In Maidagin of Varanasi, stands the Thana Kotwali police station. A stone’s throw away is the temple of the Kotwal of Kashi. The first is frequented by those who believe that justice will be done to them through the law and order machinery. The second is the last refuge of those who have failed there and elsewhere. For, the Kotwal of Kashi is Kaal Bhairav, an aspect of the omnipotent Lord Shiva himself. Needless to add, the throng of visitors to the temple is far in excess to that at the police station.
It is said that no one comes to Varanasi and goes out without the permission of this divine sentinel. During my previous visits to Varanasi, I had not given much thought to this belief. But this time around, I considered it a duty to pay obeisance, for now, I realised that it was perhaps his munificence that made my trips possible and exhilarating. Besides, you have seen nothing of this ancient city if you have not had a glimpse of Bhaironath, as he is fondly called.
Like most shrines here, the Kaal Bhairav temple is located in a narrow lane made narrower by the rows of shops on either side, selling everything that is needed as an offering to the deity, and a few booklets too which extol the virtues of Shiva’s creation. It’s an unpretentious temple, again much like the most ancient ones. Kaal means dark, and it also signifies death. It is said that not even the god of Death, Yama, has jurisdiction in Varanasi — Bhaironath determines not just death but also the type of afterlife thereafter. But before that, in a split second of time, the person has to undergo a form of penance or punishment for whatever wrong he or she may have committed, and this is called Bhairav Yaatana. Sounds weird? But look around at the devotees and you realise the complete devotion they are consumed with. Perhaps it’s good that in this age of arrogance of the human mind, there is at least somebody whom man truly respects and fears even.
I enter the temple through a door guarded by the image of a dog, which is Bhaironath’s mount. The main shrine looks congested, both in size and by the surge of devotees from across the country. Through the doorway of the inner sanctum, one spots Kaal Bhairav — silver-faced and decked with flowers. But that is about that, which is visible. The rest of the deity’s image is covered by a drapery of cloth. He manages to look both ferocious and kind. Daunted by the long queue that is waiting to make offerings through the presiding temple priest, I skip the offering but bow in respect and move on.
Standing outside the sanctum sanctorum, I am enticed by a pujari — or at least that is what I presume he is — holding a stalk of peacock feathers. He wants to exorcise the evils that have been tormenting me, and he wants to do it in the benign presence of Bhaironath. I relent, and he swishes the peacock broom across my back and on the neck and on the chest, all the while chanting shlokas. Satisfied that he had terrified the evil spirits enough to let go of me, he ends the ritual. All this costs me ten rupees. I ask him the meaning of the shlokas and where they are sourced from. He is clueless on both. Perhaps he hadn’t read Kashi Khand or the Puranas. Perhaps he ought to have taken time off from ridding humans from devilish spirits and not just read the shlokas inscribed on the walls of the temple but also imbibed their importance.
The birth of Kaal Bhairav is as fascinating as his deeds. Legend has it that Lord Shiva, angered by some blasphemy done by Lord Brahma, created Kaal Bhairav to teach the original ‘Creator’ a lesson. Bhaironath lost no time in slicing off one of Brahma’s heads. But then, much as he tried to throw it away, the head remained stuck to Bhairav’s hand. Lord Shiva’s creation then went through Kapaal Vrata (roughly translated as the ‘Vow of the Skull’), which one needs to undertake as penance for killing a Brahmin. He wandered all over with the skull stuck to his hand. It finally got unstuck and fell to the ground when Kaal Bhairav entered Kashi. It is said that Lord Shiva danced with joy at the feat.
So Kaal Bhairav is no ordinary deity. He is brave, even audacious, but ready to undergo penance for a wrongdoing too. Lord Shiva ordained him to be the protector of Kashi — the chief justice giver. His benevolence is to such extent that he devours other people’s sins. He is thus also referred to as Papabhakshana. He keeps records of people’s deeds in Varanasi, so there is no chance that one can deceive him. This is why every devotee who stands before him in the temple asks for forgiveness along with blessings. The deity need not be told of the sins done; it is assumed that he knows.
Just as Lord Shiva is the ‘Deity of Deities’ (Mahadev), Kaal Bhairav is the Bhairav of all Bhairavas. According to some pundits, there are about 64 Bhairavas, with eight of them considered very special. But Kaal Bhairav occupies the prime spot, for it is he alone who is the Kotwal of Kashi. And because he is unique, the rituals for his puja are unique too. One would shoo away a dog if it comes anywhere close to a puja place, but a dog close to a Kaal Bhairav prayer site is entertained lavishly and even made to sit by the side. And for millions of those who love kheer with honey, it may be of some delight for them to know that this sweet rice is the Bhairav’s favourite dish!
As I make my way out of the Kaal Bhairav temple, I turn over the pages of a booklet picked up from a stall outside. The quoting of these lines from Bhairav Chalisa from it is in order because they establish the deity’s hold over Varanasi:
Jai damroodhar nayan vishala
Shyam varn vapu maha karala
Jai thrishuldhar jai damroodhar
Kashi kotwal, sankat har.
(The writer is senior political commentator and public affairs analyst).
(Opening image courtesy: Murlidhar Pandey).