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Before it was recently infused with grandeur, the first thing a new visitor to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple might have noticed is not the modest Hindu temple, but that it shared a wall with the more imposing Gyanvapi Mosque. And this was not just any mosque, no. You would soon learn that this was the mosque Aurangzeb built in 1669 on the site of the older, much grander, Vishwanath Temple.
Only a few years prior, before you even entered the temple, just by the presence of the paramilitary Rapid Action Force (RAF) standing guard along the narrow lanes at the entrance, you got the impression of a Hindu-Muslim fight on the brink. Then once you were inside it, a pandit would tell you about how when Aurangzeb’s men were destroying the older shrine, a pandit ran to save the Shivlingam and jumped with it into the Gyanvapi well. And when you stood by the well, which remains within the newly constructed temple’s premises, he would tell you that if you looked carefully you could make out the base of the old temple beneath the mosque. And how the statue of Nandi, also within the present temple’s premises, faces the mosque.
“And as you know, Nandi can only face Shiva. Hai na?”
Writing in The New Cambridge History of India: Architecture of Mughal India, Catherine B. Asher (published 1992) notes: “Aurungzeb’s mosque dominates the famous Benares riverfront. Located at the top of the very steep steps leading to Panchganga Ghat, the mosque was even more visible and clearly symbolized a powerful Muslim presence in this holiest of all Hindu cities when its tall minarets still stood.”
And it is precisely these minarets towering over Kashi’s presiding temple that have remained the cause of bitterness among some Hindus. For them, the mosque’s presence is like an old wound one can scratch with the telling of an old story and inflict pain.
Certainly, one could argue that this most recent flare-up of tensions in Varanasi is a continuation of the story of the Vishwanath Temple and the adjoining Gyanvapi Mosque, as much the story itself is a parable for the indissoluble mesh of Indian peoples, religions and politics.
The historical context
As per Hindu memory, the earliest Vishweshwur temple was constructed in the 11th century by a Hari Chandra. But this assertion appears to be based on hearsay rather than historical research.
Still, “despite the obscurity of its early history”, writes Diana Eck in her seminal book Banaras, City of Light, “we know that by the twelfth century Vishveshvara attracted the worship of a King Govardhachandra, for he left an inscription to say so. In the same century, an inscription from South India records that a certain King of Karnataka set up a fund to help the pilgrims of his area pay the Muslim-imposed tax so that they could visit Vishveshvara in Varanasi.” But this Vishweshwur temple was destroyed by Qutub-Ud-Din-Aibak during Mohammad Ghori’s rule in 1194 and a mosque was built on that site by “the famous ruling princess of the Delhi Sultanate, Raziyyat-ud-din (Razia) during her short reign (1236-40)”.
For over 500 years after the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206, Eck continues, the entire Ganges valley came under Muslim domination. And while “the history of this period is complicated, and the various Muslim dynasties which came to power through the centuries were far from monolithic in their policies toward the sacred sites of the Hindus” and “there were certainly high moments in these centuries, when Kashi recaptured something of its lost glory, with ambitious temple construction and stimulating scholarly activity, for the most part these were hard times. The religious life of the city was under almost constant threat. At least six times during these years the temples of Kashi were destroyed”.
Things only changed in the 1500s during the liberal reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who not only permitted, but in some cases sponsored, the rebuilding of temples. Indeed, “some of the Hindu Rajputs of Rajasthan, who were allies of Akbar, participated actively in the construction of Banaras ghats and temples during this part of the Mughal period”.
Pertinently, it was during Akbar’s reign “that the reconstruction of the Vishveshvara Temple, perhaps on the most magnificent scale ever (emphasis mine), was undertaken by Narayana Bhatta in 1585.[…]. But “the glorious day of this Vishvanatha Temple [..] was very brief indeed. In less than a century, in 1669, it was torn down at the command of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Half-dismantled, it became the foundation for the present Jnana Vapi Mosque”.
During the reign of Aurangzeb “some of the city’s greatest temples including Vishveshwur, Krittivasa and Bindu Madhava, were razed, their sites forever sealed from Hindu access by the construction of mosques”. Moreover, “in his zeal for crushing Hindu idolatry, Aurangzeb even tried to rename the city “Muhammadabad”, but the name did not stick”.
The net result of these tectonic events, however, was that not only is there no major religious sanctuary in all of Banaras that predates the time of Aurangzeb in the 17th century (as Madhuri Desai writes in her book Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu Holy City, published 2017), but that the memory of Aurangzeb’s demolition was seared into the Hindu consciousness for generations to come.
Change came a century later when in 1777, Ahilyabai Holkar, the queen of Indore, sponsored the reconstruction of the Vishwanath temple beside the Gyanvapi Mosque and her temple is the one at which pilgrims pay homage to Shiva today.
Not that Ahilyabai Holkar made the first attempt at reconstruction. Her father Malhar Rao Holkar, a Maratha chief, had originally intended to rebuild a Shiva temple on the same spot as the older one after tearing down the mosque. But his attempts never amounted to anything concrete.
Nonetheless, the construction of Ahilyabai’s temple marked a key turning point, as from here on it was the Hindus who added accretions to the Vishwanath temple that extend well into our own times.
In 1828, Baiza Bai, a Scindia maharani, is said to have constructed the low-roofed colonnade for the Gyanvapi well, and in 1835, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikh Empire, donated one tonne of gold for plating the temple’s dome.
“In a continued effort to assign “Hindus” and “Muslims” to their respective spaces,” writes Desai, “the colonial government handed the Gyan Vapi mosque to a local community of weavers in Banaras…. But notwithstanding these efforts, the weekly Friday congregation in the mosque remained skeletal. Although the mosque was sparsely used, its plinth remained at the heart of rival claims well into the twentieth century. A peepul tree within the mosque precinct was an object of veneration as well as contention. As Sherring observed “the Hindus will not allow the Mohammedans to pluck a single leaf from it.” (Emphasis mine.)
Then, moving into our own age, three significant events occurred:
In 1992 the Supreme Court mandated the protection of the mosque, fearing that it could become a flashpoint after Hindutva activists demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. And in March 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, following which in November that same year the Supreme Court ordered that the disputed land in Ayodhya be handed over to a trust to be set up by the government to build the Ram Janmabhoomi temple there.
Among the many reasons the court gave for its verdict, two are noteworthy. First, the court said that as per the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), there was evidence of a temple-like structure having existed on the land before the mosque was built. And second, that the Muslim parties had failed to establish exclusive possession of the disputed land while the Hindu parties furnished better evidence to prove that Hindus had worshipped continuously inside the mosque, believing it to be the birthplace of Lord Ram.
Could something like what happened in Ayodhya be repeated in Varanasi? Was it conceivable for the Hindus of the city to make similar claims on the site of the Gyanvapi Mosque? Considering the meteoric rise of Hindutva in the last decade, can’t one now reasonably say that it is the Indian Muslim rather than the Hindu who has reason to fear that her historical sites might come under the pall of destruction?
Of course, I was not the only one asking myself these questions. Michael Dumper in his book People, Power and Politics: The Politics of Holy Cities in the Twenty-First Century (published in July 2020) has voiced similar concerns and he is not the only one to do so.
“To most Hindus, the demolition of the original temple housing the linga and its replacement with a mosque are a tragedy to be regretted and mourned,” he writes. “To contemporary Hindu nationalists, they are a desecration and an outrage that must be reversed…. Since independence and particularly since the rise of Hindutva parties in state and national legislatures and their success in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the Gyan Vapi Mosque is now in the nationalists’ crosshairs—its time possibly numbered and contingent upon the balance of demographic trends and political force in the city, in the region and across India.”
However, he adds that several practical factors militate against such a scenario from arising. One, unlike Ayodhya, the Muslims of Banaras are a sizeable chunk, about a third, and they carry considerable political weight. The Samajwadi Party who represents lower castes and Muslims, plays a major role in the city’s politics, and has secured a majority in the state legislature in recent times. Moreover, Muslims provide the workforce for weaving, a key Banaras industry that is tied to the livelihood of many Hindu businessmen.
The Uttar Pradesh state elections in 2022 further demonstrate that while the influence of Hindutva politics is unquestionably strong – the BJP received 41.3% of the vote share in the state – the sway of religious minorities and lower castes can also never be sidelined. The Samajwadi Party the Bahujan Samajwadi Party collectively received a 45% vote share.
At the time of the inauguration of the refurbished Kashi Vishwanath Temple Complex in December 2021, I reached out to S.M. Yasin, the general secretary of the Anjuman Intizamiya Masjid (AIM), a body set up by the Sunni Waqf Board as the caretaker of the Gyanvapi Mosque, to ask him for his views on the changing of landscape of his city.
“There was no pressure on us at all,” he said. “And there has been no blockage to our access. In fact, before there was only one way to the mosque and it was very narrow. Now because of the widened area we will have better access. I think the people who are more upset are from the other community.” He hesitated. “I mean the Hindu community.”
And he was not wrong. Rajendra Tiwari, a mahant at the Vishwanath temple, whose own house had been demolished thanks to the city’s makeover, was one of the most outspoken critics of Vishwanath Corridor I happened to speak with.
“Banaras had an old puranic identity, a historical identity, which the present government has completely destroyed,” he said. “They have converted our city from a spiritual centre into a commercial one.”
“What pains me most is that there were many gods and goddesses in the gullies all around [the temple] and we would pray to each one. There was the Panchkroshi Yaatra” – a 13th century pilgrimage which circumnavigates Kashi – “for instance. And the Antargriha route. All this is now history.”
I remembered Yasin’s measured tone – “Up until now I have felt no danger,” he said. “But I can not speak to the future.” – when I spoke to him again recently.
“As you know they [the Hindu petitioners] are saying that a pole found in the wazookhana [place for ablution] is a Shivalingam,” he said. “So the area has been sealed but the namaz is carrying on. Now the matter is with the Supreme Court.”
But for the legitimacy of the petitioners’ claim, his words were unequivocal: “Jhoot jab logon ko sach lagne lage, iske bare mein hum kya kahein? (What can I say if people take falsehoods as true?)”
Mahant Rajendra Tiwari, too, was his old vigorous self:
“Pathar ka stamb mila hai fuvaare mein. Ki yeh Vishwanath hai yeh kisne pramanit kiya hai? Kashi Vishwanath koi samanya devta nahi hain. Pure Brahmaand ke Devta hain (They have found a stone pole in the fountain. So what? Who will decide if this is Lord Vishwanath? Vishwanath is no ordinary God. He is the God of the Universe),” he said, echoing the Hindu belief that the Kashi Jytorlingam represents the (nirguna) Shapeless Supreme Reality out of which appears the (saguna) form of Lord Shiva.
“If you walk from Gowdolia Chowk to Dashashwamedh Ghat, you’ll see some 200 stones that look just like this,” he continued. “Will people now start saying that these are also Lord Vishwanath? These people are making a joke out of Vishwanath’s magnificence.”
“And to all these people standing up for dharma today I want to ask, where were they when our old temples were being broken?”
As a supreme holy city of Hinduism, Kashi’s relationship with Aurangzeb, and by extension with Islam, has long been fraught.
But while some have sought to diminish Muslim contributions, their claims sit uncomfortably not just with the architectural evidence. (“Masons modified Mughal fashion as well as transformed Hindu precedents, appropriated Mughal columns and arches, and experimented with archaic forms, particularly temple Shikaras,” Madhuri Desai notes.) But also with the city’s rich Ganga-Jamuni heritage of inter-communal commingling.
If Varanasi is Kashi, the city where Shiva’s light intersects the Earth, it is correspondingly Banaras, where like its lassi, the attitudes of one people have always seeped into and stirred the customs, arts and philosophy of The Others.
Banaras is the city of Kabir, that brilliant poet who always mocked religion. Some said that Kabir was Muslim. He was a Hindu, a pupil of the Ramananda, said others. But the story everybody agrees on is that when he died and people of both faiths were bickering over how to dispose his remains, when they lifted the cloth covering his body they found under it a spread of flowers.
Banaras is where the poet Akhtar Sheerani, who was born in British India and died in Pakistan, wrote, according to Ali Fraz Rezvi:
“tamam hind mein’ mash’hoor hai yahaan’ ki subah, kuch is qadar
hai saher khushnuma banaras ki
(The mornings of Banaras are famous in all of Hindustan, such is their beauty).”
Rezvi further notes in The Hindu that sitting at Dashashwamedh Ghat, Allama Syed Ijteba Hussain Rizvi described the sunrise in a nazm titled Subh-e-Banaras in 1933:
“tamasha ki wo arzaani, wo ganga, wo sanamkhaana, banaras ki
saher, asnaan ki taqreeb-e-rozaana
(It is a theatre of excess, the Ganga here, the temple there, people bathing in the ghats; these mornings of Banaras)
sanamkhaanaharam waale zara kashi ka manzar dekhte jaayen’, kabhi dekheinge
jannat, par abhi dekhein’ sanamkhaana
(Dwellers of the holy Kaaba must see the city of Kashi; they will see the heavens one day, but let them see the temples today).”
And Banaras is where Ustad Bismillah Khan’s uncle, the late Ali Baksh ‘Vilayatu’, was once the shehnai player in the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Varanasi is the one city which, to my mind, approaches something of an Indian microcosm. And it is my love for all that it represents that led me to ask myself these searching questions on my last visit: What kind of India are we? Are we inclusive or majoritarian? Who do we want to become?
Whether reliable or not, when I visited Varanasi in March 2022, I sniffed rumours about the next phase of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor Project; which, some said, would lead to appropriation of more land from the Gyanvapi mosque.
I asked the pandit escorting me around the temple that hot afternoon to once again show me the old wall running alongside it. As before, the masjid stood behind high barbed wires. But now completely overawed by the glistening Vishwananth complex, it appeared rather derelict and sad.
A lone elderly man with white beard stood on a terrace peering at the milling Hindu throngs with a look of awe.
“So what if this was the site of the older temple?” I said. “Now we have our grand temple. Everybody should be just happy and get along.” And a young man turned to face me.
“Really?” he said, his eyebrows arching. “The old temple used to be here?”
As I backed away I could hear him tell his wife: “The old temple used to be where this mosque is. They never tell us these things.”
Madhuri Desai writes in her book: “Patronage for temples, monasteries, and other built elements was connected to contemporary cultural conditions. Consequently, the built environment of the city’s sacred zones altered along with urbanization and politics.”
These words echo in what she said to me by email in January 2022: “The physical changes that are being envisaged and carried out for Banaras today are in keeping with the many layered changes that have been made to its physical fabric through the centuries. As before, contemporary politics and visions continue to shape its built environment.”
But it is another point Desai makes in her book that is even more remarkable:
“Far from overturning religious sentiments and identities, the sheer act of dismantling it [by Aurangzeb] may have transmuted Visheshwur into the undisputed center and fulcrum of the city’s ritual landscape” setting “the stage for the Kashikhand in its role as the ultimate pilgrimage text on the city,” she writes.
Oh, the irony of people and faith.
The irony of people, power and politics.
Siddharth Kapila‘s travel memoir on Hindu pilgrimage sites, Tripping Down the Ganga, is due to be published by Speaking Tiger.
Note: In an earlier version, citation for two couplets which were quoted from Ali Fraz Rezvi’s article in The Hindu had been inadvertently dropped. It has now been added.