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Vishwanatha Khanda

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The Old City is the heart of Varanasi, between Dashashwamedha Ghat and Godaulia to the south and west and Manikarnika Ghat on the river to the north. It is sometimes referred to as Vishwanatha Khanda.

The whole area has numerous shrines and lingams tucked into every corner, and buzzing with the activity of pilgrims, priests and stalls selling offerings to the faithful.

Approached through a maze of narrow alleys and the Vishwanatha Gali, the temple complex of Vishwanath is popularly known as the Golden Temple, due to the massive gold plating on its shikhara (spire). Inside the compound hidden behind a wall and entered through an unassuming doorway, is one of India's most important shivalingams, made of smooth black stone and seated in a solid silver plinth, as well as shrines to the wrathful protectors Mahakala and Dandapani, and the lingam of Avimukteshvara, the Lord of the Unforsaken, which predates Vishwanatha and once held much greater significance. The current temple was built in 1777 by Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore, and is closed to non-Hindus.

The history of Vishwanath has been quite mixed. The temple was sacked by successive Muslim rulers and repeatedly rebuilt, until the grand edifice begun in 1585 by Todar Mal, a courtier of the tolerant Moghul Akbar, was finally destroyed by Aurangzeb. On its foundations, guarded by armed police to protect it from Hindu fanatics, stands the Jnana Vapi Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb. Its simple white domes tower over the Jnana Vapi (Wisdom Well), immediately north, housed in an open arcaded hall built in 1828, where Shiva cooled his lingam after the construction of Vishwanatha. Covered by a grate to prevent people jumping in and covered with a cloth to stop coins being thrown in, only the presiding priests have access to its waters, considered to be liquid knowledge.

Pilgrims offer their sankalpa or statement of intent here, before commencing the Panchatirthi Yatra. Slightly north, across the main road, the thirteenth-century Razia's Mosque stands atop the ruins of a still earlier Vishwanath temple, destroyed under the Sultanate.

Close by, the temple of Annapurna Bhavani is dedicated to the supreme goddess Shakti, the queen and divine mother also known in this benevolent form as Mother of the Three Worlds. As the provider of sustenance, she carries a cooking pot rather than the fearsome weapons borne by her horrific forms Durga and Kali. A subsidiary shrine opened some years ago houses a solid gold image of Annapurna. Nearby is a stunning image, faced in silver against a black surround, of Shani or Saturn. Anyone whose fortunes fall under his shadow is stricken with bad luck - a fate devotees try to escape by worshipping here on Saturdays.