Varanasi: The crowds in Varanasi have swelled. Godowlia, the congested quarter that leads to the revered Kashi Vishwanath temple is a sea of humanity on all days of the week. Happy crowds, shopping, chattering, eating, with sandalwood smeared on their foreheads, as evidence that they have just had ‘darshan’ of the deity.
At the other end, where the Lalita and Manikarnika ghats have been parted to make way for the grand Sri Vishwanath temple dwaar which leads into the newly built temple complex, it is a picnic atmosphere. Yet another initiative to package old Banaras for tourists in 2023, is a tent city coming up on 100 acres of sandy banks across Assi ghat. Some 600 luxury tents, camel rides for children, gaming zones and more are all set to transform the view from the ghats.
Back near the main temple complex, people gawk in awe at the transformation, families take in the view of the Ganga from the steps, posing for pictures inside the corridor and its courtyard, now elaborately carved in sandstone from nearby Chunar. Orderly queues lead into the sanctum sanctorum under the watchful eyes of a handful of policemen. Pious Hindus from across the country are descending in droves on Varanasi nowadays to see the new marvel that Narendra Modi has created in ‘Kashi nagri.’ Tourism is booming and there is brisk business in the markets.
Turn the corner towards the west of the ancient temple, and grim barricades with visibly edgy policemen, follow you with their eyes. You have reached the walls of the Gyanvapi mosque, currently in the midst of a row as pressure from Hindu organisations mounts to be allowed to worship inside the mosque, as it was constructed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after demolishing the old Visheshwar temple in 1669 CE. The white domes of the mosque with peeling paint and shabby structures in urgent need of repair stand forlorn within its boxed barricades. The remains of the ancient settlements of Pucca Mahal and Lahori Tola, now demolished to make way for the temple complex, can be seen on the periphery like bombed-out structures with hollows where there were once doors and windows. “These will all be brought down soon, when the complex is expanded,” says a temple employee.
If the opening up of the Vishwanath temple complex, its wide open vistas, that can now accommodate thousands of worshippers has enthused its devotees, the city’s five lakh strong Muslim community worries for its mosque. Ever since the Corridor project was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi on December 13, 2021, there has been a renewed clamour that the mosque which was built on the spot of the original Visheshwar temple, be restored to the Hindus.
“There are some 15 cases in various courts related to the mosque and its plot number 9130,” says Ikhlaq Ahmed advocate for the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee (AIM) that manages the Gyanvapi mosque. He believes that the Ayodhya judgment of the Supreme Court – which awarded the title of the land where the Babri masjid stood before it was illegally demolished – “emboldened them to seek a similar exchange, or permission to pray inside the mosque. So every few weeks there is a new suit seeking permission to pray at one spot or the other in and around the mosque.” His fears go beyond courtroom machinations.
“If not more than three persons could enter the Vishwanath gali at a time before, today it is open to at least a hundred people and has made the masjid vulnerable to an attack by miscreants. Earlier, the dense maze of lanes and tightly packed houses afforded some protection to the mosque. But now if someone decides to organise a ‘kar sewa’ like they did in Ayodhya, it is easy in this wide open expanse….” he says in a low voice.
It is a fear that echoes in the Muslim quarters of the town, even though the age-old communal harmony of Varanasi is still intact on strong pillars of economic interdependence, as each community works with the other in the saree and brocade weaving industry.
“Yes there is peace between the Hindus and Muslims of the town, but at the same time more than a dozen cases of different types have been filed against us,” says Syed Mohammed Yaseen heading the AIM committee. He goes on, “In recent weeks, two new petitions have been filed against Lat Masjid and Dharhara masjid, both in Varanasi, seeking their restoration to Hindu organisations who wish to transform them into temples. We could not get any Hindu lawyer to represent us in the courts due to pressure from the people. Muslim worshippers are discouraged to worship at the Gyanvapi mosque by policemen who sometimes turn them away saying no ‘namaaz’ is being held here.”
As the mosque today finds itself locked in a troubling dispute, the government has denied permission to the AIM to carry out repairs and routine maintenance. The structure is crying out for a coat of paint. Its patchy white walls and domes are a grim contrast to the spanking new grandeur of the temple complex.
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 which states that the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947 must be maintained and therefore bars the changing of the mosque into a temple, seems to have become a mere footnote in the popular imagination. In the perception of the average Banarasi, there is a quiet confidence that after the opening up of the Vishwanath temple complex, it is a matter of time before the government finds a way to get around the legal protection given to mosques like Gyanvapi.
Subhash Kumar, a saree salesman who conducts his business in the maze of lanes behind the ghats called Thatheri bazaar, walks to work each morning from his house in Panchganga ghat, a few metres away. His world-view straddles the lives of those who live on the ghats (the Hindus) and the countless Muslims and Hindus who are engaged in the saree weaving industry.
“No one, but Modi, could do this in Banaras. When the Mughals were strong they demolished our temples. Now it is our turn. Jiski laathi uski bhains hoti hai na.” Is he not worried that any attempt to forcibly take the mosque from the Muslims could trigger violence and rioting? Subhash nods his head firmly. “Unlikely, because the Muslims know that they do not have the protection they enjoyed earlier from pro-Muslim parties. I think they also realise that times have changed. I also think that sooner or later they will be given another place to build their mosque, so that the matter can be resolved peacefully. ”
Despite attempts to rupture communal harmony in Banaras, the warp and weft of its fabric have withstood pressure – so far. “We know that there is trouble brewing on the horizon, the mosque can be handed over to Hindus under a constitutional umbrella, or through the courts, but I don’t see it impacting the fundamental sentiment of the town much,” says Alok Tripathi a journalist with a Hindi daily. He is quick to add, “When the baraat of Baba Vishwanath is taken out on Mahashivratri, the deity’s clothes are made by Muslim craftsmen. There are other rituals that are incomplete without the participation of Muslims. There was a time not long ago when Baba Vishwanath woke up to the music of Bharat Ratna Bismillah Khan’s shehnai each morning when the late maestro played from the Naubat Khana. He would do riyaaz on the ghats in front of the temple of Balaji. That sentiment is still very much part of the Banaras psyche, and is the only thing that gives us all hope.”
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist and author.