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Gyanvapi: Whose Land Is It? Check History Of Temples And Mosques In Gyanvapi Complex

If Hindus and Muslims accept the historical facts of Gyanvapi with an open mind, this issue can be resolved amicably, and serve as a model for other disputed sites.

Gyanvapi: Whose Land Is It? Check History Of Temples And Mosques In Gyanvapi Complex
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The Kashi Khanda of the Skanda Purana narrates a fascinating tale about the origin of the ‘Well of Wisdom’—Gyānavāpī (Jñānavāpī). According to the Puranic texts, dating back to the 5th-13th centuries CE, Ishan—a form of Shiva—had himself dug the well to cool the lingam of Vishveshvara (Vishwanath) with water. This event is said to have taken place at a time when there was no water on earth. The water that bursts out from the well is said to be the liquid form of gyana (wisdom); enlightening wisdom, to be precise. Hence the name Gyanavapi, now commonly ref­erred to as Gyanvapi. The ancient text tells us that the sacred well was dug in Kashi long before the river Ganga came to Earth. Considered to be the most sacred water pool on Earth, the Gyanvapi well is also called the Shivatirtha, Gyanodatirtha, Tarakatirtha and Mokshatirtha. Two chapters of the Kashi Khanda are dedicated entirely to eulogise Gyanvapi and its power to drive away evil spirits and cleanse the sins of devotees.

As a fresh mandir-masjid debate over Gyanvapi rages, it’s perhaps the right time to look at the issue from the historical and archaeological perspectives. Till 2018, the well was under a nineteenth-century arcaded pavillion, located in an open area in central Varanasi that separates the main temple of Vish­veshvara (Vishwanath) and the Alamgir mosque in the Gyanvapi area. Due to its location, the mosque is commonly called the Gyanvapi mosque. With the real­ignment of the holy city, the Gyanvapi well has come within the boundary of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor. It has since seen extensive renovation from 2019 onwards.

A fractured past

Documented history since the first half of the 13th century shows that around 1236 CE, the Vishwanath temple was rebuilt in the compound of another ancient temple—the Avimukteshvara—by a Gujarati merchant. The Vishwanath temple stood in glory till it was partially destroyed during the rule of the Sharqi kings of Jaunpur (1436-1458 CE). In 1490, however, the temple was completely demolished by Sikandar Lodhi. It was after 90 years, around 1583-83, that the temple was rebuilt by the great scholar and writer Narayana Bhatta (1514-1595) with the support of Raja Todar Mal (Raghunath Pandit), one of the senior courtiers of Akbar, and under the patronage of King Man Singh of Jaipur.

In 1669, this temple was demolished on the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. In its place came up the Gyanvapi mosque, with minarets as high as 71 metres that dominate the skyline of Hinduism’s holiest city till today. Though Aurangzeb could have demolished the entire temple, he consciously spared the back portion, apparently as a warning and perhaps to insult the city’s Hindu population (Michell, 2005:  80). Today, atop the ruins of the old Vishwanath temple, sit two mosques—on the upper side, one built in the 13th century by Raziyya Sultana, and on the lower side, the more famous one built in the 17th century by Aurangzeb. During the early to mid-18th century, several attempts were made to destroy Aurangzeb’s mosque and rebuild the Vishveshvara temple by the Kacchawahs and Maratha chiefs, but all attempts failed under Mughal suppression (Desai, 2017: 81). Gyanavapi is considered the centre of the cosmic territory of Kashi, and serves as the sacral mundi for initiation and completion rituals.

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14th century model of the Vishwanath temple. (Source: Singh and Rana 2022)

Rewriting the past

At the site occupied by the mosque built by Aurangzeb, only traces of Raja Todar Mal’s temple, rebuilt around 1585 in Chunar sandstone less than 100 metres to the south of the ancient Vishwanath temple, can be seen. The qibla wall rises above the visible remains of the temple, which was not completely demolished.

Prinsep’s reconstruction is unconvincing since it conforms neither to architectural evidence nor to exisiting building practices.

It is not easy to establish the original structure of the temple built by Raja Todar Mal and Narayana Bhatta. As for the overall plan of the monument, we have James Prinsep’s hypothetical reconstruction published in 1833, partly based on the description of the deities as imagined in the Kashi Khanda. Prinsep’s plan visualises the temple as a mandala (cosmogram) of 3x3 square chambers, the central and larger one reserved for Vishveshvara. This reconstruction is unconvincing since it conforms neither to the observable architectural evidence nor to the temple-building practices of the day. The Vyasa family, which had the rights since the Mughal period to perform rituals of commencement of a vow (sankalp lenā) and completion of a vow (sankalp chodnā), is no longer involved since the passing away of Kedar Nath Vyas, who has no heirs. Now, the temple is maintained by hired priests arranged by the temple authorities intermittently.

Along with the now-demolished Babri mosque, as well as the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura, the Kashi Vishwanath temple has long been on the agenda of Hindu rightwing groups. The growing ideology of Hindu nationalism and attempts at cultural diplomacy by the BJP-led government at the Centre has put the temple in the spotlight after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his pet project, the Rs six-billion Kashi Vishwanath Corridor.

On April 8, 2021, a lower court issued an order to the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct a detailed survey and collect evidence of the old temple (Vishveshvara) and associated shrines that existed at the Alamgir mosque site and its environs in the Gyanvapi neighbourhood. Hindu groups claim that a Shivling has been discovered in the Gyanvapi mosque premises, which they say buttresses their right over the religious place. Muslims, however, claim the structure is part of a fountain. This matter is still in dispute. If both the groups, Hindus and Muslims, accept the historical facts with an open mind, this issue can be resolved amicably. It can also serve as a model for other disputed sites.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Facts, Figures and Faith")

(Views expressed are personal)

(All citations from Singh, R.P.B. and Rana, P.S. (2022), The Kashi Vishvanatha, Varanasi city, India: Construction, Destruction, and Resurrection to Heritagisation. Esempi di Architettura, International Journal of Architecture and Engineering)

Rana P.B. Singh is former professor of Cultural Landscapes & Heritage Studies, Banaras Hindu University

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