When five Hindu women moved a Varanasi court in August 2021 seeking permission to worship every day the image of Maa Shringar Gauri located on the back wall of the Gyanvapi mosque, as well as the “visible and invisible” deities within the mosque/old temple complex, it set in motion a chain of events that has transfixed the pious on both sides of the religious divide.
The petition by the five women is one among the many suits filed against the mosque in recent years, but this is one which is being seen as a significant step by the Hindu organisations to take control of the mosque. Here’s why.
The Shringar Gauri (an embodiment of Shiva’s consort Parvati) is visible as a smudge of vermillion and sandalwood on a bank of ancient stones along the western wall of the mosque. Ever since the case began to unfold in the courts, the wall is heavily guarded except for a day in Chaitra Navratri, when women are permitted to pray there. Before the Babri masjid’s demolition in December 1992, devotees used to worship there every day, but given its proximity to the mosque’s western wall, this was restricted following the communal tensions set off by the demolition in Ayodhya.
Quoting dates when the ancient Adi Visheshwar temple was demolished and looted several times in history by rulers such as Queen Raziya Sultana, Qutbuddin Aibak and lastly by Aurangzeb, the women in their petition maintain that even though there was repeated destruction of the temple structure, Hindu devotees continued to pay homage to the visible and invisible deities even after the destruction of the original temple. The petition also states that plot number 9130 on which the mosque stands, vests in Adi Visheshwar for “lacs of years” and therefore the “deity is the de jure owner” of the land. It goes on to say that “the construction raised in the regime of Aurangzeb, by and large is on the existing columns and remains of the temple.” That the eastern portion of the open platform of the mosque is formed by covering an extensive Hindu mandap with stone slabs, “a part of which is still in possession of Hindus.” It further claims that when the engineers of Aurangzeb set about the task of converting the old temple into a mosque, they retained as much of the old temple “as could be possible”, by utilising useful building material, levelled the debris and allowed it to remain in that condition, “which is still there.”
After a legal battle that went up to the Supreme Court, in April 2022, a civil court in Varanasi directed that notwithstanding the Places of Worship (Special Provisions ) Act 1991, a videographic survey of the mosque be done to ascertain where Shringar Gauri and other deities like Lord Hanuman, Lord Ganesh, Nandi are located. The survey was finally done in May. When the team reached the Wuzu khana (ablution tank) of the mosque, it found an object that the Hindu litigants immediately claimed as a Shivling. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad said it is one of 12 jyotirlingas and is the original Shivling of the Adi Visheshwar temple. The Muslims represented by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, hold that the object is a disused fountain made of lime and mortar, as is commonly found in several mosques and Mughal monuments of the time.
The surveyors inserted a seenkh (thin stick of metal) into the slabs at the top of the object, which went in, up to a depth of 63 cm. A report about the survey was sent to the court and the latter ordered that the tank be sealed. For the curious Hindu devotee, policemen guarding the mosque’s boundaries turn into eager guides who can be relied upon to point out the grilled box of the wuzu khana housing the object claimed to be a Shivling. They will also permit an occasional persistent visitor to cross over to the other side and see the image of Shringar Gauri on the back wall.
What began as a petition for permission to worship the image of Shringar Gauri on an outside wall of the mosque has now morphed into a full-fledged fight to open up the mosque for Hindu worshippers. There are many, including Rajendra Tiwari, the former mahant of the Vishwanath Temple, who see a repeat of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute playing out in Varanasi now.
In a lengthy conversation with this correspondent at his Lunka (a locality in Varanasi) residence, Tiwari raised several questions. “They have found a one-foot-high stone khumb (column), but it is hard to believe that this is a Shivling because there is no ‘Arghya’ beneath it. They should remove the round depression on which the column stands to see if there is any ‘Arghya’ there. Only then will it be recognised as a Shivling.”
He also points out that any stone Shivling more so a swayambhu (one that has risen by itself) will never have a hole or slats on its forehead. “All I am saying is, that there should be a proper, conclusive investigation to ascertain the truth, but they are touching only on a portion of the issue that aids their politics. Allowing it to linger in the air. This is pure political marketing of holy places. If they want to reverse the past, then they should say upfront that they want to break the mosque. But to produce Shivlings like this, smacks of deceit.”
Syed Mohammed Yaseen, who heads the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, points out that if the newly discovered object is the original ‘Shivling’ of the old Visheshwar temple, then what is the one which is in the Kashi Vishwanath temple, built by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1780 CE, a few metres away from the mosque?
Tiwari, whose forefathers were caretakers of the old Visheshwar temple and later of the existing temple built by Holkar, tells an interesting story about how the original ‘Shivling’ was saved when the temple was under destruction by Aurangzeb’s men in 1669 CE.
“The spot where the present temple stands today was the house of my ancestors. They hid the Shivling there for 40 years till the reign of Aurangzeb came to an end with his death in 1707. The Tiwari family gradually informed the people of the time that though the temple was destroyed, they had kept the Shivling safe, and people began coming to the house for darshan and prayers. When Ahilyabai Holkar, a Shaivaite, heard of this, she requested the caretakers that she would like to convert their house into a new temple of Shiva. Our ancestors readily agreed and built a house a few metres away from the temple, which had been my home till last year, when it was demolished by Modi’s men when the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor was being constructed. The Shivling in the temple built by Holkar is installed at the precise place where it was kept by my forefathers.”
But the history of the Vishwanath shrine goes back to much before Aurangzeb. Hindu organisations today skirt the fact that after its destruction by medieval Muslim invaders, it was during Akbar’s reign that the temple was rebuilt by his minister Raja Todar Mal in 1585 CE. The petition of the five women mentions that a magnificent temple was re-constructed by Raja Todar Mal, but the fact that this was done during Akbar’s reign is ignored. Says Tiwari, “The importance of the Shivling was always there since time immemorial. But it was Akbar who built a huge temple to house it. It is this temple which Aurangzeb destroyed.”
The Tiwari family retains a precious patta (deed) given to them by Shahjahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh which establishes that the Vishwanath temple was handed over to their ancestors to secure the ritual traditions of the temple, as they were the leading lights of the Shaivite sect at that time. “Dara Shikoh had come to Varanasi to study ancient Hindu religious texts and the descendants of the family which taught him still live here. But once Aurangzeb ascended the throne after killing Dara Shikoh, he began to target all those who had good relations with the latter and began to treat them as his adversaries. Our family’s oral history passed on to our generation says that this was one of the reasons why Aurangzeb demolished the temple,” says Rajendra Tiwari.
“While we all know that history is full of wrongs, in a democratic country like ours, a constructive leadership that claims to rule in accordance with the constitution must preserve history. But here, they are behaving just like the autocratic kings of the past. When large-scale demolitions were happening for the Corridor complex, our present rulers who claim to be the guardians of the Hindu dharma destroyed many ancient temples and Shivlings in the vicinity of the temple,” says Tiwari. How are they different from Aurangzeb, he asks. He claims that he rescued 186 old Shivlings from Rohit Nagar nullah, filed an FIR and brought them to the Lunka police station, where they are lying in a room of the thana. “I am pained to see the complex today as it resembles a shopping mall, with shops, hotels and convention halls. We lived there for centuries but they did not even spare us. We were evicted forcibly.”
And, what of the Muslim side? When scores of cases were being filed in the courts by residents of the Pucca Mahal and Lahori Tola localities around the temple, who were threatened by the Corridor demolition, did the mosque authorities take any preventive steps to preserve their turf? A small portion of the mosque’s property, 1700 sq feet, came within the Corridor project, but the administration moved quickly to quell any controversy with the Muslims. The Intezamia Masajid was given 1000 sq feet of commercial land elsewhere in lieu of that which came within the project area. It is a matter of record that more than 350 houses were demolished around the temple, most of which were being occupied by tenants. The buzz in Varanasi is that the owners were given hefty compensation for the lost properties and most of the litigation in the courts fell through.
There is also the curious matter of a huge stone Nandi (Shiva’s bull) that sits near the ancient Gyan kup (well) facing the mosque. After the discovery of the Gyanvapi Shivling/fountain, the Hindu side has begun to say that because the Nandi always faces a Shivling in Shiva temples, this is evidence that the original Shivling is somewhere in the mosque. There is no dispute over the fact that this particular Nandi was given to the temple by a king of Nepal. A prevalent story is that the king had accidentally killed a bull and was advised by the pundits to donate a statue to the temple. Yaseen claims that the British played mischief and deliberately turned the face of the Nandi towards the mosque to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims of the town. The Hindu kings of Nepal have some property, containing old temples, such as the temple of Raj Rajeshwarhi adjoining the Vishwanath complex. These properties have been left untouched. The matter is still in the courts, and each twist and turn of the case is watched with bated breath, Varanasi seems to be bracing itself for more drama in the coming months.