Kashi is one of the seven cities, considered by the Hindu's as Mokshadayikas or the cities leading to salvation. Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the 12 jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva is temples dedicated to Lord Shiva located in Varanasi.
A cluster of five lingas enclosed in a temple is called Nilakantheshvar temple. Just above the Avimukteshvara Vinayaka are temples of Shanishchara and Virupaksha. To the right just near the entrance is the temple enshrining a linga called Avimukteshvara. There is a controversy regarding the original Jyotirlinga at the place, which suggests that not the Vishwanatha but the Avimukteshvara is the original Jyotirlinga.
According to some scholars the other lingas like the Mahakala, Nikumbheshvara, Dandapanisvara, Vaikuntheshvara, kala Bhairava, kapileshvara, Kubereshvara bear the names of Yakshas. There are also images of Saubhagya Gauri, Shringar Gauri, Savitri, Vighneshvara Ganesha, Vyaseshvara etc. along with a cluster of small lingas to the north is called the court of Vishwanatha.
The temple is situated at Kashi (Banaras) and famous by the name of Shiv Vishwanath Kashi. Situated amidst the crowded lanes of Varanasi, the temple of Vishwanatha can be approached from a lane called Vishwanatha lane. It is said in the scriptures that when the earth was submerged under water (Pralaya). This city is also known as Varanasi as it is located between the two rivers Varana and Asi.
The Vishwanatha temple consists of a mandapa and a sanctum. Inside the sanctum a linga is set into the center of the floor in a square silver altar. The Linga is of black stone. Though the interior of the temple is not large and elaborate it presents the peaceful atmosphere ideal for worship.
Inside the courtyard is the temple of Vishwanatha surrounded by many subsidiary shrines. There is a well, called Jnana Vapi i.e., ‘wisdom well' located to the north of the main temple. As one enters the temple from the southern side the first temple to the left of the pilgrim are three temples in a row one behind the other - Vishnu, Virupakshi Gauri and Avimukta Vinayaka.
According to Dr. Vishwanath Pandey, a former officer on special duty at Kashi Hindu University, the proof of the construction of the Kashi Vishwanath temple five times is found in history. The first was built by Maharaja Vikramaditya near the Varuna-Ganga Sangam 2050 years ago. Fahian, the first Chinese traveler who came to Kashi in 402 AD to learn Sanskrit, has written about seeing the Shivling of emerald of Adi Vishweshwara consecrated by Maharaja Vikramaditya.
For the second time, the Vishweshwar temple was built near the pond of Ganj, but the historians did not get any specific information about this place. Dr. Vishwanath Pandey said that during the archaeological excavation at Rajghat in Varanasi, 2,500 years old Avimukteshwar seal was found, which was associated with the worship of Lord Shiva.
According to the book ‘Kashi Ka Itihas’ written by Raja Motichand of Kashi, the Adi Kashi Vishweshwar was broken for the first time by Qutubuddin in 1194 AD. After that, the temple was rebuilt, but in 1447 AD, the then Sultan of Jaunpur, Mahmud Shah Sharki, demolished it again.
After this, in 1585, during the reign of Akbar, Raja Man Singh built the Kashi Vishweshwar temple through finance minister Todarmal. Narayan Bhatt had helped in this construction. It was demolished and in 1669 AD Aurangzeb built the disputed Gyanvapi structure.
During the reign of Aurangzeb, Raja Jai Singh ‘II’ built Adi Vishweshwara temple in 1680 AD. After that, in 1780 AD, Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar got the Kashi Vishwanath temple ready. The shikhara rising over the Vishwanatha was plated with gold by King Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1839. Because of this golden spire the tourists also call the temple as golden temple of Varanasi.
It is said that in this temple, the original argha (on which the Shivling is installed) of Lord Adi Vishweshwar temple is kept to protect it from the Muslim invaders.
It is said in the scriptures that when the earth was submerged under water (Pralaya). Lord Shiva upheld holds this place by his Trishul. It is believed that who come and die here attain liberation (Moksha). Lord Shiva gives the Tarak Mantra to the ones who die here. The one who prays and worships Vishweshwar with devotion attains all his desires of happiness and liberation; and one who incessantly recites his name attains all siddhis and finally gets liberated.
The Vishveshvara, destructive of great sins. That which is seen as the substantive, as an entity in the form of knowledge and bliss, eternal and free from aberration, desired for a second. That second, of the tree of salvation, was possessed of attributes. It is named Shiva. That split itself into two in the male and the female forms. The male is famous as Shiva and the female is known as Shakti. The unseen Chit and Ananda created Prakriti and Purusha. Then a voice arose from the great attributeless atman— “Penance shall be pursued by you for the generation of excellent creation.” Prakriti and Purusha said: — O Shiva, there is no place for penance. Where shall we sit and perform this penance at your behest? Then a beautiful city endowed with the requisite articles, the auspicious essence of brilliance extending to five Kroshas was created and established by Shiva devoid of attributes, in the firmament near the Purusha. Occupying it with a desire for creation and meditating, Vishnu performed penance for a long time. Due to his exertion various currents of water began to flow. When the holy centre extending to five Kroshas began to float on the waters, it was supported on Trident by Shiva devoid of attributes. Vishnu slept there itself along with his consort Prakriti. At the behest of Shiva, Brahma was born of his umbilical lotus. At the behest of Shiva, he evolved a wonderful creation. The fourteen worlds were created in the Cosmic Egg. The extent of the Cosmic Egg is fifty crores of Yojanas as glorified by the sages.
This Kashi is the bestower of auspiciousness in the world. It is destructive of action. It illuminates salvation. It is the bestower of knowledge. The phallic image Avimukta is installed by the great Shiva himself. Shiva himself brought Kashika from his Trident and released it in the mortal world. At the close of the day of Brahma (when all other objects perish) it certainly does not perish. Shiva upholds it by means of his Trident. When the creation is resumed again by Brahma it is replaced. It is called Kashi because it pulls out or destroys our actions. The phallic image Avimukteshvara stays in Kashi always, yielding salvation to the people including even the great sinners. The excellent type of salvation Sayujya is attained here alone. Shiva the sovereign ruler of all, stayed there for rendering help to the people.
Legend as per Shiva Purana:
Once goddess Parvati asked Shiva with great joy about the greatness of the two Avimuktas—Kashi and Vishveshvara, out of desire for the welfare of the worlds. Shiva replied: - “Varanasi is my mysterious shrine. It is the cause of salvation for the people in every respect. In this holy centre, the Siddhas have always taken to my holy rites. They hold different phallic images. They yearn to attain my world. Those who have conquered themselves and controlled their sense-organs pursue the great Pashupata Yoga which is explained in the Vedas, yielding worldly pleasures and salvation. The two deserve liberation—he who is my devotee and he who has perfect knowledge. They are not the dependence on holy centres. They are equanimous in regard to what is prescribed and what is forbidden. They must be known as liberated souls, no matter where they die. They are sure to attain salvation.
Avimukta is the holy centre where people of all castes, of all stages of life, whether children, youths or the aged, if they die in this city, are undoubtedly liberated. The sweat-born, (lice, bugs etc.) the egg-born (birds), the germinating ones (plants and trees) and the embryo-born (mammals) these living beings do not attain salvation elsewhere as they do at this place. There is no dependence on perfect knowledge here, nor that on devotion, nor that on holy rites, nor that on charitable gifts. There is no dependence on culture, nor that on meditation at anytime, nor that on repetition of names, nor that on adoration, nor that even on noble nativity. Whoever may be the man staying in my holy centre, whatever may be the manner of his death, if he dies here, he certainly attains salvation. This holy centre is known as Avimukta. It is greater than Naimiṣa and all other holy centres in yielding salvation to the deceased. Among thousands of rebirths, a Yogin is born here. Then, dying here, he attains the highest salvation. If a sinless man dies, he attains salvation immediately. If a sinner dies here, he assumes multitudes of births. He attains salvation only after experiencing tortures. He who commits sins in the holy centre of Avimukta, experiences tortures at the hands of Bhairava for ten thousand years and then attains salvation. The annihilation of good and evil is liberation. The causes bondage is (1) hoarded (Sanchita) (2) the current (Kriyamaṇa) and (3) that which has started yielding results (Prarabdha). The actions of the previous births are classified as hoarded. The action the fruit of which is being experienced in the present birth is Prarabdha. Whether good or bad the action performed in this birth is known as Kriyamaṇa. The annihilation of the Prarabdha Karman is only through enjoyment and not otherwise. The destruction of the other two types of action is possible through worship alone. If after reaching Kashi a man takes his ceremonial bath in the Ganges, the two types of actions viz. the current and the hoarded are destroyed. If a person dies in Kashi, he is freed from rebirth. If a man dies at Prayaga, his desires for worldly enjoyment and salvation are fulfilled.
Reference: Shiva Purana, Koṭirudra Saṃhita, Chapters - 22, 23