There are temples at almost every turn in Varanasi, but this is the most famous of the lot. It is dedicated to Vishveswara – Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore; the 800kg of gold plating on the tower and dome was supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later.
The area is full of soldiers because of security issues and communal tensions. Bags, cameras, mobile phones, pens and any electronic device must be deposited in lockers (₹20) before you enter the alleyway it’s in – or just leave your stuff at your hotel. Though accounts vary as to whether or not foreigners can go in the temple itself, we found it to be fairly straightforward: Head to Gate 2, where security will instruct you to walk past the long lines of Indians waiting in the queue, then go through a metal detector and security check. Walk past another line of Indians until you are pointed to a desk, where you must show your passport (not a copy) and leave your shoes. Then enter the temple through a door across the alley.
Once inside, things can be quite intense, with people pushing and tripping over each other for a chance to give an offering and touch the lingam (phallic symbol of Shiva), which absolves one of all sins. At other times, it's much more peaceful. Hindus routinely wait in lines for 48 hours to enter on particularly holy days.
On the northern side of Vishwanath Temple is the Gyan Kupor Well. The faithful believe drinking its water leads to a higher spiritual plane, though they are prevented from doing so by a strong security screen. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter here, and the rule is strictly enforced.