The east-facing Kardameshwar (Kardamesvara) Temple is located beside the pretty Kardama Kunda tank on the outskirts of Varanasi (Banaras), approximately 6km south-east of the holy city centre. Very little seems to have been written about this temple, none of my standard reference books at home give it any mention at all, and even on-line what information exists is somewhat minimal.
This is great shame as this temple is significant in two respects. Firstly, it is only surviving temple in Kashi from before the Mughal invasions during the 16th/17th centuries, and secondly it is one of the five night stops of the Panchakroshi Yatra pilgrimage route.
There is quite strong evidence to suggest there’s been a temple on this site for at least 1,500 years. Fragments of carvings on the south side of the temple with musicians, nagas, divine dancers and mythical beasts could well date back to the 6th or 7th century A.D. However, much of what stands today was probably constructed in the 12th – 13th century, during the rule of the Gahadavala dynasty. Almost certainly subsequent modifications have also been made, but here at least you can still see a monument the likes of which was no doubt commonplace prior to the arrival of the Mughals.
How or why this monument escaped destruction is unclear to me. Whilst it is somewhat removed from the heart of the city, I would expect similar ancient structures once existed nearby, especially along the Panchakroshi Yatra and other pilgrimage routes that extended out of the city.
It’s staggering to contemplate just how much has been lost in Varanasi over the centuries. As one of the oldest cities in the world, temples like Kardameshwar must once have been a common sight in and around Kashi, and now we are left with just this one lone survivor.
The exterior of the temple has a number of carvings from the Hindu pantheon, including Vishu with Garuda, Shiva with Nandi and Brahma with Hamsa.
The river goddesses Ganga and Yamuna flank the entrance to the sanctum. The Linga is said to have been installed by Sage Kardam, which is how the temple got its name. Worship here is performed by offering five different types of grain; black lentils, green lentils, rice, wheat, and barley.
There’s an interesting carving of two human figures set into the base of the southern exterior of the temple. One of the figures holding a rosary and a book, the other appears to be grinding something, possibly preparing bhang (?).
So perhaps this is a scene depicting a Yogi or Guru, accompanied by his disciple. It’s a set of carvings I don’t recall seeing the likes of before, but at some point I will go through my archive to see if there are any parallels, I’m sure there will be.
Immediately across the road from the temple stands a Linga set into a tall square plinth under a concrete shelter. With carvings on all sides, the most interesting has to be one with a fish, tortoise, lion-man, dwarf and boar – the five incarnations of Vishnu. The lower part of this panel is sadly badly weathered now.
The temple’s surroundings are simply wonderful, to me at least. Although now the urbanisation of Varanasi has swallowed up this area, you really do still feel quite removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, and the more rural setting that this temple once enjoyed is still very tangible.
The large Kardama Kunda immediately to the east provides a fantastic accompaniment to the scene. The tank we see today was constructed in the mid 18th century by Queen Rani Bhavani of Bengal (1723-1802), who stayed in Kashi for six years from 1752-1758 as part of a pilgrimage to the city after the death of her husband King Ramakant Rai (1699-1748). The Queen patronised many water tanks and temples in the city, both renovating existing structures and building new ones. She is directly responsible for four water tanks that form part of the ancient Panchakroshi Yatra pilgrimage route.
Before I describe the Panchakroshi Yatra pilgrimage, I’d like to insert a small disclaimer. I am by no means an expert on this, and the subject matter has such incredible depth that I know for a lot of my readers what follows will be a bit of a disappointment. It’s a topic I would very much like to understand further, but for now consider this a beginners/rough guide to the topic of pilgrimages in Varanasi.
Varanasi can be divided into five sacred territories (or layers), each represented by progressively smaller circles (mandalas) of the sacred city. Each of these zones has its own pilgrimage route (Yatra) of circumambulation with designated shrines to visit and specific night stops.
Each of the five Yatras represents one of the five elements in Hindu cosmology, in addition to one of the five human senses, and one of the five aspects of the human body. These can also be correlated to five types of transcendental power and chakra.
|Layer||Sacred Route||Element||Part of Body||Power||Visited Shrines|
The smallest of these sacred territories, the Antargriha, is considered the inner sanctum of the city and encompasses the area immediately around the Vishvanatha Temple. The fourth largest circle encloses a sacred area with extends far out into the countryside to the west, and is known as “Kashi”, the limits of which are defined by the Panchakroshi Pilgrimage.
The largest outer circle for pilgrims, the Caurasikrosi, has significantly declined over the last few centuries, and many now consider the Panchakroshi circle to be the largest. The name Panchakroshi is derived from ‘pancha’, meaning ‘five’, and ‘koshi’ which is a unit of measurement equivalent to about two miles. It refers to the radius of the sacred circle of Kashi.
Just as one would honor a deity by circumambulating the sanctum of a temple, the Panchakroshi Yatra makes a circuit of all of Kashi, symbolically a circle that is itself a linga of five koshas.
The Panchakroshi circuit has a total of 108 sacred sites (or stations) along the route, some of which are Shiva or Devi temples, others wayside shrines. The pilgrimage starts and finishes at Manikarnika Ghat, where the pilgrims bathe in the Ganga. The overnight stops are here at Kardameshwara, and then the following nights at Bhimachandi, Rameshwara, and Kapiladhara. At each overnight stop there is plenty of lodging available, as during some festival periods this route is extremely popular (e.g. Shivrati).
An interesting small detail about the pilgrimages, no matter which one you embark on. All the temples encountered along a route are on the right-hand side, and all the lodgings on the left-hand side. This is because the area enclosed by the Yatra path is considered sacred, so the right symbolises light, and the left symbolises darkness.
Visiting the Kardameshwar Temple makes for a wonderful couple of hours outside of the main city, although I should warn you that it could take a good deal longer than that.
It took me three attempts to visit this temple. The auto rickshaw drivers are so keen for business they will happily say they know the place, and having negotiated a price they will set off, only to then constantly stop to ask locals for directions. As so often seems the case, the resulting instructions will send you in a multitude of wrong directions. One such failed attempt wasted 90 minutes of my day. So if you attempt the journey, be confident with your driver before setting off.
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