Built in a common North Indian style, the Durga Temple (Kushmanda Durga Mandir) is a free-standing temple set within a walled compound next to a large rectangular tank (Durga Kund) in the southern sector of the city of Varanasi. To Western tourists, the temple has long been known as the “Monkey Temple”, due to the numerous temperamental monkeys that live within the compound. Perhaps some effort has been made to discourage the monkeys in recent years, as on my visit I failed to spot a single one.
The presiding deity is of course the goddess Durga, who is said to protect the south of Kashi as one of the fierce goddess guardians of the sacred zone. It is not known how her image became installed at this temple, a local story suggests it is a self-manifest image and was not created by human hands at all. The origins of the temple are explained in holy scriptures detailed in chapter 23 of the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. In this text, Kashi Naresh (king of Varanasi) called for a Swayamvar for his daughter Sashikala’s marriage. The objective of Swayamvar is to marry a girl with a groom of her choice out of the set of suitable candidates.
The King later learnt that the princess was in love with vanvasi prince Sudarshan. So Kashi Naresh got his daughter secretly married to the prince. When the other Kings (who were invited for Swayamvar) got to know about the marriage, they got angry and went to war with Kashi Naresh. Sudarshan then offered prayers to Durga, who came on a lion and fought the war for Kashi Naresh and Sudarshan. After the war, Kashi Naresh pleaded to Durga to protect Varanasi and with that belief, this temple was constructed.
The temple that stands today was constructed in the 18th century (circa 1760) and is attributed to Rani Bhabani of Natore (1716–1795), a Bengali Queen who was known for her philanthropy and generosity, combined with an austere personal life. The number of temples, guesthouses water tanks and roads she constructed across Bengal alone is believed to be in the hundreds. She was also interested in the spread of education and donated generously to many educational institutes.
Built in the North Indian Nagara style of architecture with a multi tiered shikhara, the temple is painted red with ochre to match the colours of the central icon of Durga, the goddess of strength and power. The temple is built in the panchayatana layout with the ardha mandapa in front of the sanctum sanctorum. The sacred Durga Kund tank was once connected to the Ganga by a water channel that has long since disappeared.
The Durga Temple and Kund are today surrounded by residential colonies, a familiar sight in India with the seemingly relentless surge of urban encroachment. But throughout much of the temple’s long history it has been situated in the countryside, in the midst of the fields and groves of southern Kashi formally known as the Forest of Bliss. It is only in the last 100 years that this temple has become part of the city itself. The British photographer Samuel Bourne visited Varanasi in 1863 at the start of his six year tour of the country, and his work at the Durga Temple clearly shows how once the temple dominated a landscape consisting of fields and trees.
The temple must be one of the busiest in Varanasi and was quite crowded during my visit. The shops around the temple were filled with worshippers purchasing sweets, coconuts, cloth and flower garlands to be offered to the deity. One of the city’s greatest fairs (melas) takes place around this temple during the monsoon month of Shravana, when the temple precincts are filled with makeshift shops, amusements, and carnival rides for the many thousands who make their pilgrimage here.
As well as the wonderful main Durga Temple, there are a number of subsidiary shrines located at the eastern extent of the complex that are well worth exploring.
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