Situated high above Panchganaga Ghat in the shadow of Alamgiri Mosque, Bindu Madhav Temple is housed in a simple inconspicuous and rather nondescript building that one could easily mistake for any other dwelling in the twisting serpentine lanes of Varanasi.
The present temple was constructed in the 19th century by the Maratha ruler Bhawan Rao, replacing a larger and far grander temple that once stood on the site of the Alamgiri Mosque, the origins of which may have stretched back to the 5th century A.D.
When Aurangzeb captured Varanasi in 1663 he embarked on a systematic campaign of destroying much of the sacred geography of the city. All of the greatest temples of the city became ruins, including Kashi Vishwanath in 1663, and Bindu Madhav in 1673. Almost nothing of religious nature remains in Banaras that pre-dates the seventeenth century and the arrival of Aurangzeb. It’s impossible to imagine how this city must once have looked prior to Aurangzeb’s period of destruction, but although the sacred city of Kashi could certainly be defaced, its spirit could never truly be destroyed.
The present day Bindu Madhav entrance is flanked by images of Garuda (Vishnu’s vehicle) and the monkey-god Hanuman. This got me wondering whether these images and others inside may have been recovered from the earlier temple, one would imagine that if possible this would have happened.
After scaling a flight of stairs you enter the interior hall of the temple. My visit coincided with the arrival of a large group of Hari Krishna followers from Russia, who proceeded to sit down in the hall and sing, accompanied by music.
It made for a slightly surreal experience of sorts, and rendered it impossible for me to really spend much time in the temple, especially in the hall itself. Beyond the hall are a number of smaller rooms housing shrines and images, here you really do feel as though everything has been squeezed into someone’s house.
There is a black marble statue of Vishnu, images of Ganesh, Shiva and Nandi, along with over 70 Shiva lingas. A young priest who briefly chatted to me confirmed that the main Vishnu idol, which was carved from shaligram stone from river Gandaki in Nepal, was indeed recovered from the original Bindu Madhav temple. Immediately after the destruction of the original temple, this Vishnu image was recovered from the ruins and kept submerged in the Ganga for a number of years, hidden out of sight, patiently waiting for a new home.
So what do we know about the original Bindu Madhav Temple ? Mentioned in the Matsya Purana, it was one of the most important Vishnu temples in Kashi, along with Adi Keshav in the far north of the city. There is evidence to suggest the temple was destroyed several times between the 12th and 16th centuries at the hands of invaders, with the last temple being built on the old site by Raja Man Singh of Amber in the 16th century.
The French gem merchant and traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who made many voyages to India in the 17th century, was awestruck by the beauty of the temple. He mentioned the temple as “the great pagoda” in his travel accounts of Banaras between 1660 and 1665, a mere decade before it was demolished.
He described the temple as a cross shaped pagoda with towers on each of the four arms and a large spire rising from the sanctum. The installed deity was six feet tall and garlanded with pearls, diamonds, and rubies. Clearly Tavernier was quite attracted to the bejeweled idol.
The Hindu Vaishnava saint and poet Tulsides also spent time here, and wrote in praise of the temple as he sat in front of the image of Vishnu.
“Oh Bindu Madhav ! You are like a cloud which pours rains of happiness and joy. You are the one who purifies the symbolic forest called Varanasi, a forest which is very pleasant by the virtue of your presence.“
The full poem is very lengthy, but can be read in full here starting at page 223. Tulsides died at Assi Ghat in Varanasi in 1623.
There is a legend attached to the name of this temple. A sage named Agni Bindu Rishi once lived at Panchganga and practised great austerities. Vishnu who was also staying at Panchganga granted this sage a wish, who requested that Vishnu should stay here for the benefit of all who desire Moksha (the end of the death and rebirth cycle).
Vishnu promised to stay at this place in Kashi for as long as Kashi exists, even in the time of universal destruction. Vishnu decided this place should be known by the name of the sage (Bindu), as well as by his own name (Madhava, the name of Vishnu as Krishna).
A slight variation on the story has the sage engaged in penance and worship of Vishnu on the banks of the river Gandaki in Nepal. Vishnu, pleased with his penance, instructed that his deity should be installed in Kashi. This latter legend does correlate with the origins of the Vishnu idol as articulated by the young priest I met in the temple.
Visiting the Bindu Madhav Temple about Panchganga Ghat was one of the highlights of my time in Banaras. Whilst there are no architectural wonders to be experienced here, the temple had a certain presence that personally for me was unparalleled anywhere else in the ancient city of Kashi.
Please ‘Like’ or add a comment if you enjoyed this blog post. If you’d like to be notified of any new content, just sign up by clicking the ‘Follow’ button.
If you’re interested in using any of my photography or articles please get in touch. I’m also available for any freelance work worldwide, my duffel bag is always packed ready to go…