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Gyanvapi: Tales Of Fear, Hope And Redemption From Ancient Kashi

Ground Report

Gyanvapi: Tales Of Fear, Hope And Redemption From Ancient Kashi

Gyanvapi Mosque-Kashi Viswanath Temple Dispute: Kashi is where fact, faith and fiction come together to form a unique tapestry of text, subtext and context.

Ancient lanes Once, they led to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Since the Corridor was built, they bear Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Ali Akbar was fixing his tray of flower and incense bowls for pilgrims at a shop outside the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi on Friday, May 20, when he saw the police. “A regular fixture here,” he tells Outlook. That day, however, there were hundreds of cops. “It’s Jumma [Friday prayers]. They’re exp­ecting trouble,” he adds. Earlier on Thursday, members of the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee issued an appeal to Muslims in the area to not crowd the Gyanvapi mosque this week. By 1pm, however, the street outside Gate 4, the common entrance to the Gyanvapi-Vis­h­w­a­nath complex, were chock-a-block with local devotees turning up in hordes to pray at the 17th century mosque. Many had to be dispersed into other nearby mos­ques after police claimed Gyanvapi was full. “Gyanvapi mosque is usually not this crowded,” says Akbar, who worked at a shop owned by a Hindu, selling items of Hindu faith. “But with Hindus wanting to pray inside it, things are cha­nging. Some people are afraid they might not be able to enter the mosque again,” Akbar says.

Dharam Yuddha

A few weeks ago, five Hindu women—four of them from Kashi—moved a local court for the right to pray at the Shringar Gauri complex located behind the western wall of the Gya­nvapi mosque. Based on their pleas, a Var­a­nasi civil court ordered a video survey of the mosque premises. Hindus claim the mos­que, built in 1669 during Mughal ruler Auran­g­zeb’s reign, stands on the ruins of ancient Hindu temples.

ALSO READ: Will Gyanvapi Set Off Another Ayodhya In India?

“The mosque is built on sacred temple land. Aurangzeb broke the temples and built the mos­que. You can see the temples’ walls that form the base and parts of the mosque. They just put a cap on it,” says Sohan Lal Arya, the man credited with bringing together the four Varanasi women in the petition.

Three of the four Hindu petitioners—Rekha, Sita & Manju
Three of the four Hindu petitioners—Rekha, Sita & Manju Photographs: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Arya has long been waging a legal battle against the mosque. Inspired by the Ayodhya movement, Arya, who is the husband of plaintiff Laxmi Devi and head of Vishwa Hin­du Parishad’s Kashi chapter, seems to have sou­ght the help of ‘nari-shakti’ this time. The four petitioners, all housewives reportedly han­dpi­c­ked by Arya, have been grabbing newspaper headlines with their beaming photos. Despite Sohan Lal’s backing, they boisterously reject links to any religious organisation and claim they are themselves bearing the costs of the lawyers and the police protection.

ALSO READ: ASI Took Just 10 Days To Compile Ayodhya Report, Is It Being Used As A Tool To Serve Political Goal?

“We have received a lot of love and support from people. This is a dharam yuddha and we are at its forefront,” says Manju Vyas, one of the petitioners. Vyas, who has done a beautician’s course, is the daughter of a mahant of a Kashi temple. Sitting in the Varanasi court compound, she offers free skincare tips to journalists while waiting for her turn. “My family has prayed to Shringar Gauri for years. It was only after 1991 that Hindus were barred entry and the mosque complex barricaded. We want access to the goddess again,” she asserts. 

Rekha Pathak, another petitioner, claims they are fighting for all womankind. “Mata Shringar Gauri is the resident deity of married Hindu wom­en. She is a keeper of our ‘suhaag’. We have every right to pray to her. Yet, we’re not allowed in, because there is a mosque atop the bas relief. Is that fair?”

Old fissures

While Shringar Gauri is an ancient deity hers­elf, in the land of the Mahakaal, Vishwanath dwarfs all. What started as a petition seeking simple rights to pray within the mosque premises has now snowballed into a more complica­ted matter, after counsels for the Hindu side claimed to have found a ‘Shivling’ inside the mos­que’s wazu khana—a small pool to perform ablutions before namaz—during its video survey by ASI. While the contents of the survey report have not been made public yet, the ‘dis­covery’ has led to speculations galore. The mosque committee has rejected Hindu claims and described the found object as a part of an old and defunct fountain.

Street view near Vishwanath temple
Street view near Vishwanath temple Photographs: Tribhuvan Tiwari

When the Ram Janmabhoomi movement for the construction of a temple by demolishing Babri Masjid in Faizabad began, ripples of it were felt across the country, including Kashi. Before that, the Gyanvapi mosque and Vishw­a­nath temple coexisted without any boundaries. People could off­er prayers to Shringar Gauri whenever they wan­ted. Hindu and Muslim children played in the shared compounds of the mos­que and temple. Soc­ial history scholar and former Officer on Special Duty at Benaras Hindu University (BHU), Viswanath Pandey, recalls visiting the mos­que as a child. “There were three shops that lined the mos­que. A bangle seller, a flower seller and shoe keeper. We used to visit the premises with our friends and get sweetmeats from local shops. There was never any animosity,” Pan­dey recalls. The Asi moha­lla resident however states that aft­er 1991, things changed. “Per­haps fearing a repeat of Babri, the district administ­r­at­ion barricaded the complex and put cops at the gates, thus starting the separation of the mosque and the temple.”

ALSO READ: Goa’s Own Gyanvapis: Govt To Reconstruct Temples Destroyed During Portuguese Regime?

Varanasi mufti and Imam of Gyanvapi mos­que Abdul Batin Nomani, who is part of the committee fighting the legal matter in court, agrees that the tensions began in 1991. “A case was filed by Hindus, claiming the mosque was built after breaking a temple and so the land on which the mosque is built belongs to Hindus. They want that land back. That case is still on and we are fighting it,” Nomani tells Outlook.   
“In this new case on Shringar Gauri, the matter has taken strange new turns, with the alle­ged discovery of a Shivling. It is for the courts to decide but I’m sure it’s a fountain,” he says.

What started as a Hindu petition seeking rights to pray within the gyanvapi premises has snowballed, after Hindus claim to have found a Shivling inside the wazu khana.

Nomani also narrates how in 1937, there was a property dispute among Muslims regarding the land on which Gyanvapi was built. The case went to the Allahabad high court, which ruled that the entire building is a mosque and the land belongs to it. “Apart from being at loggerheads with the 1937 high court judgment, the Hindus are also fighting against the Places of Worship (PoW) Act, 1991,” he says. The Committee has moved the Supreme Court against the validity of the civil court ordered survey, claiming that the Hindu petition is against the PoW Act.

Sudhir Tripathi, the lawyer representing four of the Hindu wom­en petitioners,  maintains that their petition did not violate the PoW Act. “Where have we asked for the breaking or removal of the mosque? We just want the right to pray to Mata Shringar Gauri inside the mosque premises,” Tripathi clarifies.

ALSO READ: Gyanvapi: Whose Land Is It? Check History Of The Temples And Mosques Here

Fact and fiction

The mood among many Hindu residents in the Gyanvapi-Vishwanath area, however, is not as amiable. “We want the mosque removed. That land belongs to Hindus. Who knows how many more Shivlings and other deities lare buried und­er it,” asks Pawan Kumar, a local. Anita, ano­ther resident of the Neelkanth mohalla beh­ind the temple-mosque complex, was full of praise for PM Modi. “Aurangzeb took that land away, now Modi ji and Yogi ji will bring it back,” she says, while sweeping the floor of her home overlooking a boundary wall of the Kashi Vis­h­wan­ath Corr­i­dor. She admits missing her nei­g­h­bours, most of who had to move after the­ir homes were demolished due to the Corridor construction. “Yes, the streets have become desolate and quiet now. But Modi ji has built the corridor to improve Vara­nasi’s economy and make the region more prosperous with tourism. He has brought back Kas­hi’s Hindu glory,” she adds.

Locals at Manikarnika Ghat
Locals at Manikarnika Ghat Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Locals are not the only ones divided on the mos­­que issue, or about the new, changing face of Varanasi. “The ghats and temples used to be places of worship, quietude and meditat­ion. Now it has become one big mall,” says Raj­ender Tripathi, former mahant of Vis­h­wa­nath temple. Dr Kulpati Tiwari is the current and chief mah­ant of the temple. The duo belongs to the same family of mahants that has been the custodian of the Vishweshwar temple for decades. Tripathi claims his family saved the original Shivling of Vishw­e­shwar in 1669, when Aurangzeb’s administration broke the temple to build the Gyanvapi mosque. “Ahilyabai Hol­kar only founded the cur­rent temple. The original Shivling was with us. Now, some Hindus are claiming the Shivling found in the wazu khana is the original Vish­w­e­s­h­war Shivling, that the one currently in the tem­ple was established by Ahilyabai. That’s ent­irely false. Our family has always had the real Shi­vling,” Tripa­thi adds. He points out further anomalies. “What they found in the wazu khana has holes and long shafts that look like they held pipes inside them. A Shivling doesn’t have holes. If you try to drill a hole in one, it breaks,” Tiwari says.

ALSO READ: Mandir-Masjid Row: Bengal's Adina Mosque, Largest In Indian Subcontinent, Next In Line?

Kulpati Tiwari, the present mahant of the Vis­­hweshwar temple, though, is convinced the obj­ect found in the wazu khana is a Shivling. “What else can it be? The Lord has manifested to claim what is his,” says Tiwari. When asked why the Lord chose to emerge now, after deca­des of pea­ceful coexistence between Muslims and Hindus, he says, “Who are we to question where and how the Lord will emerge? They’ve held the space for long. Now they should leave.”

Well of wisdom

The Gyanvapi well is said to predate the Ganga and believed to be the source of divine water on Earth. For centuries, pilgrims made sure the­ir first and last sips of water in Varanasi came from the well. In later years, the well was covered with wire mesh and cloth to prevent desecration of the water and to prevent the occasional moksha seeker from jumping in. Ins­t­e­ad, water was drawn out and served to pilgrims.

ALSO READ: Varanasi Diary: A Teacher Recalls And Laments Her ‘Lost City’

Kashi is where fact, faith and fiction come tog­e­ther to form a unique tapestry of text, subtext and context. While most believe Aur­angzeb and other rulers bro­ke important Hindu temples to establish Islam as fact, the real question, according to local community leader Atiq Ans­ari, should be, “How far back in history do we go to set right past wrongs? Sho­uld we go back to Pushya­m­itra Shu­nga’s era, when Hindus are said to have massacred Bud­dh­i­sts? Or to the time of the Aryans?”

The mosque of wisdom & discord Aerial view of Gyanvapi mosque, with a dome of the Vishwanath temple
The mosque of wisdom & discord Aerial view of Gyanvapi mosque, with a dome of the Vishwanath temple visible in the foreground Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

Varanasi has indeed been a seat of Hinayana Buddhism. In the 6th century, the Kashi kingdom under King Kash covered a large swath of land including Varanasi, and had three domin­ant religi­ons—Hindusim, Bud­dhism and Jain­ism. In fact, Gau­tama Bud­dha is said to have started his teaching in Varanasi. Sarnath, just 10 km away, rema­ins a rev­e­red site for Buddhists even today. By the time Muslim rulers arrived, Hindusim had dominated and become the primary religion of the land.

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the mahant of the Sankant Mochan temple, has lived near Tulsi Ghat for 55 years, in the ancient residence of his forefathers. He is part of the Goswami Tulsidas Santan Akhada, founded by Ramcharit­manas-author Tulsidas. He is also the head of the electronics engineering department in IIT-BHU.  “Varanasi is a prototype of India. People from all states, religions and communities have come and settled here, and live in peace. Some say it’s a religious place, but really, it’s a spiritual place with its own syncretic cult­ure,” Mishra tells Outlook. Of late, Mishra fears this culture is under threat from political for­c­es. While politics does not surprise him, he claims he is somewhat shocked by the people of Kashi today. “People here were always vocal. They have never stood for any nonsense and knew how to make their objections heard. Today’s Kashi seems to have become a mute spectator to the tyranny of a powerful few,” Mishra says.

Britisher James Princep’s 1831 sketches of Varanasi show Hin­du pri­ests sitting outside Gyanvapi. Wit­hin a few decades, hundreds of temp­les grew around the mos­­que.

In his 1991 paper The Life of a Text: Perfor­m­ing the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, American indologist Philip Lutgendorf notes, “On a particularly busy weekend in October 1983, for example, there were some 40 Ramlila pageants running concurrently in various neighbourho­ods, along with 30 Muharram processions and more than a 100 elaborate Durga Puja tableaux mounted by Bengali cultural associations.” While such records are proof of the city’s cohesive culture, the Gyanvapi mosque has been a bone of contention for long. In1809, Varanasi witn­e­ssed one of its worst communal riots, after Hindus allegedly tri­ed to build a temple on the neut­ral ground between the mos­que and the temple. The Lat Bhairo riots have been vividly described in colonial records as a period of tension between Hindus and Mus­lims, with both parties atta­c­king and defiling each other’s religious spa­ces, including Gya­n­vapi well and mosque. In the end, the Hindus seem to have prevailed. The 1831 sketches of Varanasi by British architect James Princep show Hin­du pri­ests and ascetics sitting outside the Gyanvapi complex. Wit­hin a few decades, hundreds of temp­les mushroomed around the mos­­que. Today, the Kashi Cor­r­i­dor has all but hidden the mosque from view, with a single minaret and half a dome peeking out from behind its enormous facade.

Sitting just a few kilometres away from the gha­ts at his new home in Lunka, former mahant Tripathi reminisces Kashi’s byl­a­nes, his home and the temples that were demolished to make way for the Cor­r­i­dor. Unlike others, he did not settle for the compe­nsation offered, but continues to fight a property dispute case against the construction of the Cor­r­idor on land that belo­n­­ged to his family. He flashes the photocopy of a land deed that dates back to the time of Aurang­zeb, replete with a seal of the emperor, in which the patch of land on which the Vishweshwar and adjoining temples are bequea­t­hed to the mahant family in charge, making them owners of the land from Mughal times. The deba­tes reg­arding the mosque, however, make him lau­gh. “They are claiming this is a Dharam Yud­­dha for Hindus. Where were these Hindus when they were breaking down temples to build the Corr­idor? They want to start praying to the Shivling they claim to have found in the mosque. Where were these Hindus when the administration carelessly left Shivlings lying on the ground?” he asks.

As communal forces cast aspersions on the soc­ial fabric of this ancient city, many like Tripathi, Nath, Pandey and Ansari fear the city may be cha­n­ging for the worse. And yet, Kashi’s veterans hope that wisdom will prevail. Gyanvapi literally translates into wisdom well. “Perhaps they should all drink from it, instead of looking for idols hidden inside it,” Tripathi chuckles.

(This appeared in the print edition as "All is in the Well")

By Rakhi Bose in Varanasi