Ghori, Aurangzeb, and Warren Hastngs and was rebuilt successively. The temple in the present form was built by Rani Ahillyabai Dikar in 1776 A.D. I was told that after destroying the Temple, Aurangzeb built a mosque over that. Maharaja Ranjit Singh constructed the golden cover on the Temple Towers. As I was looking at the Temple Towers, I was wondering, how a Sikh King had been so generous to donate to a Hindu Temple. The lakhs of people visiting the Temple means that, whereas people can destroy buildings, no one can destroy the faith of the masses. Because, such a faith is a sequel to the Sanadhana Dharma of the Hindus practiced and followed over a period of thousands of years. The readers would note that the Shiv Linga at this Temple is very small. Like they say in Tamil, “Moorthy siruthaalum kirthy sirukkaadhu”: meaning, even if the idol is small, reputation is big.

Pic: Kasi Vishwanath (Thanks: Uma; www.shaktipeethas.org)

  • Vishalakshi Temple (Kasi)

This is one of the most important Temples to be visited in Kasi. Hindus regard Kasi as one of the Shakti Peethas. Vishalakshi Temple stands on the spot where Goddess Sati’s  earrings fell. Hindus of the Shakti Sect (Shaktaism) make an exclusive pilgrimage to the city because they regard river Ganga itself as Goddess Shakti. Also, Vishalakshi and Annaoorna Temples constitute Shakti Temples.

  • Bindu Madhav Temple (Kasi)

After taking bath in the Pancha Ganga Ghat, we visited the Bindu Madhav Temple and prayed there. Mr. Satyamurthy has given some details about this temple in his blog (www.shaktipeethas) as follows:

Lord Indra killed a Brahmin named Vritrasura. Because of killing the Brahmin, Indra aquired Brahma Hatya Dosham that will impact very seriously on him. To overcome this, he constructed five temples for Lord Vishnu at different places as follows:

1.Bindu Madhav: Kasi
2.Veni Madhav: Prayaag (Allahabad)
3.Kunthi Madhav: Pithapuram
4.Setu Madhav: Rameswaram
5.Sundara Madhav: Anantha Padmanabham(Trivandrum)

These Temples constitute Pancha Bindu Madhavs. The original Temple at Kasi was destroyed by the Muslim invaders. The present one is the small reconstructed version in a nearby spot.

It is an ancient temple of Varanasi near the Head Post Office at VishesharGanj. We are told that Kal Bhairav is said to be the  "Kotwal of Varanasi" , without his permission no one can stay in Kasi.

This Temple is situated near the Assi river stream, on the way to Banaras Hindu University from the city. This is a Temple for Lord Hanuman, who is also known as "Sankat Mochan":  the God who protects us from all anxieties, disturbances and tormentations. This temple is founded by Goswami Tulsidas. This temple is also known as "Monkey" temple, as lot of monkeys are there inside the premises. The security restrictions are severe.

  • Annapoorna Temple (Kasi)

Annapoorna is an important Temple to visit in Kasi. A visit to this Temple is a must. Because, food is one of the most important requirements for all human beings as well as animals. Goddess Annapoorna will ensure that there is never food shortage in your house, if you visit this Temple and pray with dedication. Also, don’t forget to buy an image or  representation of Annapoorna and keep it in your Pooja Room at your residence. You will have adequate food and prosperity throughout your life. According to the legend, Lord Shiva asked Goddess Annapoorna to ensure that no one goes hungry in Kasi when a person lives; while Shiva will ensure that he will attain Moksha after his death. Annapoorna is Kasi’s Queen and is also known as Bhavani. Annapoorna literally means, provider of Plenty of Food. The idol of Annapoorna always has a small vessel containing Annam (food) signifying that the worshipper is assured of food throughout his life.

We went to this Temple by an auto; quite convenient. This Temple is situated inside the  Banaras Hindu University. This is a modern place of worship planned by Pandit Malviya and built by the Birlas on the pattern of Vishwanath Temple. This Temple is open to all, irrespective of caste or creed. As we were traveling inside the BHU Campus, we noted that the Campus is huge. Almost every kind of Department is there at BHU. No wonder, it is considered as the biggest University in India. When we saw a number of houses for the BHU faculty, I was reminded of my sister and her husband who worked at BHU about two decades back. Pointing to the houses, I told my wife, my sister must have been residing in one of these. BHU is somewhat far off from the city, and takes about 40 minutes to drive to the Campus.

  • Tulsi Manas Temple (Kasi)

This temple is dedicated to Lord Rama. The temple is built in the place where Goswami Tulsidas composed the epic 'Ramacharitramanas', the Ramyana of Tulsidas. Tulsi Manas Temple was constructed by a philanthropist family in 1964.

  • Durga Temple (Kasi)

This is also known as Monkey Temple, because of the presence of a large number of monkeys in the Temple. This temple is one of the most important temples in Varanasi. This temple is built in Nagara Style. The shikhara of the temple is formed by many small spires which are built one on top of the other. According to legend, the present statue of Goddess Durga was not made by man but appeared on its own in the temple. Thousands of Hindu devotees visit this temple during Navratri and other auspicious occasions. Non-Hindus can enter the courtyard of the Durga temple but not the inner sanctum.

  • Vishnupaad Temple: Gaya

This is the most important Temple at Gaya. This is where we perform rituals to ancestors after the initial ceremonies in a Mutt. This massive temple, located in the old town, is built over the footprints of Lord Vishnu. Inside the temple, the 40 cm long footprint of Vishnu is made of solid rock and surrounded by a silver plated basin. This Shikhara style temple was reconstructed during the 18th century AD by Queen Ahilya Bai of Indore, on the banks of the river Falgu. The readers would recall that Viswanath Temple at Kasi was also reconstructed by Maharani Ahilya Bai. We are very surprised about this and appreciate the generosity of this great queen as well as her service to Hinduism. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the temple.

  • Patalpuri Temple: Allahabad

The Patalpuri temple is located inside the Allahabad Fort. Within the Patalpuri temple, we have the Akshaya Vat - or the immortal banyan tree. It is believed that Lord Rama has visited the Patalpuri Temple. The famous Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang also visited this  temple.
Akshaya Vata: Eternal Banyan Tree: Prayaag

The Akshaya Vata literally means immortal or eternal banyan tree. This tree is located within the Patalauri temple, on the bank of Yamuna, inside the Allahabad Fort. We are familiar with this tree because, we talk about it during the performance of the rituals for the ancestors: the Shraddhams or dhivasams. This holy tree is also documented at length in the Scriptures. During the cyclic of destruction, when the whole earth was enveloped by waters, Akshaya Vata remained alive and unaffected. It is on the leaves of this tree that Lord Krishna rested as a baby when land was no longer visible. And it is here that the immortal sage, Markandeya, had a vision of the Lord. Legend also has it that the Bodi tree at Gaya is a manifestation of this tree. There are hundreds of shrines near this holy tree. However, but for a few, most are inaccessible, because the Fort is a restricted military area. The Fort was closed to the public during British rule; and even now, we do not have access to this tree. We are told that during the Kumbha Mela, the government gives permission for pilgrims to pay their homage to the Akshaya Vata. However, people feel that the pilgrims never see the holy tree; instead, they are shown a branch of an ordinary banyan tree. We don’t know the truth. But, belief and faith matter more than the facts. The readers may note that the Akshaya Vata of interest during Kasi Yatra is the one at Gaya, not Allahabad.

Rituals at Triveni Sangam

An important ritual during Kasi Yatra is a dip or bath at Triveni Sangam: the junction of three rivers: Ganga, Yamuna and (mythological) Sarawati. The river Saraswati is said to flow beneath the ground, and is not visible. As we were going on the boat, the boatman showed that the brown river on one side is the Ganges; and the blue river on the other side is Yamuna. The third invisible river is beneath these two. The region where these three rivers meet is the Sangam or Sangamam. This is the holiest of all the Thirthas. Every Hindu should taske bath here to attain salvation. The boatman stopped near a platform constructed for anchoring the boats. All the people from various boats assemble here and take bath. The husband and wife pairs take bath together. All the people dip into the river at least nine times, chanting: Om Namakshivaya. Sangam is around 7 km from the heart of Allahabad. From our Mutt or residence, we drove to the river site. Each year, tens of thousands of people take  dip at Sangam during the Magha Mela. Besides, lakhs of people take bath at Sangam during Ardh Kumbh and Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is held once in twelve years. Two important rituals are to be performed at Sangam. The first one is Veni Daanam:  the husband should comb the hair of his wife; split it in three parts, and knit and tie the hair together After that\, a small part of the hair at the end is to be cut; and this is to be dipped into the Sangam. The other ritual is, the sand that we brought from Rameshwaram (from Agni Theertham or Sea) is to be dissolved at Sangam, after performing Pooja, considering the sand as Shiv Linga. We have noted that, whereas hundreds of people dump the hair at sangam, nowhere have we noticed hair floating on the water; the entire hair gets immersed: it does not happen in other waters: where the hair tends to float. We collected water in a five-litre plastic can at Sangam. Later, this was poured in a dozen brass containers of various sizes and volumes; and then sealed. There are a number of shops at Allahabad, for just this purpose. Generally, the shop-keepers who sell these containers don’t charge separately for sealing them. The remaining water was brought in the same plastic container to Chennai, for distribution to friends and relatives in small containers purchased at Chennai.

Rameshwar Yatra
One must perform Rameshwar Yatra before and after the Kasi Yatra. Then only, the Kasi Yatra will stand completed as per traditional procedures. For A south Indian, the procedure is as follows: First, go to Rameshwaram. Take bath in the 18 Tirthas. Get soil from the Agni Thirtha (the sand beneath the sea). The sea itself is known as Agni Thirtha. This will be packed in a container or bag (plastic) and given to you after Pooja. Visit Rameshwaram Temple. At Triveni, the Priest would do Pooja for the Shiv Linga made from this sand and Archana and Aarti would be performed. After that, this would be immersed in the Triveni at Prayaag (Allahabad). We should again visit Rameshwar after completing Kasi-Triveni-Gaya Yatra. The Ganga water taken from Kasi and/or Triveni will be brought to Rameshwar for performing Abhishek on Rameshwar Lingam. Then the Kasi Yatra would be complete after offering food and daan to 10 dampatis or couples. In Rameshwaram there are 51 Theerthas; inside the Rameshwar Temple itself, there are 22 Theerthas; of which 18 are functional now. You should take bath using the 18 Theerthas inside the Temple. The Agni Theertha is the Sea water outside the Temple; where one must take bath and bring the sand from beneath the Sea near the shore. The Rameshwar Yatra itself is an involved one, having several sequences and procedures. I don’t intend to write a detailed description of this for want of time; I leave it to others.
Vedic Rituals During Kasi Yatra

The Kanchi Mutt at Kasi has suggested a comprehensive list of rituals to be performed during Kasi Yatra. I have reproduced them below:

I. At Prayaag (Allahabad):  (Triveni Sangam)

  • Anugnai (Sankalpam)
  • Vighneshwara Puja (Prayers to Lord Ganesha)
  • Prayschitta Sankalpam (atonement for sins committed, knowingly or unknowingly)
  • Veni Daanam (Women offer a part of their hair to the river praying for the long life of their husbands. The husband combs and  plaits the wife’s hair, decorates it with flowers and cuts off the tip of the plait and offers it to the river. It is an interesting fact that while hair normally floats on water, at the Sangam; it immediately sinks to the river bed. Though almost all married women offer their hair here, there is not a single strand found floating on the river.)
  • Triveni Sangam Snanam (husband and wife bathe together at the confluence of the 3 rivers, holding hands. One has to go to the confluence in a boat. A sort of platform has been erected at the point for the convenience of pilgrims)
  • Hiranya Shrardham  
  • Pinda Pradaanam, Kshetra Pindam, Tarpanam

II. At Kasi (Varanasi)

I have presented the Vedic Rites to be performed in three series as follows. Each series can be performed during a day. However, we have performed selected rituals from each series in a single day for want of time.

I. Series
  • Anugnai (Sankalpam)
  • Vighneshwara Puja (Prayers to Lord Vigneshwara)
  • Poorvanga Godaanam
  • Poorvanga Dasa Daanam
  • Naandhi Shrardham
  • Vaishnava Shrardham
  • Punyaa Vajanam (purification ritual)
  • Maha Sankalpam
  • Prayschitta Sankalpam: for atonement for sins committed, knowingly or unknowingly
  • Pala Daanam
  • Uttaranga Godaanam
  • Manikarnika Teertha Shrardham (Anna roopam / Hiranya roopam)

II. Series

Pancha Teertha Yatra (One has to go in a boat to these 5 Ghats and perform the rituals):
i) Asi Ghat (Haridwar Teertham) – this is where the Asi river merges with the Ganga. Performing the rites here is believed to give one the fruits of performing the rites at Haridwar.
ii) Dashashwamedha Ghat (Rudra Sarovara Teertham) – this is the place where Brahma performed 10 Ashwamedha Yagnas, and hence it is considered sacred to perform the rites.
iii) Trilochana Ghat ( Vishnu Paada Udaka Teertham)
iv) Pancha Ganga Ghat ( Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kirana, Doodhapappa- Sangam); Bindu Madhava Temple
v) Manikarnika Ghat (Manikarnika Teertham, Chakra Pushkarni Teertham)

III.  Series

  • Ganga Puja (it is a tradition to bring back small sealed containers of water from the Ganges and distribute it among our near and dear ones. One container is kept at home as it is considered sacred and one is taken to Rameswaram where it is used to perform Abhishekam to the lingam. All these containers are kept and prayed to before they are distributed.)
  • Dampati Puja: Prayers offered to an elderly married couple, invoking them as Vishwanath and Annapoorna (We did Namashkar to the Ganapaadigal and his wife; offered a saree and dhoti to them).
  • Uttaranga Dasa Daanam
  • Kala Bhairava Samaradhana (invocation and prayers to Kala Bhairav)

III. At Gaya: Gaya Shrardham

  • Anna Shrardham and Preliminary Rituals: These were performed at the residence of the Priest
  • Palguni (Falguni) Teertha Hiranya Shrardham: this is the traditional Shrardham performed on the banks of any sacred river; in this case, River Falguni.
  • Vishnu Paada Hiranya Shrardham: We go to the Vishnu Paada Temple: the pindams are offered at the Holy Foot of Vishnu and we place our head on the Foot and do Namashkar.
  • Akshaya Vata Anna/Hiranya Shrardham
  • Akshaya Vata Pinda Pradaanam: The pindams are placed at the base of the banyan tree, Akshaya Vata.
  • Tharpanam to the ancestors
  • Offering food to the Gaya Brahmins
  • To enquire Gaya Brahmans if they are satisfied (according to legend, the Brahmins at Gaya are not easily satisfied and it is a tradition to ask them anyway in an attempt to satisfy them)
  • Acharya Sambhavana: payment of the dhakshina or fees to the Chief Priest or Pundit

Note: While the three Series at Kasi constitute a comprehensive procedure, we have carried out the following rituals at Kasi to conserve time: Sankalpam, Vigneshwar Pooja, Maha Sankalpam, Praychitra Sankalpam, Pala Daanam, Pancha Theertha Yatra and the five Shrardhams at the Ghats,  Ganga Pooja, Dampati Pooja, Dasa Daanam, offering food to Brahmins, etc. We have however, performed most of the rituals recommended by the Kanchi Mutt and identified above, at Gaya and Prayaag.