This temple in Varanasi, like many others, is easy to miss. It is tucked away in a land mass above the confluence of the Varana and the Ganga rivers and is surrounded by nondescript small houses. But it is no ordinary temple nor is the site an ordinary one. This is the place where Lord Vishnu first came when he arrived in what was then Kashi, as Lord Shiva’s emissary. This is where the consecrated image of Lord Vishnu is established in what is known as the Adi Keshav temple. Thus, here resides the ‘first’ or the ‘original’ Vishnu.
There were few visitors to the temple when I reached there on a pleasant February afternoon. Perhaps not many even know where it exists, even if they have heard of it. Only those who are determined to do the panch–teertha arrive there; the other kind (like me) is rare. In the one hour that I spent there, just one family of three came and paid obeisance to Adi Keshav. Those who give this place a miss do not perhaps know that it is unquestionably an ancient site, perhaps the most ancient or among the very ancient in Varanasi. It finds mention in the earliest Puranic listings as a theertha. Ancient kings of Kashi had patronised the deity, giving the temple a pre-eminent position. But today it has nearly disappeared from the itinerary of temple-visitors.
There is a rather un-temple like an environment here. Within the complex, which is small, are residential quarters where apparently the temple priest and his family reside. The place is buzzing with activity of a different kind. Children run around playfully, emitting shrill cries. It is as if one is transported to a residential colony in a congested city locality. The priest there, who has joined us, makes vain efforts to check the ruckus. Eventually, he gives up, and in that backdrop, I am told of the story behind the temple. It’s a story that the priest has narrated many times, but his enthusiasm is intact because the tale is so fascinating. We listen, facing the deity, dark black in colour and decked with flowers.
There was a time when the world had plunged into a deep crisis. There was a drought and the very existence of humankind was in peril. Law and order had broken down. A worried Lord Brahma used his divine vision to find that there was one sage-king in the universe who could set things right. Except that he had retired from temporal duties. He was Ripunjaya. Lord Brahma approached him and appealed that he should take over the reigns. Ripunjaya agreed on the condition that the gods would have to leave Kashi and let him govern as he deemed fit. This was agreed to, and all gods including Lord Shiva, who loved the city the most, receded to their heavenly posts. The king assumed the name of Divodasa and began his administration. In time to come, he turned things around for the better, and everybody began to live peacefully and happily. But Lord Shiva, before he reluctantly quit the place, had left behind a linga in remembrance — said to be the first linga established in Kashi.
There was no indication that Divodasa would quit anytime soon. Lord Shiva was getting restless; he longed for Varanasi. He then thought of discovering some flaw in the king’s functioning that could facilitate his return. He, therefore, dispatched a group of female goddesses (64 in all, just in case some failed), called Yoginis, in disguise, to Kashi, with a mandate to disrupt the goodness of Divodasa. For a full year, they worked hard to wean away the king from his duties and failed miserably. Not wanting to return to Lord Shiva in a defeated state, they settled down in Varanasi. The Lord then sent Lord Brahma. The Creator assumed the form of a wandering Brahmin. He asked the king for help in organising a huge religious event — the Ashwamedha Yagnya on a river bank. King Divodasa readily agreed, for not just one, but ten such yagnyas. The site where it was successfully held is today the most famous ghat Varanasi has — the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Thus came an end to Lord Brahma’s efforts to find flaws in the ruler’s functioning. Not wanting to face Lord Shiva thereafter, Lord Brahma too stayed put in Kashi.
Now, Lord Shiva was getting really desperate. His plans to return were going nowhere. He then sent his son, Ganesha, to take the mission forward. Ganesha, like Lord Brahma, took the form of a Brahmin, and a fortune-teller as well. Realising that there were no chinks in king Divodasa’s armour, Ganesha decided to bring about a change in the ruler’s thinking. As a result of this infiltration of the mind, the king suddenly began to develop spiritual and philosophical thoughts, and he seemed eager to give up the worldly life and turn into an ascetic. Ganesha, thrilled at the turn of events, pressed further until Divodasa was fully brainwashed. He then told the king that soon a Brahmin would arrive at his place and lead him to his desire. When the time was ripe, Lord Vishnu made his appearance as a Brahmin. Interestingly, even Ganesha did not return but divided himself into many similar forms — 56 in all — scattering himself in different locales.
Lord Vishnu, as a Brahmin, finally arrived at where his image now stands consecrated as Adi Keshav. He led king Divodasa to a ceremonial departure to the heavenly abode, befitting a ruler of his moral stature. And thus returned Lord Shiva to his favourite city.
(The writer is a political commentator and public affairs analyst)